Friday, April 30, 2010

Number of the Week: 7,323

That's the number of ideas put forward so far (as of noon today) as part of the Your Country - Your Call initiative. Despite their being no category heading for science, a fair share of the proposals are science based. From the idea to send teams of science postgrads into schools to promote science to the idea to look at teleportation as a feasible means of transportation in Ireland. All human life is there! You've got just a few hours before the open call for proposals close at 11.59 tonight.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

43 % have never been to the Natural History Museum

The Irish Natural History Museum has re-opened today after being closed since 2007. Despite a €15 million refurbishment being put on hold, the museum opened today with just minor structural changes having been made.
Due to the halt on refurbishment, little improvements have been made with regard to emergency exit from the upper floors. For that reason, the balcony galleries, containing many thousands of specimens, will no longer be accessible to the general public. This is a real shame, but we should be thankful for small mercies and the fact that the bulk of the museum is now, once again, open to the public.

According to our recent survey 57 % of readers who responded had previously visited the museum on Dublin's Merrion Street. If you haven't been, now is a perfect time to go. It's free, so bring a friend!

Monday, April 26, 2010

So you want to be a scientist?

In the age of TV talent competitions and the X Factor, the BBC have used the format to help amateur scientists turn their ideas into real experiments.

This week, four finalists for the "So you want to be a scientist?" competition were announced. These came from the some 1,300 ideas which were submitted since January.

The amateur scientists will now work with experienced researchers to design and implement their experiments and collect and analyse the results, They'll present the results at the British Science Festival in September when the judges will pick an overall winner.

The four finalists are:

Sam O'kell, a croupier, who wants to test his hypothese that concert crowds are more dense between 6-10 feet from the stage rather than at the very front.

Ruth Brooks, a retired special needs tutor, wants to protect her plants by establishing the homing distance of the Garden Snail. "How far away do I ahve to dump them before they find their way back to my garden?"

Nina Jones, a 17-year-old A-level student, is interested in Facebook and particularly what makes up a typical Facebook profile picture. Adults seem to show a big event in their lives, while teenagers tend to use a picture of themselves having a great time. Nina will see if this is true and why it occurs.

The final place (which was a very close call by all acounts) went to John Rowlands who wants to "investigate the frequency and brightness of noctilucent clouds".

Ideas which made the shortlist, but just missed out on a place in the final include an investigation by a gallery owner into why more people come into the gallery when he places a mannequin in the window. Do art lovers not like to be on their own?

Another shortlisted amateur scientist wanted to see whether getting a choir to sing a piece of music based on the sounds of bees to the hive once a week would increase honey production.

Angus Johnson on the other hand proposed an investigation into the ability of men and women in their ability to find one item amid a clutter of other objects. Are men much messier than women?

Science writer and broadcaster Dr. Adam Rutherford welcomed the competition noting that "science is not a bank of knowledge. It's a way of knowing. Qualifications and working in professional labs certainly does help, but if you've ever looked at something and thought "hmmm, how does that work?" or "what happens if I...?" then you're thinking like a scientist already."

If you're in school and interested in trying your hand at some scientific experiments, then you can try the BT Young Scientist Competition or SciFest.

More Tweeting - Mooney Goes Birdwatching

 This is the post for Nestwatch 2010. For more information on the 2011 nestcams, see our new post.

For information on Nestcam 2012, see the website.
Hot on the heels of our own tweeting debut, congratulations are in order for Derek Mooney and his Mooney Goes Wild team (RTE Radio 1) for continuing their Nestcam experiments.

You can see a robin looking after five hatchlings in Derek's back garden here. Meanwhile, over in Áras an Uachtaráin (the residence of the Irish President), a bluetit is building it's nest and preparing to lay eggs.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Search of Greatness

There has been much debate in Irish scientific circles lately as to why no scientists had made it into RTE's much hyped list of the Greatest Irish People. I've made the point that instead of bemoaning the fact that the public have snubbed us scientists in favour of some worthy and some (arguably) less worthy individuals, Irish science should be asking itself why it has come to this?

Why don't the general public consider Irish scientists worthy of this title? Do they know enough about them? Do they really value their work?

On the back of this assault on our collective egos, launched a poll to find the Greatest Irish Scientist. Robert Boyle (of Boyle's Law fame) was the most popular with almost two thirds of the vote (32.2%). William Rowan Hamilton (21.2%) and Ernest Walton (17.8%), a mathematician and nuclear physicist respectively, came in next.

