Saturday, January 28, 2012

Filling in your CAO form? Open your mind to science

It’s that time of year again.

The first of February marks the deadline for CAO applications (at least for the ‘normal’ applications; late application is still allowed up until the first of May) and lots of leaving cert students are making important decisions about what they’ll study at third level.

Having attended a good number of recruitment fairs and college open-days in my time, ‘ll give the same advice  here as I do in person – choose to study what you enjoy!

Read the full version of this article on the Cork Independent Blog >>>

Friday, January 27, 2012

Energy Guzzler at Lifetime Lab

Image: Guzzler at Lismore Heritage Centre
Lifetime Lab is seeking help from primary school children all across Cork to keep an eye out for Guzzler, a furry energy eating alien that landed at the Old Waterworks recently. Guzzlers mission is to learn about saving energy from infant and junior classes and has been seen visiting Cork City schools this week.

The visit of Guzzler is part of a series of interactive, hands-on primary workshops available free to primary schools in Cork this year as Lifetime Lab partners the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) to increase the understanding of climate change and energy efficiency.

Guzzler workshops are available to junior (1st & 2nd) classes and children will learn about energy efficiency and environmental awareness through participation in various experiments and activities using Guzzler the puppet – the ultimate energy waster!

Speaking about the partnership Mervyn Horgan Manager of Lifetime Lab said “The partnership with  SEAI  is a complement to the success of our existing education programmes, with close to 8000 primary school children per year attending workshops at Lifetime Lab we have developed a strong working relationship with schools in Cork” He further said “pupils receiving the free workshops will be introduced to the concept of energy conservation and  participate is fun activities at a level that is age appropriate, while class teachers will receive helpful resources linked to the SESE strands of science, geography and history”.

Speaking about the workshops Aoife Cannon, Education Executive with SEAI said

“The aim of SEAI’s Education Programme is to educate pupils on the benefits of sustainable energy, through local workshops we hope to reach a wider audience and really make a difference to the use of energy in Ireland”.  Aoife added “Lifetime Lab is an ideal partner to deliver the programme, both by the success in reaching a large audience but also as an exemplar of sustainability”

Guzzler Workshops are available free of charge to schools and will visit schools from January to March 2012. To book a workshop, or for more information, please contact or 021 4941500 or go to

For more on Guzzler and the work of the SEAI with Primary Schools, you can visit their site.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Capital Science

This morning sees the launch of Dublin Science 2012 - an innovative science themed festival running throughout the year. The festival has at its centre the ESOF 2012 meeting which takes place in July.

The ESOF (Euroscience Open Forum) is a broad ranging, interdisciplinary meeting held every two years and will see over 5,000 scientists meet in Dublin.

This morning's launch will highlight just some of the 160 projects which will make up the science-themed year including:

  • Exhibitions at the Science Gallery including Happy? - exploring the factors that shape happiness.

  • Theatrical events including Rough Magic's hilarious and uplifting 'Improbable Frequency'. I was lucky enough to see an earlier production and it was very enjoyable - featuring characters such as John Betjeman, Flann O'Brien and Erwin Schr√∂dinger. The final performance will be streamed live on the web.

  • Dublin's St. Patrick's Day festival will see a science-themed parade and a treasure hunt with science related costumes!

There is many more events already announced and more to be revealed throughout the year. Check them out on the Dublin Science 2012 website or follow @dubscience2012 on twitter.

You can find more details on ESOF 2012 on their website and follow them on @ESOF2012. The full programme for this meeting will be announced in mid-February.

Best of luck to all involved!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Species Discovered in Suriname- Picture Special

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

>>Scroll down for more images<<

The Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expedition was a three week survey along the Kutari and Siplaliwini rivers in Southern Suriname from August to September 2010.

The scientists identified a total of 1,300 species 40-50 of which they believe may be new to science.

The new species include the Cowboy Frog (Hypsiboas sp.) so called because of its distinctive 'spurs' on the frogs 'heels'; the Armoured Catfish (Pseudacanthicus sp.) with its sharp spines to defend itself from giant piranhas; and the Crayola Katydid (Vestria sp.) so called due to its striking colouration.

