Monday, May 30, 2011

"commitment will be tested further in the difficult years to come"

In a wide-ranging speech at the Royal Irish Academy today, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, TD has outlined his plans for the third-level sector in Ireland.

You can read the full text of the Minister's speech here.

The Minister struck a positive note with regard to the Irish higher education sector and was confident that it could be a crucial part of Ireland's recovery from difficult economic realities. Quoting Vere Foster, the 19th Century educationalist and philanthropist, the Minister recalled that "a nation's greatness depends on the education of its people".

Minister Quinn outlined the positives as they are and noted that these achievements owe much to "the strong commitment and ethos of public service of those working in and leading our higher education institutions". The Minister made clear in his speech however that "this commitment will be tested further in the difficult years to come".

In terms of entry to third level, the Minister rightly recognised that the system needs to change. Simply going directly from the Leaving Cert to college is no longer the reality for many entrants to the sector and that needed to be recognised with a rethink of the CAO system:

"We have to think in terms of how we manage for a more diverse cohort of students, with new levels and forms of demand for flexible learning and non-traditional routes of entry", said the Minister.

Minister Quinn also recognised the effect that the "points race" was having on student development at second level. Any changes made at second level could well be undermined if we do not address "the demands and pressures that the current points system places on both teachers and students".

Announcing a review of admissions procedures to third-level, the Minister was clear: "We need to be prepared to think in terms of radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements". I'm not sure if we should hold our breath!

In terms of the third-level sector itself, it is to be welcomed that the Minister has made a clear statement on the integration of research with teaching and learning. "In sustaining [a] broad base of knowledge", the Minister said "I want to be clear about the expectation that all teaching staff will be research-informed or research-active and that all researchers will be active in teaching". Hear! Hear!

Funding for third-level is another one of those political hot potatoes and there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel: "I have asked the Higher Education Authority to undertake further work on the sustainability of the existing funding framework over the course of this year". So no change there then!

The minister welcomed and backed the idea of the Institute of Technology sector forming new Technological Universities in an "organic" manner and said that he would be endorsing the need for third-level institutions to have autonomy over their operations, while at the same time, balancing this with the "requirements of public accountability for performance".

There is much to contemplate in the Minister's speech.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is Féidir Linn: Obama was right

Image: WhiteHouse
Barack Obama visited Ireland this week and while visiting his ancestral home in Moneygall, he announced that the Guinness really does taste better in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.

"The first time I had Guinness," Obama said, "is when I came to the Shannon airport. We were flying into Afghanistan and so stopped in Shannon. It was the middle of the night. And I tried one of these and I realized it tastes so much better here than it does in the States."

"What I realized was, is that you guys are -- You’re keeping all the best stuff here!”

And maybe he's right.

According to a recent piece of research published in the Journal of Food Science, Guinness does not travel well. 

Like all great funny stories to come out of a pub, it started with an Irishman, Englishman, Dutchman and German walking into a bar. The four spent a year of their spare time (probably quite happily) testing the stout across 14 different countries.

During what the authors light-heartedly describe as "extensive pretesting", a number of factors were considered as to what makes the perfect pint. Ultimately this included such measurements as the height of the head on the pint, temperature and flavour.

Additionally, in order to capture the entire experience, such factors as pub temperature, bartenders sex and nationality, level of experience and technique were also considered. It was certainly a thorough approach. 

Even the presence of females in the drinking company was considered.  The authors found that the presence of women did not “inflict any unplanned blinding of the testers, who were all dedicated to the measurements”.

For the statistically minded amongst us (come on, admit it), the research paper also involved one of the most appropriate uses of a statistical test I've seen.

From the factors considered, the authors were able to score each pint using a specially designed Guinness Overall Enjoyment Score (GOES) which, of course, needed to be compared from country to country.

To do this, the authors used what is known as Student's t-test: a relatively simple way of establishing whether there are significant differences between two groups of data, in this case, between pints in Ireland and pints consumed outside Ireland.

