Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A year in science

In many ways it's been an amazing year for scientific breakthroughs and progress. Here's a look back at some of the most popular posts on the Communicate Science blog in 2011.

The most popular post this year is also one of the most recent. The continuing debate over the final resting place of the 'Irish Giant' Charles Byrne after his significant impact on the world of medicine has provoked significant interest.

News in July that the potato plant genome had been published by a consortium which included scientists working at Teagasc made for a popular post. The consortium said that the advance means that potato breeders should be able to "reduce the 10-12 years currently needed to breed new varieties".

Proving that the history of science is still as popular as ever, our post marking the 200 birthday of Robert Bunsen was the next most popular post of 2011. Of Bunsen it's been said: "As an investigator he was great, as a teacher he was greater, as a man and friend he was greatest."

The visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in May of 2011 is surely one of the big news stories of the year and our scientific slant on this story was very popular. When visiting Cork's Tyndall Institute, the Queen was presented with a scarf inspired by the work of the 'father' of computer science and adopted Corkman George Boole.

Speaking of the Tyndall Institute, in May we looked at the  man himself - John Tyndall. One of Ireland's most successful scientists and educators he was the ultimate science communicator. In 1878 it was written: "Professor Tyndall has succeeded not only in original investigation and in teaching science soundly and accurately, but in making it attractive.... When he lectures at the Royal Institution the theatre is crowded".

A simple little post on the history of the modern racehorse brings up the rear of the field. A group of Irish and UK scientists used mitochondrial DNA to determine the origin of foundation mares which were used to start the Irish and English Thoroughbred racehorse industry.

Some posts which weren't quite so popular but were some of my own personal favourites include:

December's news of the possible discovery of the Higg's Boson.
The crossover between art and science in 'Science in Stone'.
David Puttnam's take on educating for the digital society.
The history of science philanthropy in Cork.
How my time on I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here! went.

Have a great New Year's celebration. Normal service resumes early in 2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Transitional changes

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) of Ireland the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment have issued their report on the "From Transaction to Transition" conference which took place earlier this year and examined the transition of students from second to third level.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, has welcomed the report and has called for an open debate on the full range of possible options for change and improvement.

Minister Quinn said: "I want in particular to publicly thank both organisations for the speed with which they have responded. In addition, their report is focused, compact and explicit in its recommendations".

The Minister said that he agreed with the overall thrust of the report. "There are a number of issues I have asked the HEA and NCCA to consider further in consultation with the State Examinations Commission (SEC) and higher education institutions.

"I have requested the HEA and NCCA, in partnership with the SEC and higher education institutions where appropriate, to now begin advancing the recommendations."

The report makes a number of important recommendations, a few of which are outlined here.

  • The report reiterates the importance of completing the ongoing curriculum review for Biology, Chemistry and Physics at Leaving Certificate level to incorporate "new methods of assessing scientific knowledge and skills".
  • The authors suggest e-learning and inter-school collaboration be examined as new ways to increase learners' access to a broad range of subjects at senior cycle level.
  • The NCCA and State Examinations Commission will be asked (possible with the support of an independent agency) to assess and address and problems with predictability in the Leaving Certificate exams - an attempt to prevent students 'guessing' what is due to appear on the exam.
  • The current 14-point system of grading exams (A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.) will be replaced with an 8-point system (A1, A2, B, C, D, E, NG).
  • Research will be carried to assess what impact the compulsory inclusion of maths and english in the calculations for CAO 'points' would have.
  • The academic year at third-level should be extended to accommodate the "incorporation of transversal skills without compromising discipline-specific content and academic rigour". The authors propose that since the action "does not require any changes to existing contracts" implementation at first-year should start immediately.
  • There should be broader entry to undergraduate programmes at third-level with students specialising after first-year.

The full text of the short report is worth reading.

Many of the proposals fit with proposals outlined in the Hunt Report of this year, especially the movement towards a broader first-year curriculum which includes training in generic and foundational skills and are to be welcomed.

The proposal to extend the undergraduate academic year may well have some virtue but for many in the third-level sector the summer months are an opportunity to focus on research and writing which has been sidelined during the year. Any changes to the duration of the academic year, I would argue, needs to be carefully balanced to ensure research output does not suffer. Given the link between ongoing research and good teaching, this is crucial.

Irish Giant could finally be buried at sea

The remains of an Irish 'Giant', long held in a London museum should be buried at sea to fulfill the man's last wishes, according to a professor of medical ethics at University of London and a lawyer from Queen's University Belfast.

We've covered the tragic story of Charles Byrne already. The 7ft 7in man from Northern Ireland ended up in London in the 1780's where he worked as a 'freak' and ended up destitute and an alcoholic before dying, aged just 22 in 1783.

Despite his express wishes that he be buried at sea to avoid becoming a morbid curiosity in death, his skeleton ended up in the hands of the surgeon John Hunter who boiled the body in acid to remove the flesh from the bones. As one contemporary report put it: "The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surrounded his house just as harpooners would an enormous whale."

Writing in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal, Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer argue that while the remains had a valid role to play in medical research, it is now time to remove the skeleton from display and bury it at sea.

The bones did play an important role in medical research. As the authors note: "In 1909 the American surgeon Harvey Cushing removed the top of Byrne’s skull and observed an enlarged pituitary fossa, confirming a relation between the disease [acromegaly or'gigantism'] and adenoma [a benign tumour]".

