Friday, August 27, 2010

Siamese Mushroom: Update

Cross section of the original siamese mushroom
Earlier this week, I posted about the siamese/conjoined mushroom that I discovered in a punnet of mushrooms. Well, I can now confirm that I have found a second example of siamese mushrooms in the same punnet!

Such a shocking discovery clearly, I felt, had the capability to shake the field of mycology (aka field of mushrooms) to its very core! Where had these freaky mushrooms been hidden all my life? Why had they only began to surface now..and in such numbers in my shopping trolley?

I had visions of being carried shoulder high into the Society of Mycology's annual conference (it's a great conference because they are all such fun guys!) to give a keynote speech on the new siamese mushroom phenomenon.

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be.

As Dr. John Collier, Group Research and Development Manager with Monaghan Mushrooms, pointed out "this is very common".

"It is nothing unnatural", Dr. Collier continued "Mushrooms do not have an outer skin but are a mass of hyphae knotted around each other. If you have two immature mushrooms very close beside each other they can then grow into each other as they develop".

However, Dr. Collier notes that these mushrooms do not usually enter the market: "Through proper harvesting management, this can be minimised by removing the smaller one early on".

Monaghan Mushrooms employs over 2,200 people in Ireland and overseas and recently created 150 new jobs in Co. Monaghan with the opening of a state-of-the-art mushroom growing facility at Tyholland. The new facility can produce up to 115 tonnes of mushrooms every week, most of which will be exported to the UK where they command a 45% share of the mushroom market.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Number of the Week: 88%

That's the proportion of 18-24 year-olds in Britain who could not name any female scientific figure - either current or historical.

In saying that, just less than half were able to name a famous male scientist either.

A spokesperson for the Royal Society described the results as "frustrating".

The results come despite scientists being viewed as good role models, according to the same poll by the Society.

Plant sciences expert Professor Lorna Casselton FRS, Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society, said:

“The situation for women in science has changed hugely since I was a young woman struggling to persuade the Science Research Council to give me a postdoctoral grant and to take me seriously as a scientist. Today, the numbers of women reaching the top in science is increasing all the time.

“While it is frustrating many people are still unaware of the contribution made by women to science in the past, overall I am encouraged by the findings of this poll. They suggest public perceptions to women in science are changing. The Royal Society wants to encourage more girls (and their parents) to see science as an achievable and desirable career path. We want to show them that women can reach the top and experience the thrill of being the first person to make a scientific breakthrough. Most importantly we want to encourage them to see science not only as a fulfilling career but one that can change the world and contribute to our quality of life.” 

A list of the most influential British women in science is here.

It would be useful to compile a list of influential Irish women in science, past or present. Add your nominations as a comment below or send them to

Monday, August 23, 2010

Science points up but we still haven't got the point!

The headline development in this year's CAO points seems to be the large rise in points for science-based courses at Irish third-level institutions.

To name just a few: Biomedical Science (a joint UCC, CIT programme) has gone up to 410 points - a rise of 80 points on last year.

Biological & Chemical Sciences at UCC has gone up 25 points to 375. Biomedical Engineering at DCU has increased by 45 points; Manufacturing & Design Engineering at DIT is up by 75 points; as is Computing, also at DIT.

Despite all the talk of a decline in maths standards, Mathematics at TCD is up 70 points. Biotechnology at NUIG is up 40 points; Electronic Engineering at UL is up 60; and Medical Biotechnology at IT Sligo is up 40 points.

'the overriding for increases across the sciences'This is just a snapshot and a more complete analysis at a later date would be helpful. Needless to say though, the overriding theme of the cut-off points is for increases across most of the sciences.

Although there will undoubtedly be people who will be dissapointed today, with courses that would have been attainable in previous years moving beyond their reach, those who teach and promote science will be pleased.

Despite the arguments against the points system, it is fair because it treats everyone the same. It is a supply and demand system and the points today tell us that the average student about to pass through the college gates are (academically at least) of a higher standard than previous year's.

This doesn't mean they are going to make better third-level students however - perhaps they've scored higher because they've learned everything by rote and can't think for themselves? Neither does it mean they are going to make better scientists than previous cohorts.

What it does mean is that there is a greater interest in the sciences and that leaving cert students (and their parents!) are seeing the sciences as a real option for an interesting, rewarding and successful carreer.

