Thursday, December 30, 2010

James Burke Remembered - Cork skies to be lit up

The skies above Cork will be lit up in January as the city remembers a pioneer of scientific and technical education.

As part of the 'North Monastery 200' celebrations in the city, the work of Brother James Burke will be remembered with a modern-day laser re-enactment of a spectacular 1877 light-show which Burke created to demonstrate the potential of this new technology - electricity - for the city of Cork. [Details of the event at the bottom of this post]

James Burke was born in 1833 in Limerick City and attended the Christian Brother's School at Sexton Street in the city. He entered the Christian Brother novitiate aged 18 and was posted to the North Monastery, Cork in 1852. He eventually made his perpetual vows, aged 25, in 1857.

One of his colleagues at the 'North Mon' in the late 1850's and early 1860's was John Philip Holland. Holland was the man who invented the modern submarine based on experiments and research he did while in Cork. Burke was undoubtedly a huge influence on Holland during his time at the North Monastery.

Burke pioneered vocational and practical education in Ireland, basing his pedagogy on lessons learned throughout Europe at the time. He introduced subjects like trigonometry, navigation, physics and astronomy to the North Monastery for the first time and his methods were replicated across the Christian Brother Schools in Ireland.

This was at a time when even third-level education was reliant on the lecture rather than on practical experience for students. Burke's invitation to students to experiment for themselves with the large range of equipment and apparatus collected at the school was revolutionary for its time.

Despite suffering from medical problems throughout his adult life - he suffered from partial to near blindness and painful eye problems, he continued his work becoming Sub Director and eventually Director of the school and began to organise Sunday Science Lectures for the general public at the school and lectures in the Crawford Gallery in Cork City centre.

Through his friendship and contacts with industrialists throughout the region, Burke acquired funding for equipment and materials for the science department in the school - electric dynamos, gas engines, steam engines, lathes, agricultural equipment, geological, botanical and zoological specimens, etc.

By the time Burke died, educational authorities in Ireland were just beginning to realise the importance and influence of Burke's pioneering work in practical education. He had become internationally recognised for his excellence in scientific education and was locally acknowledged as being a man with the well-being and success of his students at heart.

Burke died in March 1904, having been struck by a horse and carriage in a tragic accident as he was crossing St. Patrick's Street, near its junction with Bowling Green Street. His death was met with a huge public outpouring of grief, with public bodies throughout the country expressing condolences. His funeral procession was described as being "like a king's" and he was buried in the grounds of his beloved North Monastery.

After his death, a marble bust of Burke was sculpted by John O'Connell (which is now positioned atop the building named in his honour).

Unfortunately, over time, much of the equipment and specimens which made up the bulk of Burke's collection at the school has been sold or disposed of. With the onset of World War 1, much of the industrial machinery and radio equipment was removed by the British Army.

Some material remains, including some excellent zoological specimens. It would be wonderful to see all of this material collected in one place within the school, to form a museum in Burke's memory. Perhaps in 2011, when the North Monastery celebrates 200 years in Cork, Brother Burke's memory can be honoured in such an appropriate fashion?

Brother Burke Ceremony

To celebrate the jubilee of Pope Pius IX ,in 1877,  Burke connected a battery of 120 callan cells to a massive lamp that he had mounted to the front wall of the Monastery (now sadly demolished) and he flashed beams of electric light into the sky from the grounds of Our Lady's Mount. This was two years before Thomas Edison was credited with inventing the light bulb.

To celebrate the work of Brother James Burke, the North Monastery Past Pupils Union, in conjunction with the 3 schools on campus will hold a Bro. Burke Commemoration event on Friday January 14th, starting at 4.30pm in the North Monastery Secondary School Hall.

Brother Donal Blake and Kieran McCarthy will give talks on Bro. Burke's contributions to education and science and his work in Cork.

The event is sponsored by John Mullins, CEO of Bord Gais and a past pupil of the school.

A flag-raising ceremony will be held on the night with the school's oldest past pupil and the highlight of the night will be a re-enactment of Bro. Burke's 1877 lighting display using modern lasers. According to a spokesperson for the organisers, "Weather depending, (the display) should be visible from all over Cork City and surrounding areas".

Much of the biographical information in this post is taken from a more complete biography available here (pdf).
Thanks to the North Monastery Past Pupils Union for use of images from their extensive archive.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What a Year! Top posts of 2010

It's been an exciting year here at Communicate Science - our first full year since launching the blog in the autumn of 2009.

As well as being nominated for an Irish Blog Award and an Irish Web Award, the blog was also shortlisted in the prestigious Eircom Spiders in the 'Big Mouth' category.

Readership has been steadily increasing throughout the year and we also now have over 330 followers on twitter.

I've got some rather big and exciting plans in store for the new year, but in the meantime it's interesting to look back on the 'most-read' posts from the blog this year. So, in reverse order:

Nine: James Watson: A Geneticist's View of Cancer
Scientific legend and renowned cancer researcher came to Cork and told us "People are so frightened by being wrong," he continued, "I figure that it doesn't matter if you're wrong, if you're sometimes right. The main thing is to try."