The authors argue that there is no obvious reason why Byrne would have lacked the capacity or competence to make a decision about the disposal of his body.

"The fact is that Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror of him and ignored his wishes for the disposal of his body. What has been done cannot be undone but it can be morally rectified. Surely it is time to respect the memory and reputation of Byrne: the narrative of his life, including the circumstances surrounding his death."

The authors discuss the paper in this video from the BMJ >>

The skeleton is now in the possession of and on display in the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the authors of the BMJ article argue that its public display is no longer justifiable. "Past research on Byrne did not require the display of his skeleton; merely medical access to it. Moreover, now that Byrne’s DNA has been extracted, it can be used in further research."

"As a sign of respect for Byrne’s original desires, his skeleton should be buried at sea as part of a ceremony commemorating his life. We recommend that the Hunterian Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons organise this burial, along with a conference on related legal and ethical issues. At the very least, we suggest that more complete information is provided about the background of the acquisition and display of Byrne’s skeleton so that visitors can make a more informed judgment about the moral implications and appropriateness of its continued display."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Closer and closer to the Higgs boson

Could this image tell of the elusive Higgs boson?
Scientists have announced that they are tantalisingly close to proving or disproving the existence of one of the fundamental building blocks of the Universe.

Although theoretical physicists have already predicted the existence of the so-called Higgs boson, it has never been observed in experiments - up until now, perhaps.

The Higgs boson is thought to be what gives everything else in the Universe mass and was proposed by a group of scientists, including Peter Higgs, back in 1964. Without the Higgs boson and the 'Higgs Field' which is part of this theoretical model, all the material in the Universe would just be whizzing around at light speed and not clumping together to give us planets, particles, puppies and people. We must have mass for 'stuff' to exist in the Universe as we know it and the theory goes, we must have the Higgs boson to give us that mass.

The Large Hadron Collider is the latest device designed to enable experiments to be conducted which may allow physicists to observe the Higgs boson or to exclude it and to say such a thing does not exist. 

The LHC, is located in a circular tunnel 100 metres beneath the Swiss/French border at Geneva. As its name suggests, it is large (weighing 38,000 tonnes and running in a 27 km loop) and it a collider of hadrons. Hadrons are atomic particles of which a proton is just one example. The protons have a positive charge and can therefore be 'steered' around the LHC using magnetic fields. Once they are moving fast enough, the streams of protons whizzing in either direction can be crossed leading to a collision.

With that highly powerful collision, comes a big shower of debris - particles which are only created at such high energies and the physicists at CERN hope to be able to spot the remnants of the Higgs boson in the aftermath of that collision. It is highly unlikely that the Higgs boson will ever be spotted itself, but it's hoped that as the Higgs particle decays into other particles very quickly, it will leave a tell-tale signature that can be spotted.

The scene at today's announcement
In today's announcement, the scientists were keen to emphasise that while their results are based on lots of data, they are not sufficient to allow them to categorically say one way or the other whether the Higgs boson is a reality. If it does exist, the scientists have now reduced the window in which it will detected.

Through repeated experiments, the physicists have detected some "interesting" results when they looked at the remnants of collisions in the 124-126 GeV (gigaelectronvolts) region. One of the scientists, Fabiola Gianotti said of these discoveries, "This excess may be due to a fluctuation, but it could also be something more interesting. We cannot conclude anything at this stage. We need more study and more data. Given the outstanding performance of the LHC this year, we will not need to wait long for enough data and can look forward to resolving this puzzle in 2012."

Over the coming months, scientists at CERN will continue to focus in on this window, which is getting smaller and smaller, in the hope that they can prove one way or the other, the existence of the Higgs. In many ways today's announcement will be a bit of a disappointment for some observers who expected to hear more definitive news. However, if the news coming from Geneva is anything to go by, it will not be long before we know for sure whether this theoretical particle is the real thing.

This post also appears on the Cork Independent Blog.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar Eclipse Tonight

An image of the lunar eclipse of June 2011
Today, the moon will rise over Ireland with a "bite" taken out of it as we are treated to a partial lunar eclipse (at least the tail-end of it anyway).

Astronomy Ireland say people can expect to see "a slight darkened edge of the moon" and not the total eclipse that will be viewable in other parts of the world.

China, Japan, Australia, Eastern Russia and the western states of the USA will see a full lunar eclipse while Europe, Africa and the Eastern US states will see a partial eclipse.

The partial eclipse should be visible just as the moon rises, around 4pm in Ireland.

Friday, December 9, 2011

George Boole and Cork's Heritage

Yesterday marked the 147th anniversary of the death of George Boole, first professor of mathematics at Cork and the 'father' of modern algebra.

In my most recent post for the Cork Independent Blog, I look at the fate of Boole's former Cork home, the interior of which collapsed over a year ago.

To read the post see here >>>
George Boole and Cork's Heritage

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Debating Science

Organisers of a cross border science debating competition have announced that they will once again be funded by the Wellcome Trust to continue their work this year.

Wellcome Trust, the largest independent charity in the United Kingdom has just announced that it will support the Debating Science Issues (DSI) project for a fifth consecutive year with a People Award.

