Thursday, June 24, 2010

All aboard for Turin

In another example of novel science communication, six young Irish science ambassadors are travelling across Europe aboard the Science Communication Bus in order to promote Dublin City of Science 2012.

Having left Dublin on the 20th of June, they plan to reach Turin (City of Science 2010) on the 1st of July before heading on to Barcelona to end their tour. The stopover in Turin will coincide with that city's science celebrations which take place from 2nd-7th July.

The science ambassadors will be tweeting, blogging and youtubing along the way.

The science bus rolled into Brussels yesterday where they visited Ireland's European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

Ellen Byrne, one of the science ambassadors outlined the goals of the trip: "We are travelling from Dublin to Turin and all along the way, we are talking about Dublin, the city of science 2012".

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn welcomed the initiative: " I think it is a tremendous achievement because it is collaboration between different elements, Enterprise Ireland, which deals with industry in Ireland, the chief scientific officer and so on, and also the tourism bodies in the country."

"They have been talking to the ambassadors, and they keep telling me that every time, everywhere they go, there is a huge buzz and a huge excitement. And, as I've said from the beginning, I want young people back involved in the sciences and what better way to promote that than to see these young people travelling all the way to Turin."

And Ellen Byrne had some advise for those interested in science: "I would say roll up your sleeves and just totally get involved. There is something for everyone in science: science, technology, engineering and maths; and whether it's music, art or football, there is something for everyone to do within science."

You can find out more about the trip and about Dublin 2012 by visiting

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I'm a scientist, get me out of here!

As I posted recently, the public want scientists to communicate more. This is one of the more inventive ways of doing it. Based upon the reality TV format, students get to get to know and quiz a panel of working scientists before voting for their favourite and evicting the rest.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

55% of public say scientists must communicate more

According to a new Eurobarometer report published this week, nearly 80% of Europeans say they are interested in scientific discoveries and technological developments, compared to 65% interested in sport.

57% think scientists should put more effort into communicating about their work and 66% believe governments should do more to interest young people in scientific issues. Europeans overwhelmingly recognise the benefits and importance of science but many also express fears over risks from new technologies and the power that knowledge gives to scientists.

For example, a massive 58% of respondents at the EU level agreed with the statement that "we can no longer trust scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because they depend more and more on money from industry". This figure falls to 36% when responses from Ireland only are considered. Given the Irish government's decision to reduce the amount of exchequer funding available to scientific research, in favour of more input from industry, it begs the question: will the Irish and European public be happy about this? Perhaps not, given the results of this survey, but they are hardly likely to demand higher taxes to pay for purely government sponsored science either.

53%: "scientists have a power that makes them dangerous"Worrying too is the agreement of 53% of the European respondents (46% of Irish respondents) with the statement that, because of their knowledge, scientists "have a power that makes them dangerous". Not potentially dangerous, mind you, but just dangerous, full stop!

Interestingly, when asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that we depend too much on science and not enough on faith, 29% of Irish respondents agreed. This was down significantly from 41% when this survey was last taken in 2005. Is this an indication of the increased secularisation of Irish society?

With regard to the communication of science, 57% of EU respondents (55% of Irish respondents) felt that scientists do not put enough effort into informing the public about new developments in science and technology. When the data is closely analysed, we see that those respondents who feel that they are not informed at all about scientists feel that scientists themselves are not making enough effort to communicate the message about science.

16%: "newspaper journalists best equipped to communicate science"The majority of EU citizens (63% of respondents) felt that scientists working at a university or government laboratories are best qualified to explain scientific and technological developments. Just 32% of respondents felt that scientists working in industry were best placed to explain these developments. 16% of respondents felt that newspaper journalists were best equipped to discuss such developments.

Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said: "The success of the Europe 2020 Strategy depends on cutting edge science to keep Europe competitive. In turn, that means ordinary Europeans need to back science and keep the pressure up on government and on industry to invest in it. These results show a very high awareness of the importance of science. But they also show that both politicians – like me – and scientists themselves need to explain better what we are doing and why."