Eight: Number of the Week: 88%
Interesting how some posts just seem to take off unexpectedly. This post details the reaction to a Royal Society survey which found that 88% of 18-24 year-olds in the UK could not name any female scientific figure.

Seven: Sleep, Diet and Life Expectancy
A number of stories regarding the importance of sleep are covered in this post including the influence of starvation on sleep requirements and a possible link between serious sleep problems and mortality.

Six: Communicate Science @ The Eircom Spiders
This post pops up here probably due to some shameless plugging by yours truly and some helpful retweets by some very nice people. Glad to see the Eircom Spider went to a truly deserving winner.

Five: 3 Science Poems by Emily Dickinson
The poetry of Emily Dickinson was highlighted in this post, with three of here science-themed poems used. More than 200 of her poems make reference to scientific topics.

Four: The results are in: Spider vs Conker myth debunked
Some excellent outreach work by the Royal Society of Chemistry is featured in this very popular post. It looks at the very persistent old wives' tale.

Three: The Origin of Conor Lenihan
In September, Irish Minister of State with responsibility for Science, Conor Lenihan was found to be preparing to launch a book proclaiming that evolution was a "hoax". As you can imagine, the reaction from the scientific community was scathing and immediate.

Two: Plant Watch: Common Poppy - a cultural icon
One of our "Plant Watch" series of posts, this picked up a huge number of views in October and November.

One: Letting Boole's memory collapse doesn't add up
In October, this blog was the first to report, in any detail, on the partial collapse of the former home of George Boole - noted scientist and mathematician. In a series of posts and photo essays, we've covered the story in more detail than any other media outlet.

I believe this is an important story and I'll continue to cover it in the new year, when significant developments are expected. As we move into 2011, Number Five, Grenville Place, Cork City still lies derelict and open to the elements. Lets hope the new year will bring better news on this front.

Merry Christmas and a happy 2011 to all our readers!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Science 20: Happy Christmas

In the run up to Christmas, we've been posting 20 Christmas Science Facts. In this, our last posting in the series, I'd like to take the oppurtunity to wish all of our readers a very happy and restful Christmas. A special thank you to those who have contributed and helped out on the blog throughout the year... You know who you are!

During the recent cold spell, I came across a very inquisitive little robin along the banks of the river Lee in Cork City. Since one of our Christmas Science posts has already dealt with the robin, I'm just posting a few of my own pictures of the bird in question in the snow.

Happy Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Science 19: Science of Santa Claus

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December. The following has been posted in many other places before, but its worth reading again...

Science of Santa Claus

How do Santa's reindeer fly?
No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

How does Santa reach everyone?
Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each household with good children has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75½ million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest manmade vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second — a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

Einstein and Santa Claus?
Physicist Gaute Einevoll has proposed a novel theory:
"We are talking about moving matter, and no one had more knowledge about matter than Albert Einstein. Do I need to point out that the dishevelled physicist reminds many of Santa Claus? Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905 and his general theory of relativity in 1916, but after Coca-Cola more or less defined Santa’s ‘look’ in 1930, Einstein didn’t publish that much more. I have wondered if that’s because Einstein became Santa," speculates Einevoll.

He believes that the reason that Einstein never was able to link together quantum theory and relativity is due to the fact that the famous tussled head was busy in secret helping Santa to become a kind of “Quanta Claus”.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

See all the Christmas Science Posts

You can see all the Christmas Science posts by clicking on the image below. Two more to come tomorrow (Christmas Eve) and on Christmas Day.
Happy Christmas!

Christmas Science 18: New Mistletoe Species Discovered

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

New mistletoe species among this year's new discoveries at Kew

As the UN's International Year of Biodiversity draws to a close, scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are celebrating the diversity of the planet's plant and fungal life by highlighting some of the weird, wonderful and stunning discoveries they've made this year from the rainforests of Cameroon to the UK's North Pennines. But it's not just about the new – in some cases species long thought to be extinct in the wild have been rediscovered.

Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, "Each year, botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, working in collaboration with local partners and scientists, continue to explore, document and study the world's plant and fungal diversity, making astonishing new discoveries from microscopic fungi to canopy giants. 

"This work has never been more relevant and pressing than in the current era of global climate change and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.Without a name, plants and fungi go unrecognised, their uses unexplored, their wonders unknown.

"On average, 2,000 new plant species are discovered each year, and Kew botanists, using our vast collection of over 8 million plant and fungal specimens, contribute to the description of approximately 10 per cent of these new discoveries. Despite more than 250 years of naming living plants, applying each with a unique descriptive scientific name, we are still some decades away from finishing the task of a global inventory of plants, and even more so for fungi.

"Plants are at risk and extinction is a reality. However stories of discovery and rediscovery give us hope that species can cling on and their recovery is a very real possibility. Continuing support for botanical science is essential if plant based solutions to human challenges, such as climate change, are to be realised."

