Sunday, December 30, 2012

12 Posts of 2012

It's been an exciting year for science and as we look forward to 2013, it's time to look back at the 12 top posts from Communicate Science in the last 12 months.

A scientific expedition to Suriname yielded some impressive results for Conservation International - not least the possibility of newly classified species. A photo special. +more

If the Irish Examiner were intending to start a real debate about Autism, they went about it the wrong way. My response to an article by Tony Humphreys and his stereotypical view of scientists. +more

Teagasc plans to plant GM potatoes in Ireland were outlined. I wrote in the Guardian on why it makes sense to carry out such trials. +more

How agriculture in the future should not be limited by idealogy, but informed by science. From the Guardian Science Blog. +more

Unfortunately, the subject of George Boole's house and its perilous state of repair fetaures again this year. Hopefully not for long more though? +more

A lesson from the EU Commission on how not to encourage girls to study science. +more

The tale of James Drummond and the almost forgotten Botanical Gardens at Cork. +more

The Race to Mars: How NASA's Curiosity Rover got to the Red Planet. +more

In light of recent studies, why organic agriculture must turn to science to survive. +more

Why the abolition of Ireland's Chief Scientific post is bad news for Irish science. +more

How an £18.5 million visitor centre at the Giants Causeway caused controversy in scientific circles and a rethink by the National Trust. +more

Some spectacular humpback whale activity in West Cork to finish the year off in style - a photo special. +more

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Happy yet?

So, I took part in the Science Gallery's National Happiness Experiment during the Summer and the results are now in!

The nationwide survey (the first of its kind in Ireland) was conducted by the Science Gallery and researchers from Trinity's School of Psychology and involved the team using text messaging to contact the 3,309 participants and gauge their mood over a six week period.

The results show that:

  • The average happiness over the six week period was 6.8 (on a 0-10 scale).
  • Being treated fairly was a key factor in how happy we feel.
  • There was a strong link between health and happiness. Those who considered themselves to be quite healthy scored significantly higher in terms of happiness and life satisfaction.
  • People who felt positive about phone and text use were on average happier and more satisfied.
  • The changing weather during the six-week experiment did not affect happiness levels.
  • The county we live in does not effect our happiness levels.
The results of the experiment have been published in book form - see here for details. Half of the proceeds for the book goes to St. Vincent de Paul. A wonderful gesture which will make some people very happy this Christmas. Despite this, and given the 'citizen science' nature of the experiment, it's strange that the results don't seem to have been made freely available.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A whale of a time: cetacean watching in West Cork

Whale watching in West Cork is some of the best in the World, especially at this time of year, writes Daniel Lettice.

Humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, common dolphin and harbour porpoise all in the one day. Whalewatching in some far flung destination? No, whalewatching off the South west coast of Ireland. Over the last two weeks the whalewatching off the West Cork coast has been world class. When it's good here it’s great and to see five species all in the one day is something you would do very well to equal anywhere else in the world.

The stars of the show this time around have been the humpback whales. This iconic species are regular visitors to Irish waters but with a minimum of 5 humpbacks in West Cork waters at the moment whalewatchers are certainly being treated to a pre Christmas gift.

Last Wednesday, as part of an Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) photo ID trip we photographed two humpbacks and a further two were photographed nearby. On another trip yesterday we again photographed two of these animals, this time in difficult conditions. All four animals were ‘known’ whales already recorded on the IWDG Irish humpback whale catalogue, which now has a total of 21 unique animals, the newest recorded off West Cork in the last two weeks. The famous Boomerang, who keeps coming back, has also been photographed in the area. Humpbacks are identified by their unique tail fluke patterns and they certainly provided ample opportunity this last two weeks for identification by putting on some fantastic tail fluking shows. Throw in some pectoral fin slapping and bubble net feeding and it all adds up to an amazing show.

Not to be outdone, the Fin whales who are the second largest animals ever to have lived on the planet also gave us a great show. There are numerous Fin whales in the area, some feeding in association with the humpbacks and some on their own. Lunge feeding is common amongst the fin whales at this time of the year. The whales line up a bait ball and engulfs it at that surface with their huge mouths open and throats distended, a sight to behold. At times this week the Common Dolphins seemed to have been showing off around the boat in an attempt to distract our attention from their larger cousins but they’ve had to take a back seat for a little while. Fleeting glimpses of Minke whales and the shy Harbour Porpoises have added to the magic of an amazing couple of weeks.

I would encourage anyone with an interest in whales and dolphins or just an interest in seeing one of natures great shows to get on down to West Cork when the weather settles again. For further, up to date information on the whales see

Simon Duggan's amazing photo of a humpback made the
front page of a number of national newspapers

Saturday, November 24, 2012

BBC Science Club and Plant Blindness

The latest episode of Dara O'Briain's Science Club on BBC was all about extinction. The problem is, they seem to have killed off the plants before they even got started with the show.