The pillars of industry who have been wheeled out in recent weeks and months to scare kids into studying science will do absolutely nothing to encourage greater interest in sciences.

What is needed is the development of new and exciting curricula for the sciences at primary level throught to third level.

A report to the Nuffield Foundation in the UK by Jonathan Osborne and Justin Dillon of King's College London in 2008 made some very interesting points on this very subject.

In Science Education in Europe: Critical Reflections, the authors recommend that "The primary goal of science education across the EU should be to educate students both abouth the major explanations of the material world that science offers and about the way science works. Science courses whose basic aim is to provide a foundational education for future scientists and engineers should be optional".

'there should be two types of science course'In other words, there should be two types of science courses: one to teach everyone the basics of the scientific process and another to specifically train students to be working scientists.

Of course, this would free educators to use the first type of course to develop students with an appreciation and knowledge of the purpose, process and products of science; while reserving the detailed minutae for a later in-depth course.

Another outcome of the leaving certificate reuslts is the by-now-yearly 'Boys do better than girls' headline. I won't even begin to discuss this one but it may be interesting to look at some data from the above mentioned Nuffield Foundation report.

In a survey of schoolchildren in England, boys and girls were asked what they would like to learn about in science class. The top 5 from each camp proves, in pretty stark terms, that a catch-all approach, especially at junior levels, won't do.

Top 5 for Boys:

Explosive chemicals
How it feels to be weightless in space
How the atom bomb functions
Biological and chemical weapons and what they do to the human body
Black holes, supernovae and other spectacular objects in outer space.

Top 5 for girls:

Why we dream when we are sleeping and what the dreams might mean
Cancer- what we know and how we can treat it
How to perform first aid and use basic medical equipment
How to exercise the bodt to keep fit and strong
Sexually transmitted diseases and how to be protected against them

Sunday, August 22, 2010

MRI and Siamese Mushrooms

You know what it's like. You're sitting there eating your bacon and cabbage and wondering to yourself... I wonder what this looks like under MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

Well, wonder no more because Inside Insides is a blog which posts MRI scans of various fruit and veg; from cabbage to squash, tomato to celery. It's quite bizarre but mesmerising nonetheless. Well done to the Naturally Selected blog for bringing it to my attention.

MRI of Cabbage from Inside Insides

In further weird food news (and this time closer to home) I found this beauty in amongst my mushrooms purchased from a well-known chain of supermarkets in the last few days. I'm in two minds as to whether I should make a nice stirfry or put it up for sale on ebay.

Has anybody ever seen something like this before? Other weird fruit, veg or fungi? Send me your stories and photos

Siamese Mushroom

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cork Science Students Win in Shanghai

A Cork secondary school student has won a major international award in Shanghai.
Hannah Hayes, a student at Midleton College, devised a method of recharging domestic batteries using a rotating ball placed inside a tumble dryer. The device works by harnessing the kinetic energy of household appliance.

Hannah and her colleague Beth Wardle were among prizewinners at the Shanghai International New Science and Technology Expo.

Hannah was awarded one of 13 major prizes presented for "best thesis" while Hannah and Beth won an award for "best display" for the "Kiwi 3" project, which investigated the ability of different filter media to extract DNA from fruit.
Speaking to The Cork News,their principal, Simon Thompson, said, “Midleton College is extremely proud of the achievements of our students. To have been recognised as internationally outstanding scientists is a unique achievement.

I am extremely grateful to all those who provided funding support for our pupils, especially Cork City & County Council and the Cork Chamber. They, along with many others, ensured that Hannah & Beth were able to participate at the highest international standard. It is great to know that Cork was so ably represented on this particular world stage.”

Hannah picked up second place in her category at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition in January and subsequently recieved a scholarship to the Business Mentoring Programme in TCD last Easter. You can see her discuss her project in the youtube video below.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

'Sudden Oak Death' is here

Sudden Oak Death (Credit: sarcozona)
Department of Agriculture scientists have identified Phytophthora ramorum in Irish trees for the first time.

The organism was isolated from Japanese Larch trees in the Tipperary/Waterford area.

Just this month, the detrimental effects of sudden oak death has already been dealt with on this blog.

A statement from the Dept. of Agriculture said that they were investigating "a small number of cases" found when a special survey of Japanese Larch was ordered after the pathogen was found on the same trees in Britain late last year.