Other interesting (although not new) species spotted include the Pac-Man Frog (Ceratophrys cornuta) whose massive mouth allows it to swallow prey almost its own size; the Great Horned Beetle (Coprophanaeus lancifer) a dung beetle the size of a tangerine; the Spectacular Conehead Katydid (Loboscelis bacatus) with fluorescent green and pink colouring; and the Green Crested Katydid (Steirodon sp.) a plant eating insect which mimics vegetation in order to avoid being eaten.

Cowboy Frog (Hypsiboas sp.) 
Image: Paul Ouboter/ Conservation International

Armoured Catfish (Pseudacanthicus sp.)
Image: Kenneth Wang Tong/ Conservation International

Crayola Katydid (Vestria sp.)
Piotr Naskrecki/ Conservation International

Pac-Man Frog (Ceratophrys cornuta)
Image: Trond Larsen/ Conservation International

Great Horned Beetle (Coprophanaeus lancifer)
Image: Piotr Naskrecki/ Conservation International

Spectacular Conehead Katydid (Loboscelis bacatus)
Image: Piotr Naskrecki/ Conservation International

Green Crested Katydid (Steirodon sp.)
Image: Piotr Naskrecki/ Conservation International

Images from Conservation International: “An Armored Catfish, a ‘Cowboy Frog’, and a Rainbow of Colorful Critters discovered in Southwest Suriname”

Friday, January 20, 2012

Robinson: Science and Climate Justice

Mary Robinson delivered a lecture on Climate Justice at UCC's Centre for Global Development this week in which she encouraged citizens to put pressure on world leaders to take the issue of climate change seriously.

The former Irish President and and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also took the opportunity to highlight the recent Young Scientist Exhibition as a way of energising young people about science and technology.

Speaking of these young scientists she said, "They are the ones who will be the decisions makers, mothers, fathers and leaders in 2050 when the impacts of climate change are being acutely felt. They didn’t cause the problem, we who came before are responsible for that, but the burden of dealing with it will fall squarely on their shoulders".

Robinson also highlighted the news that NUI Maynooth's Combat Diseases of Poverty Consortium are to organise a young scientists exhibition in Tanzania: "Students there have an even more immediate need to understand the impacts of climate change and to find solutions to the problems it creates. Schools, universities and colleges need to equip students from Cork to Dar es Salaam with the skills they will need to navigate their way through an ever changing world."

"get young people energized and involved in science and technology – so that they can shape the world of 2050 and make it a better place to live" Now President of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice (MRFCJ), Robinson was enthusiastic about upcoming science events in 2012. "In May the World Congress on Water, Climate and Energy takes place in Dublin and in July, Dublin will be the City of Science hosting Europe’s largest science conference, the Euroscience Open Forum. A programme of science-related events and activities are being held throughout the year across the island of Ireland to showcase the latest advances in science and technology and to stimulate and provoke public interest, excitement and debate about science and technology. I hope this can build on the work of the Young Scientist Exhibition to get young people energized and involved in science and technology – so that they can shape the world of 2050 and make it a better place to live."

Mary Robinson went on to outline her views on climate justice subsequent to the COP17 meeting at Durban in December. "Make no mistake about it", she said "we ignore the threat posed by climate change at out peril".

Of the meeting in Durban she said there was a noticeable lack of urgency within the negotiations to begin with: "In the first week I was struck by the complete lack of urgency in the formal negotiations, contrasting with the real urgency being voiced on the street, by scientists and by organisations representing the most vulnerable communities from all over the world."

"Ireland has the potential to make a significant contribution in this area" One of the key outcomes Robinson noted in her speech was the beginnings of bringing the issues of food security and agriculture into the work of the COP.

"In 2012 Parties will consider how best to support a process to address the impacts of climate change on food security and the role of climate smart agriculture in finding ways to grow food under changing climatic conditions while safeguarding the environment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland has the potential to make a significant contribution in this area drawing on domestic agriculture expertise and our international work on food and nutrition security."

Robinson said that the door was now open for a new international and inclusive legally binding agreement on climate change. "[Durban] was not the breakthrough needed to solve the problem now, but no one really expected that. Neither was it a failure; in fact it lays down a clear challenge to all the countries of the world – and particularly those responsible for the worst emissions – to get their act together before it is too late."

You can read the full text of Mary Robinson's speech here (pdf).

Image: Mary Robinson speaking at UCC (Image: Tomas Tyner, UCC)

Monday, January 16, 2012

BASF Moves Plant Biotech Jobs to America

The global biotech and chemical company BASF is to withdraw from Europe and concentrate its plant biotechnology business on North and South America. 140 jobs in Europe will go.