Overall, the survey shows that European citizens are fairly optimistic about science and technology - 75% of respondents agree or tend to agree that thanks to science and technology there will be more opportunities for future generations. However, there is a shift towards scepticism compared to the 2005 survey. Judging by the results of this survey, this scepticism could be reduced by more scientists, in particular those in academia, making an even greater effort to communicate their work to the general public.

As Peter Fiske wrote in Nature earlier this year: "Scientists must communicate about their work — to other scientists, sponsors of their research and the general public...searching for opportunities to give talks and lectures — and seeking audiences that are outside one's immediate sphere of scientific influence at, for example, science museums or local civic organizations".

"scientists must communicate about their work" - Peter Fiske"Many scientists are incredulous at how little the general public knows about science and technology" says Fiske, "but scientists do little to address the gap in understanding. Most think that their successes in the lab are manifestly evident, making education about the value of their work unnecessary. Few ever communicate with their elected officials. With the public footing most of the bill, this misguided belief seems naive and undermines those who campaign for more funding.

"Excellent work is a prerequisite for career progress, but is not sufficient by itself. Broadcasting one's accomplishments and exercising the 'active voice' in all aspects of one's work is the best way to earn notice, gain recognition and make the public at large aware of the value of the scientific enterprise."

The full Eurobarometer report (pdf) can be viewed here.

An edited version of this article appears on the Science Blog.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Getting up close up with BeetleCam

How do you get up close and personal with some of Africa's most dangerous wildlife? You use a BeetleCam of course. See the full story here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The cradle of true art and true science

Einstein wrote that "the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious—the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science". With this in mind, today we begin a semi-regular series of postings on the topic of science and culture.

We start today with a nod to all of those who are currently sitting state examinations in Ireland or who have just finished. The science exams have begun and are being reviewed elsewhere. The higher-level English paper however included a poem by the Dublin poet Paula Meehan and is just the sort of thing that this series of posts will cover. As Einstein also said: "The greatest scientists are always artists as well"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Number of the Week: 127 dB

After a bit of a lull in proceedings, the number of the week returns!

That's the 'sound pressure level' of a South African vuvuzela horn which we have been hearing for the last week or so, like a soundtrack to all of the World Cup matches.
The earpiercing noise is louder than a lawnmower (90 decibels) and a chainsaw (100 dB). Extended exposure at 85 dB puts you at risk of permanent hearing damage, while exposure to 100 dB or more can lead to hearing damage in just 15 minutes.
However, to put it in context, a survey by Hear the World has shown that samba drums and airhorns (two instruments commonly found in the terraces) can also produce volumes of 122 and 124 dB respectively. Indeed, "two fans singing" can reach 122 dB.
Enjoy the game.

How to create GM crops

Scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory explain how they have produced blight-resistant potatoes using plant tissue culture. For more on this story, see our earlier post.

Friday, June 11, 2010

UCD and Trinity lead way in Autism research

A huge study into the genetics of autism has found that some genetic variations are more common in autistic children. Scientists from University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin are amongst a group of 50 collaborating institutions who made the discovery.

The findings, published this week in Nature included the Irish component of the work which focused on the identification and study of children with autism across Ireland and the study of the genetic variation between autistic individuals and their families.

Researchers compared genetic variation in 1,000 individuals with autism plus their family and compared this information to a control sample of 1,300 people without autism.

Individuals with autism were shown to have submicroscopic sections of DNA that occur more often (duplications) or less often (deletions), called copy number variants (CNV) in their genome. These are also found as frequently as individuals with no autism, but in autism they are more likely to disrupt certain genes and in particular those previously reported to be associated with autism or intellectual disabilities.

The researchers also identified new autism susceptibility genes. A spokeperson for UCD said these results would have a positive impact on the treatment of autism: "These findings will help researchers better understand the brain mechanisms involved in autism and could become targets that may lead to the development of new treatment approaches".

