Saturday, July 31, 2010

Why is the sky blue? and why do some parents not know?

Just a third of parents regularly talk to their children about how science works in everyday life. That's according to a survey conducted by the Shell Education Service (part of the well known oil company).

The press release for the survey describes it as "only a third of parents" discussing science with their kids. Frankly, I think thats pretty good going - I mean, what child wants to "regularly" discuss science with their parents!

A huge 99% of parents surveyed on the parenting website Mumsnet said they recognised that talking to their children about science makes a "massive" difference to their progress at school.

During the survey, parents were asked a series of science questions to measure their science know-how. The questions included: 'how does a cruise ship float?' and 'why do your fingers go wrinkly in the bath?'

Over half (52%) of parents answered all these questions correctly.

Shell say that a lack of confidence is behind parents reluctance to discuss science with their children citing excuses including feeling under-qualified due to poor grades at school (18%), not understanding science (15%) and a lack of available information (12%).

The survey also identified the questions which parents most dread being asked by their kids. The top five are:

Why is the sky blue? (29%)
Why does the car work? (21%)
Why can birds fly? (15%)
What is water made of? (10%)
How do fish breathe? (9%)

Shell have launched a booklet for parents and children which includes some fun experiments to try at home including growing your own crystals, creating a home version of the spin dryer (I know, how bizarre!) and building an explosive soft drink fountain.

James Smith, Chairman of Shell UK, said: "It's great news that parents can do more to help their children learn science than they realised. And learning science by trying out experiments is fun for children and their parents.”
You can download the Shell Activate booklet here (pdf).

So, why is the sky blue? You can find out here and find out what a Co. Carlow man had to do with it!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action

A few months ago, The Guardian reported that the Oxford English Dictionary had included an incorrect definition for the word 'siphon' for about 100 years. Never fear though, you can now learn all about siphons from four schoolchildren dressed as monsters.

This learning opportunity arises from SciCast, an online initiative which invites scientists (of any shape or form) to submit short films about science to their website. They also present the SciCast awards, which are open to films submitted from the UK and Ireland.

Many of the films come from schools, but anyone can submit- families, professional scientists, youth groups, etc. as long as they are from amateur film-makers.

The result is a huge web resource of fun science movies that everyone can enjoy at

The initiative is the brainchild of TV producer Jonathan Sanderson and stems from what he says was a dirth of science content on British Children's TV.

The winners of the competition element of the scheme were announced at an event in the Royal Institution, London last Friday. Some of my favourite award winners include:

  • The schoolchildren from Scotland who tested a variety of rockets. See it here.
  • The Lego animation of the Apollo 11 moon landings by Oliver Madgwick which discusses the difference between mass and weight. This film won the award for technical and Artistic Achievement. See it here.
  • A fun explanation of the Doppler Effect. See it here which picked up the best Physics SciCast.
  • An excellent paper animation demonstrating seed dispersal which received the award for Best Biology (Primary) SciCast. See it here.
  • Finally, there is the wonderful "Spooky Siphoning" film which combines an explanation of siphons with monster costumes - It has to be seen to be believed!
There are loads more films to watch on the website. And while watching them should be a great learning opportunity in itself, if it encourages people to create their own SciCasts, then the organisers will have achieved something altogether much more fun!

Some of the most weird and wonderful highlights of SciCast:

Jonathan Sanderson takes about SciCast:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Fun: Do it my way!

Some scientists have some pretty interesting hidden talents. The following is a clip of Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current Director of the National Institutes of Health in the US giving a speech to a group of new college graduates. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Communicate Science @ The Frog Blog

"A typical science practical today will see the student presented with a prepared methodology which they perform in order to gather data which will (hopefully) confirm a piece of knowledge which has often been explained to them previously in the classroom. There needs to be a more ‘authentic’ practical experience to augment these necessary ‘foolproof’ experiments and a piece of independent, though well supervised, research may be the answer."

