Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Temporary Hiatus

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that the rate of blog posts has decreased over the past twelve months. There have been some nice posts which I'm very happy with but I simply haven't had the time to devote to writing posts at the frequency I have in the past.
Like everyone else, pressures of a regular (and very enjoyable) day job,combined with trying to spend time with family and friends has meant something had to give. I also have one, very important project to complete.
For these reasons, I've decided to take a positive step and put the Communicate Science blog on hiatus for a couple of months. I'm sure this won't make a huge difference in anyone's life but my own - I do enjoy the enforced distraction of writing the blog- but can ensure readers that this will be a temporary ceasefire rather than the end for this corner of the internet.
Like the daffodils, I'm going underground for a few months to get some work done and will return, triumphant, in a blaze of glory in the Spring. If you simply can't wait that long, then I'll still be knocking around twitter @blogscience

Saturday, December 14, 2013

2013 - the year of the Vagrant Emperor

Check out this guy - a Vagrant Emperor (Hemianax ephippiger) dragonfly captured at Castleventry, West Cork earlier this year.

This individual is one of seven reported this year - a surprise since just two had been identified in Ireland since one was first recorded, in Dublin in 1913. The Dragonfly Ireland Facebook group describe the sightings this year as "absolutely inprecedented".

Dragonfly Ireland has also produced a useful map of Vagrant Emperor records in Ireland. (2013 records are indicated by orange circles; two reports were logged in 2011- orange squares; and the original Dublin sighting is indicated by a blue dot).

Dragonfly Ireland have produced this map of Vagrant Emperor sightings in Ireland.

One of the West Cork sightings was by 'friend of the blog' Kieran Lettice who reports that his family cat dragged the creature into the house (unharmed) one night in late September.After extracting it from the jaws of a proud feline, the emperor was photographed and released without any obvious injuries.

While Kieran and yours truly were able to make a preliminary identification, it fell to butterfly and moth expert Ken Bond to make a definitive identification.

The Vagrant Emperor is native to North Africa and is generally described as a rare long-distance visitor to UK and Ireland. Although it has even been found dead or dying as far North as Iceland, and even as far West as South America; its travels are quite remarkable given its size and fragile appearence. An emperor of vagrants, to be sure!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Walton sculpture unveiled - 'Apples and Atoms'

Apples and Atoms by Eilis O'Connell (Image: @TCDArtCurator)
A sculpture celebrating the life and work of  Ernest  T.S. Walton, Nobel Laureate for Physics, and former  graduate  and professor at Trinity College Dublin, was opened to the public by Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD, this week at  a special ceremony at TCD. The sculpture titled ‘Apples and Atoms’   was designed by artist, Eilís O’Connell RHA.
Ernest T. S. Walton studied at Trinity where he was a scholar and won many College prizes, including a gold medal in experimental science. He graduated with joint honours in mathematics and physics in 1926 and went to Cambridge to do his postgraduate work. Thus began the momentous collaboration between Walton and his fellow physicist, John Cockcroft, which exploited linear acceleration methods to induce nuclear disintegration by artificial means, as observed by Ernest Walton, on April 14th, 1932. It was the first time that Einstein’s E=mc2was verified directly in a nuclear reaction. His and Cockcroft’s success, using artificially accelerated particles for experimenting on the atom, meant the research into the nature and structure of the atom was no longer restricted by having to rely on natural sources of radiation. In 1946, Walton returned to Trinity College, to become the Erasmus Smith Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy where he remained until 1985.
“Ireland is home to many science heroes and Ernest T.S. Walton is one of our leading ones. This sculpture pays homage to him as a scientist, teacher and truly celebrates his scientific legacy  that continues to educate and inspire our students of science today, ” said Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn.
Ernest TS Walton
Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the experiment, Trinity invited six artists to submit a design, honouring Ernest T.S. Walton’s research achievements as well as 30 years of dedication to science education. Eilís O’Connell’s design was selected by a panel that included representatives from the Walton family, the School of Physics, the College Art Collections, students and external visual arts professionals.
“The sculpture was commissioned to commemorate Ernest T.S. Walton as a significant figure in the history of the College and in the development of science globally.  It reinforces Trinity’s special connection with him and is an opportunity to honour him as a scientist as well as a champion of science education, an academic and an Irishman,” said Provost of Trinity, Dr Patrick Prendergast.
The sculpture by  Eilis O’Connell is a stack of mirror polished spheres, increasing in size as they rise upward which appear to defy gravity. It is located beside the Fitzgerald Building, home to the School of Physics. Reflected in the stack of spheres are specially planted native Irish apple trees that refer to the private man and his keen interest for growing fruit trees.
“The sculpture pays homage to Walton’s most important characteristics – his intellectual rigour and hands-on ability to physically build the particle accelerator and his nurturing ability as teacher and father.  A man is not defined solely by his academic achievements but also by the memories he leaves behind in others,” explained sculptor, Eilís O’Connell.
Ernest T.S. Walton generously presented his papers to the College Library in 1993; his family subsequently donated his Nobel medal. A small exhibition, which includes the medal, is currently on display in the Long Room, to mark the formal launch of the sculpture.

