Saturday, November 21, 2009

Trials and Tribulations of a Large Hadron Collider

After a 14 month wait, the boys and girls beneath the Swiss-French border are finally smashing protons together again.

As you'll recall, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was started up by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) just over a year ago to much excitement and some trepidation.

Amidst scares of blackholes and massive explosions, the scientists circulated the first beam of protons all around the 27km-long machine on 10th September 2008.

However, just nine days after start-up, the grand experiment ground to a halt due to a serious fault in two of the massive magnets that bends the beam of protons around the circular collider.

In order to allow repairs to be completed, the temperature in part of the LHC needed to be increased to allow access from its operating temperature of -271 degrees Celsius. Thats colder than deep space!

From the outset of these problems, the scientists at the LHC were pragmatic to say the least.

"If you keep an eye on the big picture, we've been building the machine for 20 years. The switch-on was always going to be a long process," James Gillies, Cern's director of communications, told BBC News at the time.

"A year or two down the line, this moment will be a distant memory, and we'll be running smoothly."

Described as the largest machine in the world and the most powerful physics experiment ever built, the LHC is designed to recreate the unique conditions that existed in the universe a few moments after the infamous Big Bang.

As two beams of protons are accelerated in opposite directions around a circular loop, powerful magnets ensure that they come close to the speed of light and bend safely around the loop.

At a few points around the collider, the proton beams cross and smash into one another releasing massive amounts of energy. Mimicking the energy released at the Big Bang, the scientists hope to achieve new insights into the birth of the universe and the nature of all matter within it.

The repairs completed this week mean that CERN can safely pass low energy beams through the LHC without incident. It will be early 2010 before the energy of the beams have been increased to levels that will allow collisions to be restarted.

It was a close thing. As recently as this month, the restart was in some doubt when a wayward seagull dropped a piece of bread on to an external part of the accelerator causing significant overheating. Since the beam was not operational, no serious damage was done. If the beam had been travelling through the system, automatic failsafes would have kicked in to shut down the machine.

Careless birdlife wasn't the only thing that had the LHC in the news during its 14-month hiatus.

At the end of October, French and Swiss police began investigating a French physicist who worked at the site with suspected links to al-Qaida. The unidentified 32-year old was working at the LHC while teaching at the nearby Lausanne Institute of Technology.

Given that he is just one of more than 7,000 scientists working on the site and according to colleagues, hadn't been in work for most of the year, it's unclear as to what real treat he posed to the machinery.

As the terrorist storyline was being played out in Lausanne, scientists in Copenhagan and Kyoto were suggesting that a far more outlandish reasoning was behind the LHC's mishaps. Holger Bech Nielsen of the well-respected Niels Bohr Institute along with his Japanese colleague Masao Ninomiya proposed, in a series of papers, a theory that the illusive product of the LHC (the Higgs particle) was travelling back in time to prevent its own existence.

"You could explain it by saying that God rather hates Higgs particles and attempts to avoid them," Bohr says. It's certainly an interesting theory which harks back to that old chestnut: the Grandfather Paradox.

This theory says that if I went back in time and killed my grandfather before he met my grandmother, my father and of course myself would never be born. This would mean that I could not possibly travel back in time and kill my grandfather and therefore I would be born, in which case I could travel back in time and get the picture. It's a classic paradox.

In terms of the LHC, the theory goes that this illusive Higgs particle has travelled back in time to prevent itself from existing. Of course if it is travelling through time, this must imply that its efforts to destroy itself has already failed.

My head gets sore just thinking about it! Of course, the LHC spokespeople have rejected the theory entirely. Presumably they insisted that a time travelling seagull was not to blame for the baguette in the works!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Act of Man or Act of God?

I survived the Cork floods 2009!

After a valiant effort to get to work this morning, I had to turn back due to the unprecedented levels of water around the western suburbs of Cork City.Prolonged levels of rain in the last week or so, combined with the relaease of water from Innascarra dam and high tides in Cork harbour led to some of the worst flooding in years in the City.

