Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chocolate & the Heart

I've currently got a large box of milk chocolates in my office. I'm being very good and limiting myself to a few every day. I know they aren't much good for me, but they are very tasty!

To attempt to use the recent chocolate research that says it is good for your heart as an excuse to eat the whole box here and now is missing the point completely.

The results of a 'meta-analysis' - i.e. combining the results of a number of studies, in this case seven, allowed the researchers to look at the chocolate consumption of 114,009 individuals along with their overall health. In this case, they looked at heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

The results show a 37% decrease in the incidence of cardiovascular disease in people who eat a high level of chocolate compared to people who eat a low level of the stuff. Although the work does not go into why this would be the case the authors note that this association may be due to "the high content of polyphenols present in cocoa products".

The authors are quick to caution against deciding that chocolate is the way forward for a healthy diet noting that commercially available chocolate is chock full of calories meaning that weight gain, hypertension and diabetes may be the side effects.

They suggest that we might look at the high levels of sugar and fat in commercially available chocolate and reduce it. This would allow us to be exposed to the beneficial effects of 'pure' chocolate, without too much of the nasty fats and sugars.

This is backed up by the British Heart Foundation. Their Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor warned that "We can’t start advising people to eat lots of chocolate based on this research. It didn’t explore what it is about chocolate that could help and if one particular type of chocolate is better than another.

"there are much better places to start than at the bottom of a box of chocolates" - British Heart Foundation “If you want to reduce your heart disease risk, there are much better places to start than at the bottom of a box of chocolates. You can still eat chocolate as part of a balanced diet but moderation is key because this sweet treat is usually packed with saturated fat and calories.”

The authors noted that the studies they looked at in their meta-analysis didn't allow them to look at the differences between 'good' and 'bad; chocolate and the association with heart problems.

There are also problems with the use of such observational studies. As the authors themselves note: "Chocolate intake is likely to be underestimated by consumers". Now, where was that box of chocs?

The research is Open-Access and free to view by all here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Ring Whale

Here are some images I took last week (Sunday 21st August) near Ring, Co. Waterford of the remains of a 10 metre long Sperm Whale which live-stranded on the previous Friday.

The animal had tracked close to the South East coast of Ireland for a number of days prior to stranding, leading experts to believe that he was sick.

The whale is now gone - removed and incinerated by Waterford County Council. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) had earlier called for the remains to be used constructively:

"This is a wasted opportunity", according to the group. "The specimen, could have made a fantastic educational resource, not to mention the tourism potential that would flow from such a unique local attraction. The lack of vision from the powers that be is disappointing, especially when one considers that Youghal, in East Cork is only 15 miles away, and is where the original masterpiece "Moby Dick" was filmed with Gregory Peck back in 1955."

I have to say, it was disturbing to see that the carcass had already been poorly treated by the time I reached Ring on Sunday- two days after the stranding. Names and slogans had been carved into the dead animal's blubber and people had obviously attempted (successfully in some cases) to remove teeth from the whale.

According to the IWDG, by the 23rd, "human scavengers had already sawed off the lower jaw bones over-night, so the specimen was no longer intact and the initiative was lost".

Friday, August 26, 2011

All the time in the world

Do you know what time it is? Are you sure?

Scientists from the UK and America have proven that an atomic clock based in the British National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the most accurate long-term timekeeper in the world.

In a study to be published online today and in the October 2011 issue of the scientific journal Metrologia, the accuracy of the caesium fountain clock, as it is known is confirmed. This is useful, because the clock in question is used to define International Atomic Time (IAT).

Similar clocks are based in labs in the US and Japan and the average is used as the IAT - a concept which is crucial for global communications, satellite navigation, surveying and financial transactions. It is hoped that since the UK atomic clock is now so accurate, similar methods can be used to fine-tune the Japanese and US timepieces.

