Monday, July 11, 2011

Study Physics at WIT

Hi all sorry about the lack of posts lately been very busy with college and work. I am posting today to bring to your attention a new physics degree at my local college, Waterford Institute of Technology. It is a new four year honours degree in Physics for Modern Technology.

If you have ever wondered about any of the following questions then a physics degree maybe for you

  • How do they fit so many songs onto an iPod?
  • How does a rainbow form?
  • How does an MRI work?
  • How does the inner structure of the atom relate to vast structure of the universe?
These and many more questions can be answered as you undertake a degree in physics.

This course is very much inter disciplinary in nature, students will gain a very good physics understanding in the areas of semiconductors, photonics, optics, alternative energy and sensor systems. In addition to the physics modules students will gain skills in mathematics, programming and engineering. These skills make graduates highly sought after in many areas of industry and research.

A work placement is included in the third year of this course.  This work placement can be in industry or part of a research group. This is an essential part of a modern degree. Students have an opportunity to develop skills in communication, organisation and team work. Previous graduates have worked in a wide range of industries which included companies like Analog Devices (Limerick, Ireland), Nprime (Sheffield, England), ESA (European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands) and Feed Henry (Waterford, Ireland). In fourth year students undertake a research project and also have a choice of several elective modules.

To apply for this course for the forthcoming academic year 2011/2012 please apply directly to the college. To apply download the following form, BSC (Hons) Physics for Modern Technology. Applications are currently open and close on Tuesday 11th August 2011. I would suggest to apply sooner rather than later as interest in this course may be high. For more infomation about this course please refer to course page at the WIT website or alternatively contact course leaders Dr. Claire Keary or Ms. Catherine Walsh.

For me a choice to return to education a few years ago having worked in industry for almost 10 years was an easy one when WIT started to offer a honours physics degree. The Department of Computing, Maths & Physics is excellent. The staff are extremely helpful with both their time and understanding. Class sizes are generally small to medium (between 8-15), for me personally this makes learning for more interactive as time can be given to discussions of topics that would otherwise be difficult in large class sizes. The college facilities are very good, the college has an excellent library and sport facilities. Student life is vibrant for the viewpoint of both a traditional student and a mature student. Work placement for me was a great experience, I worked with a company in the UK called Nprime. They are a data acquisitions and analysis company. It was a very exciting and stimulating place to work. I spent most of time working abroad in several places on the European mainland doing installations and telemetry work for various customers. I believe the work placement in a college degree is essential for making a more rounded and employable graduate.

If you have any questions from a student point of view please email me at I would have nothing but praise for this course and would highly recommend it. Hopefully a few people reading this will be taking up the offer if so I look forward to seeing you in September.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Geocentric Universe - Part 4

The Church and Cosmology

The Christian church held sway over Europe throughout the middle ages. To the church the Earth was full of sinfulness which directly opposed the holiness of the heavenly realm. The invasion by the Crusades of Jerusalem and rediscovery of many of the former Greek teachings especially that of Aristotle helped strengthen the geocentric model. This viewpoint took much from Theory of Forms by Plato. The church adopted a lot of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas but they could not accept the finite universe proposed by Aristotle. Instead the church proposed that the universe was unlimited so it would match their view point of God as an unlimited being not bound to any one place. This view of the universe made it virtually impossible for the church to accept any heliocentric model.
Cosmology Reborn

 The geocentric model would dominate within cosmology until the arrival of several of sciences true giants. It would take the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in 1543 by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543). This book was not well received. For many years it was overlooked and had not made much impact on the beliefs within Europe. Since this model proposed by Copernicus of a heliocentric system opposed the Church’s view it would be assumed that they would have greatly condemned such a publication. But it would take more than 60 years for the Church to respond to this book in any true authoritative way.