DSI is a cross border schools science debating competition involving 9 collaborating partners:  the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) at NUI Galway, W5 in Belfast, Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI) at DCU, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, CRANN at TCD, CLARITY at UCD, the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh, Cork Institute of Technology and Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre at UCC.

Co-ordinated by REMEDI’s Outreach Officer Danielle Nicholson, this All-Ireland competition encourages young people to engage in debate on the cultural, societal and ethical implications of advances in biomedical science.  Schools taking part initially receive a 3 hour biomedical, bioethical workshop to facilitate discussion on the ethical issues raised by stem cell research, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, health and self-testing kits or flu vaccinations.

>>> Watch a video from the 2010 Event
School students research further in preparation for the debate motion related to the initial workshop using a Student Pack of topic guides.  From there, the debate motions circulate so that students debate on an array of controversial topical issues.

‘For 2012, we will create a new topic guide surrounding the funding allocation made to develop treatments and research rare diseases.  We are developing a dedicated DSI website too.’ enthused Danielle Nicholson.

Boston Scientific, Abbott Ireland, Merck- Millipore and Pfizer Ireland sponsor the provincial trophies and prizes.  Forty eight schools will be involved this year.  Updated Topic Guides will be available for download on our websites very soon.  For more information please you can contact

Follow DSI on twitter: @DebatingScience

'What a Wonderful World'

David Attenborough's wonderful new series Frozen Planet came to an end on BBC last night with a warning from the presenter that global warming is continuing to have profound effects on the polar regions of the planet. Despite the beautiful imagery, it was somewhat depressing stuff!

To lighten the mood, a remarkable montage of clips from BBC Natural History programming was played after Frozen Planet with David Attenborough voicing Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World to great effect. Enjoy! There is already internet mumblings about a Christmas Number One single.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Science of Christmas

It's nearly Christmas and what better way to celebrate then with some Christmas Science?

You can now read all of our Christmas Science posts in one go!

So, if you ever wondered what Frankincense really is, why Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer must have been female or where Holly comes from, you can find out here.

If you want to  find out more about the Robin, a constant feature of Christmas greeting cards or about Christmas Cacti or Myrh this is the place to be!

Another post features Sir Isaac Newton who was born on Christmas Day and we also look at how the unique odours of Christmas are far more evocative in winter than summer.

We look at Irish grown Christmas Trees, the science of making those trees last longer in your living room and how a small amount of alcohol with your Christmas Dinner won't increase indigestion.

There's a witty take on research to the tune of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and some great ideas for science tricks at the Christmas Party.

We look at the science of Mistletoe and last year's winter solstice which coincided with a total lunar eclipse. We examine that humble Christmas gift, the Orange and see why it really is such a great source of vitamin C and why 'hunting and gathering' may have a role to play in why we do our Christmas Shopping as we do.

A new mistletoe species was discovered by Kew last year - we look at that and a few more recent discoveries in the plant world. Finally, we take a quick look at some of the Science of Santa Claus.

In the run up to Christmas, take some time to enjoy some fun Christmas Science. To see the full list of Christmas Science posts, click here.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Primary School Science Contest Launched

Primary school students from all over Ireland are being asked to get their scientific thinking caps on and investigate the wonders of science and maths to win some great prizes.

Organisers are looking for pupils from 3rd class upwards to demonstrate the everyday value of understanding science and maths through project work and learning based on the science curriculum, with pupils choosing to design a project from one of four categories; living things, materials, energy and forces or environmental awareness and care.

The competition is sponsored by telecommunications giant Ericsson in association with development agency Atlantic Corridor.

Schools must register their interest in the competition between now and December 23rd. All entries received between now and then will go into a draw for a laptop computer for their schools. Final competition winners in each category will receive a prize of €2,000 with additional prizes for runners up. There are three categories for schools to enter, with 3rd and 4th Class being paired together as well as a separate competition for 5th and 6th Class pupils. There is also a category for Special Needs schools.

Micahel Gallagher, MD of Ericsson in Ireland said his company was delighted to sponsor the competition. "In Ericsson, we are committed to Ireland in the long-term and  as a technology leader  we  feel it appropriate to also help plant  some of the  seeds of the future of our knowledge economy. Given the wonderful experiences from the first competition, I’m very hopeful that this competition will give many young students a taste of the enjoyment and sense of achievement to be had in the world of science and engineering. I am also hopeful that many of them will want to pursue these interests in science and technology further with Ericsson some day in the future. A vibrant and sustainable knowledge economy will benefit all."

Atlantic Corridor, through its international links and partnerships with national agencies like Discover Science and Engineering, has developed a strong suite of programmes and initiatives to promote STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths education.

Jackie Gorman, CEO of Atlantic Corridor said “The competition is a wonderful opportunity for primary schools and we are pleased to be running this event in association with our 2012 STEM Conference and a number of other initiatives over the coming months, with which we plan to make a positive and meaningful  impact in science and technology education. It is wonderful to be working again with Ericsson, who have played such a key role in developing the knowledge economy in Ireland. We share a common objective in our work which is to generate greater interest in STEM subjects and skills, which are vital for Ireland in seeking to compete internationally for investment, growth and innovation. The closing date for registration of interest is December 23rd 2011 and 6 regional finals will be held across the country in the month of February 2012, with the national final in Athlone in March. We look forward to the competition and we encourage as many students and teachers as possible to engage in this exciting opportunity. ”

Further details on the Science Competition, the 2012 Atlantic Conference and a range of other initiatives promoting STEM can be found on

Image: Katie McGrath, St. Peter's National School, Athlone with Michael Gallagher, Managing Director of Ericsson in Ireland,  launching the Ericsson National School Primary Science Competition in association with development agency Atlantic Corridor.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Attenborough and that 'national treasure' title

Natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough has been named Britain's greatest living national treasure - and the physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking came fifth.

