Saturday, October 30, 2010

Number Five, Grenville Place, Cork

The following is a series of photographs showing the condition of George Boole's former home in Cork City. Most were taken today, 30th October 2010. For more information on this story see my earlier post.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

George Boole: history worth saving

Workers remove roof tiles from the building on 28th October 2010

On Thursday last, I posted a piece on the condition of George Boole's former home in Cork City, number 5, Grenville Place. Today, workers and engineers have moved in to remove the slates from the building (pictured) and further secure it. As we await the outcome of deliberations on the future of the house, I think its useful to properly outline my feelings with regard to the building.

Firstly, I am not an engineer and cannot say for certain whether the building is salvageable or not. I also have no idea who currently owns the building so can't comment on any situation which may have led to this. What I say I base on information already in the public domain and what I see as an interested observer.

There is no doubt that the building has become increasingly run-down in recent times. That much is evident from a cursory glance to any passerby on the street. While the issues that surround this fall from grace of a once magnificent building are far from clear from this vantage point, what is crystal clear is the importance of this building from an historical, architectural and scientific point of view.

It has been suggested that this building is of lesser importance than his home at Lichfield Cottage in Blackrock, just east of Cork City as it is here that Boole moved when he married Mary Everest (niece of George Everest, the noted surveyor and also a niece of the Prof. of Greek at Queen's College Cork, where Boole was working).
It is in Blackrock that Mary and George had five daughters; Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy Everest and Ethel Lilian; and it is in Blackrock that Boole died in December 1864 with , apparently, his wife throwing buckets of cold water over him on his sick-bed in a misguided attempt to cure him of pneumonia.

So, his Blackrock home is important in the Boole story but this home is not at risk. Number five, Grenville Place is the building where Boole lodged in his early years in Cork and it is here that he wrote one of his most important works, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities.

Writing in 1851, before publication of Laws of Thought he explained to Willaim Thompson (Lord Kelvin) how important this work was to him:
"I am now about to set seriously to work upon preparing for the press an account of my theory of Logic and Probabilities which in its present state I look upon as the most valuable if not the only valuable contribution that I have made or am likely to make to Science and the thing by which I would desire if at all to be remembered hereafter..."

In the preface of this, his most famous work, Boole signs off not using an address at Queen's College Cork but using his home address at number five, Grenville Place, Cork. With this honorable mention, The house at Grenville Place entered the history of science and the history of not just Ireland but also the world because the foundations that Boole laid at Grenville Place are those upon which the information technology revolution was built.

Boole is remembered as a great scientist and teacher. During the Centenary celebrations in 1954 to mark 100 years since the publication of Laws of Thought, Boole's aptitude as a lecturer were roundly praised: "the Doctor was a great man at the Blackboard", one of his former pupils had noted.

Also speaking at these celebrations was Sir Geoffrey Taylor, Boole's Grandson who noted that many in Cork at the time regarded him as "some sort of saint".

Writing in the Cork University Record in 1956, Prof. T. S. Broderick noted that "Cork has reason to be proud of Boole's association with her College. That College gave him the leisure and financial security which he so badly needed in order to carry out his work. It also gave him a friendly and sympathetic environment so important for one of his sensitive and affectionate nature...May the College always revere the memory of this great and good man".

And indeed the College does revere his memory with the magnificent stained-glass window in the Aula Maxima dedicated to the former Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Science. The University Library and a suite of lecture theatres are also named in his honour.

In recent years, there has been much handringing over the fall in numbers of students who choose to study science and in particular, mathetmatics to a higher level. Indeed, a recent report by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) revelaed that the strongest indicator for progression through third-level is the student's performance in the Leaving Certificate examinations and in particular, their performance in maths.

For computer, engineering and science courses, 60% of entrants who didn't pass higher level maths or have at least an A in ordinary level maths do not make it passed first year.

These are serious statistics and if we want to encourage young people to study science and maths we must first of all make them interesting and appealing as well as making sure those teaching the subjects are at the top of their game. However, we must also indicate to these potential students that what scientists and mathematicians do is of value to society. We must prove that we value and revere those exceptional scientists who have paved the way for the technological and educational advances that we have made in the last centuries and decades.

As we approach the bicentenary of Boole's birth in 2015, to allow the home of one of this country's greatest ever scientists to deteriorate in such a fashion does not indicate the same sort of faith in the 'knowledge economy' that is valued so highly when we talk of rebuilding this country's prospects. However, there is much interest in maintaining and restoring this important historical building. It will, no doubt, be a long process, but hopefully everyone will see that it is worth doing.

