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.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How to "downplay the achievements of science"

An opinion piece by Joe Humphreys, assistant news editor of the Irish Times has caused a bit of a stir amongst those in the science and humanities spheres over the last few days.

The essay, entitled Scientists not giving human life its meaning, was published on Tuesday and seemed (at least by my interpretation) to attack science as a process which sees people as "just means to an end".

Perhaps the most surprising element of the essay was Humphreys wishing "good riddance to ESOF 2012". Indeed, that may well have been a major factor in the strong disapproval amongst scientists. Here we had a hugely successful conference. A conference which was the highlight of the European science year and which put the worldwide spotlight on Irish science like never before. Despite this, and despite the Irish Times' excellent coverage of the conference, you had a writer poking holes in the conference and science itself out of some sort of misguided sense of striking a balance.

The author himself confesses that his article was "a deliberate, and I thought fairly transparent, counterbalancing exercise in the context of a week-long coverage of ESOF2012".

Reading the piece again, I genuinely get the impression that the author was struggling to find fault with the conference. Was there an editorial meeting at which it was decided: 'Look, all these smiling scientists, pop stars and balloons is all well and good, but we really need to strike some sort of balance here. Anybody got a beef with science?'

My own major problem with the essay, and Humphreys subsequent attempt to explain it, is something that I have noticed more and more in recent times. It is an attempt, consciously or not, to paint a picture of a scientist as somewhat removed from the rest of human society; as some amoral, unethical, faithless "wise man".

I'm a scientist and I would certainly never argue, as Humphreys suggests I might, that "there is no meaning to life" or that "talking about meaning debases science". As a scientist and a human, I also struggle to make the sort of moral, ethical, religious and scientific decisions Humphreys refers to.

At this point, I'm reminded of the controversy surrounding an article by Tony Humphreys (I presume, no relation to Joe) in the Irish Examiner earlier this year in which the author made some controversial comments on autism. As I argued at the time, that author also tried to paint a picture of scientists and engineers as lacking in "heart qualities" and of being somehow, morally, ethically and emotionally different than the rest of society.

By-the-by, Tony Humphreys' article on autism was offensive and caused offence to a large number of people living with autism and living with people with autism. I'm not trying to equate Joe Humphreys' recent article with it. He has views with which I strongly disagree, but he did not set out to offend anyone and science (and scientists) can argue the toss with the best of them.

I note that colleagues in the humanities have also been disturbed by the content of Humphreys' Irish Times article. It would be unfortunate if this essay contributed to or gave the impression that there was a wide gulf between scientists and those working in the humanities.

As Humphreys noted in his original article: "I studied humanities and feel more at home in that camp and am therefore prone to downplaying the achievements of science". What an understatement!

UPDATE (23/07/2012): Thanks to Joe Humphreys who has taken the time to respond to this (and other) criticism of his article. You can read Joe's response in the comments section of this post.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Giant Controversy

Finn McCool and Benandonner fight it out on the Giants Causeway (Image: National Trust)
The new Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre will make reference to creationism as an alternative viewpoint on how the geological feature was formed.

The centre, which cost £18.5 million to build, opened on July 3rd after a rebuild necessitated after a fire destroyed the old centre. However, the National Trust has had to issue a statement [pdf] regarding the information presented at the centre and to confirm that the trust is "entirely unequivocal in its acceptance of scientific consensus".

The National Trust issued their statement after criticism of the new educational tours and a statement from a Northern Ireland creationist organisation welcoming the National Trust's acknowledgement "both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and the ongoing debate around this".

The Caleb Foundation said that it had engaged with the National Trust "over many months" on the issue. However, the National Trust statement was clear: "All of the information presented to visitors in relation to how the Giant’s Causeway was formed, and how old it is, clearly reflects scientific consensus that the Causeway stones were formed 60 million years ago".

A National Trust spokesperson said: "We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that some people hold views today which are different from scientific consensus. However, the National Trust is entirely unequivocal in its acceptance of scientific consensus".

