Friday, April 29, 2011

Corpse flower blooms in Basel

The Swiss city of Basel witnessed a rare flowering of the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum, over Easter.

The carrion flower is also known as the titan arum and and produces a scent which is not unlike that of a decomposing mammal. The scent is used to attract pollinating insects, in particular carrion flies and beetles, to the flower to transfer pollen. The flowers deep-red colouration also contributes to this carrion-like illusion.

The flower can reach over 3 metres in height but dies back quickly before it is replaced with a single large leaf. The underground corm (swollen plant stem) is the largest in the plant kingdom - around 50 kg.

Found growing in the wild in the rainforests of Indonesia, it is cultivated in many botanical collections around the world but it is notoriously difficult to get to flower.

Interestingly, the popular name titan arum was invented by David Attenborough when he famously filmed the plant for his 'The Private Life of Plants' BBC series. Apparently, he felt that continually referring to the plant by its Latin name on TV would be inappropriate. See video at the end of this post.

The Swiss flower was visited by more than 10,000 people on Saturday alone, each adult paying 10 Swiss Francs for a quick two-minute viewing. All the money raised was going towards funding events at the botanical garden.

Custodian of the Basel Botanical Gardens Heinz Schneider told Swiss TV, "It's crazy! Plant fans from all over Switzerland want to see the titan arum."

By Monday, the flower had wilted but the event was captured on webcam, from which the following series of images were taken (31st March - 27th April).

David Attenborough visits the titan arum in the wild:
(Ignore the title of the video - titan arum is not the biggest flower in the world!)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Do Irish people trust scientists?

A recent survey estimating the public trust in scientists and other professions makes for interesting reading but it is not without its flaws.

In a survey of just over 1,000 Irish adults, 61% said that they trusted scientitsts to tell the truth.
On the other hand, 16% said they felt that scientists would not tell them the truth.

The results come from a Millward Brown/Lansdowne survey conducted between February 9th and 3rd March, 2011 and released by the Medical Council today.

Doctors were found to be the most trustworthy profession in the country, according to the survey, with 88% of respondents saying they would trust a doctor to tell them the truth.

Teachers (79%), Professors (72%), Judges (71%) all scored relatively highly with TDs (12%), Pollsters (25%) and Business Leaders (27%) bringing up the rear of the poll.

The poll makes an interesting, although probably not intentional distinction between scientists (61%) and scientists working in academia (which must make up at least part of the score for Professors; 72%).

Does the conferring of the title 'Professor' immediately make you more trustworthy as a scientist in the eyes of the Irish public?

It would be useful, in future surveys of this nature to look at the difference between industry and academia in terms of science. For instance, teachers scored 79% trustworthiness in this survey, and at least a portion of them must also be trained scientists.

The findings reflect earlier studies across Europe which show that individuals trust scientific information they recieve from 'academic' scientists more than that which they get from 'industry' scientists.

Whatever the usefullness of such a survey, it is to the advantage of science that scientists continue to communicate with the general public in a truthful and meaningful way. Maybe then we'll beat those doctors!

Source: Medical Council

In the running: the origin of the modern racehorse

Byerley Turk
For years there has been intense speculation as to the origin of the so-called "foundation mares" - those female horses which were bred with a handful of Middle Eastern stallions to kick start the Irish and English Thoroughbred racehorse industry.

All modern Thoroughbreds can trace their ancestry back to three stallions which were imported into England in the 17th and 18th century - Byerley Turk (1680s), Darley Arabian (1704) and Godolphin Arabian (1729). Incidentally, Byerley Turk is reputed to have been used by his owner Captain Robert Byerley at the Battle of the Boyne.

The origin of the maternal lineage is  less clearcut as the influence of the female line was thought to be less influential than the male line in the early years of horse breeding.

Now, a group of UK and Irish scientists have used mitochondrial DNA from 1929 horses to determine the origin of these foundation mares.

Their results show that Thoroughbred foundation mares were not exclusively Arab or Oriental but, in fact, were of 'cosmopolitan European origin' with some contribution from 'Barbs' (i.e. North African) and significant contributions from British and Irish Native horses.

