Thursday, February 23, 2012

Faster than the speed of light? No

When physicists announced last September that they had potentially detected neutrinos travelling at faster than the speed of light, it created a massive news story and lots of comment on what this result could mean for science.

Now it seems that after repeating the experiments and looking more closely at the experimental setup, the result could just be an error caused by a faulty connection between a GPS unit and a computer.

Read more in my post for the Cork Independent Blog >>

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

For Sale: Ireland's Scientific Heritage

George Boole's former home at Grenville Place in Cork City is now up for sale as an investment 'site'.

For €350,000 you can purchase this large city centre building which was once home to Queen's College Cork's first Professor of Mathematics and the 'Father' of modern algebra.

The house has been in a poor state of repair for some time and a structural collapse and 'making-safe' last year has led to significant damage to the roof and interior of the building.

At the time of the collapse there was significant enthusiasm for this building to be saved and restored. Over 1,200 people signed a petition to have the building urgently repaired and restored.

Now the building is up for sale with Global Properties as an investment site - apparently failing to mention that the building is listed on the Cork City record of protected structures and as such, cannot be demolished.

The property is described as a "Large site adjacent to the Mercy hospital and the Tyndall UCC overlooking the River Lee. Ideally-suited for Medical suites given it’s proximity to the Mercy Hospital".

Irish Examiner columnist and property editor Tommy Barker wrote recently about the property at number 5, Grenville Place suggesting that there was still hope that it could be saved: "While Boole’s house has been badly damaged by ravages of time and a partial building collapse, there’s surely enough IT entrepreneurs and major IT companies in Cork to rescue it in his memory."

It now seems that the time is right for a saviour of this building to emerge. Given Cork City Council's reluctance to get involved (they are still rebuilding quay walls alongside the property more than TWO YEARS after they were destroyed), perhaps Tommy Barker is right; perhaps it is time for the private sector to step up to the plate and make a contribution towards restoring this iconic and historically important building?

More details on Boole, 5 Grenville Place and the rest of this story in my earlier posts on the subject.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

in scientia veritas....STEM or STEAM?

Most people interested in or working in science understand what I mean when I use the acronym STEM , i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. It's a term that is increasingly used within science communication and education circles but may not necessarily be used widely outside these groupings.

There have been some arguments made to expand that acronym and to add ART to that mix - STEAM!

As far as I can see, the main argument is that the creative nature of science and technology is not a million miles away from the creative process of producing a piece of art. If we accept that, then art would be a logical bedfellow for the component parts of STEM.

Another argument I see is that art is a "different way of perceiving and knowing and dealing with the world" and could form part of an expanded "toolbox" for scientists and engineers.

Another motivation for some in this debate is to support the continued and improved teaching of art in school curricula. Fostering creativity and artistic talent (alongside STEM education), it is argued, will lead to increased levels of innovation and thus, economic growth. On the other side of the coin, there are advocates of STEM education who see the arts as a useful recruitment and outreach tool.

There is no doubt that all scientists (and students generally) would benefit from a well-rounded, education which includes a liberal dose of the arts. Closer ties between arts and science practitioners open up a range of important opportunities for both camps. It's also true that some of the best scientists are creative in their outlook and experimental design.

Whether we call it STEM or STEAM is immaterial. The links between the two should be properly explored and exploited. That's part of the reason I've created a direct link to all of the "Culture and Science" posts I've written over the last few years. The Cradle posts can be found in the top right-hand corner of the blog or by clicking here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Music of Flowers

Here's a nice preview of this week's episode of How to Grow a Planet. Watch and see how a species of plant and a species of bee have evolved a partnership based on the sound of a wing beat. The series continues this Tuesday, 9pm, BBC2.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cork Science Events in February

It's February, it's cold and it's wet! What you need is some science to keep the spirits up until spring. Here's a quick list of some science events happening in the next month or so. There is a particular emphasis on Cork events. Other events, particularly in Dublin, have been listed elsewhere.

Darwin Day Sunday, February 12th Quay Co-Op, Cork
Cork Humanists will be hosting an event to mark the life and works of Charles Darwin. They'll have birthday cake for the man himself and Dr. John Murray who lectures on paleontology at NUI Galway will give a presentation on "Darwin's Revelations". More info

Astronomy Monday, 13th February University College Cork
Dr. Niall Smith, Head of Research at Cork Institute of Technology will give a talk entitled "Hunting for extrasolar planets - the latest finds and the life question" at 8pm in the UCC Civil Engineering Building G10.

