Friday, April 17, 2015

George Boole Road?

I had a thought....surely a bad idea to begin with, but regardless....

As we celebrate the year of George Boole and the wonderful, imaginative and informative celebratory events are in full swing, I got to thinking that there is no street named after the man in Cork.

This is George Boole, the noted academic, scientist, mathematician, teacher and father of the information age who spent much of his working life in Cork City and who died and was buried here.

UCC has done phenomenal work keeping his name alive, going back to the building of the Boole Library in 1983. However, at a civic level, his name has been somewhat neglected, not withstanding the plans by Cork City Council and UCC to refurbish his former home at Grenville Place.

So, I'm suggesting that Boole is probably about due a street named after him in Cork. Now, street naming is not a completely uncontroversial topic and there may be people who disagree with me, especially if we go usurping some other street and swapping some other historical figure's name with that of the noted mathematician. To avoid (some) of this controversy, perhaps Western Road in Cork City should be renamed in his honour?

Here we have a road which is geographically appropriate, as it is the formal address of UCC. It also is named for nothing more that the direction of traffic.

It's just a suggestion. Don't bite my head off. But let the debate start here.

Comments welcome.

Food for thought

With the world population set to reach 9 billion people by 2050, it’s no surprise that governments and societies are beginning to rethink how they will produce food for all these extra people. 

In Ireland, we’re lucky to have some of the most ideal conditions to produce lots of healthy, nutritious food; with a benevolent climate, committed producers and a world-class ‘food infrastructure’ built up over time. 

In Cork – ‘Ireland’s food capital’. Someone who wanders around the cathedral to food that is the English Market cannot fail to notice the importance of food to this region and the central place it has within our city. With a proposed new food innovation centre on the Grand Parade, it looks like that moniker of Ireland’s food capital is being assured.

Ireland’s exports of food and drink reached nearly €10.5 billion in 2014, with the industry making up about 9% of total employment in the country. The Irish food industry has been one of the success stories of the Irish economy throughout the last number of very difficult years. The challenge, as we seek to grow this sector and produce more food for a growing world population, will be to do so in ways that are sustainable and do as little damage to the environment as possible.

English Market, Cork. (Image: William Murphy, Creative Commons)

There are many ways in which this sustainability can be achieved. For example, both industry and consumers have a real obligation to ensure that food waste is minimised as much as possible. Some estimates put the total percentage of food wasted and lost before it gets in our stomachs at between 30 and 50% globally. That means that up to half the food in our fields never reaches a human mouth and is lost either under attack from pests and diseases in the field or binned by suppliers, supermarkets or consumers for a variety of reasons. 

How we grow food crops is the subject of much debate. And so it should be. Consumers have an obligation to be informed about the way in which their food is produced. Hence the recent debates around issues like pesticide residues, genetically-modified crops, organic production, etc. These are good conversations to be having. If nothing more, a country like Ireland which relies on the food industry for 9% of its total employment must be informed about the best food production and plant protection techniques.

At University College Cork, we have a long history of studying plants and crop production. We are also the second ‘greenest’ university on the planet and the first third-level institution in the world to fly the green flag for environmental policies. So, the production of food crops in an environmentally sustainable way is a central tenet of our teaching and research at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC. 

In 2012 we launched Europe’s only MSc course in organichorticulture to service a growing demand for higher qualifications in the sector. Organic horticulture (and organic production in general) is often defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. For example, most synthetic chemical fungicides and pesticides are not permitted for use by organically certified growers so they must employ alternative plant protection techniques like biological control. 

From a scientific point of view, that poses some really interesting research questions like how we can increase yields of plants in ways which don’t rely on synthetic chemical inputs. For example, conventional potato growers often apply between 15 and 20 applications of fungicide each season to control late blight of potato (that’s the same disease which caused the Irish famine). That works for now, but there are clear drawbacks to this approach, putting all your eggs (or potatoes) in one basket. Research on ‘organic’ control techniques for late blight means that we might be able to expand our options for controlling this important disease in one of our most important crops. This sort of research can have benefits for both organic and conventional agriculture.

Organic horticulture is not without its challenges. The lack of conventional chemical fertilisers and pest control means organic yields are often lower than that obtained through conventional means. Additionally, and despite a premium paid for organic produce, small organic growers can often find it hard to balance the books. By recognising the main challenges, we can focus our research strengths accordingly so that we improve the lot of organic growers as well as farmers in general. This will ensure that the organic produce that consumers want is on the shelves and, where possible, is produced in Ireland.

At the moment, the organic sector in Ireland accounts for just less than 1.2% of our useable agricultural area (PDF). The retail value of the sector is about €100 million annually. The current government aims to increase this area under organic production considerably. For example, the Food Harvest 2020 plan seeks to have 5% of our useable agricultural area under organic cultivation by 2020. To do this, significant training of new organic growers is required along with upskilling of current growers. Additionally, there is a need for significant research and development in the area of organic crop production in Ireland. The MSc Organic Horticulture programme at UCC has the dual aims of training scientists and producing a body of Irish research on organic crop production techniques.