Read more about "When is an Experiment not an Experiment?" in my guest post on The Frogblog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Communicate Science on Twitter

For all the latest science news and views - follow us on our Twitter site @blogscience

Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert Gibbings (1889-1958)

Robert Gibbings
recent post on coral reefs led me to pick up a book by one of Ireland's best naturalists, writers and artists. In his book Blue Angels and Whales, Robert Gibbings describes the slow development of a reef as follows:
"Though it may take seven thousand years for some of the slower-growing corals to build a reef a hundred and fifty feet in depth, or perhaps a quarter of that time for some of the quicker-growing species to achieve the same result, nevertheless the activity goes on unceasingly.
And it is not only the exuberant growth of the living polyp which, ramifying everywhere, builds up these great structures. It is the dead coral also. broken by the waves and reduced to powder by boring molluscs and worms, this serves as cement to bind the whole together; and, burying themselves in it, there are shell-fish who in turn contribute their shells to the general structure. Over it all is deposited a gentle rain of sediment from the seawater. One day, when the living rock has reached the surface, a floating coco-nut will be arrested in its travels and, taking root, will throw up its leaves. Then begins another cycle. The leaves of the tree will fall and rot, forming humus, and in this humus other seeds, borne by the sea and wind, will take root. They in their turn will die and form further soil, and so a new world will come into being on which all the romance and tragedy of human life will find a setting."
Robert Gibbings was born in Cork in 1889, the son of a Church of Ireland minister. His mother was the daughter of Robert Day, a noted Cork businessman and importantly, a collector of art and cultural objects from all over the world. Gibbings undoubtedly came under Day's influence in his formative years: Myrtle Hill, the Day family's home in Cork was full of strange objects, from Celtic gold torcs to spears from the South Sea Islands.

Gibbings enrolled in University College Cork to study medicine in 1907. In Lovely is the Lee he notes that his time at UCC was not always as successful as it might have been:
"It wasn't that there was any ill will between us (the professors at the college), it was just that they couldn't agree with my answers to their questions. The professor of zoology* lamented that I seemed more interested in the outside than the inside of a rabbit."
*Probably Prof. Marcus Hartog at the time.

Engraving from 'Beasts and Saints'
Gibbings left UCC inside three years, having persuaded his parents that art rather than medicine was his calling. He proceeded to study art in Cork before moving to London to the Slade School in 1911. 

By 1914 he was on the move again, this time enlisted with the 4th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. He survived a bullet in the neck at Gallipoli before being stationed back in Cork (at Bere Island) and Dublin. A posting to Salonika finished his military career and he was invalided out of the army in 1919.

Gibbings had a life-time interest in wood engravings and helped found the Society of Wood-Engravers. For the next few years, he took on a large number of small commissions, producing wood engravings and prints for advertising and the publishing industry.

Engraving from 'Blue Angels &Whales'
Around 1923, Gibbings became the owner of a small printing works, Golden Cockerel Press following the loan of one thousand pounds from a friend, Hubert Pike, a director of the Bentley Motor company. Gibbings and his new wife Moira set about reviving the fortunes of the struggling press with the aid of Eric Gill, another noted artist, sculptor and typeface designer.

By all accounts, life at the press was unconventional, to say the least, with "dancing and games in the nude" being a common pastime. Gibbings had a lifelong interest in naturism.

In 1926, another publisher sent Gibbings to Tahiti to work with an author and to illustrate his books. However, when the writer subsequently withdrew from the project, Gibbings added his own words to his illustrations and had the books published anyway. The Seventh Man and Iorana were the result.

In the early 1930's the press was sold and Gibbings divorced his first wife and so began a rather bleak time for the artist.

By 1937 he was teaching at Reading University but still struggling to make ends meet. He had two daughters with a new wife, Elizabeth Empson however this marriage soon began to falter. Elizabeth's sister Patience was later to become his secretary and aide.

After this period, Gibbings seems to have made a concerted effort to concentrate on both his teaching and his writing.

Gibbings diving in Bermuda
Blue Angels and Whales was based upon his diving experience in both Bermuda and at the Red Sea.

At the Bermuda Marine Research Station he borrowed their primitive diving helmet (pictured) and hand operated air-pump and set about observing underwater life, a subject he had become fascinated with. The diving was not without its dangers as he notes:

"The pressure of the air within the helmet is kept up by the pump, operated from the launch overhead. Provided the man at the job does not go to sleep in the sun, there is sufficient pressure to prevent the water rising above chin level."
Using sheets of Xylonite, Gibbings was able to draw under water using an adapted pencil (sticks of graphite encased in rubber tubing).