The programme itself was excellent. The series has been largely well received and the move to a 'Topgear-style' format  gives it a nice edgy and interactive feel to it. Dara O'Briain has also been engaging as our amusing guide to all things scientific.

My problem is that this week's episode was entirely zoocentric, without any mention of threatened plant species and their importance to the overall ecosystem.

There was an excellent studio piece on the African Clawed Frog and their former use as a rudimentary pregnancy test. Then we had a report on the Giant Panda and whether such "charismatic megafauna" are worth trying to save. We looked at the humble bee and also managed to find time to make a comet. All interesting TV but no mention of plants at all when talking about extinction? That seems a bit odd.

An EU report from 2008 showed that Europe is home to about 12,500 species of vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers and ferns). A staggering 21% of these species are threatened, according to the IUCN and 50% of plants which are only found in Europe are in danger of extinction. The main threats to Europe's wild plants are habitat loss, the introduction of alien species, the effect of pollution, the introduction of plant pests and diseases, and the effect of climate change. And that's just Europe alone!

It would have been nice to see the threat of extinction for plant species being discussed. After all, the solution to human-mediated extinction of animals is unlikely to be found without considering the overall impact of the environment the animal is living in and the plants which they are using for food and cover. It's all connected.

It seems, while outlining the the problem of conservationists becoming distracted from the bigger picture by the Giant Panda and other charismatic megafauna, the programme makers got distracted from looking at extinction in a broad sense and took the animal route alone.

I guess we can chalk this up as an example of 'Plant Blindness' a term coined to describe the inability of some to see the importance of plants in their lives and to the natural world in general. I talk about the importance of avoiding plant blindness in an article in the Winter edition of Walton Magazine. You can read it for yourself here.

Below, a clip from Tuesday's show: A Dodo's Guide to Extinction

Monday, November 19, 2012

Giant controversy resolved?

PM David Cameron at Giant's Causeway
(Image: National Trust/Harrison)
This Summer, the Giants Causeway visitor centre in Co. Antrim re-opened after an £18.5 million rebuild. However the National Trust, who run the facility were forced to defend some of the information presented in the visitor's centre after severe criticism from scientists.

An audio component of the interactive exhibition seemed to suggest that the National Trust was supportive (or at least sitting on the fence) regarding the notion that the Earth could have been formed 6,000 years ago. This was denied by the Trust in a series of statements at the time.

Even scientist and TV presenter Brian Cox has waded into the argument, tweeting: "to suggest there is any debate that Earth is 4.54 billion years old is pure shit".

For more on the original story, see my post.

Now, following a review of the section of the exhibition in question, the National Trust have re-recorded the end of the piece to "clear up any misunderstanding there may have been", according to Graham Thompson, Project Director for the Giant's Causeway.

"The National Trust only endorses the scientific explanation of the origins of the stones yet recognises that others have alternative beliefs", said Mr. Thompson.

You can read the transcripts of the original and new versions of the passage below (click to view a larger version).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Biodiversity Beermats

A group of Irish biologists have produced a set of eight biodiversity beermats which aim to raise awareness of biodiversity issues in Ireland.

The postgraduate students from the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin under the banner of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research  have produced the beermats as an innovative way of sharing their work with the Dublin public.

The beermats were designed and illustrated by Aileen Crossley and can be found in 10 pubs around Dublin. The group are also hosting 2-3 minute long pop-up pub talks on biodiversity.

The beermats have also been featured in the Irish Times and Science magazine in recent months. I'll drink to that!

More info: Biodiversity in our lives website

Monday, November 12, 2012

Coming Soon: Walton Magazine - Winter Edition

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A neutron walks into a bookshop...

Looking for a nice stocking-filler for the scientist (or science nut) in your life? You could do worse than a new book of random science facts compiled as part of the #Science140 project.

A Neutron Walks Into A Bar has been compiled by Irish science heads Paul O'Dwyer, Humphrey Jones, Maria Delaney and Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin after they asked the scientific community on twitter to send in their random (and not so random) facts in the form of a 140-character-long tweet.

Some of the tweets compiled are serious explanations of scientific phenomenon - condensed artfully into 140 characters. Others are facts about famous scientists, the universe and the world around us contributed by science enthusiasts, educators, members of the public and celebrities from all over the world - I've even spotted a few of my own #Science140 tweets in there.

All royalties from the book will go towards cystic fibrosis research. You'll find the book in all good bookshops and online.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chief Scientific Adviser post abolished

The decision by the Irish government to effectively remove the post of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) brings to an end some months of speculation about the post. However, it may not be the end of the story.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation announced the abolition of the stand-alone post last Friday, saying that the role would be absorbed into that of the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr. Stephen Sullivan, an Irish scientist working in the US and Chief Scientific Officer at the Irish Stem Cell Foundation told Communicate Science that the government was making two mistakes at once here: "The first mistake is removing a whole office charged with making sure decision makers in Government understand Science, its use, and what it needs to be competitive, of societal benefit, and, in the present climate, good value for money for the taxpayer and the country", said Sullivan. "The second mistake is making a civil servant responsible for formulating how we spend taxpayers money, now responsible for assessing his own decisions. This is quite simply a very poor management structure and is in fact a huge and obvious conflict of interest".