"In addition to the findings in a small number of larch trees, beech trees which were growing in proximity to the infected larch trees were also found to be infected as were two noble fir trees" according to the survey.

The Department of Agriculture say that Japanese larch "represents some 3% of the total forest tree population in Ireland.

"The bulk of the wood from infected trees can be used in the normal way provided the necessary hygiene measures are taken at felling and in sawmills."

The Department went on to say that they were taking "all necessary measures" to find out the extent of the infection and to control its spread.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

EC has "failed science and failed itself"

Canola in Alberta, Canada
The recent decision by the European Commission to give EU member states the ability to ban GM crops on a state-by-state and crop-by-crop basis means that the EC has failed science and failed itself.

The EC plan announced in July is to allow individual member states the freedom to "allow, restrict, or ban" the commercial cultivation of GM crops in their jurisdictions. The EU will still need to authorise the growth of such crops in the same way it always has, however now the individual member states can ban production of the crop even if the EU says it is perfectly safe to grow and consume.

In this respect, the European Commission is, on the one hand putting its faith in, what it calls, its own "science-based GM authorisation system" and on the other saying to member states that they can ignore the science and plough on regardless with anti-GM bans.

With one decision, the EC has cast doubt on its own GM authorisation system; has refused to back the overwhelming scientific evidence and has handed an own-goal to those who would ban GM crops without any research into their potential benefits, or indeed problems.

Undoubtedly, the GM authorisation system in painstakingly slow. Take for instance the eventual go-ahead received by German chemical company BASF for the production of its 'Amflora' potato variety. With altered starch-producing properties which makes it easier to extract the starch for industrial uses, the company spent 13 years guiding it through the European testing and authorisation procedures.

'there can be few who say that the process is not thorough enough'However, despite the system being slow, there can be little doubt that it is very thorough and very conservative in its decision making. GM opponents will, of course, question the final result in some cases, but there can be few amongst them who can say that the process is not thorough enough.

With the recent EC decision, this "science-based authorisation system" remains intact but it will now be just the first stage in the authorisation process. Once a thorough scientific investigation has been carried out at EU level, GM crop producers will need to face a new challenge: that of a heterogenous mix of member states with a range of views on GMO's.

The obstacles at member state level cannot be science-based: the science will have been tested at EU level and found to be sound (otherwise it will not reach the member states). The obstacles at member state level will be political, social and opinion-based.

In announcing the change of course, the Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli confirmed that this decision has nothing to do with science: "Granting genuine freedom on grounds other than those based on a scientific assessment of health and environmental risks also necessitates a change to the current legislation. I stress that, the EU-wide authorisation system, based on solid science, remains fully in place."

In Ireland, for example, the Green Party are now minority partners in government and hold a considerable amount of sway in decision making. Some good news for the environment perhaps, but they have also managed to get a promise to declare Ireland a "GM-Free Zone" written into the current Programme for Government.

Trevor Sargent, the Irish Green Party's spokesperson on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says that the proposals from Europe "facilitates" the delivery of the GM-Free Zone but he notes: "GM plants do not respect borders and countries like Ireland who are choosing to opt for a GM-free strategy must be facilitated to do so."

Quite how any country could be facilitated in this way is unclear. News from the US last week tells us that GM Canola is capable of spreading over large distances, so it begs the question what would happen if two EU member states sharing a land border were to take opposite views on a particular GM crop?

'The proposed amendments to GM policy will lead to a segregation policy'In addition to a failure to stand up for science, the EC decision appears to be at odds with one of the key goals of the European Union - that of being a free market without border controls between its member states. The proposed amendments to GM policy will lead to a segregation policy with pro-GM and anti-GM states taking sides.

As John Dalli said, the authorisation system based on solid science "remains fully in place". It's just a pity that the EC won't stand over the results of that system, preferring instead to pass the buck to national governments who will be permitted to ban GM crops with zero science to back up their decision.

An edited version of this article appears on the Science Blog. You can read it here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

From Clare to India: EJ Butler "The Father of Indian Plant Pathology"

Born on this day in 1874, Edwin John Butler had a remarkable career which saw the Irishman traveling the globe and becoming a plant pathologist of international renown.

Butler was born in Kilkee, Co. Clare where his father was the local Magistrate. He studied medicine at Queen’s College Cork (now University College Cork) and graduated in 1898.