The commission was made possible by the support of the Walton family, the Provost, the School of Physics, the Trinity College Dublin Association and Trust, the Department of Education and Skills, the Institute of Physics in Ireland, the Fellows and alumni of Trinity and the Science Gallery.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bees Boost Irish Economy

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have shown that bees contribute almost €4 million to the Irish economy each year, simply by improving seed production in crops of oilseed rape.

Known for its brilliant yellow flowers, oilseed rape is being grown to an increasing extent in Ireland as farmers respond to a heightened demand for pure plant oil. This oil is an important source of biofuel and could ultimately reduce our reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels as we seek greener, more environmentally friendly solutions to energy demands.

The crop is pollinated adequately by the wind, but, for the first time in Ireland, researchers were able to show that foraging bees transferring pollen from flower to flower greatly boost the all-important yield. When bees were experimentally excluded from visiting the flowers, seed production was, on average, 27% lower than when they had open access.

This discovery, which will soon appear in the international Journal of Insect Conservation, added to related findings that were reported in another article in the journal GCB Bioenergy. Both papers sprang from research conducted as part of the Sectoral Impacts on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (SIMBIOSYS) initiative, which received €1.6 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency over a five-year period.

In addition to the discovery that bees are important assets to oilseed rape farmers, the previous paper showed that these fields were buzzing with insect life comprising many species of bees, hoverflies and beetles.

Associate Professor in Botany at Trinity, and Director of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research, Jane Stout, who was the principal investigator on both papers said: “Oilseed rape fields are full of pollinators, including honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies. Although many people think of the honeybee as being our main pollinating species, bumblebees and hoverflies are also important pollinators of oilseed rape crops. We found hundreds of bees, especially in spring oilseed rape, where we estimated on average 600-800 colonies of bumblebees alone using the pollen and nectar from just one field.”

The diversity and sheer volume of pollinators in oilseed rape crops came as something of a happy surprise, because some reports had previously suggested that swathes of the plant might discourage farm-friendly insects. However, researchers caution that different patterns could arise when the crop is grown on a larger scale than was investigated. They also recommend interspersing fields that grow food and biofuel crops in the hope that such a patchwork quilt-like pattern will promote insect diversity and enhance the precious pollination service provided by the critters.

Researcher Dara Stanley, who worked with Stout on these projects, added: "Oilseed rape crops in Ireland are expanding hugely, and, if they benefit from pollination, this is both good news for farmers, and an incentive to conserve bees in agricultural areas.”

One major threat to bees comes from the use of certain pesticides called neo-nicotinoids, which have been implicated in recent declines of many species throughout Europe and North America. An EU ban preventing the use of these pesticides on oilseed rape was recently agreed, which will hopefully help the bees of Ireland keep up their good work in our farmers’ fields. However, there are concerns that use on other crops, which is still permitted, will negatively affect our furry friends.

Science on film - biodiversity in the gardens

Ireland's first and only dedicated science film festival, the UCD Science Expression Film Festival will take place from Thursday 31st October - Friday 3rd November. 

The 2013 edition of UCD Science Expression showcases some of the most exciting filmmaking inspired by and excavating science - from classic movies seen in a very different light to world-class features and shorts premiering at UCD Science Expression. The festival presents screenings, events and debate for enquiring minds of all ages.

Festival 2013 takes a unique journey through key themes including The Mind, Land & Identity, Frontiers of Discovery and Biodiversity and Ecology in The Lighthouse, IFI, Botanic Gardens and The Ark in Dublin.

See the full range of events on the festical website.

Sure to be a highlight is Biodiversity at the National Botanic Gardens. Taking place in Ireland's only inflatable cinema from Friday November 1st to Sunday November 3rd, the event will celebrate the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity with an eclectic programme of short films, inspiring wonder in the natural world.
Best of all, there's free entry and it gives you a chance to also check out the gardens' new sculpture celebrating the 60th anniversary of the discovery of DNA.

"What is Life" is a sculpture which was commissioned by Professors John Atkins of University College Cork and David McConnell of Trinity College Dublin as a public celebration of Science in Ireland and to specifically celebrate the 60th anniversary of the discovery of The Double Helix by Watson and his colleague Francis Crick in April 1953.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Blog Awards Ireland 2013 - Shortlist

If you're following me on twitter, you may already know that this blog has been shortlisted for Best Science\Education Blog in the 2013 Blog Awards Ireland. If you're not following me on twitter, why not?