Prof. Patrick Cunningham, former CSA
The CSA is tasked to provide advice on scientific issues to government; to input into the development of the government's Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation; and to input into the work of the Advisory Science Council. Prof. Patrick Cunningham was appointed to the role of CSA on January 1st 2007 and his contract expired in August of this year.

One of Cunningham's major successes had been to help attract the Euroscience Open Forum to Dublin this year. He also contributed to the debate over such topics as GM crops and stem-cell research.

In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Cunningham told Dick Ahlstrom that contact with the current government had become less frequent but that “both governments are firm in their belief that Ireland needs to advance as a technological society”.

This latest change means that Prof. Mark Ferguson will take on the role of CSA in addition to his existing role as head of Science Foundation Ireland. A cost-effective, money-saving move, the government might argue? Stephen Sullivan disputes this notion:

"What does this say about Ireland's commitment to Science?" asked Sullivan, "What does it do for the morale of an already beleaguered Science community. In 2009, we closed the independent council for bioethics, we don't have a Minister of Science. While this might constitute a short term saving to a bureaucrat in the Dail, it weakens Irish Science and makes the country less attractive to invest in".

Coincidentally, I enjoyed reading a piece by Senator John Crown (a consultant oncologist) in last weekend's Sunday Independent. In it, Crown referred to the recent jailing of six Italian scientists for making "falsely reassuring" comments before the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. What the article was really about, however, was the problems of scientific ignorance when it comes to public policy.

CSA Patrick Cunningham at the launch of ESOF2012
From Galileo to creationists, eugenics to vaccines, Crown outlined just some of the pitfalls a scientifically illiterate society may fall into. "How do we inoculate ourselves against the potentially dire societal consequences of widespread scientific ignorance?" asked Crown. "A first step is to acknowledge that science is not just for egg-heads in white coats. An understanding of science is a fundamental requirement of living."

There are a host of things which combine to create a scientifically literate society: a broad, universal curriculum at primary and secondary level; a world-class third level scientific community; a place for science within the public sphere, in art, on TV; a thriving science-led economy; etc. A key factor in all of this is the presence of an individual who can champion science at the highest level. In the absence of a designated government minister for science, the CSA was that person. Not even the government can deny that downgrading that post - notwithstanding the good work of Prof. Ferguson at SFI - is a retrograde step.

"The Office of the Chief Science Adviser is a pivotal office of any Government that understands the societal and economic benefits of Science", concluded Sullivan. "If political short term interests are always prioritized, it is not surprising that a good long term strategy for Science cannot be developed."

You can listen to Stephen Sullivan speak about this issue on RTE Radio's Morning Ireland here.

Update (12th November 2012): You can read my piece on this subject in the Cork Independent here. This article was quoted by Forbes here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Irish deep sea research on National Geographic Channel

Image: VENTuRE Expedition
Irish research will take centre stage this weekend when UCC and NUIG research that has led to discoveries in the mid-Atlantic Ridge, which will feature in a National Geographic programme to be broadcast this Sunday, 28 October.

National Geographic has produced a five part series, The Alien Deep, which takes viewers into underwater worlds where no human has gone before.

The series takes viewers into an underwater world 3,000m deep, where, on the slopes of the Mid-Ocean ridges that divide the earth’s tectonic plates, chimney-like formations spew black plumes of superheated water, packed with chemicals, minerals and dissolved gases allowing life to thrive against the odds.

The scientific team leader was Dr Andy Wheeler, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork who worked with scientists from the National University of Ireland Galway, Geological Survey of Ireland, the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre in the UK. “It's great to see Ireland's expertise recognised on TV”, says Dr Wheeler.  “Discovering a new volcanic landscape three kilometres below was a thrill.”

The scientists were on board the Irish National Research Vessel, Celtic Explorer and used the Remotely Operated Vehicle Holland 1 - named for the Irish submarine pioneer John Philip Holland- for their explorations of the deep and was supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan. 

The team named the previously uncharted field of hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the first to be explored north of the Azores, the Moytirra Vent Field.  Moytirra is the name of a battlefield in Irish mythology, and appropriately means ‘Plain of the Pillars’. Patrick Collins from the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway led Ireland’s marine biological team on the survey.

The programme featuring Irish scientists will be broadcast this Sunday 28th October at 6pm on the National Geographic channel on Sky (channel 526) and also UPC (channel 215). The programme presenter is explorer Dr Robert Ballard who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Science Week 2012 Launched

Science Week 2012 was launched yesterday by the Rubberbandits and Dr. Sarah Kelly a recent graduate from DCU.