According to the results (published in Biology Letters) British and Irish Native horses made twice the contribution to the heritage of modern Thoroughbreds that Oriental (term used in historic records referring to Mid-East and West-Asia) horses did.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis is a perfect way of studying female lineage because mitochondria are normally inherited exclusively along the female line. So, all of your mitochondrial DNA was inherited from your mother, becuase mitochondria in sperm cells are usually destroyed by the egg cell after fertilisation has occurred.

You can read all of the research here (pdf).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Patrick O'Hara: An Ecological Artist

'The Star Lily and the Iris' by P. O'Hara
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful exhibition of botanical paintings and sculptures by the Cork-based artist Patrick O'Hara.

The exhibition is currently taking place in the Boole Library exhibition space at University College Cork and I enjoyed chatting to the artist about his work.

The exhibition predominantly features the artist's watercolours of Californian flora and fauna along with a selection of his impressive botanical sculptures.

O'Hara has travelled extensively from his home near Carrigaline, Co. Cork across Ireland, Britain, Europe, Africa, Arabia, Asia and America to study plants and butterflies in their natural habitats.

Speaking to O'Hara, his background in biology and botany in particular becomes clear and he has a keen interest in the science of the plants he seeks to capture in his art. He studied botany, zoology and geology at Reading University.

Each piece of sculpture and watercolour is the result of countless hours studying the organism in the natural environment and taking careful notes and sketches of the shape and colour of the plants. It is only when he returns to his studio that the work of painting or sculpting what has been recorded can begin. His delicate and scientifically accurate porcelain sculptures can take up to 3 months to produce and involves painting the pieces using the notes he made in the field to ensure that the correct shade is reproduced.

'A Proud Poppy of California' Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri) and Western Tiger Swallowtail. The artist writes: These huge and beautifully scented flowers belong to a family of plants first discovered in the Santa Ana mountains by Irish botanist Thomas Coulter during his travels around southern California between 1826 and 1836. The Latin name is tribute to him and his great friend, the Irish astronomer Romney Robinson.

What strikes me about O'Hara's work is not just the beauty and scientific accuracy, but also the decision to not present the plants in isolation but rather to present them as entire ecosystems where different plants, lichens, mosses, insects and butterflies interact. It is this detailed and realistic approach that makes O'Hara more an 'ecological artist' rather than a botancial artist.

Given the nature of Patrick O'Hara's work, it is fitting that it will shortly adorn the walls of Fota House in East Cork, the gardens and arboretum of which are a national botanical treasure. The artist is donating prints of each of his California wildflower watercolours to the Irish Heritage Trust who manage Fota House.

Patrick O'Hara's exhibition 'Secret Gardens of the World: The Wild Flowers of California' runs in the Boole Library, UCC until the 28th June 2011. For more information his work, you can visit

'Three Friends in Winter' porcelain sculpture by P. O'Hara. Ginger, Liquorice & Ephedra

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Boole Update

Just a quick update on George Boole's former home in Cork City.

As you may remember, this blog was the first to report on the partial collapse of the former home of the noted mathematician back in October of 2010.

I've covered the story in a series of posts and photo essays and in a Cork City Council meeting in March, it was announced that €135,000 would be spent in an effort to save the building.

The work is to include the removal of roofs and internal floors and the erection of a steel frame to support what is left of the building.

Cork City Council are paying for the work to be carried out before establishing id their is any interested parties willing to develop the building for an educational/historical use.

The most recent images from the site show that the interior of one wing of the building has now been completely gutted, the windows removed and preparations put in place for the erection of the steel frame.

The speed at which this work is being completed is terribly slow and even when it is complete, this building of rich historic and scientific importance will face a very uncertain future.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mystery Science - Can you tell what it is yet?

Thanks to everybody who tweeted their guesses as to what the mystery item was. Unfortunately nobody got it right - better luck next time!

In fact, it was not a whole animal but just a 'small' part of one of the largest animals on earth. It was.... an elephant molar tooth. From an Indian elephant to be exact.

The pointy bits towards the top are the 'root' part of the tooth which would have been embedded in the gum of the animal. The specimen is resting on the rough grinding surface of the tooth.