Young ScientistsFebruary 13th - March 3rd Lifetime Lab
Winning Cork entrants in the recent BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition will be on display in the Lifetime Lab throughout the month.The idea is to recognise the work of students and their teachers, who have represented Cork at national level. More info

Brainbox Workshops Midterm, 13-17 February Blackrock Castle Observatory
Got children to entertain and engage over the mid-term break? BCO are running daily 1.5 hour workshops on electronic circuits and how electricity impacts on our everyday lives. More info

Biodiversity Wednesday, February 15th, 8pm University College Cork
The College of Science, Engineering and Food Science continues its annual public lecture series with a talk by Dr. Paddy Sleeman on "Biodiversity and Infectious Disease - Towards One Health". More info

Geology Lectures Friday & Saturday, 17-18th February University College Cork
The School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences is hosting this year's Irish Geological Research Meeting and the two keynote talks are open to the public. Prof. Dave Harper from Durham University will talk on "The origin of animal ecosystems: integrating the Cambrian Explosion and Ordovician Radiation" on Friday evening at 7pm. On Saturday at 5pm, Prof. Dick Kroon from University of Edinburgh will give a talk entitled "On the link between Neogene evolution of climates and hominids". Both talks are open to the public and all are welcome. More info

Where do we go from here? Saturday, 18th February University College Cork
UCC Science Society have an organised a one-day lecture series on the topic of  "Where to from here?". There is a broad range of topics to be covered, from genetics to astrophysics, nanotechnology to cancer and stem-cells. The lectures run from 11am - 6pm and are open to the public. More info

Coder Dojo Sunday, February 19th, 10am-1pm Blackrock Castle Observatory
This movement aims to teach kids creative problem solving skills and practical creative skills. Alongside teaching, the aim is also to provide an outlet for kids who know how to code to meet others with similar interests. The 19th sees BCO's first class kicking off. See their website for more details. More info

Science and Business Wednesday, February 22nd, 8pm University College Cork
Dr. Declan Jordan from the Dept. of Economics, UCC will present a talk where he argues that 'science-push' innovation policies are unlikely to produce the desired outcomes - growth and jobs. He'll argue that innovation policy should refocus and recognise that managers, salespeople and customers have just as much, if not more, to contribute to innovation than researchers and scientists. Sure to evoke a lively debate! More info

Wave Energy Wednesday, Febraury 29th, 8pm University College Cork
Anne Blavette will talk about ocean power plants and their potential impact on the energy market and climate change in her talk entitled "Sea Waves are Tomorrow's Oil". More info

Have I missed something? Let me know

Darwin Day Special: Darwin's 'Lost' Fossils

During the Summer of 2011, Howard Falcon-Lang was rummaging around in the windowless vaults of the British Geological Survey when he opened a drawer labelled simply "unregistered fossil plants".

What he found inside was a 'treasure trove' of fossils including some collected by Charles Darwin - who's birth we celebrate this weekend as Darwin Day!

“While searching through an old cabinet, I spotted some drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants’. I can’t resist a mystery, so I pulled one open. What I found inside made my jaw drop!” said Falcon-Lang.

“Inside the drawer were hundreds of beautiful glass slides made by polishing fossil plants into thin translucent sheets. This process allows them to be studied under the microscope. Almost the first slide I picked up was labeled ‘C. Darwin Esq.’ This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834!”

The collection was put together by Darwin's good friend Joseph Hooker while he was employed by the Survey for a short time in 1846.

"The purpose of my visit was to locate some specimens of Carboniferous fossil wood from the Bristol Coalfield", wrote Falcon-Lang in Geology Today. "A rummage quickly turned up the sought after fossils but as we were preparing to leave, my eyes fell on a series of drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants’. I can’t resist a mystery, so I pulled one open".

Joseph Hooker
Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) was one of the great botanists of his time and director of Kew Gardens for many years. The slide-mounted samples of fossilised plants in the newly re-discovered collection have the names of donors inscribed on the slides. At least two of the sections of fossil wood were obtained by Darwin during his famous voyage on the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836.

One of the samples (pictured above) comes from Chiloe Island, Chile a place Darwin visited in December 1834 and described it thus: "Chiloe, from its climate is a miserable hole".

There are many specimens from the collection which were not collected by Darwin although understandably given Darwin's fame his samples have stolen a lot of the attention. Other samples are associated with William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography (the detailed study of rocks).

Falcon-Long suggests that the collection probably got lost in the British Geological Survey's storage facility at Keyworth, near Nottingham, UK as a result of bad timing. The Survey didn't start formally registering its acquisitions until 1848. Since then, the samples seem to have been moved around London to various Museums, which at various times held geological collections. It probably arrived in Keyworth in the mid-eighties. Here, a process of cataloguing and photographing is currently ongoing so more fascinating discoveries may yet be waiting around the corner.

You can view a selection from the collection at the British Geological Survey's online museum.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Autism article does no public service

If the Irish Examiner were intending to start a real debate about Autism in Ireland they have gone the wrong way about it.