Student: Willaim Sealy Gossett
This is particularly apt, given that the t-test was developed at the Guinness brewery in Dublin by one William Sealy Gossett. In 1908, Gossett developed the test to monitor and improve the average annual yield of barley. Due to the competitive advantage the test could provide, Guinness were reluctant to let Gossett publish the work under his own name so he used the pseudonym Student.

The results of this t-test are clear. Pints consumed in Ireland had a mean GOES score of 74, compared to a score of 57 in pubs outside Ireland. While Ireland may not necessarily keep the best stuff to themselves, the science is clear, it tastes better over here.

[Is Féidir Linn: (Irish) Yes we can!]

An edited version of this article appears on the Guardian's Notes and Theories Blog. You can read it here

Enjoy this post? It's been shortlisted for the 3QD Science Writing Prize. Please consider voting for it. It takes just a few seconds. See here for details.

Killarney wins Bioblitz

Killarney NP won the 2011 BioBlitz event which was held on 20-21 May.

BioBlitz is a scientific race against time. The aim of this fun event is to find as many species as possible within a park over a 24 hour period. 

Killarney National Park won this year’s competition with a massive 1088 species tally over the 24hr period. This included 681 plant species, 59 Butterfly and Moth species and 62 species of bird.

The tally for Killarney is double the number of species recorded by last year’s winner, Connemara National Park. It's an amazing average of 1.3 species for every minute of the competition. 

All of this year’s sites exceeded last year’s winning tally, so the standard of recording in all five sites was remarkably high.

The contestants comprised five national parks and nature reserves from around the country including Killarney National Park (1088 species), The Raven, Co. Wexford (826). Ballycroy National Park (702), Dromore Nature Reserve (688) and Liffey Valley Park (687).

As the organisers note: "The real surprise is the huge tally recorded at Liffey Valley Pary, Waterstown as it is by far the smallest park and has limited habitat diversity".

The Rap Guide to Evolution

Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman has created the Rap Guide to Evolution. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, the music videos are now online and make for some interesting listening. You can judge for yourself whether you think they are useful teaching tools.

The videos are based on the successful theatre show 'The Rap Guide to Evolution', which was performed to critical acclaim at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

On the launch of the videos, Baba said: "The response to the show so far has been overwhelming, but these videos really take it to the next level. I hope educators all over the world find them helpful in overcoming the indifference and hostility that often impede the teaching of evolution, and science in general. Hip-hop music is all about rebellion, and no one's ideas are more revolutionary than Charles Darwin's."

The Rap Guide has been described as "astonishing and brilliant" by the New York Times, with Science magazine adding that Baba "marries the fast, complex, literate delivery of Eminem with the evolutionary expertise and confrontational manner of Dawkins".

The first in a series of twelve videos (two of which are currently available) is presented above. The remaining videos will be released over the coming months.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A weighty matter

I think we all recognise that over the past few decades, the average person has become a more sedentary creature. It's nice then to get some data to back it up.

Researchers have looked at US data on occupations and physical activity and shown that, since the 1960's, the estimated mean daily energy expenditure due to the job we do has dropped by more than 100 kcal.

While this is US data, it should inform the obesity debate in this part of the world. A recent report from the European Commission found that 23% of Irish adults are considered obese. While an OECD report in 2010 found that Ireland was the second most overweight country in Europe.

The researchers used data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

The findings suggest that this significant reduction in calories expended daily accounts for a "significant portion of the increase in mean US body weights for women and men".
Figure 1. Service, goods producing and agriculture jobs in US from 1960 to 2008.

The proportion of Americans in 'service' jobs as opposed to manufacturing, construction and agricultural jobs has increased hugely since 1960. (Fig 1)

As you might expect, the amount of physical activity involved in something like financial services or teaching is much less than that required for agricultural or construction (the most energy intensive) jobs (Fig 2). Hence, the fall in average daily energy expenditure.
Figure 2. Estimated median and range of physical activity intensity (METs) as well as the estimated caloric expenditure of each occupation.