This blog is joined in the shortlist by many other excellent blogs including last year's winner Science Calling, Beyond the Wild Garden and Inside the Brain.

While I have to question the wisdom of lumping science and education together in a category, I'm delighted the blog has been shortlisted.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony on October 12th. Good luck all!

Eye to the Ground

Friday 20th September is Culture Night in Ireland and all around the country, people will get to see behind closed doors, hear beautiful music, see fantastic art or visit a museum out of hours. 

In conjunction with Cork Skeptics, I'll be giving a talk on culture night on the importance of plants to society and culture. The talk is entitled: Eye to the Ground: Plants in Culture, Myth and Society.

As we know, humans exist because plants exist. Plants have shaped our world, allowing animal life to evolve and they continue to have an overriding influence on our society. From the food we eat, the medicines we take, the beer we drink and the clothes we wear; plants make life possible on Earth.

Indeed, Ireland has built two of its largest industries – agriculture and tourism – on its green image

In this talk, I will examine the importance of plants in society and even unearth some intriguing mysteries which can be solved with a knowledge of plants. What caused the Salem witch trials? Why are the British a nation of tea-drinkers and what caused the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’?

I’ll discuss the present place of plants in culture and society and discuss the idea of ‘plant blindness’ – the inability to see or notice plants (and their importance) around us.

Given the crucial importance of plants to critical global problems like food security and climate change, we ignore plant blindness at our peril.

This talk is free to attend and open to everyone. It starts at 7pm on Friday 20th September, 2013 and takes place at the Lee Rowing Club on The Marina in Cork City, near Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Note: this is a change from the usual Cork Skeptics venue.

For more details and a map to the venue, see the Culture Night Cork website.

Growing Awareness

Last weekend saw the final event in the hugely successful Taste of West Cork festival in Skibbereen.

A huge festival market ended the festival's 10th season which has been one of the most well attended yet.

I was in Skibbereen the weekend before to take part in some of the first events of this year's season. Having talked specifically on the potato last year, I was asked back to give a broader talk on the importance of plants as sources of food and their central place in human society.

"Harvesting the Sun: How plants make food" was well attended and I thoroughly enjoyed the very plant-orientated focus of the Growing Awareness project of which my talk was a part.

Image: Taste of West Cork

Having borrowed an old bakery premises from Field's supermarket (itself a reminder of how important plants are for our 'daily bread') the organisers set to work creating a festival box office but also a lecture space and a huge exhibition highlighting the importance of plants for food.

The Growing Awareness exhibition was the result of many hours hard work by so many organisations and individuals. It was great to see my own students from the UCC MSc Organic Horticulture class, based nearby, making a contribution. The result was an accessible, vibrant and interesting exhibition on plants that will contribute to people's awareness of how important plants are to society. The organisers are to be commended for their foresight and hard work.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Who said chemistry wasn't fun?

A University College Cork video has been shortlisted by Times Higher Education (THE) as one of the best videos submitted for the World University Rankings.

The video features Declan Kennedy's fantastic Chemistry Magic Show which is a regular feature of Science Week at UCC and other outreach events. Filming and production is by Stephen Bean, also of UCC. Here's a short clip:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Culture Night - Science in the City

The public will get a chance to handle some ancient fossils, meet slithering reptiles and view some amazing carnivorous plants when the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at UCC throws open its doors for Culture Night 2013 on September 20th.

This is the first year that BEES has participated in Culture Night and visitors will get a chance to see some unique animal specimens collected by Charles Darwin himself during his famous voyage aboard the Beagle. The School of BEES is one of just a tiny number of institutions worldwide that houses Darwin specimens.

BEES Culture Night organiser Tara Duggan says there will be lots to see during the family-friendly event: "Starting at the historic Cooperage building, once part of the Jameson Distillery, visitors can tour our geology garden, wind turbine, fish ponds, greenhouses and laboratories. They can also try their hand at some experiments and step back in time while browsing the exhibits of our natural history museum and dinosaur fossils".

Throughout Culture Night BEES staff and students will be giving rapid-fire talks and showing short films about our environment and the world-leading research going on at BEES.

Culture Night 2013 takes place on Friday September 20th. BEES will be open for visitors to drop in from 5pm-8.30pm, with guided tours taking place at regular intervals. info

For full details on Culture Night in Cork, see the Culture Night Cork website.

Image: Tomas Tyner/School of BEES, UCC

Saturday, August 24, 2013

How Plants Make Food - Upcoming Talk

Photosynthesis is a term most of us are familiar with - if only because we were forced to learn the complex biochemical pathways in school. Although the concept of plants depending on sunlight to grow is a familiar one, the role of photosynthesis in powering our food supply is sometimes forgotten.

