Saturday, July 30, 2011

Science Snapshot 10: Elephant Teeth Again

For the next few weeks, along with some of our usual posts, we're posting a series of  'Science Snapshots'.
Science Snapshot was really popular when we ran it last year for Science Week and this will be a continuation along the same theme - that's why this is number nine already!

You can see all of the snapshots so far by clicking here.

Some months ago, I asked you to identify a mystery object from the UCC Zoology Museum. Turns out, it was an elephant tooth! Well, here's one in situ in an elephant skull at the Irish Natural History Museum. Makes more sense when you see where it's supposed to be. Doesn't it?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Environmental Sustainability – Aiming Higher

In the second of his Guest Posts for the Communicate Science Blog, Kieran Lettice talks engineering and environmental sustainability.

One interpretation of the much used watchword “sustainable” is the capacity to endure. A related phrase, “sustainable development”, was defined in the 1987 Brundtland Report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Report, rightly, places a special emphasis and priority on the needs of the world’s poor.

I think that both of these definitions are lacking in ambition for the protection of our natural environment and the development of mankind which is so inextricably linked to it. While meeting the needs of the world’s poor is a spectacularly ambitious target, the overriding tone of these definitions is one of just getting by, surviving, enduring and not making things any worse. It could mean doing just enough not to completely self-destruct. This definition of sustainability could include an existence similar to that endured by the characters of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road where an environmental catastrophe has befallen the Earth and what remains of the human race scrapes out subsistence. 

All significant technical projects have associated environmental impacts, for example a novel, energy efficient mobile phone battery may contain cadmium, lead and nickel which all have associated environmental costs which manifest themselves (though, in terms of financial cost, are not necessarily internalised) throughout their life-cycles. On the other hand, all environmental problems can be solved, at least in part, due to the application of the art and science of engineering. A familiar example of this is the development and use of low-flow toilets which can now accomplish the same function using less than half of the water used two decades ago .

It is true that some solutions can produce new problems, often unpredicted, which must then be tackled. We can improve the situation by bringing about more environmental improvements and fewer new environmental problems. Nevertheless, replacing one environmental problem with another, marginally less harmful (or less obvious), problem can be a slow way of achieving the kind of development which can take people out of poverty and reduce our impact on the environment.

We can truly protect the environment when we develop and employ technologies which decouple human and economic development from scarce, costly, finite or difficult to source environmental resources such as fossil fuels, clean water, rainforest or destructively mined metals. Examples of such developments could be the use of renewable bio-polymer materials to construct the majority of passenger aircraft rather than relying on mined and energy-intensively produced aluminium or the use of on-site generated zero-carbon electricity.

Critics may recognise this argument and dismiss it, depending on their point of view, as that of a technological optimist. They might argue that, though relative decoupling e.g. decreasing carbon intensities, can be achieved, absolute decoupling e.g. a global decrease in carbon emissions, can never be achieved as long as the human population continues to increase. They might even discuss the apparent paradox of resource use actually increasing as efficiency increases. But these arguments would ignore the radical advances that have occurred in the past half century in the areas of information technology, energy use, and agricultural sciences.

We all have a responsibility to put our skills to the service of mankind in developing technologies, processes and solutions that improve the living conditions of others while protecting our environment.

Our assessment of mankind’s environmental sustainability should not just look at our capacity to endure the worst that nature can throw at us or the results of our own short-sighted decisions. Rather, it must consider to what degree we have ensured an ongoing standard of living for all people that befits their human dignity and safeguards our inherited environment.

Kieran Lettice is an engineer and renewable energy consultant. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Science Snapshot 9: Geological Time

For the next few weeks, along with some of our usual posts, we'll be posting a 'Science Snapshot' every day.
Science Snapshot was really popular when we ran it last year for Science Week and this will be a continuation along the same theme - that's why this is number nine already!

You can see all of the snapshots so far by clicking here.

Today's image is of some of the geology of the West Cork coast taken in April of this year.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Defying Gravity

The labour of rising from the ground, said the artist, will be great, as we see it in the heavier domestic fowls; but, as we mount higher, the earth´s attraction, and the body´s gravity, will be gradually diminished, ´til we shall arrive at a region where the man will float in the air without any tendency to fall: no care will then be necessary, but to move forwards, which the gentlest impulse will effect.
—Samuel Johnson, 1759, The History of Rasselas
Johan Lorbeer in Cork (Image: Irish Independent)

Gravity is the theme for a new exhibition at the Crawford Gallery, Cork which touches on the idea of physics, gravitational forces and even deep space.