Just when science, technology and biotechnology, in particular, have the capacity to create jobs, build confidence in economies and promote an economic recovery, Europe now risks becoming known for an anti-science agenda.

The company said today that it will halt development and commercialisation of all products targeted solely at the European market because of "a lack of acceptance for this technology" from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.

BASF say they are "convinced that plant biotechnology is a key technology for the 21st century" but at this time the "conditions for cultivation of genetically modified crops in Europe are unfavourable".

The move will stop development on Europe-targeted crops such as Amflora, a genetically modified potato variety which provides easy to extract starch for industry. The company will also halt work on its Fortuna potato variety, bred to be resistant to late blight, Phytophthora infestans. BASF had applied for approval from the EU for commercial cultivation of Fortuna late last year. The variety had two resistance genes inserted from a wild relative found in South America.

Despite ceasing development of other such products, BASF have said they will continue with the regulatory approval process already in train.

Greenpeace have welcomed the move claiming that "Europeans don't want GM crops, and for good reason".

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's agriculture policy director said that it wasn't just health concerns that worried EU consumers; "GM crops go hand in glove with factory farming, pesticide use, pest resistance and disappointing long-term yields".

Today's development sees a company with European origins having to move much of its research and development to the Americas due to continuous delaying and buck-passing when it comes to GM regulations in Europe.

This has created an atmosphere where even the research and development of GM crops, for one company at least, has become impossible.

A Chat With Spotticus

He's easily the most famous Giraffe on Twitter and his tweets from the Natural History Museum in Dublin are followed by hundreds of eager followers. Now, in an exclusive interview, Spotticus tells all about life on Merrion Street and what it's like being an endangered species.

Hi Spotty….may I call you spotty?
Yes- but only because you asked nicely....

So, you’ve become a bit of an internet celebrity of late. Whose idea was it to let you loose on Twitter?
Well I’d only really found out about this twitter lark when the visitors returned to the museum after the re-opening in 2010 (One advantage of being so tall is you can look over people’s shoulders as they tweet on their mobiles). So I decided it would be a good way (the only way?!?) to converse with my public. To overcome the hoof disadvantage to typing, I have a human collaborator here who helps me tweet. One of the chimps did offer to type, but his spelling is appalling.

Are you enjoying your new found fame?
I enjoy the idea of having followers- it reminds me of my life in the herd before I came to the museum.

How long have you been living/working in the NH Museum?
I’ve been here since 2003- I was brought over to Dublin from the Netherlands by the lovely Leon Bouten and his family, who are taxidermists that work with the museum from time to time.

What’s your history? Where were you working before Dublin?
Well I’m a lot older than I look- I lived in a wildlife park in the Netherlands until 1965. The Boutens kept me in storage from then until 2002, when Dublin got in contact looking for a new giraffe exhibit- and that was that!

Children in particular seem to love you and your pals in the museum. What do you think is the attraction?
Well when was the last time you stood next to a tiger?? The advantage with the museum is that you can stand next to your favourite animal and see how big they are in relation to you. You can’t to that anywhere else- well you could try, but then you run the risk of getting eaten, or squashed… or squashed and then eaten…

Is education and working with schools a big part of the museum’s job?
Absolutely - there is so much to learn about species, habitats, endangerment and extinction and the museum is the ideal location to do just that. It’s important that people are aware of environmental issues and that we help teachers educate their students about these subjects. The education department here do lots of workshops for schools- but I think they could use a few more giraffe anecdotes.

Some people call your home a “museum of a museum” is this something you’re proud of?
I think so! It was Stephen Jay Gould who first said that about us- we are one of the oldest natural history museums, and one of a handful of cabinet style museum left in the world. You could say the museum is an endangered species of its own. Many of the museums who updated their galleries in the 1980’s and 1990’s are now returning to the cabinet style.