The public poll by the company that runs the national lottery in the UK found that Attenborough beat Stephen Fry (2nd) and Sean Connery (3rd) for first place.

Attenborough, aged 85, is a British broadcasting legend who has become the face and voice of natural history programmes throughout the English-speaking world. His most recent series The Frozen Planet is currently being shown, to high acclaim, on BBC1. His brother, Lord Richard Attenborough also made the list.

"People like animals, they care for the natural world...for those reasons, they are sympathetic towards me. It's no more than that."It's not the first time the presenter has been labelled a 'national treasure' and it's not something that sits well on his shoulders.

"You needn't bother with that" he told one reporter who mentioned the phrase back in 2009. "People like animals, they care for the natural world, they don't like industrial pollution. So, for those reasons, they are sympathetic towards me. It's no more than that."

Prof. Stephen Hawking made it to fifth place on the list. The theoretical physicist is known for his public appearances and scientific books as well as his major contributions to cosmology, quantum gravity and the study of black holes. The scientist has also played himself in episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama.

The full list of British 'national treasures' is:

Sir David Attenborough
Stephen Fry
Sir Sean Connery
Sir Paul McCartney
Prof. Stephen Hawking
Sir Bobby Charlton
JK Rowling
Dame Judi Dench
Sir Tom Jones
Lord Richard Attenborough

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

World’s first night flowering orchid discovered on the island of New Britain

B. nocturnum (Image: J. Vermeulen)
Botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis have described the first night-flowering orchid known to science. The discovery is published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

The new night flowering species, Bulbophyllum nocturnum, from the island of New Britain near Papua New Guinea, is the first known example of an orchid species with flowers that consistently open after dark and close in the morning. Its flowers last one night only.

A relatively small number of plant species have flowers that open at night and close during the day. Until now, no orchids were known among them. This in spite of the fact that many orchids are pollinated by moths. But these moth-pollinated orchids all have flowers that remain open during the day, even if they are mainly pollinated after dark.

Bulbophyllum nocturnum was discovered by Dutch orchid specialist Ed de Vogel on a field trip to the island of New Britain, where he was allowed to collect some orchids in a logging area for cultivation at the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Under the care of garden manager Art Vogel one of these plant soon produced buds. Their opening was eagerly anticipated as de Vogel and his colleagues had already established that this plant was a member of the Epicrianthes group of orchids of the genus Bulbophyllum. Epicrianthes contains many rare and bizarre species, most of which have only been discovered recently as they occur in some of the remotest jungle habitats on earth.

Frustratingly, however, the buds all withered once they had seemingly reached the size at which they should open. Wanting to get to the bottom of this, de Vogel took the plant home with him one evening in order to find out exactly what happened to the buds.

B. nocturnum (Image: A. Schuiteman)

To his surprise, the bud that was then present opened up at ten in the evening, long after dark, revealing the flower of an undescribed species.

Observations on subsequent buds confirmed that they all opened around 10pm, and closed the next morning around 10am. The flowers lasted only one night, which explained why the buds were seemingly about to open one day and withered the next.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew orchid specialist, André Schuiteman, and Leiden Bulbophyllum expert, Jaap Vermeulen, teamed up with de Vogel to investigate and describe this remarkable new species.

Says André Schuiteman of the discovery, “This is another reminder that surprising discoveries can still be made. But it is a race against time to find species like this that only occur in primeval tropical forests. As we all know, such forests are disappearing fast. It is therefore increasingly important to obtain funding for the fieldwork required to make such discoveries.”

Why Bulbophyllum nocturnum has adopted a night flowering habit is unknown and requires further investigation. However, it may be speculated that its pollinators are midges that forage at night.

In February 2012 Kew’s Tropical Extravaganza festival (4 February – 4 March 2012) will celebrate the beauty and diversity of orchids. Orchids make up what is probably the largest plant family on earth, with an estimated 25,000 species. Their flowers show a tremendous range of variation in size, colour and shape.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Public Sector Reform

From a first look at the Public Sector Reform document published today, the following would seem to have an effect on Higher Education, Research and Science sectors:

The Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology will be merged with the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. They will form a single entity under the Higher Education Authority.

Awarding bodies FETAC, HETAC and NQAI are all to be amalgamated under the plans.

The government is to instigate a "critical review" of a larger number of state agencies, with an aim to report back in June 2012 on suggestions to:

Excuse all the links but in some cases it's interesting to remind oneself what some of these agencies/councils/offices do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Science Snap Winners Unveiled

'Love is Sweet' Anna McCarthy
The winners of the Science Snaps competition were announced today as part of Science Week 2011.

The competition is now an annual event run by the Tyndall National Institute and Discover Science and Engineering and aims to challenge people to think about the prevalence of science in their everyday lives.