The Mercy hospital was forced to implement its emergency plan in the early hours of Friday morning. This meant patients on lower floors were moved to higher floors in the complex which sits beside the River Lee. Nearby, University College Cork bore the brunt of the floods with their iconic Glucksman Gallery, the newly opened Western Gateway Building (pictured) and the research-active Tyndal Centre were all under water along with many of UCC's low-lying buildings and student accomodation.

With flooding in Galway, Fermoy, Bandon and Clonakilty, it begs the question why such flooding is becoming so prevalent. The immediate conclusion which seems to be jumped at is the involvment of 'climate change' or 'global warming' in these flooding events.

There's no doubt that the result of climate change will be wetter conditions in this country along with an increase in the rate and intensity of severe weather conditions such as we faced in the last few days.That being said, I don't believe for a moment that the current events are directly related to climate change.

Flooding events are relatively common in this country and they have been recorded for centuries. It is the extent and intensity of development which has now brought us closer to flood plains which, by their nature are prone to flooding.

For example, the Glucksman Gallery and Gateway Building in UCC, which are currently under water, were built on land which were well known to flood regularly. For that reason, flood defences were in-built to the buildings. Despite this, I hear that the flood defences in the Gateway building (open just a few short months) were entirely overwhelmed.

Just this week, engineers have warned that Cork and Dublin could be 'uninhabitable'in the next century. In their report- 'Ireland at Risk', the Irish Academy of Engineers (IAE) said that flooding events of a magnitude only experience currently every 100 years, could occur every 5 years.

IAE president, Michael Hayden points to Hurricane Katrina in the US "for an example of how climate change coupled with poor planning and zoning decisions can lead to social and economic disaster”. “If we move now, significant economic benefits will accrue”, according to Michael Hayden, “but it we do ‘too little too late’ we risk social and economic disaster”.

With reports like this coming think and fast and the area of climate change about to to come into sharp focus with the Copenhagan Conference in December, it's inevitable that such flooding events that we are seeing now will be blamed on climate change. In the future, I have no doubt that climate change will cause increases in these types of events, there is less evidence that these meterological events are currently global warming related.

Nonetheless, the importance of fighting climate change has become a relevant issue for many strands of society.

Former US president Al Gore has been at the forefront in publicising the need for action on climate change since his award winnin documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth' in 2006. In his latest book 'Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis' the climate campaigner says that laying out the facts is just not enough and he has begun to appeal to peoples moral and religiois duty to protect the planet.

Speaking in a recent Newsweek interview, Gore described his work with religious organisations who were eager to contribute to the fight against climate change: "I've done a Christian [-based] training program; I have a Muslim training program and a Jewish training program coming up, also a Hindu program coming up. I trained 200 Christian ministers and lay leaders here in Nashville in a version of the slide show that is filled with scriptural references. It's probably my favourite version, but I don't use it very often because it can come off as proselytising."

In Ireland, the Catholic Bishop's Conference have just issued a pastoral reflection on climate change which has been made available on their website and in catholic churches throughout the country.

'The Cry of the Earth' talks of climate change as being "one of the most critical issues of our time" and having consequences "for the future of every person and every form of life on the earth."

The publication also quotes Pope Benedict as saying that an shift in mentality "can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments."

In a time when science and religion often clash unnecesarily, it's good to see all strands of society pulling in the same direction. One thing's for sure, those effected by this most recent flood are surely cursing this particular 'act of god'.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I'll have two killer whales and a bottle of milk please...

The idea of adding a barcode to a product in a shop for making the life of a checkout operator easier is one of those inventions which we now hardly think about but has revolutionised the way we shop.

Retailers no longer need to price every individual item but need only place one large display price for the consumer to refer to. It makes things easier for the consumer too, knowing that we will almost certainly not be overcharged at the till due to a human error.

Barcodes were originally developed for labelling railroad cars but only took off when supermarkets saw their advantages and began to use them widely. It was two Americans, Bernard Silver and Joseph Woodland who patented the technology in 1949 and described both the linear type of barcode which we are still familiar with, as well as a 'bullseye' circular design.