Harvesting the Sun: How Plants Make Food is the title of my upcoming talk at the wonderful Taste of West Cork food festival at Skibbereen, County Cork.

As part of my role with the Centre for Organic Horticulture Research (COHR), based just outside Skibbereen, I've become even further impressed by the central role food and growing plays in the life of West Cork. As a showcase for all of this, the Taste of West Cork festival is a real melting-pot of tastes and ideas which represent West Cork at its best.

Taste of West Cork runs from 6th-15th September 2013. Full details of all events taking place are available in the festival brochure.

Harvesting the Sun: How Plants Make Food, a talk by Eoin Lettice, will take place on Saturday 7th September at 12 Noon at Fields' Old Bakery, Townshend Street, Skibbereen. Admission is FREE and all are welcome.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Blog Awards 2013

Communicate Science has been nominated for Best Science/Education Blog in the 2013 Blog Awards Ireland.

You can see the full longlist here. Winners will be announced at a ceremony in October.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Is "gardening" killing plant science?

Gardening Gnome by pareerica (Creative Commons)
James Wong - the ethnobotanist, author and BBC science presenter- came in for some criticism in recent days for being over-excited about gardening.

The writer Helen Gazeley wrote in her blog:

"Gardening isn't exciting. Gardening is the epitome of delayed gratification. We wait; we nurture. People who need excitement in the quantities that gardening marketing departments would like to serve up go sky-diving, bungie-jumping, or throw all their savings into a once-in-lifetime venture. Those of us who garden find it has exciting moments, but we do not do it for excitement."

Fair comment, I suppose, but Wong was not about to take the criticism lying down and tweeted:

So, are plants exciting? Is gardening exciting? Should we strive to make the study and use of plants exciting for a younger audience?

I'm a plant scientist. I'm not really a gardener. The sum total of my personal gardening efforts (i.e. growing plants at home, for non-research purposes) are a few tomatoes, some sunflowers and a small pot of herbs outside the kitchen window. So, credentials out of the way, I'm proposing a question: Is "gardening" killing plant science?

In Ireland, we still have a very strong network of plant science researchers and teachers along with a good selection of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in plant science/botany/plant biology, etc., along with horticulture degrees and MSc programmes. My own university runs a successful degree programme in Applied Plant Biology and a new MSc in Organic Horticulture at a newly established Centre for Organic Research in West Cork.

That being said, we still have to work hard to excite school-leavers to consider the option of studying plants rather than get swept away by the thrill of studying animals and other more "exciting" life forms.

In the UK, things are not so rosy in the garden (if you'll embrace the pun!). Plant science degrees (and even whole departments) are being closed by universities unwilling, it seems, to look at the bigger picture of a world increasingly reliant on plants and their products. Just ten universities in the UK continue to offer undergraduate degrees in plant science. The figures are shocking to anyone with even a cursory interest in issues like global warming, food security and biodiversity loss.

Although it might be unpopular to say it, could it be that school leavers are being turned off plants and the study of plant science because they associate it too closely with gardening? "Gardening" (and I use the inverted commas deliberately to denote the public perception of same) is something their grandparents do. It's something their parents do at the weekend. Are our prospective plant scientists of the future mentally scarred by having been dragged around boring garden centres every weekend of their childhood?

Perhaps gardening has an image problem. Perhaps making gardening, and also the study of plants "exciting" is just what we need.Gazeley's notion of relying on "delayed gratification" to attract people to plants clearly isn't working in the UK.

Whilst gardening is an extremely interesting, and yes, exciting pastime; "gardening" is perhaps in need of an image overhaul. While many gardeners do get excited about plants and how these amazing organisms work, there is no doubt that some are purely interested in the aesthetic quality of plants. That is not necessarily exciting to a younger audience.

The Aberystwyth-based plant ecologist Dr. John Warren, writing in 2010, sums it up nicely when he says students are often lured away from studying plants by the promise of animals which are "majestic, beautiful, cute and dynamic".

"I'm not arguing that zoologists are villainous Dr. Evils determined to destroy the Earth," writes Warren, "but that many of them are plant scientists that we have failed to inspire".

If James Wong gets excited about plants, good luck to him. We need more of that, not less. He's inspiring people.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Robert Boyle Summer School 2013

The 2nd Annual Robert Boyle Summer School will take place in beautiful Lismore, Co. Waterford from the 4th-7th of July and will feature a talk on the future of plant science.

A stimulating programme features speakers from around the world, panel discussions, a tour of Lismore Castle Gardens also a barbecue in the Castle Courtyard and a guided coach tour of West Waterford.

It will attract people with an interest in history, heritage, philosophy and science. According to a spokesperson: "It is not a science conference, but a gathering where people of all backgrounds can meet and consider the place of science in our lives".