The Rothschild giraffe was recently added to the Red List of endangered species. How does this make you feel?
I couldn’t believe it- giraffes have never been on the Red List before! There a 9 recognised sub-species of giraffe and us Rothschilds (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi) are particularly distinctive as we have no markings on our lower legs.
The IUCN, who compile the Red List of Endangered Species, estimate there are fewer than 670 individuals remaining in the wild. The drop in numbers is blamed on agricultural development, human settlement and poaching. There are only a few small populations now remaining in Kenya and Uganda, and they are isolated from each other, so they unable to interbreed.
The situation for us is now critical and the IUCN and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation are doing great work to try protect us. I should also say them museum staff look after me very well too- hoof shines, mane trims… the odd vacuum clean now and again…

Do you think places like the NH Museum have a role in promoting conservation?
Definitely- as well as educating the public and housing some extinct species, all large natural history collections  have the unique position of supplying “ancient” DNA to scientists, who use this information when studying animal populations. This in turn helps the conservation of several species.

Besides your good self (obviously) is there any other particularly interesting ‘stars’ of the museum that you would recommend visitors see?
There are lots of different characters here- the visitors love the lions, tiger, sharks and all those other vicious creatures! The Giant Irish Deer and very impressive, with their 3-metre wide antlers! Also on the ground floor, if you can find them, there is an eel that choked on a frog and Ireland’s biggest goldfish...

Are you getting many visitors these days? Are school holidays your busy period?
We are so busy it’s unbelievable- mini-humans everywhere! I hear we’ve had a 10% increase in visitors in 2011- 300,000 people in one year! The summer season which stretches from April to August is always the busiest with school tours, summer holidays and tourists. We love our visitors because they pass their love of us from one generation to the next which constantly keep us popular!

I see the keepers have opened the ‘Discovery Zone’ in the museum. What’s that all about?
That’s a new area in the museum which is used to host events like storytelling, school workshops and public handling sessions. The zone provides a space for visitors to look at and learn about the different species the line on land and in the water. There are two carts with lots of animals to look at and learn about. An added bonus is that you are allowed to touch some of the animals- Nessa the Bager loves getting scratched behind her left ear....

Anything else we should know about?
Cheung the Giant Panda has had a dye job.

Many thanks to Spotticus for taking the time to answer my questions and to Spotty's colleagues at the NHM for facilitating our little chat. You can visit Spotticus and his friends at the Natural History Museum from Tuesdays - Saturdays and admission is FREE!
You can also follow Spotticus on twitter @SpotticusNH

Friday, January 13, 2012

The 'Culture' of Science

Image: BT
This morning's Irish Times editorial carried an argument that science and the engagement with science be considered as a part of what makes any society "cultured".

I've written occasionally here regarding science and culture and I certainly think it's an area for rich collaboration and interaction.

"Engagement with dance, music, theatre, writing, art, all these are readily proffered when questioned about the cultural aspects of a society. Yet the word culture carries a much broader meaning than just these forms of artistic endeavour" writes the editorial.

The author argues that scientific research is considered abstract or removed from our daily lives and not something we consider a cultural activity. "This is despite our ready embrace of all that the culture of science can deliver, from mobile phones and modern aircraft to tablet computers and advanced medical diagnostics. And yet Ireland seems unwilling to acknowledge the importance of research as a cultural activity that enriches society."

Despite the billions of euro spent on scientific research, researchers and infrastructure in this country over the years, the Irish Times editorial makes the argument that science is still not considered a cultural pursuit: "all this money has had scant impact on the public recognition of science as a cultural activity that can enhance our society as well as our economic life."

 While contributing to a much needed debate on the role of science in Irish culture and society, I can't say I agree fully with the tone of the editorial. Isn't culture much more about how we live our lives than about some sort of "fine arts" definition of culture which requires us to stand in awe of a painting, sculpture or piece of architecture?

If, as suggested, a broad definition of culture is taken, then science has had a huge impact on Irish culture throughout the years. RTE celebrate their 50th birthday this year - an anniversary which would have been impossible without the early pioneers of television like John Logie Baird. RTE television, for better of worse, has had a huge influence on Irish society since its establishment.

Mobile phone, the internet and computer technology pervades our society. This 'e' or 'i' culture of sending emails, text messages and tweets allow us to communicate as a nation and as a world in ways we could not have imagined just decades before. The ease with which we can send photographic and video imagery in seconds has also profoundly changed our culture and how we develop as a nation.

Essentially, what I am saying (and I'm sure the IT is too) is that science and the pursuit of science has had a real and important impact of Irish society and culture. Science has been a part of Irish culture - even if, as the Irish Times point out, it has not always been recognised as the cultural force that it is.