Dr. Sean Ennis of UCD noted that "because of matching investment by the Irish government through the Health Research Board, over half of the laboratory work for this project was carried out in Ireland.

"The results show that Irish researchers and Ireland can truly contribute to scientific discovery on the global stage", continued Dr.Ennis.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cork archaeologist finds world's oldest shoe

University College Cork (UCC) archaeologist, Dr Ron Pinhasi, and a team of international archaeologists discovered the world's oldest leather shoe in a cave in Armenia. The perfectly preserved shoe is 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and 300 years older than Newgrange, Co Meath.
You can see the shoe, where it was found and what a modern-day reconstruction would look like in this clip.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Anti-GM campaigners can't have it both ways

British scientists are to set up a 1,000-square-metre plot of genetically modified potatoes in Norfolk. The potato plants have been genetically modified by scientists at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) to be resistant to "Late Blight" which is caused by a fungi-like organism called Phytophthora infestans.

The experiment is designed to tell whether GM potato plants that are resistant to late blight in vitro (that's in the laboratory) are also resistant to the pathogen in vivo (i.e. in the field), where there are a much larger number of different strains of P. infestans. If a fully resistant potato variety can be found, it could at least put a dent in the estimated £3.5 billion worth of losses that the disease causes worldwide every year.

Much of that cost is related to the use of fungicides - chemicals used to control fungi or fungi-like organisms. (By the way, although it's most appropriate to refer to P. infestans as a "fungi-like organism" and not as a fungi, the difference is very minor and one with which we need not concern ourselves here.)

Professor Jonathan Jones of TSL explains: "We have isolated genes from two different wild potato species that confer blight resistance Similar genes are found in all plants, and we are now testing whether these ones work in a field environment to protect a commercial potato variety, Desiree, against this destructive potato disease".

The group of scientists screened about 100 different wild species of Solanum, the grouping of plants to which potatoes belong and identified just a handful that were resistant. The next step was to isolate genes and insert them into the commercially available potato variety Desiree. Watch a video of the process here.

The modified plants can now recognise the onset of late blight attack and can trigger the plant to switch on its own defence mechanisms. By switching on these plant-based defences, it may drastically reduce the levels of fungicide which need to be applied.

Despite this good news, anti-GM campaigners have once again come out against such trials. Kirtana Chandrasekaren, Friend of the Earth's Food Campaigner accused the British government of "wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money by forging ahead with unnecessary and unpopular GM trials.
"We can feed a growing global population without trashing the planet or resorting to factory farms and GM crops - the Government must help farmers shift to planet-friendly farming" said Chanrasekaren.

Dr. Helen Wallace of the campaign group GeneWatch also called the trial a "waste opf public money" and suggested that "it is possible to breed blight-resistant potatoes using conventional methods, so there is no need to use GM technology".

"anti-GM campaigners need to make a choice"What Dr. Wallace and the campaign groups fail to grasp is that it has been nearly 160 years since the end of the Irish Potato Famine when one million people died of starvation and further one million people emigrated to survive. In those 160 years of conventional breeding, a tiny handful of varieties have been produced with full resistance to the pathogen and their propagation has been severely limited by consumers opting for older, more familiar varieties.

So, anti-GM campaigners need to make a choice. Either we stick with existing varieties and pump millions of tonnes of fungicides into them every year or we opt for a slightly modified version of a commercially relatively successful variety which can defend itself from late blight, reducing fungicide use significantly in the process. The campaigners can't have it both ways.

A previous post on this blog also dealt with the issue of consumer acceptance of GM crops.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Newsworthy: Cadmium

What is cadmium?
A soft, bluish white mettalic element which is relatively abundant in nature. It forms a minor componet of zinc ores and is a byproduct of zinc production.

Why is it in the news?
McDonalds, the fast-food giant, has had to recall 12 million Shrek drinking glasses in the US "out of an abundance of caution" after slightly elevated levels of cadmium were found on the painted designs.