This response came about due to the work of Galileo (1564 – 1642). He had made many great discoveries with the aid of the telescope (the design of which he improved). He discovered the moons around Jupiter and the phases of Venus. Galileo displayed remarkable abilities for his scientific method, for him observation and mathematical explanation was central to science.  His writings proved to be controversial in which he made the pope at the time out to be a fool. The Church decided to silence Galileo and warn him that he could not defend or speak in favour of the Copernican system.

Galileo called before the pope and forced to recant his beliefs.
It is said he responded before he left  "Eppur si muove" (still it moves).

Another nail in the coffin of the geocentric model was hammered in by Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). Kepler was a gifted mathematician who worked briefly with Tycho Brahe prior to his death. Kepler inherited Brahe’s extensive observational data from which he formulated his theory on the elliptical orbits of the planets. Here for the first time a model was put forward which proved to be more accurate than that of Ptolemy.

This era in Europe would help usher in a new revolution in science. Again the natural world and mathematics were united. This would end the domination of Aristotle and geocentric model of Ptolemy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Geocentric Universe - Part 3

Late Greek Cosmology

I have deliberately omitted Aristotle and Plato up to this point.  The series of posts presented here are for the most part in chronological order. The reason for the omission is that of the philosophers and great thinkers of the Greek time, many had tried to separate heavenly influence from the science but this did not continue in most part due to Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C). At the time Aristotle was considered by many as the greatest thinker of his age much the same as we now see Newton or Einstein. With a person held in such reverence very few would dare put forward theories that would challenge or contradict Aristotle.

Raphael's School of Athens.
Note the two central figures of Plato and Aristotle
Aristotle believed in a hierarchical view of the cosmos. To him there was a major distinction between what he saw as an imperfect world of change and the eternal and immutable heavens. To him the heavens were perfect such that all bodies revolved about the Earth in perfect circles. Due to his influence this view was held in the highest regard and most other theories fell by the way side. Many had argued for the divorce of mysticism from science but the view put forward by Aristotle again united them.

This view was upheld by Plato (424 – 448 B.C) who dismissed natural science in favour of believing in the perfect heavens with the imperfect and changing Earth at the centre. Plato at this time established his academy (which would continue to teach for almost 900 years); through this academy these teachings would gain prominence and would dominate cosmology for centuries to come.

People now would question why did this view point persist even when faced with some major errors? This model could not explain why the planets moved with retrograde motion or following on from that when the brightness of the planets varied. To us now it almost seems foolish but it has to be remembered that this was Aristotle and other renowned philosophers’ viewpoint and as such it was accepted. Also as stated earlier humans like to see themselves at the centre and it fitted the views of many people and their religion.

The geocentric model championed by Aristotle persisted even with its flaws. With the quality of the measurements that could be made of the night sky at the time of the Greeks it was obvious that it was incorrect, this however was about to change. The rise to fame of Ptolemy (83 – 161 AD) would cement the geocentric model in cosmology. Many had tried to come up with explanations to support the geocentric model of perfect circular orbits but none could find a satisfactory answer. Ptolemy however tackled and solved this problem with the use of complex geometric patterns.

In Ptolemy’s theory (published in his treatise Almagest) the Earth remains stationary at the centre which each planet orbiting in a perfect circle known as a deferent. Within this deferent the planet moved with a circular motion known as an epicycle. Each planet had multiple epicycles. To add to this complexity planets also orbited in what was known as an equat. The equat was an offset for each orbit which placed the Earth not at the centre but slightly off. This eccentric model solves some the problems with the orbits. This model was highly complex but it did allow for good navigation and was able to provide somewhat accurate celestial predictions. With the apparent victory for this model and with the president set by Aristotle and Plato before, the geocentric model would prevail for centuries to come.

Ptolemy's Geocentric Model
The Dark Ages

The term Dark Ages refers to a time in Europe which spans from the late 5th century to the start of the 11th century. This is a list of discoveries in chronological order note the lack of advancement between the 5th and 11th centuries within Europe. This era was started with the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of the Greek states. Many of the great works of the Greek philosophers had been lost. With the religious turmoil and denigration this all added to the problems of the everyday person at this time. With such upheaval, stable government, schools and many forms of academia were now a distance memory. The only stabilizing force within this time was organised religion. The Catholic Church at this time was a powerful force and with such troubling times in Europe many turned to god for comfort.