The school celebrates the life, work and legacy of Robert Boyle who was born in Lismore Castle. Boyle was a central figure in the development of modern science and ranks alongside Galileo, Descartes and Newton whose work ushered in the modern age.
Prof. Liam Dolan

One of the highlights of the weekend will be a talk by Prof. Liam Dolan (Oxford) on advances in plant science and how we can help feed the world's ever growing population. This should be particularly topical given this week's speech by British Minister Owen Paterson in which he called for a renewed debate about GM crops in Britain.

Speaking to Communicate Science, founder of the Robert Boyle Summer School, Eoin Gill (WIT) said such an event dealing with science had been missing from the Irish calendar:

"For a long time Ireland has had summer schools celebrating many cultural figures / themes. One huge aspect of our culture that has been missing is science! The Robert Boyle Summer School now fills that gap and provides a place for scientist and non-scientists to meet and engage with science. Such an event is important for all of us concerned with public engagement with science and we need widespread support to continue".

More information on the summer school can be found at

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Irish researcher is scicomm World champion

How's this for science communication? University College Cork postgraduate student Fergus McAuliffe has just won Famelab International at the Cheltenham Science festival. You can read the full details about Fergus's win here and watch his winning presentation below.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Waterford Mortar

A recent trip to Waterford led to a visit to the excellent new Medieval Museum and Bishop's Palace museum. Together with Reginald's Tower they form a trio of sites which form Waterford's Museum of Treasures.

The Medieval Museum in particular is a stunning addition to the city's tourism offering and must rank as one of the best and most sensitively designed building in Ireland in recent years.

One object that caught my eye in the Bishop's Palace museum is this  bronze mortar used by a Waterford chemist to make up remedies. The mortar would have had an accompanying wooden pestle. Inscribed Michael Tonnery, Apothecary in Waterford 1707, the object was still in use in the 20th century in White's chemists, O'Connell Street.

The object was purchased by the museum with the assistance of Bausch and Lomb.

The Museum(s) of Treasures are certainly worth a visit if you're in Waterford. In particular, the Medieval Museum houses a set of pre-reformation vestments (the only to survive in Britain or Ireland) which are stunning examples of fifteenth century needlework.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Higgs Bison exisitence confirmed at Fota

Bison calf at Fota this week
A baby bison at Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland has been named 'Higgs', in honour (apparently) of Peter Higgs, the scientist who correctly, it now turns out, predicted the existence of a new particle - the Higgs boson.

The Higgs Bison was named after a public appeal for help in naming the calf by the park. The birth of the calf came in the same week that the calf's father Boris, the dominant male in the Fota group, died.

Willy Duffy head warden at Fota Wildlife Park said “it is great to see a calf born just as the summer is about to begin but it is also sad to be losing Boris as he has been with us since we introduced the herd of Bison in 1999”.

The baby bison is the 16th offspring from Boris which included 3 calves that were introduced into Komaneza Forest in Poland in 2008 as part of a reintroduction programme into the wild.

The Park has been part of a European-wide breeding programme ever since Bison first arrived in Cork in 1999. A significant number of calves have been born in the years since and many have been sent overseas to aid in programmes being developed elsewhere.

After a week of polling on the park's Facebook page, the animal was named alongside two other bison - now named Tyson and Bressie.

The news garnered some really positive reaction online after I tweeted about it:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fascination of Plants Day 2013

'Plant Evolution' at JFK Arboretum, Ireland.
Today marks Fascination of Plants Day 2013 around the World. 

It's a day to get as many people as possible enthused about the importance of plants for agriculture, food production, horticulture, forestry, energy production, production of pharmaceuticals and the variety of other ways that plants impact on all our lives.

The celebration is spearheaded by the European Plant Science Organisation but, in just two years, has already spread beyond Europe and events this year will take place as far away as Australia and Zambia.

For a full list of events taking place around the World, see the Fascination of Plants website.

To mark Fascination of Plants Day, I've written a column for The Journal today on the importance of plants to our society and economy. Read it here

Friday, April 26, 2013

Alfred Russel Wallace: Back in the picture

Image: Natural History Museum
Giving a lecture this week on biogeography and the role played by Alfred Russel Wallace in the development of that area of study, I was delighted to be able to call upon comedian and musician Bill Bailey to lay the groundwork with his excellent documentary on the Welsh biologist.

Bailey's two-part documentary on Wallace (part two to be aired on BBC2, this Sunday) comes during Wallace 100, a series of events throughout 2013 to mark the 100th anniversary of his death.

Some, including Bailey, argue that Wallace is a 'forgotten man' of science; his contribution to the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection having been watered-down or forgotten completely with the passing of time.

Wallace 100 seeks to put that right, not least by returning a portrait of the man to the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London - a portrait that was removed in 1971. Now, Wallace will have a presence in the NHM to rival that of his colleague in science, Charles Darwin.