If you compare it to the image of the molars in situ, you can see what it looks like from the underneath. An Indian elephant will produce six sets of molars in it's lifetime, although just one pair will be in use at any one time. Once that pair has been worn down, it is replaced with a new pair which push forward from the back of the mouth.

I’m a scientist, not a freaky nerd

It was a tense, nervous fortnight of probing questions and judgemental teenagers, but I’m a Scientist, get me out of here may well be the future of science communication in Europe.

It seems that some of the students like it too. As one student wrote after the 2010 event: “I’m a scientist is a website aimed at all teenagers – interested in science or not (but believe me, by the time you finish the project, science will have taken over your brain and made you love it for the rest of your life)”. High praise indeed!

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

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mystery Science!

I had the pleasure of attending the University College Cork Spring Open-day yesterday and spending some time on the School of BEES Stand. 

The School of Biological. Earth and Environmental Sciences teaches undergraduate degrees in Zoology, Ecology, Earth Science, Environmental Plant Biotechnology, Environmental Science, and Geology and you can find out more about them here.

The stand contained just a hand full of specimens from the historically and scientifically important Zoology Museum in the School - the museum contains a number of specimens collected by Charles Darwin on his voyages and the School of BEES is one of just a few institutions in the world to possess such specimens.

One item on display is pictured below. Can you tell what it is? Leave your answer as a comment to this post or tweet it to me @blogscience. No prizes on offer I'm afraid - just a bit of fun.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Darwin Opera for Cork

Science and music fans are in for a treat this year in Cork when an 'electro-opera' based on the work of Charles Darwin plays in the Cork Opera House.

Tomorrow, in a year is produced by Hotel Pro Forma from Denmark and is based on ground-breaking music from The Knife, a Swedish music group.

"An opera singer, a pop singer and an actor perform The Knife’s music and represent Darwin, time and nature on stage. Six dancers form the raw material of life. Together with the newest technology in light and sound, our image of the world as a place of incredible variation, similarity and unity is re-discovered", according to the show's website.

"The opera presents an image of Darwin that above all reminds us that the world is a place of remarkable similarities and amazing diversity. That over time - tomorrow, in a year, or tomorrow, in a million years - change is inevitable."

The music for the opera written after extensicve research of Darwin's letters, articles and books, with one of the members of The Knife attending a field recording workshop in the Amazon to find inspiration and to record sounds.

The Guardian described the opera as an event "that baffles and beguiles in equal measure".

Tomorrow, in a year plays at Cork Opera House on the 24th and 25th of June 2011 as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.

An excerpt from Tomorrow, in a year:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Well done SciFest

Well done to everyone who took part in SciFest at Cork Institute of Technology last Friday. 

There were over 220 students participating in Cork, either as individulas or in group projects, from 16 different schools in Cork City and County.

This is a great achievement for the organisers, but I can't help feeling there should be more schools taking part. Although it may well cause some headaches for the organisers (the Student Union Building was barely able to contain the huge numbers of students taking part) it would be fabulous to see even more schools participating.

There were 90 different projects exhibiting across Junior, Intermediate and Senior categories. These projects came from a diverse range of fields and disciplines.

The event was opened by Minister of State for Disability, Equality & Mental Health who clearly relished in the oppurtunity to view the products of the student's research and spoke very eloquently regarding the value of science to the community and to the country.

Judging, as you can imagine, was a difficult task given the hihgh quality of the projects on display. Some of my personal favourites included a project by James Harte of Colaiste Choilm, Ballincollig who was investigating the production of UV radiation by a variety of light sources. His project was well developed and presented with an obvious flair and enthusiasm.

A group from Davis College, Mallow also impressed with a simple solution to parental backache - a child's cot with a rising base!

Other projects on offer during the day included:

  • Does heavy metal music affect a person's IQ?
  • The Placebo Effect
  • Designing a heated riding boot
  • What's lurking in your make-up?
  • It will blow you away - wind turbines
  • The effect of acid rain on germination
There is absolutely no doubt in mind that this sort of event encourages young people to take an active interest in science and to choose to study it at second and third level. If the enthusiasm for science on display last Friday is harnessed by the scientific community in Ireland, the future for science will be bright.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scibernia - a new Irish science podcast

Scibernia is a new bi-monthly science podcast, with a particular interest in the goings-on in the Irish scientific community.