In keeping with the Science Week theme, the theme for entries to this year's Science Snaps competition was 'The Chemistry of Life'.

First prize in the junior cycle category went to Paul McKay from Wesley College Dublin for his photo entitled 'Water Drop'. First prize in the senior cycle schools category went to Anna McCarthy from Coláiste An Phiarsaigh Glanmire, Cork for her creative and clever shot 'Love is Sweet'.

'Pollen Fest' Christina Ni Dheaghaidh
The competition was open to the general public also and first prize in that category went to Christina Ní Dheaghaidh from Dublin for her image 'Pollen Fest'.

Exhibitions of highly commended entries from the annual Science Snaps photography competition take place at the Discovery Exhibition in Cork City Hall on Nov 12th-15th, in the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar and in Dublin City Libraries and Cork City Libraries during Science Week Nov 13th-20th and beyond.

To view a gallery of the entries, visit

'Water Drop' Paul McKay

C.O.R.Y. gets to work, exploring the skies

CORY (Image: Blackrock Castle Observatory)
After receiving hundreds of entries to their Name the Big Dish competition, Blackrock Castle Observatory have chosen a winner. Drum roll please....

Rebecca Cantwell from Regina Mundi in Douglas, Cork came up with the winning name: C.O.R.Y., which stands for "Computer Operated Radio Yoke".

BCO said in a statement that the name "shows not only Rebecca’s Cork wit but also her knowledge of astronomy and science".

Rebecca joined NASA astronaut Greg Johnson in activating and lighting up CORY last night when it officially began receiving visual and audio signals from space - making it the largest radio dish available for educational purposes in Europe!

The 32 metre dish is based at the National Space Centre, at Elfordstown Earthstation near Midleton in Co. Cork and was originally constructed in 1984 to carry transatlantic telephone calls from Europe to the US. It was retired from this function in the mid 90's when underground cables were laid.

Now, in a partnership between the National Space Centre and Cork Institute of Technology, the dish is being refurbished to act as a state-of-the-art educational and research tool.

Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock TD with CORY (Image: Blackrock Castle Observatory)
Dr Niall Smith, Head of Research at CIT, who outlined Phase I and Phase II of the project said that “This project will see a €10m radio telescope brought back to life for less than €10,000 thanks to the partnership between National Space Centre and CIT. It’s a great example of using world-class infrastructure in the most cost-effective way to reach out into the community and to embed our growing scientific heritage alongside our world-renowned culture.

It will excite students in schools who will get to listen in on the radio signals from outer space; it will be a testbed for engineering and science projects from primary through to PhD; it will be available to researchers from across Ireland and beyond; it will be an iconic structure only minutes from the famous Jameson Distillery, which we hope in the future to open to tourists and public alike.”

Phase 1 of the project to refurbish the telescope is now complete and next year it is hoped to see the further refurbishment of the dish allowing it to turn and slew as it originally did, along with the installation of new sensors and receivers.

The dish is capable of detecting a host of cosmic phenomena including:

    the emission of giant slow moving hydrogen clouds
    the violent explosions of stars
    eruptions of the solar surface
    storms on Jupiter
    enormous galaxy-scale jets of quasars

The switch-on ceremony took place as part of Science Week, which continues until next Sunday.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Science in Stone

Hidden away in the courtyard of a building close to Cork's Saint Finbarre's Cathedral is a unique reminder of Cork's scientific heritage crafted by one of Ireland's greatest craftsmen.

The piece is made up of 3 individual limestones panels each measuring 74 x 94 cm. Arranged one above the other, with a chiselled limestone surround the panels are unmistakeably the work of the Cork stonecarver Seamus Murphy.

Born near Mallow, Co. Cork in 1907, Murphy went on to become an award winning sculptor and stone carver, crafting some of Ireland's most important public art - including the O'Donovan Rossa plaque and Countess Markievicz bust at St. Stephan's Green, Dublin; the bust of Michael Collins at Fitzgerald Park, Cork.

From top to bottom, the Crawford panels are:
CEIMHIOCHT A FISIC, bearing the symbols of chemistry and physics.
INNEALTÓIREACHT, bearing the symbols of engineering.
FOIRGNÍOCHT, bearing the symbols of building and construction.

The work is located at the Crawford College of Art and Design on Sharman Crawford Street, Cork and is a reminder of the former use of the building - as the Crawford Technical School (built as the then Cork Municipal Technical Institute in 1909).

The institute was built on a site donated by Mr. AF Sharman Crawford (whose grandfather was William Crawford of Lakelands who had already proven himself a great benefactor of science and art on Cork), Chairman of the Cork Technical Instruction Committee and a managing director of Beamish and Crawford, brewers.

The old Arnotts brewery that previously occupied the site was partially demolished and a new building of Little Island limestone, brick from Ballinphelic, Co. Cork, Galway granite, as well as marble from Connemara, Cork, Mitchelstown and Beaumont Quarry in Ballintemple was erected.

From November 1911, the Institute taught electrical and mechanical engineering, building construction, typography, painting and decorating, chemistry, domestic science, carpentry, plumbing, botany, tailors’ cutting, cooking, laundry, shirtmaking, dressmaking, millinery and needlework.