However the two men were ahead of the technology available to them at the time, with IBM reporting that while the idea was very interesting, the technology to process the information wasn't yet available in the early 1950's. It wasn't until the early 1980's that the technology began to be rolled out in supermarkets across the US. Unfortunately, Bernard Silver never got to see the success of his invention as he died in a car crash in 1963.

Nowadays, barcoding has become almost universal. Sitting at my desk, I can see that my computer is barcoded by the manufacturer and contains a unique product number. Internally, most of the components from the disk drive to the memory is all barcoded for ease of tracking.

If I decide to take a break later, I can drive to the supermarket in a car which is barcoded and pick up a barcoded lunch. I can pay for my barcoded sandwich and barcoded chocolate bar at the self service checkout, where I get to scan my own barcoded product, as well as my unique supermarket loyalty card. This allows the supermarket to record what I like to purchase and target marketing at me specifically.
Going back to the office, I could pop into the library where my unique membership card will be scanned along with the books I want to borrow. In short, my whole life is a series of barcoded events. From airline tickets to identity cards, the conspiracy theorist could have a field-day.

Some of the uses to which barcodes are now put would surely surprise the original inventors. Scientists currently meeting in Mexico City at the 3rd International Barcode of Life Conference are putting the finishing touches to an agreement which aims to give every organism on Earth a unique barcode based upon its genetic fingerprint.
Organisers at the Barcode of Life Initiative (BOLI) say that the technology will aid researchers in a host of areas which rely on accurate identification of species of plants and animals, as well as other organisms. This includes identifying and protecting endangered species, sustaining natural resources including fish stocks, understanding marine biodiversity, carrying out basic research in taxonomy (identifying and labelling distinct species), controlling agricultural pests, stopping vectors of human disease such as mosquitoes and monitoring environmental quality.

While not exactly barcoding in the sense that Silver and Woodland imagined it, the initiative aims to use a relatively minute stretch of DNA (about 648 DNA "base-pairs" compared to the billions of such base pairs which make up many organisms) called a barcode sequence.

This barcode sequence will be tracked in a range of organisms. Subtle differences within this 648 letter code will give the researchers a unique label for every species. This particular barcode sequence, while excellent for use with most animal, butterfly, bird and fish groups isn't suitable for use with plants. The meeting in Mexico this week aims to propose a plant barcode sequence so that the work can continue.

With the information now available online, researchers are hoping that the job of identifying species has now become a whole lot easier.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Top invention has the X-factor

What would you say is the top scientific invention of all time? What has made our lives more safe, more healthy, more fun? There's lots to choose from. The mobile phone would certainly be up there for some people. For others, it'd be right at the bottom of the pile.

Would you go for something that has improved your life or the lives of many people?

I recall the controversy earlier in the year when, as people were celebrating International's Women's Day, the Vatican newspaper had the atrocious timing as to suggest that the humble washing machine had "liberated women". In an article entitled "The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax”, the vatican press managed to create a storm of controversy.

In a way, you can see where they were coming from, but to avoid a lynch-mob, I won't discuss it here!

The point is, one person's great scientific invention is another person's piece of junk.

Well, the Science Museum in London has now come up with the definitive list...kind of. The museum selected ten items from their massive collection and asked visitors to the museum (and their website) to vote on which of the ten was their favourite. So, despite being limited to a short-list of ten, the British public have now voted on their favourites.

And there was a clear winner. With 50,000 votes cast, 20 % of people named the X-ray machine as the best invention for having the greatest impact on the past, present and future.

The case for X-ray is clear. This particular type of radiation can penetrate solid objects and by far their most important use is to take images inside objects (including ourselves) and to produce an X-ray image.

In medical X-ray machines, electrons are accelerated in a vacuum tube and then released to collide with a metal target (usually tungsten) producing X-rays. These X-rays are used for diagnostic imaging of everything from broken bones to pneumonia and lung cancer and can also be used at much higher dosages for the treatment of some cancers through radiotherapy.