While Europe seemed to have fallen from grace, the Muslim and Islamic civilizations flourished. They embraced many of the mathematical ideas from the Greeks along with their astronomical observations. Science developed within these cultures greatly during this time period. Trade with the east from India introduced many other concepts which they embraced. This upsurge in science would bring Europe out of the “darkness” it had endured for centuries. The Spanish had retaken many of the towns and cities conquered by the Muslims in which they found vast libraries of scientific teachings dating back to the time of the Greeks. These discoveries would help lay the foundations of learning within Europe and herald a new beginning in science.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Geocentric Universe - Part 2

Early Greek Cosmology

Early Greek cosmology is dominated by several great thinkers. The foundations of philosophy and many mathematical principals would find their birth in this time. About the time 640 B.C, a movement known as the Ionic physical philosophy began. Thales of Miletos (620 – 547 B.C) is considered to be the founder of this school of thought. He sought to explain the world around us without resorting to any supernatural cause but instead to develop an explanation by naturalistic means.

Thales of Miletos

This break from old ideas of deities or other supernatural beings having control over terrestrial events would herald a new beginning in science. For the first time people began to try and solve problems in a mathematical or mechanical sense rather than resort to any supernatural explanation. From this school of thought many other philosophers arose, Anaximander was an early example.

Anaximander (610 – 546 B.C) considered the Earth to be one of many bodies in space and it was able to move free about space. According to Anaximander the Earth did not move as it had no reason to move, as it simply floated motionless in space. Many ideas at the time theorized that the Earth was held in place by some godly means. This again is a sign of the Greek thinking of moving away from any supernatural explanation and trying to solve it using mechanics and maths. Anaximander also theorized that all matter in the universe came from the one substance which he called apeiron (unlimited). This substance was transformed into all the different types of matter and eventually into what we know as Earth. From this idea arose his belief that the universe extending infinitely in time and space.

A student of Anaximander, Anaximenes (585 – 525 B.C) believed the Sun and the other heavenly bodies were globes of fire. He placed the Sun and the stars on a giant crystal sphere which rotated about the Earth. Anaximense also believed that the Universe was made of one substance, in his eyes he believed that air made up all of the matter. Anaximenes theorized that when air was compressed it got cold and so here on Earth it was compressed enough to become solid and cold just like rock or metal. In space it was allowed to expand and become hot at which point it became fire, this gave rise to the idea that the Sun and all the other points of light were spheres of fire. Another philosopher of this school of thought Anaxagoras (500 – 428 B.C), put forward the idea that the solar system formed from a spinning disc where all the most dense matter stayed near the centre and coalesced to form the planets and the Sun. He strongly augured that the Sun was a fiery ball and not deity, for this he was imprisoned. He also gave an explanation for solar ellipses, saying that the moon passed between the Earth and the Sun. This was the first time that a non supernatural explanation was put forward to explain this event.

The work started by the Ionian philosophers was continued and expanded upon. The separation of any godly explanation to terrestrial or celestial events was carried on by Pythagoras (c580 – 500 B.C). His belief was that all events and truth could be found within mathematics. To Pythagoras all events had an underlying explanation in number sequences or series. Pythagoras considered the Earth to be a sphere not a cylinder as Anaximander believed. Pythagoras like many before him believed the Earth was at the centre around which the other bodies revolved. This geocentric model made sense to the people at the time. Even though they separated science and the supernatural the egocentric tendency of humanity prevailed and they continued to place the Earth at the centre of the universe. It was not challenged until the theories of Aristarchus came forward.