The exhibition contains a variety of works from over 50 artists including Dorothy Cross' new work Whale. Cross' is a unique interpretation of gravity, with the skeleton of a whale hung from the fabric of the gallery itself. Located in the Crawford's historic sculpture galleries, it works perfectly with the marbles and plaster-works that surround it.

The exhibition was opened by Minister Jimmy Deenihan on July 15th and runs until 29th October.

The exhibition features a variety of pieces from the collection of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, William Parsons.

William Parson's sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy
Parsons built the 'Leviathan of Parsonstown' on his estate in County Offaly in the 1840s. The largest telescope of the nineteenth century, the Leviathan was considered a marvelous technical and architectural achievement. He used it to catalogue a number of galaxies including the famous 'Whirlpool Galaxy'.

With spectacular off site installations by Cross and Johan Lorbeer, the exhibition is well worth a visit. It's great to see science and art combining once again in the Crawford - a building  financed by WH Crawford, a man who himself was intrigued by both.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Irish Scientists Search for New Species in the mid-Atlantic

A group of Irish scientists will today lead a mission to the mid-Atlantic in search of strange new species at the bottom of the ocean.

The VENTURE mission is led by Dr. Andy Wheeler from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC and includes a host of scientists from that institution, along with colleagues from NUIGalway, the Marine Institute and the UK's National Oceanography Centre.

The scientists leave Galway this morning aboard the Marine Institute's research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer. The mission is being filmed by the National Geographic Channel.

The mission will investigate life 3,000 metres below the surface of the sea and seek out hydrothermal vents using the ship's Remotely Operated Vehicle, the Holland 1.

The Holland 1 is named for the Irish scientist and inventor John Philip Holland who invented the first modern submarines. I've written extensively about Holland on this blog already.

Patrick Collins of NUI Galway says this mission will allow him to find some new marine species: "We hope to find a whole community of previously unknown species, increasing our understanding of deep sea biogeography. There is potential here to put Ireland on the global map as a serious player in deep sea science. This is all the more timely with the exploitation of deep sea and hydrothermal vents for precious metals and rare earth minerals now a reality.”

You can find more information on the VENTURE mission here.
For a Q&A on the mission, see here.
The scientists will be maintaining a blog of their activities during the trip here.
Aaron Lim, a 4th year Earth Science student from UCC is also blogging from the mission here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Potato Genome Sequenced

The potato genome has just been published in the journal Nature.

The Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium (PGSC), an international team of scientists including some from Teagasc in Ireland, has published the "genetic blueprint" for the world's third most important food crop.

Scientists say the information will help plant scientists and breeders to improve yield, quality, nutritional value and disease resistance pf potato varieties. The PGSC say it should also allow potato breeders "reduce the 10-12 years currently needed to breed new varieties".

The potato genome is the first sequence of an Asterid to be published - a group of flowering plants encompassing around 25% of all known plant species.

The consortium published a draft sequence in 2009 after a meeting of the consortium in Oakpark, Carlow in Ireland to plan the final phases of the project. The most recent publication is a refined version covering approximately 95% of all the genes in the potato - around 39,000 genes that code for proteins.

Worldwide, it's estimated that a loss of about €3 billion per year in the potato crop arises from diseases such as late blight and potato cyst nematodes. These problems are still largely controlled by frequent applications of fungicides and nematicides.

An indepth knowledge of the genetics of the potato should allow scientists to develop new varieties which show high levels of resistance against these pests and diseases.

The potato genome has 12 chromosomes and an extimate 840 million base pairs.

Speaking on the release of the first draft, Professor Jimmy Burke, head of Teagasc Crops Research Centre and leader of the plant biotechnology programme said: “Research such as this is incredibly important to the future competitiveness of Irish agriculture and puts Teagasc at the forefront of exciting developments in science”.

Combining our expertise in plant breeding with cutting-edge biotechnology-based research is enhancing our ability to develop plant varieties suitable for Irish conditions and agricultural practices. We are pursuing similar projects in other species important to agriculture here in Ireland, including perennial ryegrass, white clover and wheat, and energy crops, and we expect similar successes in these species in the future”.

The Nature paper is available here.
The full sequence is available here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Building "A Real Passion for Science" - STEM Conference 2011

The communication and promotion of science is alive and well in Ireland ahead of next year’s Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF2012) in Dublin and the country’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) communicators have the strong backing of the new Irish government.