This year's new showstoppers include;

From Africa with Love - Wild Mozambican Mistletoe …

This parasitic, tropical mistletoe was named in 2010, and was first discovered near the summit of Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique, a region which hit the headlines in 2008 when a Kew-led expedition uncovered this lost world bursting with biodiversity. Since then, the team at Kew have worked tirelessly sorting through the hundreds of specimens they collected, and they have described this new wild mistletoe (Helixanthera schizocalyx), just in time for Christmas!

It was spotted by the expedition's renowned East African butterfly specialist, Colin Congdon, while the team were trekking up the mountain, on a path that took them from the moist montane forest up to where the broad granite peaks break through the dense foliage. Colin quickly realised this species was different from anything he had seen on the mountains in neighbouring Malawi and Tanzania, and on closer inspection back at Kew it was confirmed a new species.

Tropical mistletoes, from the family Loranthaceae, are a great example of biodiversity and the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Birds play a vital role in both pollinating these mistletoes, and also distributing the seeds. As birds eat the small fleshy white sweet fruits, the seeds are then wiped on a branch to which they adhere. Once germinated the root grows into the living tissue of the tree to obtain the new plant's nutrients. Tropical mistletoes are also popular with butterflies and in particular the blue group Lycaenidae. These strong links between the plants, their host trees, and various birds and butterflies, shows the interconnected nature of forest species, and the need to conserve all elements in order to preserve the environment.

A Medicinal Wild Aubergine from East Africa…  

Commonly known as 'Osigawai' in the local Masai language, Solanum phoxocarpum was discovered by Maria Vorontsova on an expedition to Kenya's Aberdare mountainous cloud forests. Having researched specimens of wild African aubergines in RBG, Kew's vast Herbarium collections of dried plant specimens, Vorontsova, who was based at the Natural History Museum, London at the time, discovered some unusual unnamed specimens, some of which were unlike any she had seen before. Eager to discover more, Maria set out on an expedition with botanists and seed hunters from Kenya's 'Seeds for Life' project team, partners in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

Many of the old collection locations they visited had been stripped of native vegetation, but after four weeks, the team was successful. They spotted a wild aubergine shrub with distinctive unusual long, yellow, pointed fruits and deep mauve flowers that was indeed a new species. They collected its fruits and set out slicing them open to collect seed for banking. While spreading the fruit's yellow sludge onto paper, so the seeds could dry for long term storage in Kew's Millenium Seed Bank, one of the team noticed that the fruits began to emit a pungent odour and later that day they became ill. It is now believed that this species may be poisonous, and having consulted Kew's historic specimens, it also proves to be used medicinally by local people.

Cameroon Canopy Giant… 

A gigantic tree, Magnistipula multinervia, described excitedly by Kew's well seasoned plant hunter, Xander van der Burgt, as "the rarest tree I have ever found", has been discovered in the lush green rainforests of Cameroon.

Towering above the canopy at 41metres high this critically endangered tree was discovered in the lowland rainforests of the Korup National Park — a hot-bed for new discoveries in the South-West Province of Cameroon. Due to its height, rarity (with only four trees known) and the fact that the flowers hardly ever fall to the ground, it proved difficult to identify and collect in flower. After numerous visits to the four known trees over a period of several years to check if they were flowering and fruiting, the team were successful and using alpine climbing equipment, they managed to scale the dizzy heights, and make their collection, and identify it as new.

Smut and moon carrots – the rediscovery of extinct British fungi… 

The long-lost British fungus, bird's-eye primrose smut (Urocystis primulicola), recognised as a species of "principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity" (BAP review 2007) had not been seen for 106 years until it was rediscovered by Kew and Natural England mycologist, Martyn Ainsworth, during a two hour 'ovary squeezing' session.

Smuts are species of inconspicuous, microscopic fungi that are found inside living host plants, in this case the red-listed wild pink flowered bird's-eye primrose (Primula farinosa) found in the North Pennines. The bird's-eye primrose smut has co-evolved with the plant and hijacks its ovaries, replacing its seeds with a black powdery mass of smut spores. Concealed in the ovaries, it is only when the bird's-eye primrose seed-pods are squeezed in the late summer, when the seeds are ripe, that this rare smut can be found.

In a similar story, the moon carrot rust (Puccinia libanotidis) was rediscovered in England after it was believed lost for 63 years. Rust fungi are so called because their spores are often produced in brownish orange powdery masses on the leaves and stems of host plants. The moon carrot (Seseli libanotis), the plant that hosts this rust, is a red-listed wild plant confined in Britain to the chalky soils of the Chilterns, Gog Magog Hills and the South Downs.

Martyn Ainsworth, Senior Researcher in Fungal Conservation says, "It is always exciting to rediscover species thought to be extinct but to find one that has been lost for over 100 years, while carrying out a quick survey in a likely spot during a journey between England and Scotland, was an exhilarating 'Eureka' moment. To wipe these rare British fungi off the extinct list is a joy, and we hope that with further field surveying we can now provide a clearer picture of these species' current British distribution.
"Both these fungal species have been re-discovered on rare British plants, and therefore their conservation is dependent on that of their host plants and their habitats. I'd encourage all field naturalists to get out and start looking for so-called extinct fungi and find out about their relationships with other fungi, plants and animals so we can understand their habitat and conservation requirements better. There are so few of us doing this work, we need all the help we can get."