The podcast is put together by a (self-confessed!) 'loose collective of science enthusiasts, tech nerds, wandering journalists and radio lovers' and the podcast has just posted it's third episode.

As they spoke to Ben Goldacre in episode two, who else could they turn to but yours truly to take part in the latest episode! :)

I talk to Sylvia Leatham about my time taking part in I'm a Scientist, get me out of here!

Also featured in the latest episode of Scibernia:

  • What neuroscientist and Memory Lab curator Prof Shane O’Mara plans to do with all the data collected during the recent Science Gallery exhibition.
  • A debunking of Moon myths with Astronomy Ireland’s Lee Hurley.
  • What Prof Jim Al-Khalili has in common with Sinead O’Connor in the BBC astrophysics programme ‘Everything and Nothing’, and why Prof Brian Cox‘s ‘Wonders’ reminds us of 1990s pop videos.
  • Upcoming events, including student science festival SciFest and a talk about atom-smashing by CERN’s Dr Stephen Myers.
  • News from Ireland and abroad, including how robots are set to become more human-like and the latest developments in ‘lab on a chip’ technology.
The latest episode of Scibernia is here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Secret Life - Climbing

My latest guest post for PBS NOVA's Secret Life of Scientists blog is now online. This week's episode features Architectural Engineer Emily Whiting talking about her research and and her passion for rock climbing.

You can read the post and watch the episode here.

In this month's post, I look at Climbing Great Buildings.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

SciFest 2011 - let the games begin

This week I'll be acting as a judge for SciFest 2011 at Cork Institute of Technology.

SciFest is an "all inclusive science fair, with no entry limits and a key aim to encourage school kids of all levels of scientific ability to enter".

It is a series of one-day festivals of science hosted by Institutes of Technology (ITs) around the country and really acts to encourage a love of science through enquiry-based learning and to provide a forum for students at local/regional level to present and display their scientific investigations.

This year, the first SciFest events will take place at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) on Tuesday April 5th; in Waterford IT on Thursday April 7th and in Cork on Friday 8th April.

The event then moves across the country until the end of May. For the full list of locations and dates see here.

Last year, a total of 2649 students exhibited 1097 projects across the country including such projects as 'Rushes as an Insulator', 'Is school deafening us?' and 'Searching for the progenitor stars of gamma ray bursts'.

One hundred and ninety-six schools took part with the help of 291 committed teachers in 28 counties. Fifty-six per cent of the students who took part were female and 55% of the projects were from the life sciences. Nine per cent of the projects were in the 'technology' category and 36% came from the physical sciences.

SciFest was launched as a nationwide event in 2008 and since then, 6241 students have exhibited a total of 2613 projects. Clearly SciFest is going from strength to strength.

At the launch of SciFest 2011, then Minister with responsibility for science Conor Lenihan praised the event as a great example of government, industry and education sectors partnering to promote science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM):

"By clearly illustrating the links between what students learn in the classroom, the opportunities at third level and potential career paths, SciFest plays a valuable role in helping to encourage young people to pursue opportunities in the Smart Economy", said Lenihan.

I'm really looking forward to judging at Friday's event. Having spent lots of last month being judged by students as part of I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here, it will make a nice change to be the one doing the judging!

This will be my second year judging and I was really impressed at the enthusiasm and hard-work shown by all participants last year. Fingers crossed for another great SciFest and best of luck to all those taking part around the country.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Science in the field

For many years now 3rd year Applied Ecology students at University College Cork have spent a week in the Algarve at this time of year.

It's part of a field course in Practical Field Ecology and is a very popular part of the Applied Ecology course.

The course is organised by the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) at UCC.

In a novel move, the students have been writing a daily blog from Portugal to update us on the progress of the field course.

You can follow the progress on the BEES Research Blog.

Communicate Science on Facebook

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 new page.

You'll find it here.

  © Communicate Science; Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2012

Back to TOP