Glossary of scientific terms

Prepared with the assistance of the University of Liverpool Science Communication Unit

Acoustics is the branch of physics concerned with examining the properties of sound. Big Bang Theory is one of the major theories used to explain the ‘birth’ of the universe. It says that around 13.7 billion years ago the whole universe (including space and time) was created as the result of a phenomenal surge of energy. And ever since, the universe has continued to expand. In 1965 the theory was given strong support when microwave radiation residue, predicted to have been created by the Big Bang, was picked up by a radio telescope in America (this was the Bell antenna, that inspired Conrad Shawcross’s sculpture, ‘Space Trumpet’).

Cosmology is the study of the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe. It examines, for example, how galaxies are distributed throughout the universe. They are seen to be arranged in vast ‘sheets’ around huge empty voids, like the structure of a sponge; Cosmology tries to explain this structure.

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. It looks into such things as the origins, nature, and limits of human knowledge.

Harmonics includes the study of the physical properties of musical sound – things such as what makes the sound ‘happen’ and what things change it. Each musical note we hear results from the air being vibrated by an instrument or voice at a particular known frequency (the frequency, in units of hertz, is the rate per second at which something vibrates). In musical chords and harmonies, related sequences of notes are created from a particular ‘starting point’ note, for example: middle ‘C’ (about 256 hertz). The vibration frequencies that create the ‘additional’ notes in the sequence are increases on the frequency that created the ‘C’ in exact (and simple) arithmetical progression. Therefore, each note in a chord has a precise, measurable mathematical relationship with that original ‘C’ note. It is these basic mathematical relationships - or ratios - that Conrad Shawcross has used to 'set' the movements made by the ‘Harmonic Tower’ and ‘Loop System Quintet’.

Quantum Mechanics is a branch of physics devised to explore and describe the structure and behaviour of atomic and subatomic (extraordinarily small) particles. The use of mathematics is integral to Quantum Mechanics because, on these tiny scales, one can only calculate the probability that things will happen; complete, objective certainty is no longer possible.

Quarks and Leptons[see String Theory] are the smallest known entities, and are the fundamental building blocks of all matter (matter is the stuff that goes to make up the universe and everything in it). In an atom, the nucleus at the centre is made from quarks, and one type of lepton (the electron) orbits around it. Quarks and leptons have no detectable size (they are point-like).

Steady-State Hypothesis, The offers a different theory about the universe from that proposed by the Big Bang. In a nutshell, it says that there was no single moment during which the universe was ‘born’. It proposes that new matter is continually being created to fill the void left by the galaxies moving apart from each other in the expanding universe. Hence the universe is expanding but always looks more or less the same. So, according to the Steady-State Hypothesis, the universe simply exists – as it always has done – in a ‘steady state.’

String Theory (or M-Theory) is one of a number of recent complex scientific theories that try to explain what quarks and leptons might consist of. String Theory says that they are composed of minute vibrating ‘strings’ of energy that are billions of times smaller than atoms. These highly mathematical theories only seem to make sense if the universe has 10 spatial dimensions instead of the 3 we observe (which are: up and down; front and back; left and right). The theories are highly speculative and there is no evidence to date (2005) that they might be true.