Seamus Murphy's stonework was installed in  1967 and now serves as a permanant link between the Crawford Technical School and the Crawford College of Art and as a tribute to the philantrophic activities of several generations of the Crawford family in art and science.

Unfortunately, while the artwork has survived well, despite being exposed to the elements for over 40 years it is now almost obscured from view by an unsympathetically positioned metal smoking  shelter. Surely such a fine piece of craftsmanship should be worthy of a little bit more respect?

As we begin Science Week 2011, the theme of which is 'Chemistry of Life' we could do worse than reflect of Murphy's interpretation of the science in stone.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thank You!

Just a brief word of thanks to everyone who took the time to vote for Communicate Science in the recent Eircom Spider 'Big Mouth' Award.

As usual, the awards night was great fun (I'm a bit of a regular now :)) and met some very interesting people including fellow science blogger Maria Daly of Science Calling.

Once again it was great to see two science blogs competing with current affairs, entertainment, etc. and while not repeating the feats of The Frog Blog who took home the gong last year, I think we were both very pleased to be amongst the shortlisted sites.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Irish scientists unravel the mystery of the 'pink swans'

In a paper to be published in the international journal Wildfowl UCC researchers, describe for the first time, the cause of pink coloration in Mute swans which has been observed in many parts of Ireland, Britain and North America. 

‘Symmetrical salmon-pink colour was first evident on the wing feather tips and then spread to the entire wing as the year progressed, darkened as winter approached, and sometimes developed to a brown colour’ according to Professor John O’Halloran the study director and Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) at the University.

Unfortunately, ‘the affected feathers tended to become brittle, fragmented and lose their ability to repel water and the plumage could no longer function and some birds died from hypothermia’. Surveys made at nine sites in Britain and Ireland found between 12–85% of swans with pink coloration.  The highest prevalence occurred amongst flocks dependent on artificial food in eutrophic water bodies.

Feather samples (white and pink), bill swabs and swabs of preen gland oil collected from swans, and also pink fungus isolated from bread samples, were cultured and subjected to analysis, to identify organisms and pigments. Salmon-pink Chrysonilia sitophila fungus colonies developed on agars inoculated with samples from pink swans and from the bread sample, but were absent from control swans.

The pigments in pink feathers were generally consistent with those found in C. sitophila, indicating that C. sitophila is the most likely agent responsible for the pink colour on swan plumage.

‘The evidence from this study suggests that C. sitophila is acquired through exposure to contaminated food via the bill and is preened onto the plumage’ says O'Halloran.

A layer of environmental contaminants and debris that coats the plumage of swans inhabiting eutrophic water bodies may provide a substrate for fungal growth and added to the problems for the swans.

‘The clear message from this study is to feed swans natural foods not stale bread- contaminated with fungi’ according to O’Halloran.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Picture Special: Stalking Deer in Killarney

Alone in Killarney National Park with a solitary powerful red deer stag as day broke on a frosty foggy November morning is a good as it gets for a nature lover and photographer, writes Dan Lettice.

Having located the Stag as the sun came up it took quite a while of slow, careful and very quiet approach to get close enough to get a good shot of him. Using a tree for cover I grabbed my shots before the Stag decided I'd had enough and moved away into nearby forest but not before at I was able to wonder at the sheer size and power of Ireland's largest wild land mammal.

Killarney national parks deer population is thought to be something between 700 and 800 animals. It is made up of lowland and highland animals. The lowland red deer are considered to be made up of two loose populations, one in Knockreer estate and one in Muckross estate. The highland deer population can be found mainly on Torc and Mangerton Mountains.

Red Deer have been present in the Killarney area since the last Ice Age and their survival was greatly aided by their protection in the 19th century in two of the large estates, Kenmare and Muckross estates. There was however a considerable decline in the numbers from 1900 to 1970 when there were possibly less than 100 red deer left in the Killarney area. Thankfully since then the herd population has increased considerably through rigorous protection. The herd in now fully protected by law and high priority is given to protecting its genetic purity.

In late September and early October the rut will begin, the stags will become more aggressive and less tolerant of each other and they can be heard ‘roaring’ as they seek to gather hinds together to form a harem which they will attempt to protect from other stags. When the hinds come into season he will mate with the fittest hinds. Stags can often be seen during this time clashing with each other in competition for the hinds.
Calves are born around June.

Viewing or photographing the deer in Killarney is probably best done around rut time when the stags are most active but care should be taken to avoid coming between a stag and his hinds. Whenever you choose to view these magnificent animals, being in the close presence of a big powerful stag is a wonderful privilege.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Marie Curie on Google

As well as the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, today is also noteworthy as being the the brithday of Marie Curie- an event celebrated with a Google Doodle. 

A Polish-born French chemist and physicist, she is famous for here work on radioactivity. Amongst her notable achievements:

  • Being the first female professor at the University of Paris.
  • The first person to recieve two Nobel Prizes - Physics and Chemistry.
  • The first woman to win a Nobel Prize.
  • Only woman to win in two fields.
  • Only person to win in multiple sciences.

Curie coined the term radioactivity, discovered two elements (polonium and radium) and founded the Curie Institute at Paris and Warsaw. She was born on this day in 1867 and died in 1934.

The Wallace Line

Painting of Wallace's Flying Frog from Sarawak by Wallace (1855) Copyright: AR Wallace Memorial Fund
On this day in 1913, the famous naturalist and biogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace died at his home at the grand age of 90 years.