The Caleb Foundation would seem to have form for this sort of thing. According to their website, they led a campaign in 2010 to get the then NI Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland to change the Ulster Museum's 'Nature Zone' to reflect creationist ideas and to remove what it called "wholly misleading propaganda" regarding evolution. In a letter to the Minister, the group noted: "the very clear assertion is made across the entire "Nature Zone", that evolution is a fact. This gross and arrogant falsehood is further compounded by the complete absence of even the merest mention of any other theory of origins such as the Biblical account of creation."

A Press Association report says that the interactive exhibition in question at the Causeway includes an audio package in which historic figures debate the origin of the basalt columns. The end of the package includes:

"This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.
"Young earth creationists believe that the earth was created some 6,000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.
"Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.
"Young earth creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant's Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it."
The National Trust has attempted to further explain their position on their press office blog.

This is all a very interesting debate. The Caleb Foundation seems to be using Northern Ireland's disturbed past to argue for equality for all points of view. Regarding its Ulster Museum campaign, the group said: "If Northern Ireland is to move towards a shared future on a genuine basis of equality and inclusivity, then it is only right that a publicly funded institution such as the Ulster Museum is fully and sensitively reflective of the various views of society as a whole - including those of evangelical Christians."

The new Giants Causeway Visitor Centre (Image: National Trust)
In reality though, all viewpoints on all topics are not equal and should not require representation, particularly in a scientific and educational setting. Even 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".

The fact is, the arguments of the Caleb Foundation and other 'Young Earth' Creationist advocates have been disproved for years. For example, scientifically informed and enlightened Christians have accepted evolution as fact for a long time. Even the Vatican and the current Pope has accepted evolution as scientific fact and argued that evolution did not exclude a faith in God.

For the NI government and the National Trust to pander to these notions espoused by creationists is disappointing. The Trust seems to argue that mentioning the supposed ongoing debate will do no harm given their commitment to the scientific explanation of how the causeway was formed. Perhaps not - the Irish myth that the 40,000 basalt columns were constructed by legendary hero Finn MacCool also finds a place in the visitor centre. However, nobody is arguing for Finn MacCool to find a place on the science curriculum.

UPDATE 18/07/2012: A spokesperson for the National Trust has said that "having listened to our members' comments and concerns, we feel that clarity is needed...To ensure that no further misunderstanding or misrepresentation of this exhibit can occur, we have decided to review the interpretive materials in this section.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Forgotten Botanical Gardens

On the south side of Cork City, between Turners Cross football stadium and Munster Rugby's Musgrave Park, lies the remnants of the southern city's long lost botanical garden.

It's so long ago since the site was used as a botanical gardens and the duration of its existence so short, that the memory of it is almost gone from the public consciousness.

To find the site today, you need to look for Saint Joseph's Cemetery. Once the short-lived gardens were closed, the site became one of the largest public cemeteries  in the city.

The Cork Botanical Gardens were established in 1808 by the Royal Cork Institution, which itself had been founded in 1803. The RCI had a huge influence on educational matters in Cork, supportive of the establishment of Queen's College Cork (now UCC) and the institution itself was a forerunner of Cork Institute of Technology. The gardens were themselves just one element of the RCI's plan to promote scientific and cultural matters in Cork.
James Drummond with one of his grandchildren

The Scottish botanist James Drummond (1786-1863) was chosen to curate the new gardens and he continued to do so until its closure, due to lack of funds, in 1828. Drummond was just 22 when he arrived in Cork from Scotland. On the closure of the park, Drummond, his wife (Sarah Maxwell Mackintosh) and six children travelled to the Swan River Colony (Western Australia) where he took up various roles as Government Naturalist, farmer, and plant collector. A hill and nature reserve in Australia, as well as over 100 plants have been named in his honour. A memorial to Drummond stands in Pelham Reserve, overlooking the family farm at Toodyay, Western Australia.

Drummond's father, Thomas, was a noted bryologist (collector of mosses) in Scotland and his grandfather, also Thomas, was a gardener.