Sources and further reading:

George Boole: A Miscellany by Patrick D. Barry (1969), Cork University Press
George Boole Biography by JJ O'Connor and EF Robertson

Friday, October 22, 2010

Biotechs speak up on GM crops

Despite a largely negative response from EU agriculture ministers to proposals to allow individual countries make their own decisions on the cultivation of GM crops, it seems certain that the battle over GM will be won or lost in the hearts and minds of EU citizens.

Organisers of a new campaign to promote the positive aspects of GM say that they want to allow citizens have "an informed choice in the supermarket or when discussing GM at the dinner table".

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, EuropaBio’s director of agricultural biotechnology stressed that they are pro-choice when it comes to GM. “Europeans should definitely have a choice, but by nationalising the decision-making process, is there really more choice? As it stands now, all the Member States already have a voice in the approval process,” he said.

Read the rest of this post here in the Euroscientist, the official publication of the Euroscience organisation. It publishes articles on a variety of topics based on science and science policy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letting Boole's memory collapse doesn't add up

No.5 Grenville Place, Cork (via Kman999, Flickr)

George Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, Cork (now University College Cork) and is generally considered as the 'father' of computer science, although he wouldn't have known that at the time.

He died in Cork in 1864 at the young age of 49, of pneumonia after being drenched; walking from his then home in Ballintemple to the University to give a lecture in wet clothes. I have often used this story in my own lectures by jokingly telling students that it is a lesson for us all: if it's raining, don't go to college and stay in bed! Unfortunately, some students take the joke literally; although that's another story.

From 1849 to 1855, Boole lived in a house in Grenville Place in the city while working at the college (for a more complete biography of Boole, see here). This house has been derelict for at least as long as I can remember and probably much longer.

This morning, emergency services attended to the building with reports of a ceiling having collapsed. It is hardly surprising given the derelict nature of some of the properties in the locality.

(via greeblemonkey, flickr)
The fact that a building associated with one of our most famous and successful scientists is in such a state and faces an uncertain future, is distressing from both a scientific and a historical viewpoint. Across the nation and across the world, buildings of historical importance have been protected to ensure that they survive to the next generation.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes number 5, Grenville Place as "Terraced double-pile two-bay four-storey former house over basement, built c. 1770, with full-height projecting bow to west elevation...This house is part of a fine eighteenth-century terrace with the six adjoining houses to the west and south-east, and this terrace forms part of a significant group with the terrace of four houses to the east. These terraces are notable pieces in the urban landscape which were built in the eighteenth century close to the fashionable former mansion house. The building is enhanced by the retention of interesting features and materials, such as the timber sliding sash windows, limestone paving, slate roof and interior fittings. The house is also associated with George Boole, the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, Cork, who lived here in the mid nineteenth century."

The building at Grenville Place is a protected building on Cork City Council's list of Protected Structures (Ref PS129) and a plaque describing the connection with Boole is clearly visible on the front of the building. However, putting it on a list and erecting a plaque is not much good if roof and walls are falling down around it.

Meanwhile, at the same time as Cork is neglecting it's Boolean heritage, Boole's birthplace of Lincoln in the UK is preparing for Boolefest. This celebration of all things Boole takes place between the 29th October and 6th of Novemeber 2010 and will include exhibitions, performances and public lectures at the University of Lincoln.

Number 5 during the floods of last November (with thanks to Mon Boys Forum

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Applaud your's World Statistics Day

It's time to celebrate your null hypothesis, to thank your t-test and applaud your ANOVA; because the United Nations has dedicated this day to celebrating all that's great about 'official' statistics. Today, 20th October 2010 is the first ever World Statistics Day!

Indeed, Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General, has welcomed todays celebrations saying that statistics "permeate modern life" and that they affect all our lives:

"They are the basis for many governmental, business and community decisions. They provide information and insight about the trends and forces that affect our lives. Collected in surveys and censuses - three billion people will participate in population and housing censuses this year alone."

Of course, what the UN had in mind with WSD, I think, was the big statistics. That's the statistics collected on the grand scale by governments in censuses of populations.

My own interest in statistics (and most scientists, I think) stems from the statistics collected in our own individual experiments. So, we want to see whether one set of 30 plants are significantly different in height than another set of 30.

A scientist might want to know whether the concentration of a particular pollutant is higher or lower in two seperate lakes. So, she will take a defined number of samples from each lake and compare.