The full top ten is as follows: poll results – top 10 Irish scientists:

1. Robert Boyle, who turned chemistry into a science
2. William Rowan Hamilton – the algebra he invented in 1843 helped to put a man on the Moon more than a century later
3. Ernest Walton, whose pioneering work began the atomic era
4. Kathleen Lonsdale, the X-ray crystallographer who revealed the structure of benzene and diamond
5. Dorothy Price, instrumental in the fight against tuberculosis, introducing the BCG vaccine to Ireland in the 1930s
6. John Tyndall, the first person to answer the question “Why is the sky blue?” successfully
7. Harry Ferguson, who revolutionised farming when he invented the modern tractor
8. Sir George Gabriel Stokes, for his important contributions to fluid dynamics, optics and mathematical physics, including Stokes’ theorem
9=. Fr Nicholas Callan, who invented the modern induction coil, still used in car ignitions
9=. Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine
9=. William Thompson, who formulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics

No room it seems for George Boole, Br. James Burke or Br. John Philip Holland.

Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College Cork (now UCC), where the library is now named in his honour. He invented Boolean logic which formed the basis of modern computer logic and makes him, in hindsight, a founder of modern computer science.

Burke was a Christian Brother who taught at the North Monastery in Cork City and was renowned for his work in developing practical scientific and technical education in Ireland during the late 19th century. Amongst his achievements includes bringing electric light to Cork in 1877, two years before Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb. He was a pioneer and advocate for practical, scientific education in Ireland and represented Ireland at the World's Fair in St Louis, Missouri in 1904.

Writing in The Glamour of Cork, Daniel Lawrence Kelleher (1919) describes an aging Burke as:
"This big, slow-footed, heavy, smiling, half-blind old man [who] has put into practice the most enlightened methods of education.
"Behold him in his class, a combination and anticipation of Montessori, Pearse and a hundred others, a curious wheedling old fellow, the father, uncle and guardian of his pupils, and no master at all in the narrow sense; or another time at the Trades Hall talking to workers back to childhood by his overflowing interest.
"A teacher out of a million, his lesson a preparation for life rather than for any examination test, his shining spirit a light always for any who saw the flame of it, alive".

Holland, a Christian Brother colleague of Burke at the North Monastery, is credited with developing the first submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy (USS Holland), and the first Royal Navy submarine- the Holland 1. The first image in this post shows Holland standing at the hatch of a submarine.

Thanks to North Monastery Past Pupils Union for permission to use photos from their collection. Expect to hear much more about both Burke and Holland in 2011 when the North Monastery schools celebrate their bicentennial.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spectacular Images of the Eyafallajokull Eruption

The Stromboli Project, has released a set of images which show the Eyafallajokull eruption surrounded by lightning caused by electrical discharge within the column of ash. See the full collection of photos here.

Friday, April 16, 2010


You can now follow Communicate Science on twitter. We're @blogscience 

Forecasting Volcanic Ash Movement

This is a satellite image from the British Met Office from 08.30 this morning (Friday 16th April, 2010) showing the volcanic ash plume (in orange) drifting downwards over UK and Irish airspace. You can see a full sequence of these images (one taken every 30 minutes) on the Met Office website.

The British Met Office is one of nine global Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAAC) which monitor all volcanic eruptions worldwide for their potential impact on air travel. It is one of only two World Area Forecast Centres (the other one is in Washington) and provides forecasting of upper winds and temperatures for all flights throughout the world. This enables airlines to optimise safety and fuel consumption for their aircraft.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Natural History Museum - a history of neglect?

Some excellent news for Irish science with the announcement that the Natural History Museum of Ireland will re-open on Thursday 29th April.

The museum has been closed since 5th July 2007 when one flight of a staircase collapsed suddenly and without warning with about 20 people on it. Eleven people were injured in the collapse. According to a report prepared for the Office of Public Works (OPW) by Price and Myers Consulting Engineers, a sound "like someone biting into a crisp apple" was heard and the flight of stairs gave way.

"such staircases are common to many large 18th and 19th century houses"The stairway was a cantilevered staircase which are common to many large 18th and 19th century houses in Ireland. They are designed to have one side of each stair (or step) attached to the supporting wall of the building. This takes part of the load of the stairway. The rest of the load is passed down the stairs from step to step - the weight coming from above is held by the back of the step, that step is then supported by the step below. This is repeated all the way down the stairs.