This year, the theme of the week-long science spectacular will be: "Everyday Experimenting". Science Week, which runs from November 11th-18th, aims to demonstrate that you are a part of Science. You are constantly experimenting. From attempting a new level on a game, to trialling a new recipe and even embarking on a first date – these are everyday experiments.

For more information on Science Week and events in your area, see

Saturday, October 6, 2012

New Irish Science Magazine Launched

"Scientists love their subject matter more than Cork people love Cork. No other professionals give up their spare time to help promote their profession in the same way scientists do." So says John O'Donoghue. And he should know - having just led a team that launched a new science and technology magazine.

Named in honour of Ernest Walton, physicist and Ireland's only scientific Nobel Prize winner, Walton Magazine comes from a group of young Irish scientists. It's published online and in print every quarter.

The first edition, available to read online for free, covers such diverse areas as a history of Walton himself, space travel, online privacy, Project Maths and the Science 140 project.

You can also read yours truly on recent advances in the science of the potato. You have been warned!

We can't have enough avenues for promoting and reading about science and an endeavor like this deserves to be supported. I wish the Walton team all the best.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Plant Watch: Germander Speedwell

This is the beautiful little Germander Speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys).

Found widely in hedgerows around Ireland, the small blue flowers have a four-lobed corolla (that's the collective term for the petals) and two stamens (the male parts of the flower).

In Germany, the flower is often referred to as "Männertreu" or "men's faithfulness" due to the fact that it wilts very quickly after picking! In English-speaking countries, it was considered a good luck charm for travellers, meant to 'speed' you on your journey.

It generally flowers from April to June, altough I found this specimen flowering at Tragumna, West Cork in late August!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Plant Watch: Portland Spurge

Here's Euphorbia portlandica, Portland Spurge. It's a relatively common, coastal plant found on sand dunes around the country, while being less common on the west coast.

Tending to grow low across a dunes, the red stems are a diagnostic feature.

It's a species in the genus Euphorbia, which contains 1603 species and  belongs to the Euphorbiaceae family. The plants bloom from June to August (this photo was taken in late August at Cullenstown, Co. Wexford).

The flowers are aranged as cymes - a more or less flat-topped flower-cluster. Don't confuse it with sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias) which is taller, with larger, less yellow flowers. The bracts of Portland Spurge (those modified leaves associated with the flower) are "ace of spades" shape with a tiny point at the end.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In praise of the potato

Image: Courtesy of the Southern Star. Details below.
I was delighted to take a trip to Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen, West Cork, yesterday to speak about the potato plant at a seminar organised by A Taste of West Cork Food Festival.

The panel of speakers for the event included Regina Sexton of UCC, Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds and Éanna ní Lamhna, author and RTE radio contributor.

Éanna opened the evening with an informative and exciting summary of the history of the potato and its arrival in Ireland. This was followed by Regina Sexton's presentation on the potato as a food item amongst both the rich and poor in Ireland.

Madeline McKeever spoke of her experience as an organic grower based in West Cork and about the interesting work done by the Sarvari Research Trust to breed blight-resistant potato varieties.

My own talk centered on the historic and present-day impact of late blight on the potato crop and the recent advances in the science of the potato.

I pointed out that an “arms race” now exists between the late blight-causing pathogen Phytophthora infestans and those who would seek to control it. The pathogen’s genome, its genetic blueprint, was sequenced in 2011 and this shows us that it is an incredibly flexible and rapidly-adapting organism. As we develop new fungicides or resistant potato varieties to control late blight, it is just a matter of time before Phytophthora infestans evolves to overcome these barriers.

We have a number of options for the future including the development on new, blight-resistant potato varieties. These varieties can be developed via conventional breeding methods: for example, Teagasc developed the highly successful Rooster variety via its breeding programme and that potato now accounts for about 50% of all potatoes grown in Ireland. Unfortunately it’s not fully resistant to late blight.

Resistant varieties do exist and they are often employed in an organic setting: sarpo mira, blue Danube, etc. However, consumers are reluctant to change from the traditional varieties.

As expected the issue of the recent planting of GM blight-resistant potato plants in Ireland was raised by a number of audience members. I expressed my view that a small-scale, well-designed, open and honest experiment such as this, conducted by a well-respected public body such as Teagasc is to be welcomed.

Opponents of GM often call for more information and more testing to be done on GM plants. This is exactly what the Teagasc experiment is designed to give us.

We must use all the tools at our disposal: organic, conventional and GM to control late blight and protect the potato, a plant which has huge social, historical and economic importance for this country.

The event concluded with a sampling of some delicious potato-based recipes (the lemon potato cake was particularly to my liking) as well as some gripping drama provided by the Skibbereen Theatre Society. All in all, a wonderful celebration of the potato plant.

A Taste of West Cork Food Festival continues this week. More details of other events.