However, I would argue that there is no need for us to consider science a cultural activity in the way that we approach other areas of our 'culture'. Instead of visiting a museum or gallery and looking at a painting or piece of sculpture (which, by the way, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do!), one can look around you and view the impact science has had on the world. That, in the end, is science's ultimate reward - that it is a force for change and cultural development in our country. Lives saved by medical science, crops protected by botanists, communication made possible by computer scientists - all these things are worth more than some label that says science is now a cultural experience.

As the editorial writer in the Irish Times points out, young scientists (at least those gathered at this week's BT Young Scientists Exhibition) don't care whether science is considered a cultural pursuit or not: "These students are not distracted about whether Ireland has a culture of science, they simply engage with the subject with the same enthusiasm as they would any other activity that attracts their interest." We should do the same!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Giant Tortoise 'Re-discovered'

Scientists working on the Gal√°pagos Islands say they may have discovered a breeding population of a species of giant tortoise thought to be extinct since soon after Charles Darwin's visit to the islands in 1835.

Chelonoidis elephantopus, a species endemic to Floreana Island, were thought to be extinct despite eleven hybrid tortoises being detected on a neighbouring island which were thought to contain the genetic signatures of the 'extinct' specises.

Now scientists writing in the journal Current Biology say that C. elephantopus individuals must still be alive today based on "the genetic footprints left in the genomes of very recent hybrid offspring" on Isabela Island.
1669 totrtoises were sampled, with 84 exhibiting genotypes consistant with having one parent of the  'extinct' species. Given that C. elephantopus can live more than 100 years, it is likely that these parents are still alive and could be used to attempt a species recovery via captive breeding.

On his voyage to the Galapagos in 1835, Charles Darwin observed that the shells of tortoises living on different islands of the chain had different shapes – one of the observations that inspired his theory of natural selection. For instance, the shells of C. elephantopus on Floreana were saddle-shaped while tortoises on other islands had domed-shaped shells.

On Floreana, however, the tortoises disappeared because of hunting by whalers and workers at a heating oil factory that had been established on the island.

“This is not just an academic exercise,” said Gisella Caccone, senior research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior author of the paper. “If we can find these individuals, we can restore them to their island of origin. This is important as these animals are keystone species playing a crucial role in maintaining the ecological integrity of the island communities.”

The international team of scientists suggest that, to their knowledge, this is the first rediscovery of a species by tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Science Public Lecture Series Kicks Off

The popular Annual SEFS Public Lecture Series at University College Cork will begin its 2012 programme on Wednesday, January 11th with a lecture by Professor William Reville. 

The lectures will be held weekly on Wednesday evenings at 8.00pm in Boole 4 Lecture Theatre and will run until Wednesday 14th March.

The lecture series will cover a wide range of contemporary issues, including How Weeds Develop Resistance to Herbicides, Nanosensors, Teaching Computer Science to Primary School Children, Biodiversity and Infectious Disease, Generating Electricity from Ocean Wave Energy, Irish Innovation Policy, Toxic Chemicals in Consumer Products, and Can Particles Ever Move faster than Light?.

In the first lecture on January 11th, Professor William Reville will give a lecture titled ‘The Weeds Fight Back - How Weeds Developed Resistance to Roundup”. William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC. He will describe how growing the world's major commodity crops (corn, cotton and soya), genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, is now confronting a serious problem with weeds that have become resistant to Roundup. 

Admission is free, and as always, members of the public are invited to attend.

More details on this year's College of Science, Engineering and Food Science (SEFS) lecture series  can be found here (pdf).

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy Birthday Hawking

Former Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge Stephen Hawking celebrates his 70th Birthday today with a rare public lecture which will be streamed online.

The author of several books, including the iconic A Brief History of Time now continues his scientific work as Director of Research at the Institute for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge.

Despite having to overcome serious health problems he has become the archetypal scientist of our generation and is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Albert Einstein.

Hawking will mark his birthday today with a rare public lecture entitled "A Brief History of Mine" at a symposium in his honour at Cambridge. 

The lecture is due to commence at 5.25pm on Sunday January 7th and will be webcast live on the symposium website.

More Hawking goodies:

Professor Hawking answers questions from BBC, Today programme Science Correspondent Tom Feilden to mark his 70th birthday.

Physicists gather at Cambridge to raise a toast to the birthday boy.
Hawking's own website.

Professor Stephen Hawking asks some big questions about our universe>>>

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