Employment is, of course, not the only factor involved here. For example, the authors note that since 1960, the amount of energy spent on housework has 'greatly decreased' for women and slightly increased for men.

Diet and exercise probably remain the two most important factors which we can influence but it is interesting to see that the job we do also influences our likelihood to be overweight.

Things like how we travel to work, whether we use stairs or not were not considered in the study and it is unlikely to be as clearcut as we might like to think.

The results come as Safefood Ireland launch a two-year Stop the Spread campaign to encourage Irish people to measure their real waist size.

Safe Food say that only 38% of adults believe they are overweight. In fact, 66% of the public are overweight. The other 285 just don't know it or are in denial!

Church TS, Thomas DM, Tudor-Locke C, Katzmarzyk PT, Earnest CP, et al. (2011) Trends over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations with Obesity. PLoS ONE 6(5): e19657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019657

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New Biology Textbook is "Born Digital"

Biology textbooks at third-level are about to go digital.

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) have today announced that they are to launch a series of "affordable, high quality interactive textbooks in college-level science". The first in the series will be Principles of Biology, available from September 1, 2011.

Created by a group of 50+ scientists, instructors, artists and designers, it will feature interactive lessons and continuous assessment tools.

The publishers also say the text will draw on Nature's extensive archive of peer-reviewed literature to help cultivate "mature scientific skills, including data analysis and critical thinking".

As a digital product, it will (given careful attention) be less likely to go 'out-of-date' and will be available on laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, etc.

Publishers say it will retail at $49 per student for lifetime access.

It's great to see textbooks going digital. Perhaps this could be used as a model for 2nd-level textbooks also?

The ability to link between peer-reviewed research and textbooks is exciting - too often textbooks don't (or can't) take advantage of the most up-to-date research in the area.

For this to work, the textbooks should link to all journals - not just those produced by NPG. All articles should, of course, be open access.

John Tyndall would approve!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Queen and the Mathematician

Queen Elizabeth II will receive a unique scientific gift when she visits Cork on Friday.

When the Queen visits the Tyndall Institute at University College Cork, President of UCC Dr. Michael Murphy will present her with a scarf inspired by the work of the university's greatest professor and the 'father' of computer science.

A lace scarf, designed by Carmel Creaner will be presented to acknowledge the role of Queen Victoria in establishing the college. The idea was inspired by the presentation by Queen Victoria of scarves to four of the bravest soldiers to fight in the Boer War in 1900. One of these scarves was presented to UCC graduate Richard Rowland Thompson and now is on display in the Canadian War Museum.

Carmel Creaner, the artist, explains that George Boole, the first Professor of Mathematics at UCC (then Queen's College Cork) is at the centre of the design:

"I chose to use the mathematical notation found in Boole’s notes as inspiration for the scarf. Some of the elements of the notation such as the three dots for “therefore” inspire random cross stitches and french knots which in turn become zeros! Binary notation is also included in the scarf, most specifically, the binary notation for 1849 – the year Queen Victoria came to Cork and 2011 the year of Queen Elizabeth’s visit. George Boole’s signature - Prof Boole Queen’s College Cork- is also printed on the scarf referring to the original name of the University. The coat of arms of the University and UCC 2011 are also featured.”

John Tyndall - Science Communicator

Queen Elizabeth II will visit the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork on Friday, but who was John Tyndall?

The National Institute or 'The Tyndall' as it is generally known was formed in 2004 and brought together several academic departments at UCC, along with the former National Microelectronics Research Centre (NMRC) and researchers at Cork Institute of Technology. The objective was, and is, to act as a focal point for Information and Communications Technology in Ireland and to support industry and academia nationally.

John Tyndall (1820-1893) is one of Ireland's most successful scientists and educators. A draftsman, surveyor, physics professor, mathematician, geologist, atmospheric scientist, public lecturer and mountaineer; his great strength was his ability to communicate science to any audience.