He's probably best known, although not always credited, for independently proposing a theory of evolution due to natural selection alongside Charles Darwin.

Wallace's biogeographical work is particularly interesting. In the 19th century, he was considered a leading expert in the geographical distribution of animals, so  much so that he is known as the 'father of biogeography'.

Wallace travelled the world studying animal species in their own environments, including trips to South America and the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia and Indonesia). He was one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the impact humans were having on the natural environment.

While on an almost decade long tour of the Malay Archipelago, Wallace discovered what is now known as the the Wallace Line. The imaginary line runs through what is now Indonesia, between Borneo and Sulawesi. To the west of this line, organisms are related to Asiatic species. To the east, a mixture of Asian and Austrailian organisms can be found.

When Wallace published his findings he was puzzled that islands little more then 22 miles apart could have profoundly different animal communities. It was to be almost 100 years before plate tectonics (the movement of parts of the Earth's crust) would be fully understood.

In fact, Wallace's line corresponds very closely to the boundary between two continental plates which were once very far apart indeed.

Biogeography is the study of why we find different organisms in different parts of the world. What is clear though is that history (on the geological timescale) is also important if we are to fully understand this distribution.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

As if you needed telling - eat more fruit and vegetables and live longer

Two pieces of research out this week have confirmed what your mother always told you - eat your fruit and veg!

Scientists have shown that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can overcome a genetic predisposition to cardiovascular disease (CVD) in some people.

The Canadian study looked at the interaction between genetics and the environment and their effect on heart health. In particular, the study focused on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are differences in single building blocks of DNA or nucleotides.

Previous studies have shown a link between an increased risk of heart problems, (heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, etc.) and a cluster of these SNPs in a chromosomal region called 9p21. In this new study, the researchers investigated the link between 9p21 and CVD in a range of people of different ethnicities and diets.

Overall, the study looked at over 27,000 people and found that the negative effect of the 9p21 SNP could be mitigated by consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, scientists in Oxford have shown that people in Scotland, wales and Northern Ireland would do well to follow their English neighbours and eat more fruit and vegetables. The study says that over the three-year study period 22,000 excess deaths caused by heart disease, stroke and 10 cancers occurred in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compared to England.

The researchers say that consumption of fruit and veg in Northern Ireland is about 20% less than in England. Salt and saturated fat levels are also higher in the parts of the UK outside England.

Changing to an 'English' diet - although it's far from perfect, say the authors of the report, could save about 4,000 lives a year in the rest of the UK.

Do et al., The Effect of Chromosome 9p21 Variants on Cardiovascular Disease May Be Modified by Dietary Intake: Evidence from a Case/Control and a Prospective Study. PLOS Medicine 9(10): e1001106. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001106 LINK

Scarborough P, Morgan RD, Webster P, et al. Differences in coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer mortality rates between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland: the role of diet and nutrition. BMJ Open 2011;1:e000263. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen- 2011-000263 LINK

Monday, October 31, 2011

Vote for Communicate Science

We're very excited here at Communicate Science because we've been shortlisted for an Eircom Spider 'Big Mouth' Award for the second year running. Now we need YOU to help us win!

The Big Mouth award is one of two categories which is decided by a public vote. It's great to see science blogs included in this national award and we hope that you'll consider voting for us.

How To Vote:
Via Facebook:
To vote, you need to go to the Eircom Spiders Facebook Page , scroll down and select Communicate Science from the list of nominees in the People's Choice 'Big Mouth' Category (you'll spot our logo), click vote and it's done!

Via Email:
You can also email your vote to with the category name (Big Mouth) in the subject line. Get Voting!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween can influence timing of childbirth

A US study has shown that some pregnant women may be able to control the timing of their child's birth depending on whether or not Halloween is approaching.

Scientists from Yale University looked at birth records for the ten years between 1996 and 2006. They showed that, compared to the days around Halloween, there was a 5.3% decrease in spontaneous births and a 16.9% decrease in cesarean births for Halloween day itself.

The scientists believe that this may be due to negative associations of "witches and death" with the festival. They also looked at birth rates in and around Valentine's Day for the same period and noticed a significant 12% increase in cesarean births and a 3.6% increase in spontaneous births.

The scientists noted the positive associations of "flowers and love" with Valentine's Day.

Effect of Halloween on timing of birth (Source: Levy et al., 2011)
Of course, the researchers expected the jump in induced and cesarean births around Valentine's Day and the corresponding dip at Halloween. What they didn't expect was that these patterns would also be seen in the "spontaneous" births.

The researchers conclude that the term "spontaneous births" is erroneous and it appears that pregnant women can "expedite or delay spontaneous births, within a limited time frame, in response to cultural representations".

It seems that the cupids and cherubs of Valentine's Day is a much more appealing prospect for an expectant mother rather than the ghouls and skeletons of this time of year.

Happy Halloween!

Levy et al. (2011) Influence of Valentine's Day and Halloween on Birth Timing. Social Science and Medicine 73(8): 1246-1248. LINK

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

You can now follow (and 'like') Communicate Science on Facebook.

If you are a Facebook user, you can keep track of all the latest news and views in science by checking out our page.

You'll find it here.