In Cork, he came under the influence of Prof. Marcus Hartog who was Professor of Natural History and later Professor of Zoology at the college. Hartog was interested in the mechanics of Saprolegnia, a genus of water-moulds which he collected from ponds including that in the lower grounds of the college (where the Glucksman Gallery now stands). Butler began to use similar techniques to study the neighbouring genus Pythium.

Butler went on to study in Paris and London before being appointed as Imperial Mycologist to India in 1906. His work on aquatic Phycomycetes in India as well as his classical studies on the diseases of palms and sugarcane, on wilt of pigeon peas, on wheat rusts, on downy mildews and much more mean that he is regarded as the “Father of Indian Plant Pathology”. He was responsible for categorising nearly 150 species of plant pathogenic fungi.

In 1918, he published ‘Fungi and Disease in Plants’ on Indian plant diseases. He later adapted this book for a European audience and ‘Plant Pathology’ was published a number of years after his death in collaboration with S.G. Jones. It was the classic plant pathology textbook of its time.

Butler left India in 1921 and took up Directorship of the newly established Imperial Bureau of Mycology at Kew, London where he continued his work and became a distinguished figure in the world of plant pathology; travelling widely and founding a number of new journals.

The plaque awaiting installation at Kilkee Library
The Imperial Bureau of Mycology later formed part of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau which is now known as CABI and celebrated its centenary in 2010.

Butler was Knighted in 1939. In Butler's obituary, EW Mason notes that

"his most striking characteristic was perhaps his immense interest in fungi both as fungi and as the causal organisms of disease in plants, and coupled with this his power of transferring that interest to botanical and lay minds alike. His lifelong habit of wide and deep reading, linked with his accumulated personal experience, enabled him to present problems in their correct perspective and to recommend the line of attack that should best deserve success." (Mason, 1943)

Sir Edwin John Butler died of influenza on April 4th, 1943 in Surrey. He is commemorated by a plaque at Kilkee Library, Co. Clare (which is awaiting installation) as well as the Butler Medal which is awarded by the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the field. The Butler Building at University College Cork was built in 2000 and is also named in his honour.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Number of the Week: 2025

A NASA image of how the adapted spacecraft might look
That's the year when parts of the International Space Station could be ready to be sent to an asteroid.

NASA has this week held a conference to decide what to do with the $100 billion station after it retires in 2020 and, after Barack Obama's pledge to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, it seems a bit of recycling may be in order.

One suggestion for the retired space station is that one of its compartments, called Tranquility, could be attached to a pair of spacecraft capable of landing on the an asteroid.

Another option being discussed is the idea of creating a large centrifuge type structure in order to achieve some form of artificial gravity in space. This may prevent bone and muscle loss in astronauts experiencing zero gravity.

A (pdf) summary of the options as outlined by NASA at the conference is available here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What's the state of Ireland's Biodiversity?

A major meeting of scientists will take place in Waterford this month to discuss the state of knowledge on Ireland's biodiversity in 2010.

The 'Biodiversity Knowledge Quest' conference is organised by the National Biodiversity Data Centre based at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT)and will take place on the 26th and 27th of August.

The meeting is being held as part of Ireland's contribution to the International Year of Biodiversity 2010.

A range of Irish experts on a variety of different groups of organisms will speak at the conference. For example, Prof. Mike Guiry of NUI Galway with speak on Algae biodiversity on the first day, while Dr. Matthew Jebb  of the National Botanical Gardens will speak about vascular plant biodiversity on the following day.

Dr. Niamh Roche from Bat Conservation Ireland will talk about the challenges of conserving bat populations and Dr. Michael Simms from National Museums Northern Ireland will deal with Lichen biodiversity.

The full programme for the two days is available here.

A spokesperson for the organisers said: "The event will provide a major benchmark on the state of biodiversity knowledge in Ireland in 2010 and assist prioritisation of work to fill the remaining knowledge gaps in time for 2020, to coincide with the next international biodiversity target.

"The event will be of interest to anyone involved with surveying and researching the distribution and conservation of Ireland’s species and habitats. It will provide an opportunity to contribute to the knowledge base on Ireland’s biological diversity and to influence the future direction of survey priorities needs in Ireland."

