Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: A year in science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Transitional changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full text of the short report is worth reading.

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

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

Irish Giant could finally be buried at sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Closer and closer to the Higgs boson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post also appears on the Cork Independent Blog.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar Eclipse Tonight

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

George Boole and Cork's Heritage

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Debating Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow DSI on twitter: @DebatingScience

'What a Wonderful World'

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Science of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

Primary School Science Contest Launched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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