Tyndall was born is Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, the son of a police constable. After a local schooling, he became a draftsman with the equivalent of the modern Ordnance Survey and moved to work in England in 1842.

"The desire to grow intellectually did not forsake me" said Tyndall. "and, when railway work slackened, I accepted in 1847 a post as master in Queenwood College." At the Hampshire boarding school, he became good friends with Edward Frankland and the pair headed to Germany to advance their scientific education.

Tyndall extension under construction 2008
In Germany, the Irishman studied under Robert Bunsen for two years. He returned to England in 1851 and started the bulk of his experimental work. In 1853, after a number of unsuccessful job applications, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. Tyndall eventually succeeded Michael Faraday as Superintendent of the Royal Institution in 1867.

He had a variety of scientific interests including solving why the sky is blue: the scattering of light by small particles suspended in the atmosphere. He made the first studies of atmospheric pollution in London and developed the first double beam spectrophotometer.

He demonstrated how light could be sent through a tube of water via multiple internal reflections. He referred to this as the light-pipe and it was a forerunner of the optical fibre used in modern communications technology.

Tyndall was interested in Pasteur's work on sterilisation and developed a process (now known as Tyndallization) which was more effective than Pasteurisation. The process involved heating a substance to 100 degrees C for 15 minutes for three days in a row. The process gets rid of the bacterial spores which are not destroyed by other methods.

Tyndall delivering a public lecture at the Royal Institution
Despite all his scientific breakthroughs, perhaps Tyndall's great legacy is his work as a science communicator. He wrote science columns in many periodicals and gave hundreds of public lectures on a variety of topics. He toured America in 1872 giving public lectures on the subject of light. The substantial proceeds from this lecture tour, he donated to an organisation for promoting science in the US. He published 17 books in his lifetime.

In 1878, it was written of Tyndall: "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".

Tyndall described the vocation of teaching, saying: "I do not know a higher, nobler, and more blessed calling".  He finished one of his books with these inspiring lines:

"Here, my friend, our labours close. It has been a true pleasure to me to have you at my side so long. In the sweat of our brows we have often reached the heights where our work lay, but you have been steadfast and industrious throughout, using in all possible cases your own muscles instead of relying upon mine. Here and there I have stretched an arm and helped you to a ledge, but the work of climbing has been almost exclusively your own. It is thus that I should like to teach you all things; showing you the way to profitable exertion, but leaving the exertion to you.... Our task seems plain enough, but you and I know how often we have had to wrangle resolutely with the facts to bring out their meaning. The work, however, is now done, and you are master of a fragment of that sure and certain knowledge which is founded on the faithful study of nature.... Here then we part. And should we not meet again, the memory of these days will still unite us. Give me your hand. Good bye."

Tyndall had married at the age of 55 and did not have any children with his wife Louisa Hamilton. In his later years, he would often take chloral hydrate to treat insomnia. He died on 4th December 1893 due to an accidental overdose of the drug. He is buried in Haslemere, some 45 miles southwest of London.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Live Chat: Communicating research - how can higher education do it better?

It's no longer good enough for those in academia to be doing cutting edge research - we also need to be communicating about it!

I'll be taking part in a live, online event this coming Friday (20th May) as part of the Guardian Higher Education Network.

The panel will be a group of people who are passionate about communicating their research and about engaging the public with their work.

We'll discuss what works and what doesn't; how to reach new audiences; and the skills needed to communicate research effectively.

The online event will run from 1-4pm on Friday 20th May.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Endeavour ready for last launch

The space shuttle Endeavour's external tank is fully loaded with over 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and is on standby for a launch at 1.56pm (Irish Time) today.

Space shuttle mission STS-134 will be Endeavour's last launch before it is taken out of service. Crew members include Commander Mark Kelly and astronaut Roberto Vittori of the European Space Agency.