From looking at alternative methods of controlling slugs with coffee grounds and seaweed, to using computer software to monitor disease outbreaks in potato, to the study of charcoal as a soil additive, we’ve already produced a range of research through this MSc programme. This is the sort of research which is needed to ensure that growers have a variety of tools at their disposal to produce the food we want, when we want it.

This article first appeared in the Evening Echo on April 14th 2015.

Dr Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and lecturer at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Homeopathy doesn't work

As if it needs restating, there is no evidence that homeopathy works.

This fact has been reconfirmed by a recent report by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Having reviewed the scientific evidence they found that:

  • There was no reliable evidence from human research that homeopathy was effective for treating a range of health conditions.
  • For some conditions, the placebo was more effective than homeopathy.
  • People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.

You can read the full report here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The (plant) science of Christmas

Plants are fascinating. One of the most fascinating aspects of plants is the way they have become embedded in human culture and society. This is, perhaps, mostly evident at this time of year. From the Christmas Tree to Brussels Sprouts, plants are as much a part of Christmas as Santa himself.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent's 'Science of Christmas' magazine.

Kissing under the mistletoe
If you’re lucky, you might just get a kiss under the mistletoe this year. Viscum album is what’s known as a hemi-parasite. That means it derives nutrients and water from a host plant, whilst also photosynthesising to harness sunlight for energy. It’s a sort of middle ground between being completely parasitic and completely free-living.
Mistletoe can parasitise over 200 different tree and shrub species and can ultimately kill these plants. The plant is poisonous to humans, yet lots of animals can overcome its toxins and depend on it for food in the wild.
It’s really odd then that a poisonous parasite would be at the centre of such a romantic tradition.
The plant has featured in folklore since Greek mythology and these days is hung in homes around the world in the hope of a quick kiss. The reasons for this are unclear but certainly the Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 BC) recorded the widely held belief that because the mistletoe stayed green during the winter (it’s an evergreen) and the host tree generally lost its leaves, that the mistletoe somehow contained the ‘life’ of the tree.  This connection with life and fertility meant it got caught up with the tradition of Christmas and kissing.

Holly wears the crown
The red and green colours of holly (Ilex aquifolium) have become the quintessential Christmas colour combination. Since pre-Christian times, it’s had an association with winter; when the red fruits and dark-green, foliage are at their peak.
In fact, there are about 400 species of holly around the world. Eighty of them are considered threatened in the wild. The bright red fruits are attractive to birds who eat them and deposit seed elsewhere in their droppings, often under trees. For some plants, germinating in the shade would be a problem. Not so for holly which is very shade tolerant. So much so that it is becoming a real problem in forested areas where it is not native, including the US.
Holly is dioecious, which means that it has separate male and female plants. The distinctive red berries (which are mildly toxic to humans) are produced only by female plants and only when both male and female plants are grown together.
Its attractiveness as a Christmas decoration means that in some places it is endangered. This year, Killarney National Park has had to organise special patrols to prevent people chopping down whole holly trees for the lucrative Christmas market. One of Ireland’s few native evergreen trees, it has become a victim of its own popularity.

Christmas Cactus
The mountains of Brazil might be the last place we imagine when we think about Christmas.
However, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera buckleyi) is native to Brazil where it lives as an epiphyte – that’s a plant that grows on another plant. It’s not a parasite (like mistletoe) because it doesn’t take nutrients from the host plant. It just thinks it’s a really nice place to hang out.
The green parts aren’t technically leaves. They are a sort of modified stem which are flattened to increase the amount of sunlight that the plant can absorb. The more sunlight it collects, the more energy it has for growing.
The flowers are interesting too as they have evolved to attract hummingbirds to transfer pollen from one flower to another in order to produce seed. They come in a range of colours , from white to red and deep purple.
While in the northern hemisphere the plant is known as the Christmas cactus and closely associated with this time of year, down in Brazil it’s often called Flor de Maio (the May flower) because of the time of year it flowers in their winter.
If you want to grow your own cactus, twist off one or two stem segments, let them dry out for a few days and then plant the ‘cut’ end, about 1cm deep in a simple potting mix. Don’t plant them too deep and have patience. They’ll take about 12 weeks to root but by next Christmas you’ll have lots of free plants to use as gifts!

Dr Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in plant science at University College Cork.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Plants are at the heart of many crucial global issues facing us today

If we were to close our eyes and imagine a world without animals, what would it look like? It’s not that difficult to imagine a planet devoid of humans or other animals.

Now try and imagine a world without plants. It’s almost impossible to conceive. Although we sometimes take them for granted, plants have made possible and shaped life on Earth while making this a truly green planet.