The report to the OPW suggested that the failure of the staircase started at the bottom, where it was most heavily loaded and "progressed rapidly up the flight".

On inspection of the collapsed stairway, it was evident to the engineers that pieces of stone had been inserted into the steps to repair wear and tear. This work was probably done over 20 years ago " when little was known of the mechanics of these staircases".

Having carried out stress testing on the collapsed stairway, the report concludes: "It is clear that the introduction of the inserts has very considerably weakened the threads". The remaining flight of stairs at the museum, which did not have such inserts was not affected and after testing has been confirmed as perfectly safe.

It was unfortunate that the collapse should have happened in 2007, as it was the 150th anniversary of the opening of the building as the Museum of the Royal Dublin Society.

A €15 million redevelopment plan for the museum was approved by the National Development Plan in February 2008 and staff began the task of documenting all of the collections (some 10,000 exhibits) on site in preparation for a move to accommodate the necessary building work. This redevelopment plan included the construction of an Earth Science Gallery underneath the front lawn of the building which would exhibit geological collections.

However, by December 2008, the restoration plan was put on hold due to financial constraints and by 2009 a temporary exhibition space was opened at Collins Barracks, Dublin.

A 2005  report by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) notes that the museum comprises "an irreplaceable and priceless national collection of world-scale historical importance in a setting of the highest architectural significance". This is important to note. The Merrion Street building has often been referred to as a "museum of a museum" given the traditional layout and design which ironically survives due to a lack of public spending on the building.

It is a unique entity, believed to be the last national natural history museum in the world to retain the 'cabinet' layout of the 19th century style.

The report to the RIA insists that the museum should be preserved "as it stands with a minimum of modernisation" but that an extension should be provided to expand and provide more modern interpretive elements, teaching and refreshment facilities and access by the disabled.

"removal of the natural history collections would be symbolic of the notion that science has no part in Irish culture" -RIAA move away from its current location in the heart of Ireland's government district (it is adjacent to Leinster House) is discouraged by the report: "It is the only wholly scientific institution in this complex and removal of the natural history collections would be symbolic of the notion that science has no part in Irish culture".

Given the current state of public expenses, it is hardly surprising that the museum will re-open this month with the minimum of work having been done to the fabric of the building. This is not to detract from the work of the staff over the closure - they have re-cataloged much of the collections and provided new labeling.

As for the Earth Science Gallery and the extension to house new exhibition space and disabled access, these have been put on the long finger once more. It seems the Natural History Museum is destined to stay much as it has been for the past 150 years. Not because there isn't a need to upgrade teaching, exhibition and access facilities, but because the government cannot bring itself to spend money on the much needed improvements. A government which continues to call for its young people to study science, but will allow its science museums to, very literally, collapse.

You may want to complete our poll on the Natural History Museum. Have you ever been? The poll can be found on the top right hand corner of this page.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Science Gallery: London & Kew Picture Special

Charles Darwin overlooked the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum in London between 1885 and 1927, when it was replaced by a statue of Richard Owen (the scientist who coined the term 'Dinosaur'). Owen, while agreeing with Darwin that evolution took place, did not agree with Darwin on the explanation he outlined in 'On the Origin of Species'. Owen was a driving force behind the establishment of the Natural History Museum in London. Darwin's statue was returned to the Central Hall to celebrate Darwin 200.

Thomas Henry Huxley was known as Darwin's Bulldog because of his strong defence of Darwin's ideas. His Great Debate of 1860 with the Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce was a key turning point in the public acceptance of the theory of evolution.
In an address on the occasion of handing over the Darwin statue to the Museum, Huxley himself said: "we beg you to cherish this Memorial as a symbol by which, as generation after generation of students of Nature enter yonder door, they shall be reminded of the ideal according to which they must shape their lives, if they would turn to the best account the opportunities offered by the great institution under your charge".

 A cherry blossom grows on the banks of the The Pond, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. See our earlier post on cherry blossoms here.

Above, some images of the plant life at Kew, including Pitcher Plants and Orchids. Also, an image taken from the top of the Xstrata Tree-top walk which takes you 18 metres into the air. The walkway is decorated with plaques which explain some astonishing facts about plant life.