"The improvements that we report in our paper have reduced significantly the caesium fountain clock's two largest sources of measurement uncertainties - Doppler shifts and the microwave-lensing frequency shift," said NPL Project Leader Krzysztof Szymaniec.

Kurt Gibble of Penn State University who's team contributed to the work explains:
"One of the improvements that our model contributed is an improved understanding of the extremely small Doppler shifts that occur in caesium fountain clocks."

While the acoustic Doppler shift of a train is well known in everyday life and to Leaving Cert physics students, he explained that Doppler shifts for light are too small for people to notice. "If you are walking down the sidewalk while looking at a red traffic light, your eyes cannot perceive the small Doppler shifts resulting from your movement that shift the light toward the blue end of the spectrum," Gibble said. "This change in color is just 1/100 millionth of the difference between red and blue. In the NPL-CSF2 clock, our model now shows that these Doppler shifts are even 100 million times smaller than that."

The other major source of measurement uncertainties - microwave lensing - results from the forces that microwaves in the clock exert on the atoms used to measure the length of a second. "An international agreement on the definition of the second is of fundamental importance in timekeeping," Szymaniec said.

He explained that the length of a second, by international agreement, is the "transition frequency between two ground-state sublevels of a caesium 133 atom." To measure this frequency, caesium fountain clocks probe laser-cooled caesium atoms twice as they travel through the clock's microwave cavity - once on their way up and again on their way down.

Image: The clock, NPL-CsF2, which is located at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K. The whole device is approximately 8.2 feet (2.5 m) high. Atoms are tossed up 3.2 feet (1 m), approximately 12 inches (30 cm) above the cavity that is contained inside a vacuum vessel. The large external cylinder screens the atoms inside the clock from the relatively large and unstable external magnetic field. (Credit: National Physical Laboratory, United Kingdom)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Heritage Week - Science Ideas

As well as Water Heritage Day, there are a few other science related events happening for Heritage Week:

University College Cork are hosting an historical walking tour of the campus. This will take in the gardens with many impressive tree specimens as well as the Aula Maxima, where one can view the Boole Window and culminating in a visit to the magnificent Crawford Observatory - the only observatory on a university campus in Ireland.

The tour is free of charge and running until Friday at 3pm every day and bookings can be made at visitorscentre@ucc.ie

Another interesting place to visit over this week should be the National Science Museum at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth.

To be honest, I wasn't aware such a thing exisited  but they seem to have a huge collection of historical scientific apparatus including that of Nicholas Callan, who invented the induction coil. Might be worth a visit. Their website has more details.

Water Heritage Open Day

Lifetime Lab at the Old Waterworks in Cork City will host a family fun Water Heritage Open Day on Saturday 27th August from 11am to 4pm. Activities will include launching water rockets from the Lifetime Lab garden, make & do, science activities, birds of prey, be a water detective, create giant bubbles, magic, face painting and lots, lots more.

Admission is free and children and adults can enjoy a series of stands and activities which will help them find out more about water. See images from last years open day here.

Lifetime Lab manager Mervyn Horgan said “Our 2010 open day was voted Best Interactive Event by the Heritage Council and this year we are aiming for best overall event” adding “We have had a great response from the public so far and expect a larger attendance this year, we have more volunteers and lots of extra family friendly fun planned with entry and all activities free on the day”

When asked about the weather spoiling the day Mervyn replied “The fun will happen inside as well as outdoors and we are fortunate to have our own marquee, so we are well prepared”

Lifetime Lab is located in the old Cork City Waterworks buildings on the Lee Road. The site now contains a Visitor Centre with interactive environmental exhibits, a steam centre with the original boilers and huge steam engines, a schools resource centre, a coffee dock, a picnic area and children’s playground and is fully wheelchair accessible.

Water Heritage Open Day is part of Cork Heritage Open Day 2011 run as part of National Heritage Week (August 22nd -28th) and sees a whole range of unique buildings open free to the public throughout Cork City.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Robot is Better Than Your Robot

Friday, August 5, 2011

Science Snapshot 12: Wall of Birds

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.