And finally the biggest new discovery of them all…

The biggest genome in a living species –bigger than Big Ben!

Scientists in Kew's Jodrell Laboratory, as part of their ongoing research into the causes and consequences of genome size diversity in plants, discovered the largest genome of all living species so far – found in Paris japonica, a subalpine plant endemic to Honshu, Japan.

With a genome size of 152.23 picograms, its genome is 50 times the size of the human genome, and 15% larger than any other found so far —it's so large that when stretched out it would be taller than the tower of Big Ben! However, having such a large genome may have direct biological consequences, as plants with large genomes may be more sensitive to habitat disturbances and environmental changes and be at greater risk of extinction.

All images are courtesy of Kew and are copyright of their respective owners.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Science Public Lecture Series Launched

University College Cork has launched its Annual Public Lecture Series from the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science.

The lecture series, organised by Prof. William Reville, comprises a selection of distinguished speakers who will discuss various aspect of science and technology, many of particular relevance to Ireland today.

The series runs weekly from January 5th until March 30th 2011 and takes place on Wednesday evenings. The location for the lectures is Boole Lecture Theatre 2 on UCC's main campus.

Highlights from the series include Professor Mark Achtman  from the Environmental Research Institute at UCC speaking on "Human Migrations from a bacterial Perspective". Prof. Achtman will explain how Heliobacter pylori, a common bacterium of human stomachs, can be used to trace human migrations over the last 80,000 years. This lecture is the first in the series and takes place on January 5th at 8pm.

"Tracking Birds: From Individuals to Populations" is the subject of Professor John O'Halloran's lecture which takes place on Wednesday 2nd February at 8pm. The scientist, Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the university will speak on how knowledge of bird species relies on data collection both by professionals and by 'citizen science'.

Dark Matter and Dark Energy will be the subject of a talk by Professor Paul Callanan from the Department of Physics, UCC on the 23rd February. "Whistling in the Dark: How our Understanding of the Universe Continues to be Frustrated by the Mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy" will look at one of the greatest challenges to modern astrophysics and the implications for our understanding of the Cosmos at large.

Full details of all of the lectures in the series can be found here (pdf). Admission is free to all lectures and all are welcome to attend.

In the following video, Prof. William Reville introduces this year's lecture series:

Christmas Science 17: Christmas Shopping

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Got your Christmas shopping done yet?
The last-minute holiday dash is on: Men tend to rush in for their prized item, pay, and leave. Women study the fabrics, color, texture and price.

The hunting and gathering ritual of the past continues today in malls around the world. Understanding the shopping behavior of your partner can help relieve stress at the stores, according to a researcher at the University of Michigan.

Daniel Kruger of the U-M School of Public Health says that gathering edible plants and fungi is traditionally done by women. In modern terms, think of filling a basket by selecting one item at a time, he said. Women in foraging societies return to the same patches that yield previous successful harvests, and usually stay close to home and use landmarks as guides.

Foraging is a daily activity, often social and can include young children if necessary. When gathering, women must be very adept at choosing just the right color, texture, and smell to ensure food safety and quality. They also must time harvests, and know when a certain depleted patch will regenerate and yield good harvest again.

In modern terms, women are much more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale, for example, than men. Women also spend much more time choosing the perfect gift.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind and want to get in, get it, and get out. In ancestral times, it was critical to get meat home as quickly as possible, Kruger said. Taking young children isn't safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress. Of course these behaviors aren't genetically determined and don't apply to everyone, but there are consistent broad themes, Kruger said.

The following video explores how different shopping styles can be explained by evolution:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Science 16: Orange

Tory Parker (Credit :Mark Philbrick)
In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Scientists in Utah are taking the humble orange - that classic Christmas stocking filler and trying to find the right mixture of its healthy compounds responsible for their age-old health benefits.

The popular stocking stuffer is known for its vitamin C and blood-protecting antioxidants, but researchers wanted to learn why a whole orange is better for you than its components when taken separately. The ultimate outcome of the research could be a super-supplement that captures the best health benefits of eating oranges and drinking orange juice.

"There's something about an orange that's better than taking a vitamin C capsule, and that's really what we're trying to figure out," said Tory Parker, the Nutritionist that led the study. "We think it's the particular mixture of antioxidants in an orange that makes it so good for you."

The research, carried out at Brigham Young University has just been published in Journal of Food Science.
Parker noted supplement companies often mix "high concentrations of extracts from blueberry and blackberry and orange and throw them all together and hope it's good."

He wanted to avoid such assumptions by testing dozens of combinations of the antioxidants found in an orange at the same proportions they occur naturally. 

They identified several combinations of antioxidants that were the most synergistic – the compounds hesperidin and naringenin, in particular, appeared to contribute the most punch in the combinations.

Those are the mixtures Parker will continue to research in human studies to evaluate whether their health effects mimic those of eating an orange. He and his students are also conducting similar work with blueberries and strawberries.