What's the problem with cadmium?
Acute exposure to cadmium fumes can cause flu-like symptoms referred to as "the cadmium blues". More sever exposure can cause breathing difficulties and kidney problems which can be fatal.

When was cadmium discovered?
The element was discovered in Germany in 1817 by Friedrich Stromeyer. By 1927, the International Conference on Weights and Measures had redifined the metre in terms of a "red cadmium spectral line (1 metre = 1,553,164.13 wavelengths). This definition has since been changed.

What's it used for?
In the mid-twentieth century, cadmium was produced and used abundantly as an anti-corrosion treatment for steel, a stabilising agent of plastics and as a source of red and yellow pigments. Since the 1980's its use has decreased dramatically in line with health and safety legislation.

Danger in the diet

"This is a sad story. My uncle died. His wife died. Four of their children died. One daughter lived. She left the house. Then she got sick too and died. Also I lost all my friends."
- Pavo Luksic, age 79 from Kaniza in Croatia.

Read the intriguing story of Balkan endemic nephropathy - a mystery kidney disease and how its unlikely cause was finally discovered.

A great piece of science writing from Julia C. Mead of The Scientist. Mead received the 2008 FOLIO gold medal for the best science magazine article for this story which was first published in the scientist in November 2007.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Science of Sport

June really is the month for sport in Cork - with the Bord Gáis Energy Cork City Marathon next Monday 7th, the Ocean to City race on the 12th and Bike week from the 13-20th. CIT Cork Institute of Technology’s Blackrock Castle Observatory today rowed in by announcing a sports science theme for this month’s Cork Science Cafe.
At the next Cork Science Café on Friday June 4th at 6.15pm, Peter Maher, Olympic marathon athlete and physical therapist (specialising in sports injuries) will open a discussion on gait analysis and race readiness. Outlining ‘force plate gait analysis’, the technology he uses in his own practice, Peter will draw from over 10 years experience in treating both high profile and weekend warrior athletes. As he is also running in the Cork City Marathon on Monday 7th, no doubt Peter will have valuable tips to pass on from his own experience. 

Commenting on the link, Gina Johnson, Event Organiser for the Bord Gáis Energy Cork City Marathon said “You’d be tempted to think that ‘science people’ and ‘sports people’ are a world apart, but they’re not. Quite a few of the elite athletes here in Cork work in technology. The programme for this month’s First Friday at the Castle will surely appeal to families in town for the big race."
Other events on the June 4th First Fridays at the Castle, BCO’s monthly open night include:

6-8pm - Staying Fit at Zero:
Half-hour family friendly workshops exploring exercises astronauts use in space to keep their muscles in top condition. Also… BasketBot: Students from St Francis’ College, Rochestown, demonstrate the basketball-playing robot they built and programmed to win the 2010 CEIA Lego Robot Competition for schools.

7-8pm - Project Zero Gravity :
This short film produced by Agtel for the European Space Agency, (ESA) explores the physiological effects of weightlessness and includes footage from the International Space Station.

8:00pm - Sensor Research for Sports, Fitness & Health:
Mark Gaffney has worked on wearable sensors for Tennis for the Clarity research group & Tennis Ireland . Mark will outline his own work and how this fits in with Clarity’s sports research taking place at Tyndall, UCD & DCU.
Plus…The award-winning interactive astronomy exhibit ‘Cosmos at the Castle’ is open until 9.00pm*
- All events are FREE -

Cork Science Café is an informal gathering inviting YOU to explore some of the latest ideas in science & technology and their impact on our culture. Meetings take place monthly in the relaxed surrounds of the Castle Bar and Trattoria at Blackrock Castle Observatory’s First Fridays at the Castle, in association with UCC, Tyndall National Institute, CIT, the Cork Electronics Industry Association and Cork City Learning Forum. Check for information on topics to come, or email to suggest one

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