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

Today's image is from the Irish Natural History Museum, now re-opened after it's enforced closure. The museum is one of the best such museum in Europe and is often described as a 'museum of a museum'.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mystery Letter - Solved

Last Tuesday, I showed you a large stone-built letter 'E' from a remote hilltop in West Cork. If you figured out why it was there and what it's for, well done!

The 'E' is part of a larger series of letters: EIRE. The letters along with a marker number were built during World War II around the Irish coastline to alert Allied and German bombers that they had reached Ireland - a neutral country.

Some of the EIRE signs are still extant and this one is located near Toe Head. Here are all four letters (click for the full view):

And here's an image of one of the signs from the air:

Finally, here's a clip from the BBC series Coast on just this subject.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Science Snapshot 11: Mystery Letter

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.

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

Today's image is a bit a mystery for you to solve. It's a large letter 'E' made from flat stones on a remote cliff top near Castletownshend, Co. Cork. But why is it there? What's it for? Find out here!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Public and Private Science: It's all about perception

The recently published results of the Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey in the UK suggest that industry needs to do more to promote science.

The PAS survey, conducted by IPSOS MORI in association with the British Science Association and the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that there was a major disparity between the trust that the public placed in scientists working in the public and NGO sector and that placed in private-sector scientists.

When asked whether they trusted scientists to "follow any rules and regulations" 83% said they trusted scientists working in a university. There was also a large amount of trust placed in scientists working for the Government (72%), environmental groups (72%) and charities (76%).

However, when asked about industry scientists, just over half (56%) had the same amount of confidence in scientists doing the right thing.

This trust in university-based scientists is, as the PAS survey notes, in spite of the involvement of academics in the recent "climategate" controversy. It also doesn’t necessarily recognise the fact that while researchers may be based in a university, they may be paid by funding from industry sources.

Interestingly, in workshops to tease out the detail from the survey, participants tended to express the opinion that industry scientists were more interested in making money than in making genuine scientific discoveries. When the general public had the opportunity to speak with scientists in industry though, many of them viewed those scientists more positively.

The cliché of the crazy, money-mad scientist working for big-business is clearly just that: a cliché. However, trust is all about perception and while some would reasonably argue that nobody should trust a person simply based on their profession, there is no doubt that professionals do sometimes get ‘lumped in’ together as a homogenous bunch.

The general trend of a decreased level of trust in private versus public science though is not new. In the last PAS survey in 2008, 78% of respondents agreed that it was important that some scientists were not "linked to business" and 72% agreed that the independence of scientists is often "put at risk by the interest of their funders".

Indeed, the PAS survey from 2005 shows that people trust university-based scientists 48% less if they are funded by industry sources.

On the positive side, when scientists are compared to other professionals in the IPSOS MORI 'Trust in Professions' tracker, consistently more than 60% of respondents trust scientists to tell the truth. The latest survey of this type (2009) showed that 70% of the adult population of the UK generally trusted scientists to tell the truth. This was behind Clergy (71%), Judges and Professors (both on 80%), Teachers (88%) and Doctors (92%). Incidentally, Government ministers (16%) and politicians generally (13%) come bottom of that list.

So there is convincing evidence for a lack of trust on the part of the general public in industry-based scientists which is not mirrored in scientists working and funded from the public purse. There is a significant need then for private enterprise working in the sciences to ramp-up their communication with the general public and how they promote the sciences through their outreach work.

That isn't to say that some parts of industry aren't making significant contributions to the communication of science and the promotion of science amongst the general public. L'Oreal's support of the Women in Science programme is worthy of mention and a huge list of industry names have supported the Big Bang science and engineering fair, including Shell, Siemens and BAE.

Nevertheless, these new results suggest that nearly half of the general public mistrust scientists in industry. A concerted effort to communicate the value of privately funded scientific research to society is needed if we are to increase the levels of trust in science as a whole.

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