Most people will hopefully not encounter the X-ray in a medical setting too many times in their life. We are probably more familiar with the use of X-rays in airport security. Admit it: who hasn't had a sneaky look over the operator's shoulder to see what your hand luggage looks like under X-ray?

The Science Museum in London has on display one of the oldest X-ray machines in the world.

Built by a Russell Reynolds in 1986, he was inspired by Wilhelm Rontgen who discovered what he called "X" rays simply because he could think of no other name for them. In many languages, what we call X-rays, are known as Rontgen-rays.

Russell Reynolds was still in school when he built the machine within a year and he's a great example of what "amateur" scientists can do!

The full list (in order) of the top scientific inventions is printed below. Which would you vote for?

1st place - X-ray machines
2nd place - Penicillin
3rd place - DNA double helix
4th place - Apollo 10 capsule
5th place - V2 Rocket Engine
6th place - Stephenson's Rocket
7th place - Pilot ACE Computer
8th place - Steam Engine
9th place - Model T Ford
10th place - Electric Telegraph

Friday, October 30, 2009

Beautiful, Beautiful Copenhagen

Like a big rugby or soccer match, the build-up has already begun to Copenhagen '09! On the 7th of December, teams of negotiators from 192 countries will kick-off a two-week marathon round of talks in order to secure a new climate treaty to succeed Kyoto.

More than 15,000 will attend the talks - from journalists to politicians, diplomats and campaigners; as well as presidents and heads of state from around the globe.
Keen to give the right impression from the start, the Danish organisers are ensuring that, for instance, all water available at the summit is tap-water, with no bottles on summit bargaining tables. They've also insisted that a minimum of 65% of the food and beverages available on site will be organically produced.

Whilst the city boasts an impressive and reliable public transport system (which will be free of charge for the delegates) many will of course arrive by air, with the massive carbon footprint which that will entail. A recent UN climate conference in New York in September produced 450 tonnes of carbon. However, the carbon cost of getting delegates (including 50 presidents and 35 prime ministers) to and from New York, including flights, motorcades, police escorts, etc. was neutralised by directly funding a rural power project in India. The funding will support a scheme which transforms agricultural byproducts such as corn husks and stalks in electricity. It's still unclear if the organisers of the Copenhagen summit will do the same!

The COP15 meeting (as its known) is the 15th meeting of the Conference of Parties - a group brought together by the UN framework convention on climate change. Ireland will be represented by officials from the EPA, as well as various government ministries. As such, they are in a race against time to have an agreement in place and ratified by all parties before the Kyoto agreement starts to become obsolete in 2012.

Kyoto was negotiated back in 1997 and things have changed utterly since then. Back then, the US was the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Now that dubious honour goes to China - an indication of the massive growth that we've seen in the Chinese economy.

Despite an on-again, off-again debate as to whether climate change and global warming are actually occurring at all, the weight of evidence and scientific support suggests that it is a real problem already and is going to get worse. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out that between 1906 and 2005 the earth's average temperature has risen by 0.74 degrees. Now that doesn't seem like a lot in theory. If I put my dinner in the oven to cook and I'm out by 0.74 degrees, it's hardly likely to make a difference. But, on the global scale, if this continues there will be serious consequences.

For Ireland, the potential consequences focus on our island status and our dependence on the Gulf Stream form year-round mild conditions and a decent level of rainfall for our crops. Recent EPA figures show that the average air temperature in Ireland increased by 0.7 degrees celsius since 1890 with a massive proportion of that (0.4 degrees) occuring since 1980. The EPA predicts a temperature rise by 2100 of between 1 and 3 degrees.

In terms of rainfall, there has been a significant increase in total rainfall in the North and West of the country. Predictions say we'll see wetter winters in the West and drier summers in the 'sunny Southeast'. Researchers have also recorded a decrease in the frequency of storms hitting the country, but the intensity of these storms have increased.

The increase in average temperature is caused by the famous 'Greenhouse Effect' - a natural phenomenon which only becomes a problem when you pump loads of CO2 into the atmosphere. On its own, the greenhouse effect is useful to us - without it, the average temperature on earth would be around minus 19 degrees celsius (as opposed to 14 degrees at the moment). Due to the vast quantities of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution, the greenhouse effect is going into overdrive and the Earth's climate is being effected.