Their publication of a frankly, disastrous article by Tony Humphreys has been met with widespread anger amongst those working and living with autism.

I'm not an expert on autism so, unlike Humphreys, I will not attempt to put forward my views here. Humphreys' views have been pretty comprehensively trashed here, here, here, here and in a number of other fora.

The part of the article I will attempt to grapple with is this. In the opening paragraphs, Humphreys cites some indications that children  of engineers, scientists and mathematicians are more likely to be autistic than other children. The argument seems to be based on research by Prof Simon Baron-Cohen from Cambridge.

Speaking about the work elsewhere, Baron-Cohen explains his hypothesis that these parents are more likely to be 'systemisers' - working on tasks and projects which require them to look at systems and how they work such as computer programming, engineering, etc. An interesting hypothesis and the results of the study should be published this year.

Humphreys however, decided to take a much darker, decidedly less scientific angle on these results:
Baron-Cohen and his researchers are "missing the glaringly obvious fact that if the adults they researched live predominantly in their heads and possess few or no heart qualities, their children will need to find some way of defending themselves against the absence of expressed love and affection and emotional receptivity" he wrote.

"After all, the deepest need of every child is to be unconditionally loved and the absence of it results in children shutting down emotionally themselves because to continue to spontaneously reach out for love would be far too painful."

If we read through the psychobabble, what Humphreys is saying here is such a stereotypical and insulting view of scientists and engineers that it is really worth tackling. His argument that scientists and engineers are lacking "heart qualities" (whatever they are) like Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory would be hilarious were it not equally so insulting.

As a scientist and expectant father, I take offence at being labelled so ridiculously in this way. Humphreys article is lacking in almost any real science - perhaps this explains his stereotypical view of the scientific community.

The Irish Examiner, unfortunately has decided to support Humphreys, while carefully perched on the fence. In an editorial published this morning they expressed "regret" for the "obvious hurt caused by Dr Humphreys’ comments" but, they stood by his right to express them.

The editorial made clear that the paper had been heavily criticised for publishing the column in its Feelgood supplement, which is distributed in print form only every Friday.

The newspaper published a number of letters concerning the article in today's edition. Of the seven letters published, just one was supportive of Humphreys.

Prof. Kevin Mitchell, professor of genetics and neuroscience at Trinity wrote that Humphreys' article showed "such willful ignorance, lack of understanding and density of inaccurate and offensive statements that it is shocking that the Irish Examiner would publish it".

"This kind of psychobabble", Mitchell said "has been discredited for decades".

It's interesting that in a week that has seen the Chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings (the media group that publishes the Irish Examiner) call for a share of the new public service broadcasting charge, the newspaper should publish an article which does so little service to the public. Alan Crosbie noted that "Public service is not something RTÉ owns…It is a public service for any organisation to devote professional people to finding out, fact checking and publishing information in the public good".

In his speech to a conference on media diversity in Dublin, Crosbie noted:
"The key difference between the information the reader of one of those solid Sunday newspapers chews through, and many other sources of information is that the newspaper stuff has been gathered by trained, professional reporters, filtered by trained, professional editors, considered, in some cases, by lawyers, sub-edited and double-checked before it arrives with the reader.”

It's unfortunate then, that given the supposed public service element of the Irish Examiner and the layers of reporters and editors involved, that the newspaper allowed such an article to be published. That they stand by it in today's editorial is even worse.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Grow a Planet

This week sees the start of what promises to be another great series of science programmes from the BBC with How to Grow a Planet.

The three part series, presented by Prof. Iain Stewart, aims to reveal how the greatest changes to the Earth have been driven, above all, by plants.

Stewart is a geologist and professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University so expect to see the links between ancient plants and geology feature highly in this series.

“I had always thought of plants as being rather boring – less dramatic than the earthquakes and volcanoes I had been studying. But when you realise what plants do at the planet scale, and when you discover just how fundamental they are to life on Earth, they take your breath away", said Stewart.

In the first episode, to be aired on Tuesday 7th February at 9pm on BBC2, Stewart examines how plants first harnessed light energy to create our life-giving atmosphere. He looks at the epic batle between dinosaurs and poisonous plants and promises to use remarkable imagery to show plants 'breathing' and communicating with each other for the first time.

Also in episode one, Stewart will be sealed inside an air-tight chamber at the Eden Project in Cornwall in an attempt to demonstrate the oxygenating properties of the plants sealed in the chamber alongside him.

Stewart added: “I think it was being stuck in a transparent air-tight container for 48 hours with 274 of them that really made me appreciate plants. Locked in there, with half the oxygen removed, I suddenly realised how much I needed plants to keep me alive. It is a hell of a way to highlight something we so take for granted: photosynthesis!”

Here's a sneak preview of episode one:

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