A close-up shot of the spectacular bark of Encephalartos altensteinii, the oldest pot plant in the world. See our earlier post on this plant here.

The roof of the Palm House at Kew. Measuring 363 feet long, 100 feet wide and 66 feet high, the Palm House was designed by Decimus Burton and Richard Turner and built between 1844 and 1848. It is the world's most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure. The structure was repaired in the 1950's and 1980's. During the most recent renovation, the glasshouse was emptied completely for the first time in its history. It was entirely deconstructed and put back together, replacing damaged parts with identical replacements.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, has as its mission statement : To enable better management of the Earth's environment by increasing knowledge and understanding of the plant and fungal kingdoms - the basis of life on earth.
Behind Kew's Mission Statement runs a simple maxim;
"All life depends on plants"

If you liked these photos and have taken some of your own, you might want to enter our Science Photo Competition. Entries close on Saturday 15th May, so get snapping.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Number of the Week: 235 years

The age of "the oldest pot plant in the world" - a cycad of the species Encephalartos altensteinii which can be found at Kew Botanical Garden's in London.
It was collected in South Africa in 1773 and brought to Kew in 1775 where it now grows in the Palm House.
The Eastern Cape giant cycad, as it is known, has been used as a food source in its native range by removing the stem pith, burying it, rotting it, digging it up, kneading and baking it.
Image: The cycad is re-potted in 2009.
There will be lots more photos from Kew in the next post.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Science on the Underground

Communicate Science was on tour over the Easter break. For that reason, the next few posts will focus on science in London!

One of London's greatest achievements in my view is the excellent underground system which, despite inevitable 'glitches' manages to transport Londoners, commuters and tourists into, out of and around that great city everyday of the year. As much as the underground system is dependent on the sheer volume of passengers carried to make it viable, London as a city is dependent on the underground system (along with the rest of its public transport system) to make the city itself viable and able to grow in terms of its size and population. There is little doubt that the London Underground (LU) was a contributing factor in the decision to award the 2012 Olympics to the city.

While traveling underground recently, I noticed that the 'Poems on the Underground' series has taken a distinctly scientific diversion.

Poems on the Underground was launched in 1986 and has inspired similar programmes on public transport systems in Dublin, Paris, New York and Shanghai. The programme sees poems displayed in LU carriages in place of advertising and during the Spring of this year, six poems offering reflections on the subject of science were used to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of The Royal Society.

The extracts include one from William Blake, the great anti-science poet of the early Romanticism movement, who attacks what he saw as barren materialism with his own visionary powers.

The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson is also featured with his poem 'In Memoriam' where he tries to come to terms with the new science of evolution and geological time.

Contemporary poems are also featured from Miroslav Holub, Anne Stevenson, David Morley and Jamie McKendrick.

Miroslav Holub, a Czech scientist and poet (he was an immunologist) proves that an in-depth scientific knowledge can inspire some successful writers. An extract from his poem 'In the Microscope' is used in the initiative which is supported by The British Council, London Underground, Arts Council England and the Royal Society.

Judith Chernaik, founder of Poems on the Underground said: "Many poets have been inspired by science and some scientists have also been successful poets.

"We hope these poems will entertain Londoners and visitors to the Capital, as they travel on the Tube - itself one of the great technological achievements of our times."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Science Photo Competition

**Update 16/05/2010: The competition is now closed. Results will be announced shortly**
To celebrate the re-design of the Communicate Science blog, I've decided to launch a science photo competition.

Anyone can enter and there are no categories other than SCIENCE - once you think the photo has something to do with science, that's good enough for me. 

Email you entry to this address and include your contact details along with a title and brief description of the photo. I'll feature some of the photos on the blog and the best (as judged by an elite panel of experts, I think) will receive a copy of the brilliant Reading the Irish Landscape by Frank Mitchell and Michael Ryan.
Of Frank Mitchell and the book in question: "Perhaps the last of the great Irish Scientists of the natural world for whom the term 'natural historian' is genuinely appropriate...Reading the Irish Landscape, has been extensively remodelled, expanded, updated and lavishly illustrated."

Terms & conditions (no nasty ones):
1. The photo must be your own work.
2. The photo remains yours. I may use it occasionally on this blog as part of the competition, but you retain ownership and copyright.
3. Judges decision is final; it's just a bit of fun!

This competition is listed on:

Photography Competitions Network

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