On Aisle 42, Universe Components: Notes for Project Leaders

I have a pair of projects to present this time–together, they are a sugar-based approach to understanding the building blocks of our universe.  The goal is to build up a sense of the scale and dynamic relationships among the smallest particles identified to date, and how they combine to form the stuff we call “matter”.  By the end of these activities, everyone participating should have a clearer picture of the following:

1. All of the matter in our universe is composed of just a few extremely basic and very tiny building blocks.  They’re called quarks and leptons.

2.These building blocks, in the right combinations, make the next-level construction materials.  The most common ones are electrons, protons, and neutrons.  But there are others, too.

3. Once you have electrons, protons, and neutrons, you can build elements.  Each element has particular physical and chemical properties–which arise from its unique physical composition of protons, electrons, and neutrons.

To make this activity fun (besides incorporating sweet treats), it helps to build into the presentation an element of discovery.  First, we come to terms with the fact that the familiar atom is not the smallest particle.  Second, we wrap our minds around the knowledge that even the tiny particles inside the atomic nucleus are made of even tinier ones.  Third, at the conclusion, it’s truly mind-expanding to try to envision each of these in true relative scale.

The atom is still a meaningful idea, so long as we adjust its definition to suit modern understanding.  The concept of the atom dates back over 2500 years, to Leucippus of Miletus and his more-famous student, Democritus.  They reasoned out that if you keep cutting a material, you’ll eventually reach a particle that cannot be divided further.  In Greek, the word “a” means “not” and “tomos” means cut, so when you call something an “atom,” you’re saying you can’t subdivide it.  However, even now that we know that the structures we call “atoms” can be broken open, we still use the term. For instance, we’ll talk about “an atom of iron” or “the carbon atom”.  But instead of defining the atom as “indivisible”, we now describe it as the smallest unit of a material that still retains those unique physical and chemical properties defined by its combination of electrons, protons, and neutrons.

In this project, we will build atoms from electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Energized by our constructions, we will discard our preconceptions about the structure of the universe and descend to the sub-sub atomic scale, where we will capture quarks and leptons, then build ourselves some protons and neutrons and electrons.  And then we will eat the lot:  atoms, quarks, protons and all. It’s elemental.

We’ll proceed in two parts:  “The Atomic Marshmallow Project” introduces the idea of atoms and their components, and “One Side Will Make You Smaller” takes us down into the realm of quarks.  As in our other science projects, we’ll include information to share with the participants as you go along. For those who would like to delve into more detail, you’ll find links to good sources with plenty of depth.

Everything You Need to Build A Universe

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