That's why December's summit will focus on reducing the amount of CO2 and various other 'Greenhouse Gases' which countries are allowed to emit. The task is easier said than done since greenhouse emissions go hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. Particularly at this time, countries want to do little that will constrain their businesses and economies.

However, industrialised countries will be asked to reduce their emissions substantially. Developing countries such as China and India will be asked to limit the growth in their emissions - despite their wishes to grow their economy. Money will be discussed too. Poor countires will require massive amounts of cash to curb their emissions and to adapt to the problems a changing climate will pose.

It will be an interesting summit. Already, the various sides are flagging their opening positions. The stakes are high in beautiful Copenhagen.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not all Banks are Bad Banks

In the last week, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London celebrated collecting and storing its 24,200th plant species. The plant seeds are banked at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex. The Sussex site is part of a 180 acre estate centred around a magnificant mansion.

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank was set up in the year 2000 upon the realisation that 60-100,000 of the world's 300,000 plant species are threatened with extinction. The bank aims to conserve seed (and thus the genetic information) of plants around the world - with particular emphasis put on plants either most at risk or those which are potentially most useful to humans.

The bank has international partners and together, they aim to have stored seed from 25% of the world's plants by 2020. Of course there is a conservation reason to protect these plant species from extinction, but Kew are eager to emphasise the current and future uses of plants as a reason for their work.The most obvious use of plants is in food, something that is becoming more and more important in developing countries where food insecurity has led to civil unrest in recent years.

In fact, just last week the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that "for the first time in history, more than one billion people are hungry". Speaking at the launch of World Food Day (October 16th) the Secretary-General remarked, "Over the past two years, volatile food prices, the economic crisis, climate change and conflict have led to a dramatic and unacceptable rise in the number of people who cannot rely on getting the food they need to live, work and thrive."

The medicinal uses of plants is also important. For example, the rose periwinkle of Madagascar is a source for not one, but two anti-cancer drugs used to treat leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease. The substances, vinblastine and vincristine were first discovered when the dried plant was crushed to form a tea. Drinking the tea was found to decrease the number of white blood cells in the body.

Plants are also a useful source of fuels (charcoal, biofuels), fibres (cotton), building materials (mahogany) as well as having an intrinsic benefit to the environment and our appreciation of that environment. In short, there is every reason to conserve the plants that we have.

The poet Walt Whitman puts it very well in his poem Song of Myself:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven..

That plant which brought Kew over that magic 10% level was a species of pink banana which is a particular favourite of the Asian elephant. Musa itinerans, or the yunnan banana as it is known is also an important wild relative of the cultivated banana. This valuable genetic resource will allow breeding of new varieties of banana with disease resistance. This is crucial if we are to continue to eat banana.

In the next 10-20 years the most popular variety 'Cavendish' will almost certainly become unviable due to the pressures of disease. A new variety, which the consumer will accept and have the disease resistant qualities will need to be produced during that time. The genetic information in the yunnan banana may well contribute to the breeding programme.

Professor Stephen Hopper, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, told BBC News: "the seed bank, as an insurance strategy, is a good sensible way of keeping your options open for the future."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Probiotic Advert Banned

Following up on my earlier post regarding European Commission findings on probiotic yoghurts and drinks, the BBC report that the Advertising Standards Agency in Britain have banned a TV advert for Actimel - a well known brand of probiotic drinks.