Aristarchus (310 – 230 B.C) put forward the idea that the Earth rotates about the Sun and in doing so spins on its own axis. This he said explains the day/night cycle. For the first time the heliocentric model was given a voice. However this idea did not receive any support. Even though Greeks had begun to move away from the supernatural explanations there was still the idea that we were the centre. To move away from this would lessen the importance of man in the universe and this did not sit well with the Greek establishment. To put it simply Aristarchus was shouted down by the other philosophers at the time. Without any backing, his theory was lost to history. This set-back in cosmological theory cannot be under-stated. It would take almost 2000 years before this theory was challenged again.

Aristarchus's Heliocentric Model
The arguments against this theory to modern day observers seem almost ridiculous but without the idea of gravity and the vacuum of space these ideas would appear to make sense. The arguments said that if the Earth was indeed spinning on its own axis, then why were we not simply thrown off the surface as if we were on a merry-go round. Another pro-geocentric argument was that if we are orbiting the Sun why do we not feel a wind blowing against us as we move through space. At the time it was believed that space contained matter, be it a gas or liquid that the Earth floated in and as we passed through it we should feel its presence blowing against us. Looking at these arguments without the knowledge we have now it does appear to make some sense. Another point to note is that there was no hard evidence to prove Aristarchus’s theory and as such it was lost.

Aristarchus was also able to make estimates about the relative distances of the moon and the sun. He based a lot of this work on prior studies and theories of Eratosthenes. He too like Aristarchus was able to calculate relative distances. But too his credit he deduced the diameter of the Earth to a high degree of accuracy.

Eratosthenes's method for measuring the
diameter of the Earth, accurate to within 2% of the true value

At this time (c250 BC) the Ionian school of thought was in decline as was the Pythagorean brotherhood, this left the way open for a new school of thought which was lead by such philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. This movement and with the model developed by Ptolemy would hamper cosmology for centuries to come.

This would end the age of the true first scientific revolution. For the first time people began to seek answers to the bigger questions by looking to science rather than the heavens. Many great mathematicians and scholars of this age are still known to this day. Euclid and Archimedes are known to this day for their discoveries. As will be seen later in this essay the knowledge of the Greeks would remain static up to the second scientific revolution in Europe in the 1400’s. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Geocentric Universe - Part 1


"We may become the markers of our fate when
we have ceased to pose as its prophets"
- Karl Popper

Mankind has always put itself at the centre of reality. This egocentric view on existence extends throughout history. None more so than than the idea that the Earth was centre of the universe, which found its birth in early cosmology. This idea persisted for almost 2000 years until it was finally toppled in what was the rebirth of cosmology. The theory published in 1543, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Mikolaj Kopernik (better known as Copernicus) lay the foundations for what would be a true revolution in cosmology. This theory would help trigger new theories and ideas which would lead to the acceptance of the heliocentric model.

De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

In this series of posts I will present the ideas of early cosmology and the evolution of these theories, from the observations of the Babylonians to the Greek geocentric model and how knowledge and freedom of thought was lost to the Dark Ages in Europe. In these posts I will only be dealing with the advancement of cosmology in the western world. Cosmology also developed throughout the rest of the world at this time but here I am only concerned with how the geocentric model developed by the Greeks evolved and persisted for so many years.

Pre-Greek Cosmology

Cosmology can trace its history back to the earliest recorded human history (c3500 B.C.). The Babylonians are considered the first astronomers, they made detailed observations of the sky. With the aid of these observations they developed calenders and were ab;e to predict eclipses. The Babylonians used 30 stars as reference points to help in their predictions.

Babylonian Star Calender

In 625 BC the Babylonian empire was invaded by the Chaldean empire even though they ransacked many of the cites, they took care not to destroy the data and the observations made by the Babylonian astronomers. They even went to the extent of embracing the data and expanding on it. They expanded on the set of 30 stars to help make up the first constellations and further developed the calender.

As with many civilizations at this time celestial events were linked with those on Earth. This area of interest is known as astrology. The belief was that events in the celestial could influence or predict events here on Earth. Astrology and cosmology remained linked and developed together until the scientific revolution in the 15th century. Even today astrology remain popular even in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.