"I'm really most interested in protecting healthy people and keeping the healthy, healthy," Parker said. "And no matter what our research finds, it's very clear that a great way to do that is to simply eat more fruit."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dodo gets a 21st Century Facelift

Dr. Julian Pender Hume of the the London Natural History Museum, an artist and a palaeontologist, updates our view of the Dodo based on scientific evidence in this excellent video clip. The resultant painting will form part of the "Images of Nature" exhibition at the museum next year.

Christmas Science 15: Solstice and Eclipse

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Solstice and Eclipse
The 2010 winter solstice will take place in the Northern Hemisphere tomorrow (December 21st) at 23.38pm (Irish Time/Greenwich Mean Time). The winter solstice occurs when the Earth's axial tilt is furthest away from the sun and lasts for just a moment and marks the shortest day and longest night of the year.

This year, the winter solstice coincides with a total lunar eclipse. According to Astronomy Ireland, from 6:32am tomorrow morning, you will be able to see the Moon gradually get darker as Earth's shadow is cast upon it, culminating at 7:40am when the Moon will have enters totality. The full moon will be seen to turn red as this eclipse takes place.

This change in colour is caused by the Moon entering the Earth's shadow, but with light from the sun getting to its surface through our atmosphere. Since the Earth's atmosphere blocks out the blue light, the observed colour of the Moon can change radically.

It is very rare for these two events to coincide, and with clear skies forecast for many areas, it's a great excuse to get up early, wrap up warm and watch one of the greatest events in the solar system.

If you get any pictures of the eclipse or of tomorrow's sunrise on the shortest day of the year, send them here and I'll post them tomorrow.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Science 14: Misteltoe

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Mistletoe is the common name for the hemi-parasitic plant Viscum album (European Mistletoe) and is a familiar sight in homes at this time of year.

The term hemi-parasitic means that the plant is both a parasite (i.e. it obtains nutrients and water from a host plant), but that it also photosynthesises itself, to some degree. It's a sort of a middle ground between being completely parasitic and completely free-living.

Viscum album can parasitise over 200 tree and shrub species and can kill these trees eventually. While the plant is poisonous to humans, an array of animals depend on it for food in the wild.

The plant has featured in folklore since Greek mythology and is today (at least in English-speaking countries) hung in the home during the Christmas season. Two people meeting under the mistletoe are obliged to kiss.

The BBC report that Mistletoe may be under threat in the UK.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Science 13: More Fun Stuff!

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December... more science fun today...more facts coming soon.

Tricks for the Christmas Party

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Science 12: Christmas Fun

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December. Ok, so today's isn't really a fact...but hey, it's nearly Christmas!

Some Christmas Fun

The Twelve Days of Research*

(To be sung to the tune of "The Twelve days of Christmas")

On the first day of research,
My Prof he said to me,
Make us a cup of tea

On the second day of research,
My Prof he said to me,
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea
On the third day of research
My Prof he said to me,
Tutor three new students
who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea
On the fourth day of research
My Prof he said to me,
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea
On the fifth day of research
My Prof he said to me,
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea
On the sixth day of research
My Prof he said to me,
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the seventh day of research
My Prof he said to me
Go to Summer school
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you
Make us a cup of tea
On the eighth day of research
My Prof he said to me
Get some bloody funding
Go to summer school
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the ninth day of research
My Prof he said to me
No I haven't read it
Get some bloody funding
go to summer school
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the tenth day of research
My Prof he said to me
Where's your bloody thesis
No I haven't read it
Get some bloody funding
Go to summer school
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the eleventh day of research
My Prof he said to me
Pull yourself together
Where's your bloody thesis
No I haven't read it
Get some bloody funding
Go to Summer school
Plagiarise some papers
Fabricate some data
Tutor three new students
Who the hell are you?
Make us a cup of tea

On the first day of research
My Prof he said to me:

Source here.
*Note: Does not refer to any particular research student...I promise!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Science 11: Christmas Cheer

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Christmas Cheer
Scientists have shown that drinking some alcohol with your Christmas dinner is  not likely to increase indigestion.

While alchol may slow down digestion after a rich calorific meal, it won't cause heartburn, belching or bloating, according to an article published in a recent issue of the British Medical Journal.

In order to determine the effects of alcohol on the digestive system when rich meals are consumed, investigators at the University Hospital of Zurich, led by Dr Mark Fox now at the Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham, studied 20 individuals who either drank wine or black tea with cheese fondue followed by cherry liqueur or water as a digestive after the famous Swiss dish.

Fox and colleagues say that while they concentrated on fondue the results of their research "can be generalised to address the wider issue of alcohol's effects on digestion and digestive comfort after any large, rich meal of the kind we all enjoy over the festive season".

Twenty healthy volunteers (14 male and six female) aged between 23 and 58 took part in the study. None of the participants had a history of alcohol misuse or stomach disease. They had an average body mass index (BMI) of 23.6 and none were taking prescription medicine.

The participants were tested on two days at least one week apart. Half of the group drank white wine with their fondue and the other half drank black tea. This was followed by a cherry liqueur digestive (schnapps) or water 90 minutes later.

