User Tools

Site Tools


Week 8. Particles

This week is all about the smallest things and how to find them, characterise them, and turn them into knowledge.

What to do during week 8

  • This week is likely to be affected by industrial action. Tuesday's lecture will proceed as normal. See the industrial action information as applicable for Wednesday tutorials and Thursday's lecture time.
  • Hopefully you are feeling pretty confident about your approach to the assessment by this point in the course. Find me for questions at the end of Tuesday's lecture and/or talk with your tutor at the start of the week.

Lecture slides


  1. What is the smallest thing (or type/kind of thing)? How small is it? What does that scale/smallness mean?
  2. How do you (personally) interact with or know about things at the scale of the smallest things? How do scientific or technical experts interact with or know about things at that scale? What are the differences between scientific knowledge of the smallest things and your personal experience of them?
  3. Think of some units (i.e. building blocks or fundamental particles)—these can be small or large or even immaterial—such as atoms, bytes, DNA bases, university course credits, nations, or continents. What makes them units? What are the relationships between units and the things they make up? How do units determine the properties of the whole? How do wholes indicate the nature of their units?

Reading Guide

A number of readings this week discuss the physics of particles: Galison (a really long book with a great Introduction, and an abridged chapter in the Science Studies Reader), Traweek, Kaiser, Pickering, Kragh

This week continues our engagement with alchemy and the relationship between elements and particles, and later histories of atoms in chemistry: Newman and Principe, Gordin, Rocke, Brock.

The 'particles' of the life sciences in the twentieth century were genes and molecules. Read about them in: Chadarevian, Keller, Creager, Kay.

Galison and Hevly's edited volume explores the theme of Big Science (related to small particles), as does Agar's book on the twentieth century.

As a bonus, I've included a short article of mine on the Euclidean point, the particle of early modern geometry.


A. In several different twentieth-century sciences, including physics and biology, researchers banded together in organizations and collaborations that seemed unprecedentedly large to explain natural phenomena at scales that seemed unprecedentedly small. Identify one example and, with reference to course materials, characterize the connection between “big science” and “small particles.”

B. The National Museum of Scotland has many items on display that relate to historical attempts to isolate and characterize basic particles or building blocks. Identify one such item (or another museum object from an alternative online museum collection we have looked at in this course) and use course materials to explain its historical context and significance.

C. Expanding on exercise 3 (above) using references to course textbooks and readings, choose an example of a unit (i.e. building block or fundamental particle) from the history of science and sketch an explanation of how specific historical figures came to consider it as a basic unit from which other natural entities are made.

intro/particles.txt · Last modified: 2023/03/12 20:26 by mjb