During its 16-day mission, Endeavour and its crew will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), along with a variety of spare parts to the International Space Station.

The AMS is described as a 'state-of-the-art particle physics detector'. It was designed and built by a team comprising 56 institutes and 16 countries around the world. The spectrometer will be used, in the unique environment of space to advance our understanding of the universe and its origins by looking for antimatter and dark matter.

Endeavor is NASA's fifth and final space shuttle. Construction began in 1987 and was complete in April 1991. It launched for the first time on May 7, 1992 and has travelled 116,372, 930 miles so far in its lifetime.

You can  follow the progress of today's launch on the launch blog.
You can also watch the preparations and launch on NASA TV

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bealtaine - Outdoor Science

The Bealtaine Festival of Outdoor Science kicks of in Waterford on Sunday next (15th May).

The organisers say it is Ireland's premier biodiversity festival - and who are we to argue? Last year, The Guardian chose Bealtaine as one of the top ten things to do for International Day for Biological Diversity.

This year, May 22nd is International Day for Biological Diversity and the Bealtaine festival will run up to the big day and include over 30 different events for schools and the general public.

"So many people learn about science and nature from books or documentaries on television. Bealtaine offers a chance to experience the practical side of science, to get out into the fresh air with leading experts in archaeology, zoology, ecology and other environmental sciences" says the Bealtaine website. I can't agree strongly enough! Get out there and get your hands dirty.

More details on the Bealtaine website.

Communicating STEM 2011

The fifth annual Communicating Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths (STEM) Conference takes place on 23 June 2011.

The goal of the conference is to provide delegates with the tools required to create and develop partnerships that promote science, engineering, technology and maths. Case studies of successful partnerships between education, science outreach organisations and industry on a European, national and local level will be shared and discussed.

Practical ways for industry to integrate these activities into a corporate social responsibility programme will also be presented.

Speakers will include -

    Lionel Alexander (Chief Executive, Hewlett Packard)
          o Driving innovation: Keeping Ireland competitive
    Katharine Mathieson (Director of Education, British Science Assoc.)
          o Creating and developing successful STEM partnerships
    Katherine M. Jensen (CSR Manager, Abbott Laboratories)
          o CSR and STEM: The perfect partnership
    Michelle Star (Liaison Officer, NCE-MSTL)
          o Partnering with Pedagogy: Working together to support the curriculum
    Bernard Kirk (Director, Galway Education Centre)
          o Pedagogy and Industry - The operational level
    Aoife O'Donoghue (Cork Outreach Community)
          o STEM Partnerships - A Local Focus
    Dave Fahy (Director, Dublin City of Science)
          o Opportunities to put collaboration into practice

The conference takes place at The River Lee Hotel, Western Road, Cork. Early Bird registration (€50) is available up to the 23rd May.

For more details and bookings see here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Follow us on twitterbook

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.

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

Sunday, May 8, 2011

John P. Holland Commemoration: In Pictures

Here are some images of the John P. Holland commemoration at the National Maritime College of Ireland on Saturday.

The event, organised by the North Monastery Bicentennial Committee and the NMCI, was a very enjoyable and informative occasion which was a fitting tribute to an Irishman who deserves to be recognised as the 'Father of the modern submarine'.

As we learned from a number of speakers, including Bruce Balistrieri of the Patterson Museum and Dr. Donal Blake of the Christian Brothers, had Holland not been engrossed in his submarine work, it is probable that he would have rivalled the Wright brothers to be the first to accomplish manned flight.

The event was attended by the Mayors of Cork and Clare County as well as the Deputy Lord Mayor of Cork City. The Minister for the Marine, Mr. Simon Coveney TD also spoke and unveiled a commemorative plaque which will adorn the walls of the newly re-dedicated John P. Holland Library at the College.

The Band of the No.1 Southern Brigade, Collins Barracks were in attendance and added a wonderful sense of occasion. The event was also attended by the a representative of the Japanese embassy in Dublin who reminded us that Holland designed the first submarines for the Japanese Navy.