Pinguicula grandiflora
The gardens in Cork had their beginnings when the RCI leased the 5.5 acre site at 'Lilliput', Ballyphehane in 1807. Once Drummond arrived in 1808, he laid out the site with a walled enclosure of about 1-acre at its centre with a glasshouse. As well as his work in the gardens, Drummond botanised widely across the Co. Cork and was elected an associate of the Linnean Society in 1810. He discovered Spiranthes gemmipara near Castletown Berehaven in 1810 and the insectivorous  Pinguicula grandiflora at Macroom in 1809.

Hogan's reclining angel atop the Murphy tomb. The inner wall of the cemetery and botanical gardens is visible in the background.
Once government funding was withdrawn, the garden became untenable and Fr. Theobald Mathew, the 'Apostle of Temperence' purchased the site for use as a public cemetery for Cork's poor. An 1837 description in A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland says the botanical garden/graveyard was "in the style of the Pere la Chaise, at Paris: the graves are distributed over the greater part amid the shrubs, plants, and flowers brought hither at a very great expense by the original proprietors; the ground is intersected by broad gravel walks, and there are several handsome monuments. Among these, one of the most remarkable is that erected over a vault belonging to Messrs. Murphy and O'Connor: it consists of a sarcophagus of Portland stone resting on a base of limestone. On the sarcophagus is the figure of a mourning angel, as large as life, of white Italian marble, wrought in Rome by Mr. John Hogan, a native of Cork". Fr. Mathew was buried at the centre of his own cemetery in 1856.

Grave of Fr. Theobald Mathew
For many years after the closure of the gardens and the opening of the cemetery, it was common for the place to be referred to as the 'Botanic Gardens Cemetery'. A death notice in the Cork Examiner on 31st October 1898 concludes: "Funeral from the South Parish Chapel for the Botanic Gardens on Tuesday (Nov. 1st), at 3 o'clock. R.I.P."

Now, all that remains of the gardens is the inner stone wall which once housed Drummond's glasshouse and which is now crowded with headstones and monuments. No significant planting remains. The street opposite the main gates to the cemetery is still however called Botanic Road. Unfortunately, nothing else marks the site of Cork's first Botanic Garden. Although further public and private botanic gardens were to be established, including that associated with University College Cork, this site at Ballyphehane has a unique place in the cultural and scientific heritage of the City. A place which has been all but forgotten by the general public.

The site should be marked with a suitable and modest marker to celebrate the vision of the Royal Cork Institution and the hard work of James Drummond.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

ESOF 2012 opens in Dublin

Dara O'Briain at the launch of Dublin City of Science (image: Dublin2012)
Today marks the opening of ESOF2012 - the Euroscience Open Forum - taking place, this year, in Dublin.

The event is Europe's largest, general science meeting and is held every two years, this year from July 11th-15th. The forum aims to showcase advances in science and technology; to promote a dialogue between science and society; and to stimulate interest, excitement and debate about science.

President Higgins at ESOF2012 (image: @COSToffice)
President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened the event, pointing out that the achievements and reputation of Ireland in the arts is often mentioned by commentators but that "unfortunately not really all of them would mention prominent parts of the Irish intellectual achievement which is just as important, older and maybe even more central: Bell's Theorem, the development of fibre optics, the splitting of the atom, the Beaufort scale or the effectiveness of the mariner's compass or the many other inventive and forward-thinking achievements which owe their success to the innovation, creativity and above all, original thinking of talented Irish scientists".

The President name-checked a number of notable Irish scientists such as Ernest Walton, Robert Boyle, John Tyndall, Agnes Mary Clerke and Lucy Everest Boole who, he said, had laid the groundwork on which today's scientists build.

"Science", the President said "is being re-imagined in an era of new and global cultural context that sees it in a far more engaged and challenged way than any functional narrowness of recent times might suggest".

President Higgins welcomed the focus on ethical issues: "The moral challenge is ever greater now.... our new responsibilities are to a planet already made fragile and a global population of which so many, a great proportion, has been excluded".

"As a nation, we continue to have much to offer to the world of science and technology", the president noted.