The important thing about such experimental statistics is that we are not sampling all the water in the lake or all the plants in the world. We are taking a defined number of (often) random samples which we hope will reflect the overall spread of the variable (be it height or pollutant concentration) throughout the entire population.

Nevertheless, it's pleasing to note that the spotlight is being turned on statistics for once. It's not a sexy subject. Having taught statistics to biologists for a number of years, I am familiar with the groans that accompany any mention of the term statistics.

However, a good understanding of statistics and experimental design is essential for all scientists and an understanding of 'good' and 'bad' statistics is useful for everyone to allow us to weed out the large amounts of erroneous "statistics" that pop up in the media from time to time.

No, statistics may not be sexy, but they are very very useful.

Happy World Statistics Day!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Soil microbes make great art

PLoS (Public Library of Science) Biology have launched an important new series of articles and resources for open access life sciences education.

"The Education Series combines the philosophy of the open education movement with the unrestricted access to scientific papers and data afforded by open-access publishing to present innovative approaches to teaching critical concepts, developments, and methods in biology" says the editorial in this months edition of the open access journal."By enabling students to use the same tools researchers use and to explore real data, such approaches are especially valuable—it's widely acknowledged that engaging students in active research fosters their enthusiasm for and interest in science.

By mining the promise of open education and harnessing the collective imagination and talent of PLoS Biology readers and contributors, the Education Series will create a virtual biology education library."

The first article in the series demonstrates how natural products derived from the soil bacterium Streptomyces can be used as biopigments with the hope that the work can inspire others to explore the potential of biopigments in art, industry and the classroom.

Since the spread of Streptomyces on an agar plate is determined by the boundaries of the plate, the agar can be used as a canvas, where the spores of Streptomyces can be used as paint and applied in brush strokes.

The paintbrush is first sterilised completely before being used to apply spores from another petri dish to the freshly prepared 'canvas'. If multiple strains are used, multiple colours can be achieved.

The image shown here: "Elvis Lives!" was painted on R5 media plates using S.coelicolor.

The authors (or artists?) believe that this endeavour has "the potential to lead us toward a fertile nexus between art and science" and that it is an "outstanding tool to engage students of varying academic interests across multiple age groups".


Charkoudian, L., Fitzgerald, J., Khosla, C., & Champlin, A. (2010). In Living Color: Bacterial Pigments as an Untapped Resource in the Classroom and Beyond PLoS Biology, 8 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000510

Kerfeld, C., & Gross, L. (2010). Open Education, Open Minds PLoS Biology, 8 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000508

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rap for Science

Second-level students in Ireland are being invited to rap about science as part of a nationwide competition being run for Science Week (7-14 November).

The Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) at University College Cork are seeking budding rapper/scientists to compose a rap based on this year's Science Week theme: Our Place in Space". An iPad is on offer for the winner.

Entrants must video their performance and upload it to the APC's Youtube Channel by November 3rd 2010. Full details area available here.

Take a look at an example of one of last year's winning raps:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Science Gallery: Fota Wildlife Park Picture Special

Ring-tailed Lemurs (Lemur catta) are 'near threatened' in the wild and thought to be the oldest living representatives of all the primates.

Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
European Bison (Bison bonasus) with Fota House in the background.

Red Lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis)

Agile Gibbons (Hylobates agilis) -one of the most acrobatic of all the primates. The animals are endangered in the wild.

A pair of Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus) feeding. These animals are critically endangered in the wild, with small pockets remaining in India.
Harbour Seal  (Phoca vitulina)

Rotschild Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) at Fota Wildlife Park. These animals are endangered in the wild and are the tallest land mammals. The males can reach up to 5.9 m in height.

An illusive Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) at Fota. A relative of the racoon and also known as the Firefox.

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Secret Life: The Language of Science.....and Wugs

My latest guest blog for PBS NOVA's Secret Life of Scientists blog is now online. This week's episode features psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason talking about her love of fast cars and how she invented the Wugs.

You can read the post here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lab Notes: 7th October 2010

You know what it's like; you wait for ages for a good science story to come along and then loads appear at once. That's why I give you.....Lab Notes: a round-up of some of the top science stories in the past week.

1. A Nobel Cause:
The Nobel Prizes are currently being distributed. Robert G. Edwards picked up the first of the prizes for Physiology or Medicine. He was central to the development of in vito fertilization, a process which has led to the birth of around 4 million people. The award was not without its controversy.

The award of Physics went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselev for their work on graphene. The pair wwere the first to isolate carbon layers from graphite.

Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki share the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing new, more efficient ways of linking carbon atoms together to build the complex molecules that are improving our everyday lives. It seems like carbon is the big winner this year!

2. Teagasc Recruitment Crisis:
Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority is turning away students because of a government moratorium on hiring staff. Gerry Boyle, director of Teagasc noted that the organisation had lost their plant pathologist and that the position could now not be replaced, leading to a serious gap in their expertise.

3. Super(nova) news:
An amateur astronomer based in Dublin has become the first Irish star-gazer to spot a supernova and he did it from a shed in his backgarden. The sighting has been described as "the biggest thing ever discovered in Irish astronomy".

4. Biology's Big Bang
Scientists at NUI Maynooth have said they have identified the moment when two single-celled organisms combined to become the first cell with a nucleus.Dr. James McInerney said that "these two primitive single-celled life forms came together in an event that essentially allowed nature to grow big".

5. New Species
200 new species have been identified in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. The finds include a long-snouted frog that's about the size of your thumbnail; a green cricket with bright pink eyes and a mouse with a white-tipped tail. “They tell us how little we still know about the world,” research team leader Stephen Richards said.

The above image is adapted from an original by BlueRidgeKitties and used under a Creative Commons  license.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Gossip on Natural History*

I was delighted to browse through a copy of the first two volumes of the Irish Naturalist recently in UCC's Boole Library. In particular, I was drawn to the regular notices submitted by the Cork Naturalist's Field Club, which had been founded around the same time as the journal. In the first edition, an important message was given pride of place in the introduction:

"As we go to press, we recieve promise of support from the new Naturalist's Field Club at Cork, a notice of the establishment of which will be found on page 24. We heartily wish the Cork society a prosperous and useful career, and hope that other centres in the south and west of Ireland may soon follow the example of that city."

The Irish Naturalist was established in April 1892 by several Dublin-based naturalists as a medium through which those interested and studying nature in Ireland could publish notes and longer articles about Irish natural history.

'the fact that no journal of the kind exists in the country, is sufficient reason for our undertaking'In the first edition, the publishers noted that "the fact that no journal of the kind exists in the country, is sufficient reason for our undertaking". The journal was established upon a wave of both scientific and amateur interest in botany, zoology and geology around the end of the 19th century and the launch happened as a number of Field Clubs were being established around the country: Belfast (1863), Dublin (1886), Cork (1892) and Limerick (1892).

The Irish Naturalist was published for 33 years and is now an important resource for 'naturalists' who wish to study the history of particular species in Ireland and study the development of science in Ireland.

During the period 1900-1922, interest in natural history began to decline, not least because of prevailing political uncertainties and the journal ceased publication in December 1924 (Wyse Jackson and Wyse Jackson, 1992). Almost immediately afterward, the Irish Naturalists' Journal was launched in Belfast in 1925. This journal continues to publish to this day.

The submitted notice in that first edition informs us that the Cork Field Club was formed on March 18th of that year (1892) and that the President, Vice President and other officers were elected. The President was Prof. Marcus Hartog of Queen's College (now UCC) and one of the Vice Presidents was Mr. Denny Lane.

Marcus Hartog had become Professor of Natural History at Queen's College in 1882 (when he was 31 years old) and he held the post for 39 years. Born in London in 1851, he graduated from Cambridge with a first-class degree in Natural Science. He worked on fungi with the famous botanist Anton de Bary, the "Father of Plant Pathology" and inspired Sir Edwin Butler, who studied under him, to pursue a career in mycology rather than medicine (Cullinane, 1995).

Throughout the editions of the Irish Naturalist for the first year, we read a number of 'proceedings' from the Cork Naturalist's Field Club:

Crawford Municipal Buildings, Cork. Now Crawford Gallery
At a meeting of the club on the 22nd of April 1892, the secretary announced "Mr. J O'Sullivan's munificent gift of his herbarium of the Co. Cork flora, containing 7,000 specimens of plants, to the museum of the society". Such was the  number of specimens collected by the club that, later the same year, the proceedings note that "The secretary gave account of negotiations carried out.... with the object of obtaining for the club, space in the Crawford Municipal Building in which to form a museum".

At the same meeting (November 2nd), Prof. Hartog "gave his Inaugural Address, entitled the "Life of a Cell", dealing with the formation and gradual development of the cell in vegetable and animal tissues, illustrating by numerous diagrams, and by the manipulation of pieces of dough, the various shapes assumed, the manner of absorbing food, and the curious process of cell-division".