Throughout Gibbings books, whether travel related or on natural history, he takes time to recount events in his journey which seemingly led him to meet a wonderful array of humorous and interesting local characters. For example, on a steamer from Marseilles to Port Said, Egypt he notes a meeting with

"a fanatical evangelist with a lovely wife. He has tried to convert me to his beliefs, I have tried to convert her to mine, so far, no score on either side."
Clownfish by Gibbings, from 'Blue Angels & Whales'
Gibbings was headed towards the Marine Research Station at Hurghada, run by the University of Egypt. The station had diving gear similar to Bermuda's and the artist made full use of it. Of the now famous Clownfish (of Finding Nemo fame) he writes:

"In among the crevices of the dead coral were giant anemones, among whose tentacles might be discovered a small fish marked with conspicuous white bars across its bronze body, which, either by long habit or by ‘gentleman's agreement' had gained immunity from the stinging cells of its host. Living as it does under cover of such a battery, it achieves a greater security from its enemies than it would have if dependent on its own resources. In order to repay the hospitality granted, it makes it its business to dart from cover and endeavour to lure or drive any passing stranger within reach of the tentacles. Should it be successful there is no lack of reward in the crumbs that fall from its host's table."
After his return to the UK, the author became further interested in rivers and built a boat (The Willow) in which he set about travelling down the Thames making notes on the passing wildlife. The outbreak of the second world war disrupted his Thames trip and he did some work designing camouflage for the Ministry of Defence - he had become intrigued by the use of colour as camouflage in nature, particularly in fish living on coral reefs.

When he resumed his boating he wrote another book, Sweet Thames Run Softly, supplemented by his wood engravings. More travel books were to follow, often based about rivers: Coming down the Wye, Coming down the Seine, Sweet Cork of Thee and Lovely is the Lee. All of the books are charming mixtures of humour, natural history, science, geography, social observation and old tales gleaned from talkative locals. 

These books were all hugely successful and meant Gibbings was financially successful for the first time in his life. With his new-found wealth, the set off on another tour of the Pacific where he wrote and illustrated Over the Reefs.

Gibbings' last book, Till I End my Song, contains many reminiscences of his long and productive life. He died of cancer in January 1958.

The attraction of Gibbings' books is their easy mixture of science and natural history alongside a wicked sense of humour and fun. Much like the rivers he loved, none of his books are in a hurry to get anywhere. As one reviewer notes, "they mostly tend to meander in and out of one anecdote after another while heading towards the main focus".

Many of Gibbings' books are readily available having been reprinted extensively. This author has in his possession a much-prized first edition of Sweet Cork of Thee, signed by the author.

In later life, Gibbings was a familiar sight and sound on BBC TV and Radio and David Attenborough cites him as one of the formative influences on his own carreer. A Pathe newsreel featuring Gibbings can be viewed below.

Robert Gibbings was unique: an artist, writer and scientist; one of Ireland's greatest artists and a man with an extraordinary thirst for life.

His biographer, Martin Andrews, sums up the man as follows:
"But above all it was in his observation of nature and his descriptions of the mood and atmosphere of the open air and the landscape, ranging from the evocation of a dramatic sunset to the detail of a dewdrop on a blade of grass, that his writing was at its best. His style was not that of the intellectual. It came from the spirit, a mixture of poetic evocation, intense observation, factual detail and, above all, a sense of enjoyment and love of life."


Further Reading:
Listen to Martin Andrews, Reading University talk about Gibbings and how he re-discovered one of Gibbings' first pieces of sculpture here.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Fun: Some tricks to try at home

Here are some wonderful science tricks you can try out to amaze your friends and family this weekend. Created by Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire.

Number of the Week: 2070

That's the year when an important species of reef-building coral could stop growing in the Red Sea, according to a recent study published in Science.

Diploastrea heliopora growth has declined by 30% since 1998.

Co-author Anne Cohen told the BBC:
"The coral is an animal, and the colony made up of millions of tiny, little animals - and they together build this huge thing that is seven metres in diameter".

"As they are growing, they are building this calcium carbonate skeleton that the animal is basically leaving behind. If you cut through a colony, only the very top layer is actually living - the rest of it is all dead".

The team of scientists used a CT scanner to examine the growth rings in the coral and say that at sea surface temperatures above 30.5C, the growth rate of the coral plummets.