Attracting scientists and those interested in science from around the world, a number of distinguished scientists and policy makers will deliver keynote addresses, including synthetic biology advocate and pioneer Craig Venter; Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, James Watson; European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Maire Geoghegan-Quinn; Former President, UN High-Commissioner and climate justice advocate Mary Robinson; astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell; and Director General of CERN Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

There's much more to see and hear at CERN and one-day passes are still available for the Dublin Conference Centre. For those who can't make the event in person, you can watch the keynote addresses live via webcast.

To celebrate the arrival of ESOF2012, the Science in the City programme has been running as part of the Dublin City of Science year-long festival.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stamp of approval

An Post (the Irish postal service) has launched two new stamps to mark two significant science milestones: Dublin City of Science 2012 and the 350th anniversary of the formulation of Boyle's Law.

The City of Science stamp shows a photograph of Dublin’s Convention Centre - the venue hosting the Euroscience Open Forum 2012 (ESOF2012) from 12th-15th July - alongside a graphic of DNA’s molecular structure, representing people and their individuality. A second stamp shows an image of Boyle, his infamous formula, with an explanatory diagram alongside.

Commenting on the launch of the Stamps, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, TD said, “Down through the years stamps have told the story of important historical and cultural Irish events, and the launch today of these two significant stamps marks two key milestones – Dublin City of Science 2012 and the 350th anniversary of the formulation of Boyle’s Law.”

Minister Bruton continued, “Science is hugely important to Ireland in many ways – not least for economic growth and job-creation. 2012 is a historic year for science in Ireland, as with the support of my Department Dublin is the City of Science for 2012. We are hosting the largest Science event in Europe, ESOF 2012, in the capital this July, and throughout 2012 Ireland will be showcasing its rich scientific heritage on the world stage.”

The stamps were created by Dublin’s Zinc Design.

The Dublin City of Science year long programme was developed to mark the honour of hosting one of the most prestigious international science events, the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012. As the City of Science 2012, Dublin will host over 160 events showcasing the best of Irish Science, Culture and Arts.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was born in Lismore, Co Waterford. Often referred to as ‘The Father of Modern Chemistry’, he first formulated Boyle’s Law in 1662. Boyle’s Law states that the pressure exerted by a gas held at a constant temperature varies inversely with the volume of the gas. For example, if the volume is halved, the pressure is doubled; and if the volume is doubled, the pressure is halved.

Robert Boyle will also be commemorated at the Robert Boyle Summer School from July 15-18 at Lismore, Co. Waterford.

You can find out more about the Summer School here.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Still confused about the Higgs Boson?

This may or may not help:

The CERN choir, live in CERN control centre.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I'm a Scientist - GM Food

Regular readers will know that I'm a fan of I'm a Scientist, Get me out of here and that I've previously taken part in the unique science outreach project.

I'm a Scientist (IAS) allows school children to ask real scientists what ever comes to mind. The questions generally range from the well-informed and well-thought-out to the truly bizarre and firmly tongue in cheek. No matter the question, it allows students to get to know what scientists really do and the project even allows the students to vote out scientists until one winning scientist remains.

This time round, along with a range of specialist and general zones, the organisers have introduced a GM Food Zone to deal with some of the issues which have hit the headlines again recently. This zone is also unique, in that everyone can take part - not just school students.

Regarding the motivation between such an event, the organisers have said: "We simply got fed up with accusations being slung around the media in articles, in opinion pieces and in comments. We wanted to create a space where experts in all relevant areas could answer questions from the public and be able to give their points of views alongside each other.

For most people this is not a black and white issue (GM good or GM bad). We’d like to create a space for a discussion with a bit more nuance. Whatever ends up happening with GM Foods we all of us on the planet will have to deal with the consequences. It may be difficult at times, but we believe it’s worth all trying together to explore the issues and consider other points of view."

To take part and to ask a question of the expert panel, you'll need to register, but you can read the questions and comments without registering. The event continues this week and concludes on the 6th July.

In more IAS news, the event will be coming to Ireland in the Autumn, running up to 5 zones during Science Week (11-18th November). The event will be part of Dublin 2012.

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