David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.
Using Technology to Study the Earth & Universe
Scientists have been studying the Earth for centuries, and we know a lot more than we once did. But we've also seen an incredible acceleration in human knowledge over the last 150 years compared to thousands of years before that. Thanks to technology, we're able to study the universe so much more easily than we once did, and to a greater level of detail.
Across many fields of study, we try to understand the universe on a very large scale or on the microscopic level. The combination of this knowledge leads us to uncovering great truths about our universe and existence. How are we looking at things big and small? Well, with telescopes, we can look at the wider universe and observe very large things, like stars. With microscopes, we can see smaller things, like cells and microbes. With MRI scanners, we can take images of the inside of the brain and how it works. With electron microscopes, we can see the atom, and incredibly small building block of the matter all around us. And with particle accelerators, we can find out what basic parts the universe is actually made from. It's amazing what we can do with our technological advances!
In today's lesson, we're going to talk a little about some of the technology we use to study the Earth and universe on both a large and small scale, and also discuss what we've learned from that technology.
A telescope is a device we use to make really distant objects appear closer, usually by using a series of lenses or mirrors. There are many types and sizes of telescopes that can detect light or other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, like radio waves or infrared radiation. No matter what kind of telescope we're talking about, they're used to take pictures of the larger universe beyond Earth: planets, stars, galaxies, galaxy clusters, and the universe as a whole.
With these images, we've learned about the life cycle of a star and the type of light produced by stars at different stages in their lives. We've also noticed that the universe is expanding at a staggering rate as well as confirmed the laws of gravity and relativity created by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. And, thanks to the fact that light takes so long to arrive at the Earth, we've been able to see images of the universe billions of years in the past: all the way back to a short time after the big bang. Without telescopes, we wouldn't even know there was a big bang!
Microscopes, and Particle Accelerators
We don't just use technology to explore the universe on a large scale. We also use it to peer into the depths of the very tiny. One of our goals is to understand the smallest things in the universe which are fundamental particles. We once thought that protons and neutrons were the fundamental particles, but we now know that even they are made up of even smaller ones called quarks. Electron microscopes are devices that fire electrons off atoms, and use the way they bounce to create a picture of the atom. This has helped us confirm our basic ideas about what the atom looks like. But what about things smaller than that? For quarks and other fundamental particles we need particle accelerators.
A particle accelerator is a device used to speed up subatomic particles using electromagnetic fields, often to create collisions between them. Through these collisions, and the energy bursts and particles that come out of them as byproducts, we've been able to figure out the building blocks of our universe by observing the smallest particles that make up everything. Without this technology, we would have much less of an idea how the universe works. This knowledge is built upon previous ideas but refined with our continued learning today. For example, the Higgs Boson was recently discovered at the largest particle accelerator in the world (CERN), which is an important step forward in confirming the final set of fundamental particles that exist in our universe. This added to previous research in the field, using our old understanding as a foundation.
Though scientific inquiry has been going on for a long time, thanks to modern technology, our knowledge has been expanding rapidly. This is partly due to systematic observation of the universe on both a large and small scale with instruments like telescopes, microscopes, and particle accelerators.
Telescopes are used to probe the wider universe by observing big things like planets, stars, and galaxies using visible light, infrared radiation, microwaves, radio waves, and other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. We now know there are too many galaxies in the universe to count and that the universe is expanding. Microscopes have enabled us to see things as small as cells, and special electron microscopes have created images of the atom. Going even smaller, particle accelerators work by speeding up subatomic particles, and colliding them with each other. We've been able to figure out which particles are the smallest and most fundamental in the universe, or at least go a long way towards confirming our ideas. This understanding of the universe is a direct result of technology development.
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