The National Biodiversity Data Centre is the national centre dedicated to the collation, management, analysis and dissemination of data and information on Ireland’s biological diversity.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Plant Collectors - A Communicate Science Podcast

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)
On this day in 1768, Sir Joseph Banks left England aboard the Endeavour under the command of Captain Cook. His journey was to be fraught with danger and only a few members of his team would return. But the success of the journey would be measured in the sheer volume of plants and animals described for the first time. Banks' travels aboard the Endeavour would, in turn, inspire and lead to one of the most famous and ill-fated journeys ever made.

Listen to the full story on our first Communicate Science Podcast.

The Plant Collector

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)
On this day in 1768, Sir Joseph Banks left England aboard the Endeavour under the command of Captain Cook. The Royal Society had suggested that Banks might be brought along:

'Joseph Banks Esq. Fellow of this Society, a gentleman of large fortune, who is well versed in Natural History being desirous of undertaking the same voyage, the Council very earnestly requests their Lordships (of the Admiralty) that in regard to Mr. Banks' great personal merit, and for the advancement of useful knowledge, he also together with his suite be received on board of the ship under the command of Captain Cook.'
Banks' party included Dr. Solander, a Swedish Botanist who he had become friends with in London, Sporing, a naturalist, as well as three artists and four servants. He had been passionate about botany since childhood, when at the age of fourteen he had reportedly decided: "I will make myself acquainted with all these different plants for my own pleasure and gratification."

The voyage lasted three years and Banks collected many plants along the way. The journey was not without its dangers though: the ship and crew faced shipwrecks, disease and attacks by natives. As Banks himself put it: "The almost certainty of being eat as soon as you come ashore adds not a little to the terrors of shipwreck."

James Cook, captain of HMS Endeavour
In the end, just four of the original party of ten survived the journey: Banks, Solander and two of the servants. The remaining two servants died from the cold in Tierra del Fuego; Buchan, one of the artists died after a 'fit' in Tahiti; and the others (Reynolds, Parkinson and Sporing) all died of Batavian fever.

The trip was not without it's rewards though, as Banks records:
'The number of natural productions discovered in this voyage is incredible; about one thousand species of plants that have not been at all described by any botanical author; five hundred of fishes; as many of birds; with insects, sea and land, innumerable.'
When he returned to England in July 1771, he immediately became famous and this led King George III to choose him to direct the future of Kew Gardens. Having seen the benefit of scientific voyages, Banks dispatched a number of naturalists to far-flung places to bring back plants for Kew.

He sent George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest (the city of Vancouver still bears his name) and William Bligh to the South Pacific (which led to the Mutiny on the Bounty). When David Nelson, Banks' plant collector on the later voyage, was abandoned along with Bligh by the mutineers, he had to watch as they threw a thousand of his plants over the side. The mutineers had apparently resented the fresh water rations being used to keep the plants alive.

Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
The Bounty voyage had had one purpose: to attempt to transplant breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) plants from Tahiti to the British West Indies in the hope that they would provide cheap food for slaves.

Nelson died after forty-seven days voyaging (and 4,500 miles) with Bligh in a small open boat and Bligh noted in his log:
'The loss of this honest man I much lamented; he had with great care and diligence attended to the object for which he was sent. I was sorry I could get no tombstone to place over his remains.'
 Despite the obvious dangers, the plant collection trips continued under Banks' guidance and they added greatly to the gardens at Kew and to the library and Herbarium which were finally built after Sir Joseph Banks' death in 1820.

See our Science Gallery: a series of photos from a recent visit to Kew.

Further Reading:
The Making of Kew by Madeleine Bingham (1975).

Friday, August 6, 2010

UCC scientists tag jellyfish for first time

Irish researchers have managed to successfully track five Lion’s Mane Jellyfish!

As it had never been done before, attaching a tag to a Lion’s Mane was an extremely difficult and dangerous task. Eventually we found some way of attaching the tag to the underside of the jellyfish in amongst the hundreds of meter long tentacles”, explained Dr Tom Doyle, Coastal Marine Resources Centre, Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork (UCC).

Dr Doyle is a member of a group of researchers involved in The EcoJel Project - a four year project funded by the European Union Regional Development Fund (ERDF) under the Ireland Wales Programme 2007-2013 - Interreg 4A. EcoJel is a collaboration between University College Cork and Swansea University (Wales) and aims to assess the opportunities and detrimental impacts of jellyfish in the Irish Sea.