The research team used established scientific breath tests to assess the effects of alcohol consumption on the digestive system.

The results show that the process of digestion was much slower in the group that drank alcohol with their fondue. However the results also demonstrate that alcohol did not contribute to an increase in indigestion problems such as heartburn, belching and bloating.

The authors conclude that "healthy readers should be reassured that they can continue to enjoy this traditional meal with the beverage of their choice without undue concern about postprandial digestive discomfort".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Science 10: Making Christmas Trees Last Longer

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Making Christmas Trees last Longer
Following on from yesterday's look at Christmas Trees, the news from Canada is that scientists have discovered a way to double the lifespan of Christmas trees in homes and prevent needles from dropping too early.

The work, by scientists at Universite Laval, Quebec in collaboration with Nova Scotia Agricultural College was published recently in the scientific journal Trees.

Working on balsam fir, the scientists confirmed that the plant hormone ethylene is responsible for needle loss by placing the tree branches in containers of water inside a growth chamber. After ten days, the branches began to produce ethylene and after a further three days, the needles began to drop.

It took 40 days before the branches were completely bare.

To test that the needle loss was in fact due to the ethylene, the researchers used two chemical compounds that interfere with this hormone: 1-MCP and AVG. After exposing the branches to one of these two products, the needle retention period rose to 73 and 87 days, respectively.

"By Day 40, the branches that had been treated were still green, tender, and fresh-looking, while the untreated branches had lost virtually all their needles," explained Steeve Pépin, co-author of the study and professor at the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at Université Laval.

"Since 1-MCP is a gas, it would be feasible to release it into the trucks used to ship the trees," suggests Pépin. This would be particularly useful for the export market.

Consumers also stand to benefit from this discovery since it would be possible to dissolve AVG in the water added to the tree stand, which would prolong the tree's lifespan indoors. "What is really encouraging is that we managed to double the needle retention period of the branches," notes Steeve Pépin. "However, we still have to prove that we can transpose these findings to the entire tree," he concluded.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Christmas Science 9: Irish Grown Christmas Trees

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Irish Grown Christmas Trees
A wide variety of tree species are cultivated worldwide as Christmas Trees.

For example, in the US, Douglas Fir, Scots Pine and Fraser Fir are all popular. In the UK, Nordmann Fir and Norway Spruce sell well.

According to the Irish Christmas Tree Growers Association (ICTG), Ireland's mild winters and cool summers, together with high levels of rainfall and free draining soils are ideal for growing a variety of popular Christmas tree types.

In Ireland, Noble Fir (Abies Procera) is the most popular tree due to its distinctive blue/green shading and its ability to retain its needles.

On average, it takes from 7-10 years for a tree to grow to the minimum height required for harvesting and it is estimated that less than 700,000 Nordmann and Noble Fir were planted each year since 2004.

The association estimates that there is a domestic market for around 500,000 trees and an existing export market of over 350,000 trees.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Science 8: Myrrh

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea...behold, wise men from the east came...and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:1,11)

Myrrh is one of the three gifts brought by the Magi, along with gold and frankincense. It is similar to frankincense in that it is the dried resin of a tree, this time it is trees of the Commiphora species, particularly C. myrrha.

It is valued for its fragrance and is used in incense and historically it was used as a wound dressing. In Ancient Egypt as part of the process of embalming bodies in mummification.

Although C. myrrha is the modern day preferred source of Myrrh, in ancient times, C. erythraea was the principal tree used to source this product.

Biblical scholars place significance on the choice of girfts used: gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for suffering (given its use in the embalmimg process). Myrrh was also in the last drink offered to Christ on the cross: "And they gave Him to drink wine mingled with myrrh; but he received it not" (Mark 15:23)

In recent research, some components of myrrh have been shown to have analgesic (pain-relieving) qualitites, which explains the use of myrrh mixed with wine in this instance. It is now also used in mouthwashes and toothpastes, but is toxic in large quantities.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Science 7: Smells like Christmas

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Smells like Christmas
It's natural that we associated certain smells with Christmas.

According to research conducted last year in Germany, people associated orange, cinnamon and cloves with Christmas. The same group of people also said that they associate smells like roses with summertime.
The research found that, of all the odours tested, cinnamon was the one most closely associated with Christmas.Nothing surprising there!

Interestingly, the study also found that some odours become more familiar and pleasant during certain times of the year.

When tested in winter and summer, subjects showed significantly higher familiarity and pleasantness ratings when they smelled cinnamon during the Christmas season rather than during summer.

In order to set the mood, during each season the scientists wore different outfits; as the paper notes:
"In order to establish a Christmas-associated atmosphere, the odours were presented by the experimenter wearing a "Santa Claus" hat in the booth decorated with Christmas ornaments during the Christmas season. To create a summertime-related atmosphere, the odours were presented by the experimenters wearing season-related attire, i.e. T-shirts with short arms and even pants with short legs."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

More on the Sun!

Insprired by the Frog Blog's excellent post on the Sun earlier today, I've been reminded of the excellent work of 'They Might Be Giants'.

The American band behind hits like 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (come on...I'm not the only one who remembers it!) also do excellent songs for kids and particularly science songs and videos.