A fund has also been set up to erect a bronze sculpture of Wallace at the NHM. This sculpture, currently being created, will finally complete an ambition which has existed since Wallace's death but was not realised due to the outbreak of World War 1.

As well as his contribution to the theory of evolution, Wallace is also know as the 'Father of Biogeography' - the study of how and why plants and animals are distributed across the world.

Biogeography, in tandem with evolution, explains why you find kangaroos in Australia and not in Canada; why you find giraffes in the wild in Africa and not in Ireland.

The Wallace Line (in red) marks a dividing line in biogeography

Wallace's travels and studies in south-east Asia led him to think about how animals and plants are distributed and he was able to draw a line - The Wallace Line - through modern day Indonesia and Borneo to indicate a dividing line between 'Australian-type' flora and fauna on one side and 'Asian-type' plants and animals on the other.

This line, we now know, corresponds with the meeting point of two major tectonic plates which have only (geologically speaking) recently moved together. So, whereas now these two regions lie very close together, the plants and animals on these plates developed in biogeographical isolation and differ hugely from one another. They're the original 'odd-couple'!

Watch the second episode of Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero on BBC Two on 28 April.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"She looks beneath the shadow of my wings"

This plaque in Skibbereen, in West Cork marks the birthplace of the sisters Ellen and Agnes Clerke, both noted writers, particularly on the science of astronomy.

Living together in Skibbereen, Italy and London for most of their lives, the women pursued a common interest in science and, in particular, in the communication and popularisation of the subject.

Ellen was born on 20th of September 1840 in Skibbereen and Agnes was born on February 10th 1842. Their father was a bank manager in the town and a Protestant. Their mother was Catherine Deasy, a Catholic.

Although the family moved to Dublin in 1861 and to Queenstown (Cobh) in 1863, the sisters spent much of their childhood in West Cork. Due to their father's wealth and stature, the family was able to spend the cold winters in Rome (1867 and 68); Naples (1871 and 1872); Florence (1873-76). The sisters made the most of these trips abroad - spending many days reading in the Florence Public Library.

Agnes Mary Clerke (left) and Ellen Mary Clerke

The sisters only brother Aubrey noted the defining influence of their father, John William Clerke, on the scientific aptitude of the sisters:

"Although a classical scholar of Trinity College, Dublin", wrote Aubrey Clerke in 1907,"his interests were for the most part scientific".

"In our earliest years his recreation was chemistry, the consequential odours of which used to excite the wrath of our Irish servants. Later a 'big telescope' (4 inch aperture)was mounted in the garden, and we children were occasionally treated to a glimpse of Saturn's rings or Jupiter's satellites".

"These trivial things show that it was in an environment of scientific suggestion that our early lives were passed", wrote Aubrey Clerke in a foreword to a booklet recalling his sisters' lives.

The Clerke family home in Skibbereen
The family moved to London in 1877 and Agnes published the A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century in 1885. Her second book The System of the Stars was published in 1890.

Agnes Clerke was not a practicing astronomer and her contribution to the field is largely based on her tireless collation and interpretation of data from other researchers and the communication of that research. She could, perhaps, be best described as a science communicator, using today's vernacular.

Despite not working as an astronomer herself, she had, of necessity a vast knowledge of the area and spent a three month period in 1888 at the Cape Observatory (Cape Town) updating her knowledge.

Clerke Crater on the lunar surface
Agnes Clerke was a recipient, in 1893, of the Actonian Prize from the Royal Institution in London. This award was presented to the person who "in the judgement of the committee of managers for the time being of the Institution, should have been the author of the best essay illustrative of the wisdom and beneficence of the Almighty, in such department of science as the committee of managers should, in their discretion, have selected".

A member of the British Astronomical Association, Agnes was also an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Ellen Clerke is also known for some astronomical writings including the pamphlets "Jupiter and His System" and "The Planet Venus" but she was also known as a journalist, poet, novelist and commentator on religious issues, with a keen interest in Italian matters having lived in the country for several years.

Ellen's poem Night's Soliloquy, beautifully captures her and her sister's love of astronomy.

Agnes has the distinction of having a crater on the surface of the moon named in her honour. Crater Clerke is about 6 km in diameter and located very close to the Apollo 17 landing site - the last landing of humans on the lunar surface.

Ellen died after a short illness on March 2nd 1906. Huggins notes that "these sisters were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in death they were but little divided". Agnes died on January 20th 1907 from complications associated with pneumonia.



by Ellen Mary Clerke

Who calls me dark ? for do I not display
Wonders that else man's eye would never
Waste in the blank and blinding glare of Day,
The heavens bud forth their glories but to me.

Is it not mine to pile their crystal cup,
Drain'd by the thirsty sun and void by day.
Brimful of living gems, profuse heap'd up.
The bounteous largesse of my royal way ?