Image: Speakers and organisers of the "Humble Spud" event at Liss Ard. Image courtesy of the Southern Star. Seated (l-r) Madeline McKeever, Regina Sexton, Éanna ní Lamhna, Eoin Lettice. Standing (l-r) Michael Hurley (Chair) and Kay Quinn (Organising Committee) 

Read the Irish Examiner's coverage of the event here.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Story of You

Here's a nice new animation from Nature and narrated by the excellent Tim Minchin looking at the history of genetics, the human genome and the ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) project - a project designed to identify and characterise 'functional elements' in the human genome. It's obviously very much oversimplified but is clever and charming nonetheless.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I'm A Scientist comes to Ireland

The wonderful I'm a Scientist, get me out of here (IAS) will take place, for the first time, in Ireland this Autumn.

As I posted back in July, IAS will run in conjunction with Science Week and will consist of five zones where school-goers can ask scientists anything they like!

It's been described as an 'X-Factor for scientists' and allows the sort of relaxed interaction between scientists and potential scientists that provides for a wonderful learning experience for everyone who takes part.

I took part in IAS in the Spring of 2011 when it was a predominantly UK event (and got the mug to prove it!). If you're a scientist and think you might like to participate or a teacher who might like to get your students involved, the following posts I wrote on the subject might be a useful read:

Here's a 'before' post talking about what I wanted to achieve from participating.

Here's a post detailing how it all worked and the types of questions I was asked.

And finally, a post I wrote after I was booted out. A reflection on the whole event and it's value to student and scientists alike.

I really enjoyed taking part in IAS and it gave me a view of science outreach that I hadn't had before. If you're interested in taking part, I can highly recommend it. Find out more information on the IAS Ireland website.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why organic must turn to science to survive

According to a couple of recent news stories, organic food is no better for you or the environment than conventionally farmed food. While growers and consumers would do well to take a closer look at the findings before making up their minds, the organic sector needs to turn to science if it is to remain relevant.

The big organic story of the week is a Stanford University meta-analysis which has variously been reported as showing that "Organic food no healthier" (Irish Times), "Why organic food may not be healthier for you" (NPR), and "Organic food is 'not healthier'" (Telegraph).

According to the study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, there is little evidence from 237 existing studies that suggest organic foods are more nutritious than conventional alternatives. The authors do acknowledge that consumption of organic foods "can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure". Clearly the healthiness of a foodstuff is more than just its nutritional value, so the reduced pesticide use on organic foodstuffs is worth noting.

“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, co-author of the report. “We were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” Perhaps they shouldn't have been given that a 2009 analysis of 50-years of research showed similar results.

Some commentators have mentioned that they don't purchase organic because it is better for them, they shop organic because it is good for the environment. It seems, however, that this claim may not live up to further scrutiny.

The second, and less widely reported organic story of the week is a study by Oxford University scientists which suggests that while organic farming is good for biodiversity, it does not necessarily have a lower impact on the environment than conventional food production.

The Oxford study, published in the Journal of Environmental Management, is a meta-analysis of 71 peer-reviewed studies conducted in Europe. The authors report that "whilst organic farming almost always supports more biodiversity and generally has a positive wider environmental impact per unit of land, it does not necessarily have a positive impact per unit of production."

The study showed that organic production generally needed less energy, but more land than the same amount of conventional produce. While biodiversity was 30% higher on organic farms, the production of organic milk, cereals and pork all generated more greenhouse gases than the conventional alternative.

"Many people think that organic farming has intrinsically lower environmental impacts than conventional farming but the published literature tells us this is not the case," said Dr Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). "Whilst some organic farming practices do have less environmental impact than conventional ones, the published evidence suggests that others are actually worse for some aspects of the environment. People need to realise that an "organic" label is not a straightforward guarantee of the most environmentally-friendly product".

an organic stamp should not be seen as the pinnacle of achievement in terms of sustainable food production What these two studies clearly show is that an organic stamp should not be seen as the pinnacle of achievement in terms of sustainable food production. On the other hand there are clearly some advantages of growing organically - increased biodiversity on farms and a decreased use and exposure to pesticides being just two highlighted in these studies. While these are positives, as conventional agriculture slowly moves away from the worst excesses of pesticide use, the importance of purely organic production may wane.

I've long argued for a third way - an agricultural system based on science where what works and is safe from all systems of agriculture can be used together to get the best results for growers, consumers and the environment.

If organic farming is to remain relevant in an era of growing food insecurity, it must be based on rigorous science and clear evidence. The organic sector must also begin to pick its battles. Organic is not the answer to all of the worlds problems. It does however have real contributions to make in terms of biodiversity and sustainable pest management.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Keeping the blooms alive

Ever the romantic, I bought my beloved a clump of dying plant tissue to put in a vase on the kitchen window. Of course I didn't put it quite like that when I brought them home but it's good to remember what you are buying when you pick up a bunch of flowers.