Read the report here from the BBC.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

'Less Wealth - Better Health'

According to some recent (some would say biased) research by the pensions provider Friends Provident in the UK, having to tighten our belts can have a beneficial effect on our waistline as well as the rest of our health. ‘Less wealth leads to better health’, blasted the headline I saw.
The results of a survey of 4,000 people showed that 57 % of respondents admitted that they’d like to do more to take care of their body and health. Quite why the remaining 43 % of respondents stated that they would like to do less to take care of their health is unclear and perhaps demonstrates the dangers of reading too much into these type of publicity inspired surveys.
The jist of the report seemed to suggest that with falling incomes, 48 % of respondents were eating less ready meals than this time last year, with 83 % having made some change to their eating habits over that time. Some children it seems are feeling the brunt of the recession harder than others with 21 % of parents stopping providing ‘treats’ in children’s lunch boxes – proof if proof were needed that the children are always the first to suffer! Something we can applaud though: 50 % of parents no longer provide fast food meals for their little-ones.
It’s also interesting to see that 55 % of respondents ‘frequently’ get 30 minutes of exercise, 5 days per week. I’m sorry to be putting a downer on things here, but there is no way that 55 % of the UK population (and by extension, as all these things are, the Irish population) are exercising 5 days a week. It just can’t be the case. I’d be bumping into them all as I do my daily jog. Ok, ok, I’d be seeing them out the window as I watch Celebrity Masterchef, but you get the idea!
According to some more objective research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, the bleak years of the Great Depression could have led to improved fitness in the American population. By analysing masses of census data, the social scientists found that in the years from 1920 – 1940, life expectancy (how long you can expect to live) went up when employment went down and vice versa. The greatest gains in life expectancy were made during the darkest days of the depression whereas relatively prosperous years, such as 1926 and 1936 coincided with setbacks in terms of life expectancy.
Since one might expect life expectancy to increase when a strong economy is prevailing and people have more access to healthcare, one of the scientists responsible for this latest work Jose Tapia Granados tries to explain this seemingly counterintuitive finding: "people who have studied the effect of health care on population health are in general not inclined to think that health care has a big impact." During boom times, people “tend to drink more, [and] tend to be overweight and obese during periods of economic expansion.” The authors also credit the impact of stressful jobs and even motorcar accidents (both cars and accidents increase in boom times) as contributing factors towards the decrease in life expectancy shown.
Telling the Government that health care doesn’t have a really big impact on health is like a license to cut healthcare spending even further of course. It’ll be interesting though to see what the effect of this present downturn has on global health patterns and the health of Irish people in particular. In the road-running community, all the talk is of a large, steady increase in numbers training for and competing in road races around the country. It would be nice to think that a slower economy could help speed us up towards doing a little more exercise.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Probiotic drinks under scrutiny

A panel of scientists at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has dismissed a range of health claims made by manufacturers of so-called "probiotic" yoghurts and drinks.
The opinion delivered by the EFSA was part of a wider study of over 4,000 'general function' claims submitted by EU member states. While only about 500 claims have been studied in this batch, the rest are still being evaluated.
A 'general function' claim is a claim made about a particular food product which suggests that it can aid growth, development or function of the body or make you less hungry so that you will eat less, etc. Basically, its the sort of claim made about products that says, 'Eat this and you'll get thin', or 'Eat this and you'll never get a cold or runny nose again'.
Of the 523 claims made about a variety of food components, including probiotic bacteria, one third were upheld as there was a sufficient amount and quality of scientific evidence to back up the claims.
Of the remaining two thirds which were not upheld, over 50% were rejected owing to a lack of information on the substance on which the claim was based.
180 claims made for probiotic cultures were assessed by the panel, with ten claims being rejected outright and the remainder falling into the category where not enough evidence had been provided to support the claims.
Prof. Albert Flynn of the EFSA commented:"EFSA’s independent scientific advice will help ensure that the health claims made on foods are accurate and helpful to consumers in making healthy diet choices. The scientific opinions will inform future decisions of the Commission and Member States concerning the authorisation of health claims”.
As these were "general function" claims, the next phase will be to assess specific claims made and submitted by manufacturers such as Yakult and Danone about specific strains of probiotic bacteria. A spokesperson for Yakult said: "Yakult has submitted claims for Lactobacillus casei Shirota, a well characterised probiotic strain unique to Yakult. Evidence for its health benefit is based on over 70 human studies and over 70 years of research."
Incidentally, and for a bit of fun, you can generate your own probiotic culture name by following the link below and inserting your last name. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Spider vs. Conker -Opinion