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

Top Irish Laser Scientist Wins Boyle Medal

Margaret Murnane, Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, United States, has been awarded the prestigious RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence for her pioneering work which has transformed the field of ultrafast laser and x-ray science.

Inaugurated in 1899, the Boyle Medal continues to recognise scientific research of exceptional merit and since its inception has been awarded to 38 distinguished scientists, including George Johnstone Stoney (1899), John Joly (1911), Garret A. FitzGerald (2005) and Luke O’Neill (2009). In 1999 the awarding of the Boyle Medal became a joint venture between the Royal Dublin Society and The Irish Times. It is now awarded biennially - alternating between a scientist based in Ireland and an Irish scientist based abroad. This year’s award celebrates the work of an Irish researcher working outside of Ireland and carries with it a cash prize of €20,000.

Professor Murnane’s distinguished work has focused on the development of lasers which can operate at the fundamental limits of speed and stability. She designed the first laser able to pulse in the low trillionths of a second range (10 femtoseconds) which allows time almost to be halted to capture a freeze-frame view of the world. She has also developed a tabletop x-ray laser using very short laser pulses to generate coherent beams of x-rays. The output x-ray beam has all the directed properties of a laser - rather than the incoherent, light bulb-like, properties of the x-ray tubes used in science, medicine and security.

Upon hearing the news that she had won, Professor Murnane said “I am deeply grateful to be honoured with this award. I am certain that I would not be where I am today without the love for learning instilled through the strong education I received in Ireland through my primary, secondary and University years. It is undoubtedly this foundation which has given me the confidence to go out and put my stamp on the world. It makes it even more significant for me to learn that I am only the second female Boyle Medal Laureate in the Medal’s history.” Professor Murnane was born in Limerick and is a graduate of University College Cork, where she achieved B.Sc and M.Sc degrees in physics.

Speaking following their deliberations, the 2011 RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal International Judging Panel said that “Margaret Murnane is an international leader in her field and has made a significant contribution to laser and x-ray science. Not only is her fundamental research groundbreaking in itself, the application of her work has the potential to make a significant impact across virtually all scientific and medical disciplines.”

The Panel also noted that Professor Murnane has shared her technology with hundreds of scientists worldwide. A laser built directly from her design was the critical element in the ‘frequency comb’ work for which the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded.

The International Judging Panel selected Professor Murnane from a shortlist of five outstanding world-class Irish scientists. The members of the 2011 International Judging Panel included Professor Fulvio Esposito (Chair, Italy); Professor Alexander Borst (Germany); Professor Sir John Enderby (UK); Professor Mary Fowler (UK); Dr Peter Goodfellow (UK); Professor Sir John Pendry (UK) and Professor Dervilla Donnelly (Ireland, Chair of the National Judging Panel).

Professor Murnane will be conferred with her Medal and give a public lecture at the RDS on November 29, 2011. The lecture will be free of charge and open to the general public.

The RDS, founded in 1731, continues to fulfill its commitment to advancing agriculture, arts, industry and science. The awarding of the Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence is an integral part of the RDS Foundation’s Science programme which aims to support excellence in scientific endeavour and communication, to emphasise the importance of science and technology in economic and social development and to encourage people to see science as provoking, challenging and fun.

For further details about the Boyle Medal and to reserve tickets for Professor Murnane’s public lecture please contact Karen Sheeran on; 01 240 7289 or  visit

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Robert Boyle Website Launched

Last September we brought you news of the Robert Boyle Science Festival, taking place in Lismore, Co. Waterford from 17th-20th of November.

The organisers have now launched a new website ( to promote and accompany the festival.

The festival is particularly timely given that 2011 marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of Robert Boyle’s famous scientific paper entitled, “The Sceptical Chymist”. This document set the scene for the establishment of the academic topic we now call the Chemical Sciences.  2011 is also the International Year of Chemistry.

More details on the programme of events for the festival can be found in our earlier post and at the festival website.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Eircom Spiders 2011

I'm delighted to announce to that the Communicate Science blog has been shortlisted for an Eircom Spider 'Big Mouth' award for the second year running.

The 'Big Mouth' category will be decided by a public vote - details soon.

The full shortlist includes our friends at the Cork Independent and the wonderful Science Calling blog by Maria Daly.

Also, congratulations to the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) at UCC who's website has been nominated in the 'Education' Category.

It's great to see so many great science websites being recognised in these important awards.

The award ceremony will take place on 10th November in the Convention Centre, Dublin. The ceremony will be hosted by comedian and science enthusiast Dara Ó'Briain.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Quantum Locking and Hoverboards

Anyone who grew up in the 80's and 90's will be familiar with Marty McFly's 'hoverboard' from Back to the Future II. That's what I was reminded of when I saw this video from an American science fair.

It's an interview and demonstration from researchers at Tel-Aviv University of a phenomenon known as Quantum Levitation or Quantum Locking.

A thin superconducting layer of yttrium barium copper oxide (about 1µm thick) is coated on a sapphire wafer. The magnets on the track then create a magnetic field which penetrates the superconductor when it is cooled below -185 degrees Celsius and causes the disc to float in midair due to what is known as the Meissner effect.
More on the physics of how this works here.

The science is not new, but it's a great demonstration of the powers of superconductors and the potential they may hold for new technologies...perhaps including hoverboards.

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