From the moment they are cut to the time when they end up in your wheelie bin, it's a battle against the inevitable to keep cut flowers alive and Spanish scientists have now shown that sugar and the plant hormones in the flowers themselves are key to keeping them looking their best long enough for your partner to forgive you for whatever you've done to offend.

A flower is a thing of beauty to be enjoyed but from a biological point of view it has a definitive job to do. The huge diversity in flower anatomy, colour and scent is largely related to pollination. Plants have evolved flowers to attract insects, birds and other animals to disperse pollen and fertilise the female reproductive organs.

From the colossal flowers of Rafflesia arnoldii – the largest flowers in the world at up to a metre in diameter, to the minute blooms of Wolffia species – the smallest in the world, the simple goal is the same.

Once fertilisation has occurred, the plant has no need for such gaudy displays and the petals are usually the first parts of the flower to show signs of decay once their job is done.

To counteract the short vase-life of flowers, a packet of 'flower food' is often included when you visit the florist. These products usually contain some sugar to act as an energy source; a compound to alter the acidity of the water to make it more suitable for the flowers; and a disinfectant to kill off any bacteria which could speed up decay in the vase.

Now researchers using lilies (Lilium longiflorum) have shown that adding sugar to the vase speeds up the opening of the flower and slows down its decay but doesn't affect the rate at which the petals drop off the flower - a sure sign your peace offering should have been binned already. The overall effect of these changes is a longer flowering window and a happy customer.

Laia Arrom and Sergi Munné-Bosch found that adding sucrose to the vase accelerated flower opening by 2.4 days and delayed its decay by 24 hours. Their work was published in the journal Plant Science earlier this year.

Further analysis of how the tissues of the flower use this sucrose showed that the petals and the male parts of the flower took up lots of the sugar and used it quickly. The female parts of the flower, on the other hand, took up sucrose and held on to it - a reserve, perhaps, for the female element's new role as a seed-bearer.

So, how did adding simple sugar to the distilled water in the vase increase the length of time the flowers kept their condition? Crucially, the addition of sucrose to the vase seemed to alter the balance of hormones in the flower tissues.

Hormones serve much the same function in plants as they do in animals - acting as chemical signals which can be transmitted over long distances.

It was already known that a particular group of plant hormones called cytokinins can delay the onset of floral decay and, sure enough, this recent study showed that a cytokinin called zeatin riboside was accumulated in the flowers, prolonging their vase-life.

Another plant hormone, abscicic acid, is known to speed-up the decay of petals and the researchers found that flowers treated with sucrose had 57% less absicsic acid compared to control flowers.

The cut flower industry is big business. A recent report (pdf) on the industry described it as being worth over US$100 billion a year worldwide. The UK share alone is worth around £2.2 billion - a 250% increase over the last twenty years. That's a lot of husbands doing a lot of apologising.

Whatever we're buying them for, consumers like flowers that stay alive long enough to enjoy them. This latest research suggests we're doing the right thing by adding sugar. The extra energy source is able to alter the balance of plant hormones enough to get an extra few days of enjoyment out of the blooms. If that doesn’t work, you may need to try a box of chocolates.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Blog Awards Ireland - Science Nominees

I'm delighted to say that Communicate Science has appeared on the long-list of blogs nominated been shortlisted for an Irish Blog Award.

The shortlist can be viewed here.

The blog was nominated in the Best Science/Education category alongside a host of other top Irish science blogs including: Science Calling, Scibernia, Deirdre Kelleghan and The Frog Blog.

The award ceremony will take place on 13th October. Thanks to everybody who reads, shares and reacts to the blog, I couldn't (and wouldn't want to) do it without you!

**post updated 11/09/12**

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Martian Landscape

The Martian landscape at Gale Crater. Part of Curiosity is visible at the bottom of the image. Click on the image for the full version. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Here's an astonishing image from the Curiosity rover of the eerie Martian Landscape that it has landed in.

The image was taken using one of the rover's navigation cameras (Navcam Left) on 'sol 2' of the mission. A 'sol' is a martian day - about 24 hours and 40 minutes long.

The landscape you can see in the image is that of NASA's chosen landing site for Curiosity, Gale Crater. It's 96 miles in diameter and has a 'layered' mountain rising about 3 miles from the crater floor (see image below). This means that the rover will be able to assess the geology of Mars through analysing the layers forming the mountain.

The part of Gale Crater that Curiosity has landed in has shown (from satellite imagery) to be a location where water would have settled. This is key to Curiosity's task of determining whether microbial life is part of Mars' history.

An image of Gale Crater on Mars. The circled area at the top left of the crater indicates the planned landing site for Curiosity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity lands on Mars

The Nasa rover Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars after what appeared to be a textbook landing on the red planet.

The first images have been beamed back from the planet showing grainy thumbnail images of the Martian landscape and the wheel of Curiosity. The images will increase in quality and quantity over the next hours and days.