Personally, I'm not particularly frightened of spiders. Despite having seen the film Arachnophobia and despite the popular dislike of our eight-legged friends, they've never particularly bothered me. Moths on the other hand, now they're frightening! I can't quite put my finger on the reason. Perhaps its their erratic flying manner. I always feel they could fly into my face at any time. The way they fly directly into light bulbs bothers me too.
Despite my views that science needs to turn its attention towards this moth problem, it's interesting to see that in Britain, the Royal Society of Chemistry has issued an open call for proof that spiders are deterred from entering a house by the humble horse chestnut of all things.
The RSC is offering £300 to anyone who can come up with hard evidence to back up this old-wives tale with photographic or video evidence.
A quick browse of the web, to use a pun which has been much used and abused by the tabloids covering the story, shows that while a lot of people claim the conker works in warding off spiders, many posters are more suspicious with no direct evidence available.
That a plant source for an anti-spider compound could exist is not beyond the realms of possibilty. Many of our most useful pesticides and medicines were originally derived from plants. In fact, the field of ethnobotany exists to examine such old-wives tales and see if plants in use by indiginous peoples around the world might be a source of useful chemicals and drugs. The cardiac drug Digoxin, for example, was first isolated from the foxglove plant and is now used to treat heartbeat abnormalities. As a further example, nicotine derived from tobacco plants can be used to kill off aphids and other sucking insects in the glasshouse. For a plant that gets so much (deserved) bad press, this is a good news story for tobacco.
Its nice to see the general public being encouraged to conduct scientific experiments and to submit their results to the RSC. There's no reason why anybody couldn't set up a very simple experiment here using horse chestnuts found all over the countryside at this time of the year and some spiders rounded up from around the house and garden. It would also be a very interesting BT young scientist project for students. It could earn them some pocket money too!

The challenge was set by the
Royal Society of Chemistry.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Irish business could learn a thing or two from Darwin - Opinion

What should have been a very run-of-the-mill press launch last week for the Tanaiste has been somewhat overshadowed by a decidedly dodgy grasp of scientific history. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue on Mary Coughlan’s fault, and perhaps I’m cruel to bring it up again, but the second in command of Ireland Inc. really should know better.

The Tanaiste was addressing a bunch of entrepreneurs to promote the IDA’s campaign to market Ireland oversees when she made the monumental blooper of suggesting that it was Albert Einstein and not Charles Darwin who had come up with the theory of evolution. This is despite the fact that the last year has been a celebration of all things Darwin- with his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most well known of works ‘On the Origin of Species’ being celebrated throughout the country and the world.

Undoubtedly, the Tanaiste should have known better, especially as she was speaking to a group of entrepreneurs who would, I imagine (and hope), place good science and scientific research pretty high up on their agenda when it comes to developing new ideas to get us out of our current economic doom and gloom. Ms. Coughlan was, in fact, alluding to that great catch-all term ‘survival of the fittest’ when she put her foot in it. However, on this point too she has made the very common error of giving Darwin the credit for this term. The term itself was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, a 19th century philosopher who, after reading Darwin’s most famous work, was able to see much overlap between the biologist’s theories on evolution and his own theories on economics. Where Spencer would use the term ‘survival of the fittest’, Darwin preferred the term ‘natural selection’. It is by natural selection, that traits which improve an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce become more common in a given population over many generations. For example, if a random change in the genetic information of a plant leads to larger flowers, which in turn lead to greater pollination by insects, this trait will tend to become more common in a population since more plants inheriting this trait will be produced.

Darwin did eventually use the term ‘survival of the fittest’ but not until the later editions of his work where he qualified it, using the word “fittest” to mean “better adapted for immediate, local environment” rather than “in the best physical shape”.

Perhaps the same could be said for Irish entrepreneurs. Those who will survive this current period of recession will be the best adapted to meet the economic and social challenges that we are presented with right here, right now and not necessarily the larger companies who for the last decade have been seen as being in ‘the best physical shape’. Irish business could learn a thing or two from Darwin.

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