During the last few weeks, the researchers have been investigating the behaviour of the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish in Dublin Bay by attaching tags to their underside. Tracking these jellyfish is one of the only ways we can learn how much time they spend at the surface and whether or not they are residents or just passing through. These questions are important to answer as many bathers and open water swimmers in the Dublin area have been badly stung during the last few years and more recently in the last few weeks. Indeed, a bad encounter with a Lion’s Mane may result in severe pain for 5 or 6 hours, weeping skin and back spasms.

With the help/support of Ocean Divers in Dun Laoghaire, the researchers have now followed five individuals for up to eight hours. All individuals were tagged near the famous Forty Foot bathing spot and depending on the tide (ebb or flow), the jellyfish either went north or south along the coast. One jellyfish hugged the coastline from the Forty Foot to Bullock Harbour and along to Sorrento Point never moving more than 20 metres from shore. Another jellyfish went past the entrance to Dun Laoghaire Harbour and on towards Seapoint before heading south again with the ebbing tide.

This is a great success as only three weeks ago we had no idea of where they went and how they behaved. We now know that they these jellyfish are residents, moving about with the ebb and flow of the tide. As the jellyfish are now beginning to wash up in large numbers (they are dying off) we have stopped tagging until early next year,” said Dr Doyle.

This story originally appeared at
Visit for more.

The results are in: Spider vs Conker myth debunked

One of the first blog posts I ever posted on here was about a challenge set by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to discover the truth about that old wives' tale that spiders are repelled by horse chestnuts.

Now, Year 5 and 6 pupils at Roselyon School in Cornwall have won the challenge and demonstrated conclusively that the theory is false and they've bagged a £300 prize into the bargain.

RSC spokesman Jon Edwards said: "When we consulted a spider expert at the Natural History Museum he was highly sceptical about the spider theory. We even tried it ourselves but couldn't reach a scientific conclusion. The Roselyon entry stood out from the crowd because of the balanced, scientific methods and well designed experiments. They should be proud of their fair mindedness, scientific rigour and logical thinking."

Andrew Ferguson, science teacher at the school, said: "Many people are scared of spiders - but our children are not among them and were not worried abut handling them. The children are thrilled that their efforts have won this prize. Apart from being good fun, the project provided an invaluable learning experience. Many people are terrified of spiders, but one other thing our video also demonstrated is that Roselyon children are not among them."

A video detailing the work of the school on the project can be viewed below.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Does gender bias affect physics teaching?

According to a recent US study, students think males are more knowledgeable than females when it comes to teaching physics.

Amy Bug, a (female) physicist at Swarthmore College, and her team trained four actors (two male and two female) to give a 10-minute, scripted physics lecture which was filmed. 126 real physics students were then shown a lecture by one of the four actors and their opinions surveyed.

On average, the male 'lecturers' received higher scores then the females. While female students gave slightly higher scores to female 'lecturers' male students rated male 'lecturers' vastly better.

When the students were asked if the 'lecturer' had a "solid grasp of the material", if they were knowledgeable, or good with equipment, there was a distinct gender bias with both male and female students rating the male 'lecturers' more highly.

However, when asked whether the 'lecturer' "teaches in a way that rally helps students learn", is well organised or interacts well with students, there was evidence of a distinct own-gender bias, with females rating female 'lecturers' most highly and males preferring male 'lecturers.

A note of caution is required here though: How do we know that the bias shown is not a result of the relative skills of the actors to play the part of a physics teacher?

You can view a report on the study here.

 Scientific American look at this study in their 60-Second Science podcast.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Big One!

This is the 100th post on the Communicate Science blog. From some rather shaky beginnings back in September 2009, we've finally made this minor milestone!

Back at the start of May, I did a highlights post for articles published before that date. You can check it out here.

As I've reached post 100, it seems appropriate to dig out (what I think are) the best of the posts since May. If you're new to the blog (or not so new) you might enjoy having a look back.

If you're not already doing it, you should follow Communicate Science on Twitter for the latest news and articles. You can also subscribe to the blog by using the gadget to the right.

At the end of May, the results of our Science Photo Competition were announced. View the winners.

May was also the month when Craig Venter announced his lab had created a "synthetic" microbe. We looked at the story and the media reaction here.

In June, Anti-GM campaigners were told that they can't have it both ways in this post on GM potato trials.

We also launched our occasional series on Culture & Science with a poem by the Irish poet Paula Meehan. Read it here.