President Obama's science and technology advisor John Holdren has described it as "a great day".

Read the background to the mission and landing here.

The first images from the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Curiosity

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Race to Mars

Curiosity at work on Mars (Image: Nasa artist's impression)
At 6:31 am GMT on Monday, man will return to Mars in the form of Nasa's Curiosity Rover. The car-sized rover has been designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment which was able to support microscopic lifeforms.

Once landed, the culmination of a 36-week flight from Earth, the rover will use its onboard kit to gather information about the geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions and potential 'biosignatures' on Mars. Carrying three cameras, four spectrometers, two radiation detectors, an environmental sensor and an atmospheric sensor, Nasa say the mission will also be a step towards human exploration of the red planet.

However, one of the most impressive feats may be Nasa's capability to land Curiosity on the planet without damaging any of the expensive kit on board. Nasa say the mission will serve as "an entrée" to a further decade of Mars exploration because it will: "demonstrate the ability to land a very large, heavy rover to the surface of Mars; demonstrate the ability to land more precisely in a 20 km landing circle; and demonstrate long-range mobility on the surface of the red planet (5-20 km) for the collection of more diverse samples and studies".

Curiosity during testing on Earth (Image: Nasa)
The landing itself will be accomplished via a "soft-landing" technique employed for the first time on Mars. Instead of using the air bags typically used for such landings, the heavier Curiosity will use a sky-crane to deposit the rover on the surface of Mars. After a parachute slows the vehicle to nearly zero velocity, the rover will be released from the sky-crane and lowered to the ground via an "umbilical cord". As it is lowered, the mobility system will be deployed so that as soon as it hits the ground, Curiosity will be ready to roll. When the on-board computer recognises that touchdown has been successful, it will cut the umbilical cord and the sky-crane will "power away at full throttle" to crash land some distance away. You can see how this landing will work in Nasa's 7 minutes of Terror video.

In a Nasa statement, issued hours before touchdown the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL ) team said that the spacecraft was "healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted".

"Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft," said Mission Manager Brian Portock of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared."

You'll be able to watch coverage of the landing live on Nasa TV.
Follow the action on twitter by following the @MarsCuriosity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

London Calling: The Science of Shuttlecocks

Well, who would have thought Olympic Badminton would get so interesting?

If you're reading this in Ireland, you'll recall the short-lived 'controversy' over the religion of badminton and today we've seen eight female players disqualified over match-fixing scandal. We really should have taken our eyes off the action in the pool and on the beach volleyball arena and kept an eye on the court.

Any badminton I've played myself has been the back-garden or windy-beach variety so I've had the distinct handicap of playing with sub-standard, plastic shuttlecocks (that's the odd device that the players are knocking back and forth). Not good enough to coax out the limited skills even I possess. Perhaps I should have been using the top-of-the-line variety?

The Olympic shuttlecocks are made from 16 goose feathers. Middle of the road shuttlecocks will try and get away with using duck feathers but they generally dry out and crack much more quickly.

According to the laws of the game, controlled by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the shuttle can be of natural and/or synthetic materials as long as their "flight characteristics generally shall be similar to those produced by a natural feathered shuttle with a cork base covered by a thin layer of leather". Amongst the guidelines are that the feathers should be of uniform length (62-70 mm) and that the device should weigh between 4.74-5.50 grams.

A comparitive study of synthetic versus natural (pdf) shuttlecocks has shown that the natural shuttle had a lower drag coefficient at low speeds compared to a higher drag coefficient at high speed. The synthetic shuttle showed the opposite trend - lower drag at higher speed.

The laws of the game even allow you to test a shuttlecock for speed, in order to ensure that you're dealing with the real thing - slight imperfections in either direction can have significant effects on the flight and behaviour of the shuttlecock in the air.

To test a shuttlecock, one should use "a full underhand stroke which makes contact with the shuttle over the back boundary line". If the shuttle lands between 530 and 990 mm short of the other back boundary line, you can rest easy.

However, a recent study of the trajectory of a shuttlecock in badminton (pdf) has suggested that a more scientific approach can be used to measure shuttlecock speed and that this could be used to "replace the traditional subjective method of the Badminton World Federation based on players’ striking shuttlecocks, as well as applying research findings to improve professional knowledge of badminton player training".

The authors of the study found that the "special structure" of the shuttlecock makes its trajectory "perform unsymmetrical motion when playing". Due to its large surface area, shuttlecocks fall more slowly than expected due to increased drag. Despite this, they showed that the air force drag on the shuttle was proportional to the square of the shuttlecock velocity. This seems to fit in perfectly with what we would expect - the harder you hit the shuttle, the more opposite drag the shuttle experiences.

Enjoy the badminton!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

GM trial gets go-ahead

A genetically modified potato variety will be planted in Ireland as part of a Teagasc-led experimental trial, which has today got the 'green-light' from Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This post also appears on the Cork Independent Blog.

