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

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