Plants are at the centre of many of the most crucial global issues that face us now and will face us in the century to come. How can we ensure that a growing human population has enough food to eat? How can we produce that food and, at the same time, reduce the environmental impact of crop production and agriculture generally? How can we reduce the impending threat of global warming?
Can we use plants to power our homes and cars? How do we maintain global biodiversity and use medicines produced by plants to cure diseases and promote human health? All these questions and more require us to look again at our relationship with plants and how they can ultimately be useful to our society and economy.

Looking back through time, plants have shaped the world we now live in and are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions for human life to exist on Earth in the first place. When the earliest land plants appeared on Earth about 450 million years ago, they drastically changed the Earth’s atmosphere; reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and increasing the level of oxygen. That change allowed other organisms to evolve and flourish – some of them, our evolutionary ancestors.
Green plants are nature’s solar panels that have colonised much of the planet. Through a powerful process called photosynthesis, plants are capable of harnessing the vast energy radiating from the Sun. They can then make that energy available to animals, which lack this amazing ability to gather energy from an extra-terrestrial source. The Sun is the ultimate source of all energy in our solar system but we would have no way to access that energy without plants.

Our use of plants to produce food is, perhaps, the most central element of the human connection to this green planet. Since the earliest of farmers, 10,000 years ago, humans have sought to (subconsciously at first and then, more and more, consciously) select for plant types and varieties which gave the most fruits, tastiest tubers or most stable yields. Now, we’ve got more powerful tools at our disposal for plant breeding, but the basic process is essentially the same – select the best plant from this year’s crop and grow its seed next year.

But growing plants for food is just one of the ways in which we utilise them in the modern world. The ancient Egyptians once chewed willow bark to reduce fever and headaches. Now we know that the bark of willow contains the active ingredients of aspirin. More recently, a chemical derived from daffodils has been used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and cancers have been treated with the medicine taxol, derived from the yew tree. Plants are also gaining attention as “edible vaccines”, where vaccines for diseases like HIV could be produced in a plant that might also act as a delivery vehicle.
The Irish government seem to recognise the importance of plants to Ireland’s economy. If we look at the 2012 Action Plan for Jobs, sectors highlighted for potential job creation include the “Green Economy” and “Agri-food production”.  Both of these sectors have plants at their centre. Tourism – another sector flagged for growth – also relies heavily on Ireland’s natural landscape and our native flora.

Taken together with the fisheries sector, the agri-food industry in Ireland directly employs about 150,000 people and represents about 60 per cent of manufacturing exports by Irish firms. Our success in this area is hinged on plants, whether as crops grown for direct consumption, as raw materials for other products or as animal feed for the meat and dairy sectors. In recent years our reliance on plants within the agri-food sector was emphasised by the fodder crisis. A longer than usual winter meant reduced grass growth and a need to provide an alternative food source for Ireland’s more than 6 million cattle. As the effects of climate change become more obvious on our weather patterns, this type of event may become more common.

Perhaps then, the economic and societal importance of plants only becomes truly obvious when they fail us. Ireland’s history of famine due to late blight of potato in the mid 19th Century had profound effects on Irish population levels and social history.

As well as an economic impact, plants also have an aesthetic quality which makes them good things to have around. A number of studies have reported the mental and physical health benefits of being exposed to plants and green spaces in general. One study, from the Netherlands, looked at 10,000 people’s general health and compared it to the amount of green space in their neighbourhood. A clear trend emerged: people living in areas with more plants, on average, experienced less symptoms of ill-health and perceived their own health to be better.

In a classic study conducted in the US in the 1980s, patients in a hospital ward with a view of a natural setting, including trees and other plants, recovered more quickly from surgery and took less pain-killing medication than patients with a window view of a brick wall.

Rather than taking them for granted, the role plants play in our lives needs to be recalled. The Irish writer Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”. With apologies to our local and national representative, I’d have to agree with Swift.

This is an adapted version of a piece I first wrote for The Journal.

George Boole 200

Good news for those who have been following the George Boole/Grenville Place saga which I've covered here for some time

It now seems likely that the building will be saved and re-purposed for civic/educational uses as part of the Year of George Boole in 2015.

Further details about Boole and the celebrations next year can be found in the wonderful new website:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

John Philip Holland and Liscannor, Co. Clare

The town of Liscannor, Co. Clare is the birthplace of John Philip Holland, the Irishman who invented the modern submarine. More on JPH in this previous post.

On a recent visit to Liscannor it was possible to view at least three plaques in the town in honour of the famous scientist and engineer:

One near the church:

One on the main street:

and one marking his birthplace on Holland Street (formerly Castle Street):

There's also a JPH display at the spectacular Cliffs of Moher visitor centre featuring a model of one of his creations:

As if that wasn't enough, the town will unveil a further memorial (pictured below, under construction) on August 31st to mark 100 years since his John Philip Holland's death.

Possibly the most densely commemorated scientist in Ireland, and deservedly so!

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