Their 'Here Comes Science' album is full of catchy tunes.

TMBG's first attempt to explain how the Sun works was very catchy, but somewhat flawed in a scientific sense. So much so, that they decided to update it with a new (though less catchy) song on the latest album.

Christmas Science 6: Newton's Birthday

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Newton's Birthday
One famous scientist who was born on Christmas Day is Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was an English Physicist, astronomer, mathematician, alchemist and theologian who's book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or more usually called 'Principia')is regarded as the most important scientific book ever written.

As well as outlining his three laws of motion, he also used the text to describe universal gravitation.
newton came in for some criticism after the publication of the book because he described an invisible force able to act over cast distances (gravity), which led to accusations that he was introducing elements of the "occult" into science.

In the second edition of the Principia, Newton used his famous phrase 'Hypotheses non fingo' (Latin for I feign/contrive no hypothesis) to rebuff these criticisms. The full text where he uses this phrase is as follows:
"I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction."

Newton often told a story of how he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation when he saw an apple fall from a tree. There is no evidence to suggest that the apple hit him on the head, as depicted in many representations of the discovery since.

The location of the famous apple tree is now disputed. Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's family home claims to have the tree in its garden, while there is a descendant of the tree in Cambridge and a local school also claims to possess the tree in its garden.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Science 5: Christmas Cactus

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Christmas Cactus
Lots of people will be quite familiar with the bright purple flowers and prickly looking foliage of the Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata). It is widely cultivated and sold as house plants, particularly around this time of year.

There are in fact five species in the genus, all from South America. Four, including S. truncata, are native to the Atlantic Forest of Rio de Janeiro and adjacent parts of Sao Paulo, while the remaining species is geographically isolated from the rest.

S. kautskyi is on the Red List of critically endangered plants and is found in just two small mountain localities, both of which are in an area where recent residential developments are causing significant changes. The species, discovered in 1986, is under increasing pressure in the wild and just small fragments of its home range remain.

This endangered species is very similar to the Christmas Cactus with which we are familiar, with its flattened stem segments and sharply pointed edges. The flowers of the cultivated species however, are much larger than its endangered cousin.

Source: RBG Kew, Plant; J. Marinelli (Ed)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Science 4: Robin

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

A small chirpy robin, perched on the edge of a snow covered field is a Christmas card image that we are all familiar with. The robin (Erithacus rubecula) is, according to the RSPB, the UK's favourite bird. It's probably the same story in Ireland where it is a very familiar sight in both urban and rural environments.

While males and females both look the same, with their distinctive red breast, young birds lack the red colouration and are spotted and golden brown.

One estimate puts the number of individual robins in Ireland at between 3 and 4 million! Research in UCC a few years back showed that the average number of eggs laid by robins in Ireland (4.6) is lower than that in Britain. However, more chicks seem to survive here than in the UK.

Robins are intensely territorial birds, which can lead to fights breaking out between birds defending their territory from 'invading' robins. The red breast helps robins to ward off intruders.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Science and the Budget

Yesterday's budget speech by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan included little to cheer about from an section of society. That being said, there was some slightly positive rumblings with regard to science and science funding.

Indeed, the minister said in his speech to the Dail that "science, technology and innovation" would be one of a number of what he called "key investment priorities for 2010".

Lenihan indicated his intention to create a single stream of funding for science and technology, which will be detailed in the new year.

Conor Lenihan, Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation welcomed the news that his budget will increase: "The budget for high-tech start-ups and focused commercial research is up for the first time in three years.

These increases mean we will not just retain our centres for research excellence but will add nine new industry-led research competency centres.

On the education side of things, the 2011 provision for Universities and ITs will be reduced by 7% to €1.113 billion. However, when the increase in the student contribution in factored in, that reduction will itself be reduced to 2.2%.

Meanwhile, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has welcomed an €11 million increase in their funding. Mr. John Travers, DG of SFI noted a 2011 capital allocation of €161 million which was up on last year's figure: "During this intense period of economic difficulty, this clearly highlights Ireland’s commitment to investing in high quality scientific and engineering research to support long-term, sustainable economic development.  The SFI research community continues to enhance Ireland’s international reputation in science and engineering, enabling increasing levels of high tech foreign direct investment and indigenous innovation. The budget allocations will allow third level institutions to foster emerging talent and continue to build partnerships with industry so that innovative research can continue to flourish for years to come.”

According to SFI’s Director of Policy & Communications, Dr. Graham Love: “ The increased financial provision to SFI in 2011 will allow us to nurture research investments made over the past decade and to invest in a new wave of cutting edge science and engineering. This is very important for Ireland’s international reputation, for our on-going ascent of the international science rankings, and for transforming the academic-industrial relationship to Ireland’s economic advantage”.

The Joy of Stats

In previous years, I've taught a course in statistics and data analysis to final year biology undergraduates. With this comes a sort of weird affection for all things statistical. It's not the coolest thing in the world to admit to, but i think the cool boat has long sailed for this particular scientist!