That’s the message that came from the recent Communicating STEM conference held in Cork and organised by Discover Science and Engineering and Engineers Ireland.

Ireland’s new Minister Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, visited the conference on Thursday last and welcomed the exchange of ideas going on from around Europe and expressed the view strongly that these ideas could be transposed to the Irish setting to compliment the strong record in STEM communication already in place.

“This government is very serious about the potential for projects like this”, Minister Sherlock announced. STEM outreach work was he said “vital to our economic interests”.

The Minister seemed particularly impressed, along with many of the delegates, by the JET-NET model used in The Netherlands. JET-NET is a partnership between Dutch companies and pre-college schools in the Netherlands which sees one-on-one collaboration between the school and an industrial partner with career days, debate competitions and lab trips all on the agenda.

The scale of the programme particularly impressed, with André van Aperen, coordinator of the scheme for Shell, outlining the 70 companies taking part in 2010, along with a total of 353 school s and more on a waiting list.

The theme of the conference was Success Through Synergy and a number of industrial partners were in attendance to outline their involvement and commitment to STEM outreach and their motivation for involvement. Chris Enright from Hewlett Packard Ireland emphasised the increasing speed of technological advancement and said that new STEM graduates were ‘fundamental’ to their business objectives.

Enright also made the point that the strong record of Irish branches of multinationals collaborating with national centres of excellence in research and education along with a close relationship with relevant governmental agencies makes Ireland stand out ahead of other locations. People were “blown away” when they visited Ireland and saw such close partnerships.

“A real passion for science” is what is needed in STEM graduates of the future, said Enright, not just knowledge of the curriculum.

There was much on display at the conference to inspire and motivate. Katherine Jensen outlined the work of Abbott in promoting science in Ireland and mentioned their Operation Discovery programme for 14-16 year olds where scientists from the company lead students in experiments related to Abbott’s work in the locality and also involves a day-long visit to the facility.

Before taking part in Operation Discovery, just 41% of participants thought that they would enjoy studying science. Afterwards, that figure had reached 80%. Encouraging also was that 73% of participants thought working in science would be fun after taking part in the programme.

With presentations by the Galway Education Centre and by the Cork Outreach Community, the nationwide picture was painted before David Fahy, Project Director for ESOF2012 in Dublin gave an intriguing presentation on the current state of planning for Europe’s largest general science conference.

ESOF2012 will take place from Wednesday 11th July to Sunday 15th July 2012 in Dublin, however the organisers are keen to make it both a nationwide and year-long event in terms of its scheduling and impact.

The event aims to showcase the latest advances in science and technology along with promoting a dialogue on the role of science in society. It also aims to provoke public interest, excitement and debate of scientific issues.

A public engagement programme will run throughout the year and the call for proposals has just recently closed. Judging by the enthusiasm, novel ideas and inspired thinking on display amongst Ireland’s STEM communicators, it is evident that ESOF2012 in Ireland will be a huge success.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lifetime Lab Wins Again

Well done to Lifetime Lab at the Old Cork Waterworks, which has been selected as “Best Industrial Museum/Site” by the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland. The accolade was presented to Lifetime Lab at a special ceremony at ESB headquarters recently.

Lifetime Lab was selected by the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland (IHAI) for the successful integration of Victorian architecture, including three enormous stationary steam engines, with the modern requirements of a 21st century visitor experience.  Manager of Lifetime Lab Mervyn Horgan commented “Recognition by the IHAI is a fantastic achievement; each year we try to expand the heritage value of Lifetime Lab for our visitors, for example we have introduced an audio visual experience this year that recreates the working life of  a waterworks employee”.

Speaking at the presentation, Colin Rynne, president of the IHAI Heritage said, “The judging committee identified Lifetime Lab as a clear winner for the award, the scale of the restoration and conservation are a credit to Cork City Council”. He added These awards are an opportunity to recognise the tremendous achievement in developing and sustaining industrial sites as tourist and educational amenities".

Lifetime Lab is located at the old Cork City Waterworks on Lee Road. The Victorian buildings were restored to accommodate a visitor centre with interactive environmental exhibits, a steam centre with preserved boilers and huge steam engines and a schools science centre. Lifetime Lab also has a coffee dock, a picnic area, a children’s playground, is fully wheelchair accessible and opens every day until 5.00pm.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A sticky problem?