The field trials were allowed to proceed after an assessment of the experimental plans and designs by the EPA and a broad-ranging consultation process. The EPA also received 83 representations from interested parties - all objecting to the proposed trials. I've previously written about why, I think, this trial is needed.

Teagasc applied for a liscence to plant the potatoes back in January. These plants contain a gene which makes them resistant to late blight (Phytophthora infestans) - the organism which caused the Irish potato famine. This gene has been taken from a wild, related potato variety and inserted into the cultivated potato using GM technology.

The EPA have given their consent to the trials subject to eight conditions, saying in their decision: "The agency believes that the risk to human health and the environment from the deliberate release of these GM potatoes is negligible".

The conditions include a requirement of Teagasc to monitor the experimental site for at least four years after planting. They also require Teagasc to report to the EPA every two months on the progress of the experiments and to set up a 40m exclusion zone around the site where no commercial potato planting can take place.

This trial will ensure that we can have real experimental data, based on Irish conditions, so that we can sensibly assess the impact of GM potato planting on the environment under closely monitored and controlled conditions. From reading through the large number of submissions, it is clear that a large number of those objecting are calling for "more information" before such planting takes place. They seemingly fail to see that this trial is specifically design to provide that information they crave; and to do so in a safe, controlled and carefully-monitored fashion.

There will be a large amount of hyperbole written and spoken about this decision in the next few days. Already, the Organic Trust has warned of "grave ramifications" and a Green party spokesman has suggested it will do "untold damage to Irish farming". On the other hand, those welcoming the decision may talk of feeding the world and food security. In reality, the product of this decision will be far less clear-cut. We will hopefully learn more about how GM plants work in the Irish environment and those who support or oppose GM will continue to argue their own side of the debate.

I believe this is a positive step forward however. This experiment will provide real results which can only add to, enrich and enlighten what is an already heated debate. I look forward to seeing the results of this experiment.

Imagine Science

Here's a promotional video for the Imagine Science Film Festival 2012. Shot by Rory Gavin over two days around Dublin, we think it's pretty cool. Producers of It's a Girl Thing: please take note.

The festival takes place from November 9-16 and you can find further information on their website.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

London Calling: Performing under pressure

When Olympians line out for their countries next week they will have years, even decades of training and preparation behind them. Despite this, they will be under immense pressure to perform at a world-class level. The ability to handle that pressure - the competitors 'mental toughness' may well provide lessons for those of us in other walks of life and how we deal with pressure.

>>This is the first in the London Calling series of Olympic-themed posts in the run-up to the start of London 2012. <<

Serryth Colbert, himself a Commonwealth gold medalist rower, and colleagues found that members of the Great Britain Olympic Rowing Team were 12% more "mentally tough" than a group of surgeons surveyed.

This "mental toughness" describes the psychological attributes to perform at the highest level and was measured by a number of broad themes. These included "having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed" and "thriving on the pressure of competition". A total of six themes were measured by a survey of the rowers and the surgeons.

The results of the survey, published in the  British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery show that the average scoring for positive responses when asked about 'comeback mentality' - the ability to overcome previous failure ranged from 53% for rowers to 40% for surgeons.

When queried about the the ability to thrive under the heat of competition, 74% of rowers responded positively compared to just 58% of surgeons.
Olympic flame at Kew Gardens (Image: LOCOG)

The whole area of sports psychology will have a huge impact on athletes at this years games. Writing for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, Dr. Daniel Gould, who has conducted a series of research projects for the US Olympic Commission (USOC), has said that a whole range of "behind-the-scenes" factors can influence performance.

"These can range from athletes from less popular sports meeting some of the most visible athletes in the world in the Olympic village dining hall to traffic problems that disrupt an athlete’s normal training time" said Gould.

"Other distractions include having a roommate that snores or having an event scheduled towards the end of the Games but living in a village where most athletes are finished competing and are in celebration mode".

Training at the Olympic rowing venue (Image: LOCOG)
With all eyes now on the spectacular opening ceremony on Friday night, produced and directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, Gould had some advice for athletes making the decision to attend or not.

“Deciding whether to attend Opening Ceremonies can be very a difficult decision for Olympic athletes if they are going to perform within 24 to 48 hours of those ceremonies. Our research revealed that it could be a wonderful, exhilarating experience and worked to motivate some athletes. Others, however, found all the standing around zapped their energy and resulted in lack luster performance. It should be discussed with the athletes, taking care to examine the potential positive versus negative consequences,” said Gould.

As one of the Olympic rowers noted: "Mental toughness is not being affected by anything but what’s going on in the race. It’s being able to block out what’s not important".

Colbert et al., 2012. Performing to a world class standard under pressure—Can we learn lessons from the Olympians? British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery 50(4): 291-297. Link.

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