Mine to call o'er at dusk the roll of heav'n.
Array its glittering files in order due ?
To beckon forth the lurking star of Even,
And bid the constellations start to view ?

The wandering planets to their paths recall.
And summon to the muster tenant spheres.
Till thronging to my standard one and all,
They crowd the zenith in unfathom'd tiers ?

Do I not lure stray sunbeams from the day.
To hurl them broadcast as wing'd meteors
forth ?
Strew sheaves of fiery arrows on my way.
And blazon my dark spaces in the north ?

Is not a crown of lightnings mine to wear.
When polar flames suffuse my skies with
splendour ?
And mine the homage with the sun to share.
His vagrant vassals rush through space to
render ?

Who calls me secret ? are not hidden things.
Reveal'd to science when with piercing sight
She looks beneath the shadow of my wings.
To fathom space and sound the infinite ?

In plasmic light do I not bid her trace
Germs from creation's dawn maturing slow ?
And in each filmy chaos drown'd in space
See suns and systems yet in embryo ?

(Source: Huggins, 1907)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Science Communication enters the Dragon's Den

New Irish #SciComm venture Walton Magazine hits the airwaves tonight when they pitch their wares on Dragon's Den.

Magazine editor John O'Donoghue and PR Manager Ger O'Donovan braved the den to get funding for their fledgling science communication magazine.

The magazine was launched in the Autumn of 2012 and deals with STEM issues from an Irish perspective. My own articles for Walton have dealt with current research on the potato as well as the future of food production and the importance of plant pathology.

You can see Walton Magazine take on the Dragons tonight (Easter Sunday, 31st March) at 9.30pm on RTE One television and join in the conversation on twitter @waltonmagazine using the hashtag  #ddirl

Monday, March 25, 2013

Private funds could help secure scientific heritage

Some positive steps forward could be on the way for number 5 Grenville Place in Cork City, the former home of mathematician George Boole.

The building partially collapsed in October 2010 and has been languishing in a terrible condition since, despite pressure being applied to Cork City Council and others to protect the building as part of Cork's cultural, historic and scientific heritage.

George Boole was the first Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College Cork (now University College Cork) and is widely regarded as the 'father' of computer science and certainly of Boolean algebra. Boole lived at Grenville Place from 1849 to 1855 and it is where he wrote one of his most important works: An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities.

In March of 2011, Cork City Manager Tim Lucey said that, subject to the consent of the owner, the City Council would "establish the level of interest in its future use/development, from the range of bodies which have expressed views to the Council on its historic importance".

At a Cork City Council meeting earlier this month, Mr. Lucey told councillors that a Building Condition and Feasibility Study had been completed for No. 5 Grenville Plane and had been circulated to University College Cork.

"It has been suggested to UCC that a small working group be established to determine how best to resolve issues and see what possibilities exist to deal with this important building in light of upcoming anniversaries of George Boole in 2014/2015", said Mr. Lucey.

The 150th anniversary of Boole's death falls on 8th December 2014. The 200th anniversary of his birth takes place on 2 November 2015.

The City Manager also confirmed that "preliminary discussions" had taken place between the university where Boole was professor of mathematics and the city council. According to the Irish Examiner, this working group will consider approaching Apple Computers, which has its European headquarters in Cork and other computer and software firms to see if private funding would be available to help preserve this building and Boole's memory in the city.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Are you interested in the greatest challenge on Earth?

The Director of the National Botanic Gardens, Matthew Jebb, has said that the study of plants has never been more important given the global problems we face - the greatest challenge on Earth.

"By 2050, the UN estimates the world will need 70% more food, 55% more clean water and 60% more energy than today", said Jebb. "These challenges will have to be met through the sustainable use of natural resources. The most important question facing the human race must be how will the world feed our children’s children? The answer is with advances in plant biology and ecology, and using this knowledge in field-based solutions".

A career and information day for Botany and Plant Science will take place at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin later this month.

The event, on Thursday 21st March from 2pm-5pm, is the perfect opportunity for those interested in a university degree, or career in plant sciences, to learn more.

Matthew Jebb said the event was "an unparalleled opportunity to hear first hand from botanists engaged in biodiversity, ecology, conservation and genetics jobs, and the potential prospects in one of the most important future careers for saving our planet".

Dara O’ Briain at the National Botanic Gardens for Dublin2012
Writing in advance of the information day, Jebb said that plant science had never been more important: "The growing and increasingly prosperous human population needs abundant safe and nutritious food, shelter, clothes, fibre, and renewable energy, and needs to address the problems generated by climate change, while preserving habitats. The key to solving these challenges is Plant Science; plants are the source of all the food we eat and the air we breathe".