A European poll found that 55% of the public wanted scientists to communicate more. The results of the survey were discussed here in an article which also appeared on science blog.

I've had some excellent feedback on the article about the noted Irish artist, writer and naturalist Robert Gibbings. If you missed it, you can read the article in full here.

Plenty of feedback too on this guest post of the FrogBlog which dealt with biology at leaving cert level.

That's just a handful of the articles since May. Feel free to browse throught the rest.

If you enjoy an article, or if you think an article is totally off the point, feel free to contact me. We love feedback here at Communicate Science!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Footprints prove reptiles were first to conquer dry land

The tracks were left by reptiles living 500 kilometres
from the nearest seashore
Reptile footprints which are 318 million years old have given scientists a new insight into the evolution of life on land.

The footprints were discovered in rock slabs broken away from sea cliffs at the Bay of Fundy in New Brinswick, Canada prove that reptiles were the first vertrebates (animals with a backbone) to leave the swampy coasts and make their homes on dry land.

The footprints were discovered by Howard Falcon-Lang of University of London during a trek along the coast in 2008.

"It's a very significant event in the history of life," Falcon-Lang said in an interview.

"About 400 million years ago, animals with backbones started to come on land, but these were frog-like creatures. And amphibians such as frogs have to return to the water in order to breed. They lay soft eggs that very easily dry out."

But Falcon-Lang said when the reptiles came along, they laid eggs with hard shells that they could lay on land, and could therefore start moving away from the shore.

The scientist said that he had actually been looking for something when he tripped over, scrapped his knee and came face-to-face with the small footprints (about 4 cm long) which were likely made by a reptile approximately 20 cm long and resembling a gecko.

"It really is that extraordinary," Falcon-Lang said. "You're capturing an event that probably just took a few minutes."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Communicate Science @

My recent guest blog on has been picked up as news piece by - a website produced by Discover Science and Engineering (DSE).

DSE aim to increase the numbers of students studying Engineering and Science; to promote a positive attitute towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to foster a greater understanding of science and its value to Irish society.

You can read the article here.

You can read the original guest post on the Frog Blog here.

Sudden Oak Death: An impending threat?

Sudden Oak Death is caused by a fungal-like pathogen called Phytophthora ramorum and has hit the headlines again recently when the disease spread across the Bristol Channel to South Wales.

First found in Britain in 2002 (where it was infecting Viburnum tinus in a garden centre), it has been causing problems in the US since the mid-nineties.

In 2000, researchers at the University of California identified the cause of dying oak trees in many parts of the state to be a previously unknown species of Phytophthora. Another Phytophthora species, P. infestans, causes late blight in potatoes- a topic we have covered previously on this blog.

Alternative hosts for P. ramorum include rhododendron, viburnum, bay laurel, douglas fir, redwoods, yew, horse chestnut, beech.

The conclusive link between the pathogen and sidden oak death was not made until work published in 2002 (Phytophthora ramorum as the cause of extensive mortality of Quercus spp. and Lithocarpus densiflora in California. D.M. Rizzo, M. Garbelotto, J.M. Davidson, G.W. Slaughter, and S.T. Koike.Plant Disease 86: 205-214. 2002).

By 2005, the pathogen had been found in Northern Ireland.

However, despite the problem in Europe and North America arising around the same time, research has shown that the mating-type from the American isolates (called A2 type) are different to those found in Europe (A1 type). This indicates that the pathogen did not come from North America to Europe or vice-versa. It is thought to have originated in an as-yet unidentified third country.

The pathogen can cause cankers of the bark or can cuase damage to the leaves. Depending on the host plant, differing symptoms are visible.

The pathogen may reproduce by sexual or asexual means. To reproduce sexually, both the A1 and A2 mating types (i.e. the European and American types) need to be present together and, apart from a single exception) this has not been the case up until now. Hence, the spread of the pathogen is generally via the production of asexual spores (called zoospores) which are spread by rain and wind.

In order to eradicate the pathogen in California, authorites cut and burn infected trees along with all other host plants within 100 feet. Controlling the spread of infected (or potentially-infected plant material) is crucial.

Control of the disease in Ireland is governed by European phytosanitary legislation and despite it being found on rhododendron and viburnum species in parts of the country, it has yet to be found on trees. With trees now infected Wales, how long until it spreads across the Irish Sea?

Spread of P. ramorum in Europe (2006)

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