White's Tree Frog (Pic: Diana Samuel)
Frogs that use their sticky feet to cling to trees could have practical applications in medicine.

That's according to University of Glasgow-based scientist Niall Crawford who presented this work yesterday.

"Tree frog feet may provide a design for self-cleaning sticky surfaces, which could be useful for a wide range of products especially in contaminating environments - medical bandages, tyre performance, and even long lasting adhesives," says Crawford.

Tree frogs have sticky pads on their toes that they use to cling on in difficult situations, but until now it was unclear how they prevent these pads from picking up dirt.

"Interestingly the same factors that allow tree frogs to cling on also provide a self cleaning service. To make their feet sticky tree frogs secrete mucus, they can then increase their adhesion by moving their feet against the surface to create friction. We have now shown that the mucus combined with this movement allows the frogs to clean their feet as they walk," says Crawford.

The work is part of a European-wide project on biological and technological adhesives which aims to "provide more elegant solutions to contemporary engineering and biomedical adhesive requirements and will additionally provide a platform for future technological innovation that requires adhesion in hostile conditions as a prerequisite".

The researchers put White's tree frogs (Litoria caerulea) on a rotating platform and measured the angel at which they lost their grip.

When the experiment was repeated with frogs whose feet were contaminated with dust they initially lost grip but if they took a few steps their adhesive forces were recovered. "When the frogs did not move the adhesive forces recovered much more slowly," says Mr. Crawford. "This shows that just taking a step enables frogs to clean their feet and restore their adhesion ability."

White's tree frogs have tiny hexagonal patterns on their feet, which allow some parts of the pad to remain in contact with the surface and create friction, whilst the channels between allow the mucus to spread throughout the pad. This mucus at once allows the frog to stick and then, when they move, also carries away any dirt. If this can be translated into a man-made design it could provide a re-useable, effective adhesive.

WH Crawford: Patron of Art and Science

In scientia veritas, in arte honestas.
In science truth, in art honour.

The gates at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork give an nice indication of the connected history of art and science in Cork and elsewhere.

The collection the gallery contains began to be formed in 1819 and the former Custom House of Cork became home to the collection in 1825 when the Royal Cork Institution took control of the building. The RCI was a forerunner of University College Cork. The building was extended in 1884 (when these gates were erected) and again in 2000.

William Horatio Crawford (1812-1888) was a great benefactor of the construction of the gallery extension in the 19th Century. Crawford's father had founded the Beamish and Crawford Brewery in Cork, now no longer a working brewery.

William Crawford of Lakelands (Crawford Gallery Collection)
The family home was at Lakelands near Blackrock- a site now largely occupied by the Mahon Point Shopping Centre.

Crawford was an eminent gardener and horticulturalist, collecting and growing plants at Lakelands from around the world. He had at Lakelands a 'perfect arboreatum...richly planted...with rare shrubs and trees'.

In 1810, West described Lakeland as " one of the most neat and handsome (house and estate) that opulence could desire. The plan, elevation and everything about it, forms a complete picture, being build upon a rising ground, commands a most extensive view at every point, and exquisite rows of beech interspersed with a variety of ever green, descends to the brink of the lake, from which this seat took its name of ... Lakeland. It was lately the residence of Benjamin Bonffield, esq. a gentleman of considerable literary ability... and this elequent mansion is now occupied by William Crawford, esq." (West, 1810).

Crawford's plants included Himalayan and Andean species, magnolias, rhododendrons and cordylines. The Himalayan Magnolia campbellii flowered for the first time in the British Isles at Lakelands.
He was best known for his Brownea species, many of which were bequeathed to Kew and the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

Brownea crawfordii was a hybrid of B. grandiceps and B. macrophylla which Crawford produced at Lakelands. It was donated to Kew on his death (from heart disease) and named in his honour.

Little of Lakelands remain except the ruins of a few out buildings and some magnificent monkey puzzle trees which mark the site of the house itself. Other gardens also recieved bequests from the Crawford estate, including Queen's College Cork (now University College Cork).

That wasn't the only thing Crawford left to the College. William Horatio Crawford provided much of the funding for the construction of the Crawford Observatory at UCC in 1878. Still the only observatory on any university campus in Ireland, it was designed by one of the finest scientific instrument makers of the 19th Century, the Dubliner Howard Grubb. The Duke of Devonshire of Lismore Castle in Waterford also provided funding for the observatory.

Crawford also provided significant funding towards the erection of  greenhouses at the Botany Department at UCC.

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