Plant scientists, researchers and teaching staff from the Botanic Gardens and from University College Cork, University College Dublin, Trinity College, NUI Maynooth and NUI Galway will present on the day and provide information on the courses they offer.

The Botany and Plant Science Career and Information Day takes place at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin Dublin on Thursday 21st March from 2pm-5pm. More details can be found on the Gardens website.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Naming of names

I love these - Famous scientists' names presented in a way that represents their most famous achievement. Designed by Kapil Bhagat of India, I spotted them on

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Water, water, everywhere...

It takes over 17,000 litres of water to produce just 1 kg of chocolate.

That's one of the startling figures compiled in a new report on food waste by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK.

The report: Global Food - Waste Not, Want Not; made the news last month because of the headline-grabbing figure of 50%. That's the proportion of food wasted worldwide without ever reaching a human stomach.

The figures for water usage in the report come from the Water Footprint Network and make for stark reading when tabulated (see below). For example, it takes 822 litres of water to produce 1 kg of apples.

On average, 1 kg of beef takes 15,415 litres of water to produce and one cup of tea takes 27 litres.

The various wasted inputs (water, energy, agrochemicals, etc.) associated with wasted food is often not considered by consumers but, as the report states: "[the 50% headline figure] does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste".

Water use in agriculture (Source: Global Food - Waste Not, Want Not)

According to a recent European Environment Agency (EEA) report on water use in Europe, agriculture accounts for 33% of total water use. That figure can go as far as 80% in parts of southern Europe where irrigation of crops is essential and accounts for almost all agricultural water use.

In the clamour for higher yielding varieties of crop plants for agriculture, it makes sense to stop and think about how current yields are squandered and how limiting resources such as water and energy and thrown in the bin.

You can read the food waste report here.

You can read the EEA report here.

I write more on the issue of food waste, the global future of crop production and precision agriculture in the Spring edition of Walton Magazine, which is out now.

Image: Watering Crops by Margaret W. Nea. Creative Commons

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why the Irish Potato Famine was not caused by a fungus

During the long, wet summer of 2012 (perfect late blight weather!), I gave a short public talk about the potato and late blight as part of the Taste of West Cork Festival in Skibbereen, Co. Cork.

The panel of speakers also included the excellent and informative broadcaster Éanna ní Lamhna (of RTE radio fame) who spoke about the history of the potato as well as the history of the Irish potato famine.

Despite the argument that political and economic issues had a great role to play in the Irish potato famine, there is no doubt that the loss of the potato crop due to late blight was the trigger that started it all.

Late blight was, and is, caused by the plant-pathogenic organism Phytophthora infestans which, unfortunately, many people describe as a 'fungus'.

Éanna ní Lamhna described it as such during her talk and I, humorously and good-naturedly (I think!), pulled her up on it. As you can imagine, given that much of the audience had come to see and hear the delightful Ms. ní Lamhna and not some young upstart like me, I had to thread very carefully and there was much friendly banter.

Speakers at the 'Humble Spud' talk
You can't blame anyone for making the mistake - P. infestans is often described as a fungus by those who really should no better.

Browsing through the excellent Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork University Press) recently, I noticed the disease-causing organism is described in several places therein as a 'fungus'.

In a news report in a January issue of the journal Nature, P. infestans was described as "an organism similar to, and often grouped with, fungi". If the author meant that it is often grouped or lumped-in with fungi on a casual (and incorrect!) basis, she's quite right, but as we now know, the organism is not grouped (i.e. classified) as a fungus by fungal taxonomists.

The minutiae of fungal taxonomy is not something we should get bogged down in here (although some would argue that that boat has sailed!), but P. infestans is classified as an oomycete and can be found in the same kingdom as the brown algae and diatoms. Although it may have started out in the Fungi kingdom, it is now firmly categorised as a 'fungal-like organism'.

Damage caused by late blight of potato (APSNET)
A letter in this week's issue of Nature, taking issue with the original news report, states: "It was Anton de Bary, the father of mycology, who coined the genus name Phytophthora ('plant-destroyer') and classed the pathogen as a fungus. But modern molecular sequencing indicates that his interpretation was incorrect"

"The organism is actually an oomycete, a pseudo-fungus that evolved from killer ancestors in the ancient oceans and not from wood-degrading fungi", concluded the author.

Within mycology (the study of fungi), there is some debate over the use of the term fungus. While none would argue against the weight of molecular evidence that clearly puts P. infestans outside the Kingdon, some would argue that, since they are of interest to mycologists and they share many of the common morphological features of fungi, a broader defintion of the term is required.

Money (1998) has argued that the term fungus should have two distinct meanings: (1) the strict taxonomic name used to describe organisms from the Kingdom Fungi and (2) a practical reference to organisms studied by mycologists that share similar characteristics to fungi.

Somehow, I think the taxonomists would disapprove, and so would I.

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