By the following meeting (Nov 16th) the secretary was pleased to announce that a "large corridor" was now available in the Crawford for museum purposes.

'the following rambles have been taken by members'An important part of all Field Clubs established around this time were the organisation of regular "rambles" whereby the members would depart for some scenic, part of the city or county and observe and collect specimens for further examination. The Cork field club was no different and many of the locales visited in the first year of the club's activity are still visited by scientists and amateur naturalists to this day.

At their meeting on the 6th of May 1892, the members recorded that, "the following rambles have been taken by members of the club: - April 18th to Blarney, conducted by Mr. J O'Sullivan. April 23rd to Goulding's Glen, conducted by Mr. WJ Knight".

However, as with all field work, things didn't always go to plan, as the proceedings of the Summer meetings record:

"The uncertain weather of the past weeks, combined with the fact of many members being on holidays, has had the effect of making the excursions very small, but several have been taken:
June 29th- the club visited Killeagh, for Glenbower Woods...[which] deserves to be better known.
July 9th- a wet morning deferred many, but a party of twelve visited the beautiful grounds of Fota (A.H. Smith-Barry, Esq.), where there is a splendid collection of pines and firs from all parts of the world, the characteristics of which were pointed out by Mr. Osborne, the Steward.

The Orangery at Fota Arboretum, Cork.

July 13th - to Kinsale and the Old Head, including the unrehearsed item of the wreck of the 'City of Chicago'.
July 23rd- to Mourne Abbey, where a small party, conducted by Mr. Sullivan, of Queens's College, had a most instructive botanical ramble.
August 1st- Bantry Bay was visited by some, and botanical and entomological specimens taken.
August 10th- A very pleasant afternoon was spent by some members at Currabinny Woods, Queenstown [now Cobh] harbour, the 'take' being principally entomological".

As these records show, the history of studying the Natural Sciences in Cork and Ireland generally is rich and varied. The Irish Naturalist  allows us to get some idea of what Cork naturalists (both academic and amateur) were up to during this time, when interest in the natural world had reached a peak.

Many of the locations visited by the club in their first year are still accessible for "rambles" and they are still areas where the natural world can be enjoyed and studied at leisure.

In the second edition of the Irish Naturalist, an author notes, while discussing a newly found plant species, that he was "botanizing along the banks of the river Main, Co. Antrim" when he made the discovery. I don't believe I've ever seen the word botany used as a verb before but it conveys the enthusiasm and joy which the writer clearly derived from the study of plants. I shall be using that word more often as I revive the lost art of the "ramble".

* The title of this piece "A Gossip..." comes from the proceedings outlined above, where it was common to see this phrase used as the title for lectures, e.g. A Gossip on the Ornithology of Co. Cork.
Cullinane, J.P., (1995) 150 years. A history of the Chair of Botany and Zoology (Queen's College Cork - University College Cork). Unpublished report as typed manuscript.

Wyse Jackson, P., Wyse Jackson, P. (1992). The Irish Naturalist: 33 years of natural history in Ireland 1892-1924. Irish Naturalists' Journal 24(3): 95-101

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's taken us one whole year...

This week, celebrates its first birthday!

The first article was posted on September 30th and since then we've had 134 posts on a variety of topics; from Robert Gibbings to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and from GM crops to poetry.

Some of the posts have also appeared in the Guardian Science Blog, The Euroscientist and most recently, The Secret Life of Scientists.

At this point, I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone who has read and commented on the blog; to those who have contacted me by email and followed me on twitter to comment, advise and sometime critique my posts.

The past year has been a steep learning curve but I have been constantly impressed by the friendliness and generosity of science 'bloggers' and the broad Irish blogging community. Well done everyone, well done!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Follow Communicate Science on Twitter

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Friday, October 1, 2010

My Secret Life

I'm delighted to announce that I've joined the team  of guest bloggers who will be making regular contributions to the second series of the highly successful 'Secret Life of Scientists'.

Secret Life is part of the long-running and highly successful NOVA series which has run on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in the United States since 1974. Nova has picked up multiple Peabody and Emmy Awards for its work in bringing science to a broad audience in new and exciting ways. It is America's longest-running and most esteemed science programme.

Secret Life presents scientists, not only as brilliant researchers, but also as real human beings with a variety of outside interests. For example, the first series featured an astrophysicist who sailed around the world, a biochemist who participated in the Miss America pageant and an ethnobotanist who dances salsa in the Bronx.

The second series kicks off here with  an interview with Mollie Woodworth, a cheerleader who also happens to be a neuroscientist.

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