Holland received the Fourth Class Order of Merit Rising Sun Ribbon from the Japanese for his distinguished service to that nation. He remains one of a very few Irish people to receive such an honour.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fancy getting to name a new marine species?

Image: (c)Patrick Collins
A team of Irish and UK scientists will shortly embark on a 25-day trip to the depths of the Atlantic ocean as part of a National Geographic-funded study to examine a previously uncharted hydrothermal vent ecosystem.

The work will be filmed by National Geographic and the campaign will be led by Chief Scientist Dr. Andy Wheeler of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UCC.

The Marine Institute's research vessel, Celtic Explorer will travel to the mid-Atlantic ridge to examine the unique ecosystem in July. "It is literally, an alien world", according to Andy Wheeler.

UCC scientists Prof. John Gamble, Dr. Jens Carlsson, Prof. John Benzie Prof. Tom Cross, Dr. Boris Dorschel will all contribute to the study, alongside a number of scientists from NUI Galway, National Oceanography Centre (UK) in Southampton, University of Southampton and the Geological Survey of Ireland.

For more background on the Venture project, see this article from the Irish Times.

RV Celtic Explorer
Patrick Collins, a researcher at NUI Galway, also taking part in the project, has organised an exciting competition for secondary school students in Ireland. The prize? To get to put your name on one of the many newly discovered species that the team are likely to find as part of the study.

The competition is open to all secondary school students across Ireland and the UK. To enter, students must use their imaginations and understanding of biology and habitats to design their own deep sea hydrothermal vent creature.

The organisers are looking for carefully thought out illustrations along with a description of the creature’s habitat, diet, life and evolutionary history, and whatever else you think is important. The competition will close on June 15 2011, and the winner will be announced after the Celtic Explorer returns to Ireland in August.

For more details on how to enter see the BEES Research Blog.

"underhand, unfair and damned un-English" - Irishman's sub to receive award

HMS Holland One
The Royal Navy's first submarine, designed by an Irish man, is to be honoured as one of 'Britain's' greatest engineering feats.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is to present the Holland One its Heritage Award.

The craft was designed by John Philip Holland an Irishman and former Christian Brother who emigrated to America in the early 1870's. His early designs for the first modern submarine were prepared while teaching in Irish schools. More about Holland in this earlier post.

The award means that this Irish invention will join the ranks of the Thames Barrier and the famous Bletchley Park code-breaking machine as one of the major 'British' engineering successes.

The Holland One was launched in 1901 (the Americans had launched the USS Holland in 1897) despite the then head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson describing the craft as "underhand, unfair and damned un-English".
Spokesperson for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers told the London Evening Standard: "Ironically, Holland had originally received the financial backing needed to develop his submarines from the Irish Fenian Society, who wanted to use the vessels to carry out hit-and-run terrorist attacks on the Royal Navy.

"Holland's great technological innovation was marrying the internal combustion engine with the electric motor and electric battery, all in one hydro-dynamic machine. This would set the standard for submarines across the world for decades to come.

"After Holland One's secret launch a year later, the boat had 12 years of experimental service before being decommissioned in 1913."

The Holland One is now preserved at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire after being discovered and salvaged by Navy minesweepers at the bottom of the English Channel in 1981. It had rested there since it sank upon hitting a storm on its way to be scrapped.

John Philip Holland will be commemorated at a special event at the National Maritime College of Ireland (NCMI) this Saturday (7th May). More details of the event here. The event is now oversubscribed, but it will be streamed live on the NCMI website from (approx) 2pm.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Nestcam 2011

Derek Mooney and his team are continuing their Nestcam experiments, with Blue Tits nesting in Derek's back garden and the garden at Áras an Uachtaráin (the residence of the Irish President).

You can watch the live webcam, read the diary and find out more information here.

For information on Nestcam 2012, see the website.

  © Communicate Science; Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2012

Back to TOP