The ever-changing Spire and other everyday feats of physics

City of Physics aims to get us thinking about the physics of what goes on around us

The Spire on O’Connell Street in Dublin can physically change depending on the weather. Photograph: Getty Images

The Spire on O’Connell Street in Dublin can physically change depending on the weather. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The amazing shrinking Spire; star-struck bling; the odd phenomenon of hurtling through space when you feel as though you are standing still.

Those are just some of the conversation starters that the upcoming City of Physics initiative in Dublin hopes will spark our curiosity.

The idea, which grew from the recent Dart of Physics initiative, is to get us thinking about the physics of what goes on around us, says City of Physics co-director Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, a lecturer in maths education at University College Dublin.

“We want people to see the physics in their everyday lives, and get them involved in science when they are doing those everyday things like commuting to work or picking the kids up or going to school or college,” she says.

“We want people to start thinking and talking about this, and we want to spur them on to find out more information.”

The triggers for those trains of thought will include a series of murals, billboards, podcasts and events around Dublin from the end of October until mid-November.

One teaser involves Dublin’s Spire, which can physically change depending on the weather, according to Dr Shane Bergin, City of Physics co-director and a lecturer in physics at Trinity College Dublin.

“It’s based on the simple concept that metals contract when they are cool, and the Spire is made of metal,” he says. “The volume it occupies is related to its temperature and how much its atoms vibrate. When it is hotter, the atoms in the Spire are vibrating more and they need more space, and when it is cooler they vibrate less. It is quite dramatic to think that on the coldest night of winter the Spire is about 3½cm shorter than it would be on the hottest day of summer.”

 

Gold and silver

You don’t have to go measuring landmarks to ponder, however. Gold and silver jewellery also tell a story about physics. “All the gold and silver on Earth was forged when atoms fused together in the explosive death of a star, a supernova,” says Bergin. “So your bling began with a bang.”

And, keeping with the astronomical view, Ní Shúilleabháin particularly likes to think about how we are hurtling through space, even though it might not feel that way.

“We don’t generally consider the fact that we are on a piece of rock orbiting a star that is going around in our own galaxy,” she says. “But pointing it out jolts you into a sense of perspective that we are small and tiny, and puts those daily little stresses into a bigger picture where they can seem less important.”

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