Using future climate change scenarios, the team calculated that the coral would cease growing entirely, if these climate change predictions were accurate, by 2070 (see graph below).

Plant Watch: Common Poppy - a cultural icon

The Common Poppy (Papaver rheoas) can now be found throughout the country on land which has been recently disturbed due to cultivation or building.

This relatively abundant agricultural weed forms seed which can live for a long time in the soil, before germinating when soil disturbance leads to them being exposed to the right light and moisture conditions for them to grow.

A classic example of such seed dormancy was demonstrated on the Somme battlefield when wild flowers recolonised the land disturbed by battle during World War 1. Since then, the poppy has become a cultural icon in the UK and was adopted by the British Legion as a symbol commemorating the dead of that war.

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, written in 1915, makes prominent use of the poppy.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

John McCrae

P. rhoeas (or Corn Poppy as it is commonly known) is the most important broadleaved weed species infesting winter cereals in the south of Europe. Its highly persistant seed make it difficult to control and it can decrease wheat yields by as much as 32%.

Herbicide resistant populations of corn poppy have now been recorded which will make control even more difficult in these regions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Choir Sings Their Own DNA

The London premiere of a new choral work in which singers sing parts derived from their own genetic code will take place tonight (July 13th) at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Allele, composed by Michael Zev Gordon will be performed by the New London Chamber Choir.

It is part of a Wellcome Trust-funded project called "Music from the Genome". In tandem with the production of this piece, Dr. Andrew Morley is conducting an investigation into the genetic determinants of musical ability.
The DNA of 20 choral singers (including some from the singers tonight) was compared with DNA from 20 non-musicians. Preliminary results will be announced at tonights event.

Dr Andrew Morley said, "Both parts of the project directly address genetic complexity. The music is stunning because of this but, correspondingly, those looking for a simple answer to the question 'what makes us musical?' will be disappointed. The genetics are so much more complicated than a single 'musical gene'. What is already apparent, though, is that genetic polymorphisms influencing our musicality may also affect aspects of our personality, specifically our altruistic tendencies."

For the new composition, 40 singers will each sing individual parts created using a sample of their own DNA by turning the varying order of the four bases (A, G, C, T) into musical patterns.

You can hear a preview of the new composition taken from rehearsals here.

European Red List Shows Biodiversity Still Threatened

An IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) assessment of around 6,000 European species suggests that the EU will not meet its target of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 with around 14-23% of all European mammals, amphibians, reptiles, dragonflies and saproxylic beetles shown to be threatened within the EU.

The survey, underway since 2005, is looking at every species native to Europe (or naturalised before 1500 AD) and data on its geographic range, population, habitat preferences, major threats, conservation measures, etc. is collected across the continent. Depending on the results, the species are then placed in one of nine possible categories:
The results so far suggest that over half (59%) of Europe's amphibians and 42% of all reptiles have declining populations. A significant proportion (31%) of butterfly species in Europe are also in decline according to the survey.

On the other hand, dragonfly populations seem to be stabilising after declines in the 60's, 70's and 80's caused by large-scale land conversion, canalisation of rivers and water pollution. It is thought that improved water management and decreasing eutrophication of waterways has had a positive impact on dragonfly populations (at least outside the Mediterranean region). Over half of dragonflies are now thought to have stable populations.

Despite failing to meet the original target of halting biodiversity decline by 2010, the EU is in the process of preparing a new biodiversity strategy. This new target puts back by 10 years the original deadline, promising that by 2020, the EU governments will have halted the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of "ecosystem services".

In a long-term vision, the new strategy also proposes that by 2050, EU biodiversity will be "protected, valued and appropriately restored".

Lessons from the previous failure need to be learned. Patchy implementation of EU conservation legislation, insufficient funding to meet conservation goals, policy and knowledge gaps and a failure to ember biodiversity protection into other policies have all been blamed and will be taken on board when the new strategy is fomalised.

One of the major developments, is that this summer will see the European Environment Agency launch a new Eu biodiversity baseline. This will ensure that, for the first time, we will be able to accurately measure both the quality and quantity of progress towards these new targets.

Six European Red List reports are now available. The remaining three (on freshwater fish, molluscs and plants) will be available next year.

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