Last nights "The Joy of Stats" by the ever-enthusiastic Prof. Hans Rosling on BBC4 was a tour de force in public service broadcasting and science communication. Rosling's obvious enthusiasm, combined with state of the art graphics and excellent contributions from other leading statisticians made the whole topic come alive.

Unfortunately, BBC iPlayer doesn't allow you watch the show online if you are outside the UK, but it will be repeated on Monday next at 11pm on BBC4. In the meantime, you can enjoy this wonderful clip from the show where Rosling demonstrates how you can condense huge amounts of data on public health and wealth and make it interesting and exciting!

Christmas Science 3: Holly

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

There are about 400 species of Holly (Ilex spp.) around the world, with about 80 of them considered to be threatened in the wild. So called 'English Holly" (Ilex aquifolium) is popular in temperate areas for its attractive red fruits against the dark glossy foliage.

These fruits are also attractive to birds who eat them and deposit seed elsewhere, often under other trees. As 'English Holly' is very shade tolerant, it is becoming invasive in forested areas where it is not native, including old-growth forests in the US.

In Ireland, where I. aquifolium is native, it has a strong association with winter and Christmas. In pre-christian times, Holly was seen as a source of life and growth in winter, when the red fruits and dark-green foliage were at their peak.

Holly berries are somewhat toxic to humans.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Science2: Reindeer Gender

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

Reindeer Gender
For now, we'll confine ourselves to the non-flying type. More about flying reindeer later in the series.
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) vary considerably in colour and size, with both genders growing antlers. There is some debate as to the gender of Santa Claus' reindeer. While both male and female reindeer grow antlers, males loose theirs at the end of mating season (early December).

This would suggest that all of Santa's reindeer must be female. Indeed, except for Rudolph, there is really no indication in their names to sugest otherwise. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blixen could all refer to females rather than males.

A reindeer's antlers are unique to the individual animal, just as fingerprints are unique to humans. This allows them to be tracked and monitored in the wild and in parks.

In terms of surviving in cold conditions, like the North Pole, the reindeer has hairs which are hollow in order to trap air and increase their bouyancy, thus allowing them to swim.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Christmas Science 1: Frankincense

In the run up to Christmas, Communicate Science offers you 20 Christmas Science Facts. We'll post one every day until the 25th December.

According to the Christmas story, one of the Magi brought a gift of frankincense to the infant Jesus shortly after his birth. It is an aromatic resin that comes from trees of the genus Boswellia and is used in perfumes and incense.

The bark of the tree is slashed to release the resin which hardens on the bark of the tree.Depending on the location of the tree and the climate, different grades and quality of frankincense can be produced, its quality based on colour, purity, aroma and age.

Frankincense was used in religious rites and ceremonies and the Egyptians ground the charred resin into a black powder called kohl. This was used to make the distinctive black eyeliner seen on many figures in Egyptian art.

Frankincense has been investigated as a treatment for ailments from Crohn's disease and arthritis to various cancers.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Secret Life: Flying Snakes...not on a plane

New research out of Virginia Tech. has looked at the dynamics of gliding reptiles or flying snakes!

The snakes can "fly" by flinging themselves off their tree-top perches and gliding to another tree or to the ground.

The researchers looked at Chrysopelea paradisi and recorded their gliding patterns on camera after allowed the researchers to create and analyse 3-D reconstructions fo the animals' gliding patterns during the flight.

The results show that, despite travelling up to 24 metres from their starting point, they never reached an "equilibrium gliding" state but neither did they simple plummet to the ground....contd. here.

My latest guest post for PBS NOVA's Secret Life of Scientists blog is now online. This week's episode features physicist and glider pilot Allan Adams talking about his love of being in the air and condensing the history of the universe into 30 seconds!

You can read the post and watch the episode here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sir George Everest - Engineer

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Sir George Everest. The Welsh engineer was born in Powys and was heavily involved in mapping the Indian subcontinent between 1818 and 1843. Everest died on this day in 1866.

Everest joined the Royal Artillery in 1818 and became the assistant to Colonel William Lambton, who had started the Great Tigonometrical Survey of India in 1806. When Lambton died in 1823, Everest succeeded him as superintendent of the survey.

Everest retired in 1843 and was kinighted in 1861. He was a Fellow of the Royal Academy and Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society. His niece, Mary Everest (daughter of his brother Thomas), married the mathmatician George Boole (who worked, died and is buried in Cork, Ireland) and was herself a noted educator.

In 1865, Peak XV was renamed in his honour (despite his objections) as Mount Everest. According to the archives of the Royal Geographical Society: after the announcement of Peak XV as the highest mountain in the world, Andrew Waugh, Everest's successor, wrote: " is a mountain most probably the highest in the world without any local name that I can discover...", so he proposed " perpetuate the memory of that illustrious master of geographical research...Everest."

Many people thought it should take local names such as Chomolungma (Tibetan) or Devadhunka (Nepali). After much debate, the Royal Geographical Society in London officially adopted the name Mount Everest in 1865.

Incidentally, Everest always pronounced his name EVE-Rest, so we usually pronounce the name of the highest mountain in the world incorrectly.

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