o The Frog Blog: February 2009

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Mock Examinations

The best of luck to all our VIth Form pupils who begin their Mock Leaving Certificate Examinations on Monday. We would especially like to wish good luck to the pupils sitting exams in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology & Agricultural Science!

Friday, 27 February 2009

Desert Cheetah

The Times recently published a series of new photos taken by the Zoological Society of London of the Desert Cheetah. These rare images catch the illusive and highly endangered animal lurking in it's natural habitat. The photos were taken by a Camera Trap and not by human hand. For more information click here to go to the Times Online website.

The Neutron

Today, in 1932, the neutron was discovered by Dr. James Chadwick. Until 1932, the atom was known to consist of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by enough negatively charged electrons to make the atom electrically neutral. Most of the atom was known to be empty space, with its mass concentrated in a tiny nucleus. Research was showing that the nucleus of an atom contains more than just protons. This was because the atomic mass of the atom of most elements was greater than the atomic number (number of protons). Electrons contributed nothing to the atomic weight, so there must be some other particle in the atom. Another scientist, Ernest Rutherford (who worked at Cambridge University Nuclear Physics Laboratory with Chadwick from 1918 when he was released from being a prisoner of war in Germany during WW1) suggested that there were electrons as well as protons in the nucleus, canceling out some of the positive charge, but there was no way of telling if this was the truth. In 1932 Chadwick heard of a new method of detecting particles emitted by radioactive elements developed by Irene Joliot-Curie, one of Marie Curie's daughters, and her husband, Frederic. He used this new technique and discovered that there were different particles in the nucleus which were neutrally charged. These particles became known as neutrons and revolutionised the study of radioactive elements. Soon after this, neutrons were used to bombard uranium atoms, which led to the discovery of nuclear fission and the development of both the atomic bomb and nuclear power.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

New Links Added!

We have just added two new links to our Useful Science Website Blog Roll (scroll down and to the right). The two websites are produced by Discovering Science & Engineering and include their wonderful website http://www.science.ie/ (TY pupils might find their Marine Biology Expedition of particular interest), and their blog http://www.myscience.ie/. Have a look!

New Title Bar

To celebrate our 150th Post we have put up a new title picture on the Blog. Let us know what you think: info@sccscience.com. We aim to change the title picture from time to time!

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Famous Irish Scientists - Sir Francis Beaufort

To mark our 150th post in The Frog Blog, we are launching yet another new feature - Famous Irish Scientists. In the first of the series, we will look at Sir Francis Beaufort.

Francis Beaufort was born in 1774, near Navan in Co.Meath. He was the son of a rector. His father was well respected in the fields of geography and topography, publishing in 1792 one of the earliest detailed maps of Ireland. Beaufort had a passion for the sea, and at the age of 14 was sent to his father's friend Dr.Henry Ussher, Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College, for five months study at the newly founded Dunsink Observatory. At the age of 16, just three years after he began his nautical career, Beaufort began keeping a meteorological journal with brief comments on the weather, a practice he continued until his death. His actual career at sea was short-lived despite remaining in the British Navy until he was 81. While trying to escape local hostilities when patrolling pirates in the Eastern Mediterranean, Beaufort was shot in the groin by sniper fire. He fractured his hip and was never again fit enough to return to active sea duty. The original Wind Force Scale that Beaufort developed consisted of 13 degrees of wind strength, from calm to hurricane. This proved enormously useful for mariners - Captains knew what to expect when venturing into waters and an officer could tell from the ship's log if the ship could survive storm conditions. The Scale was eventually refined to 17 values, defined by ranges of wind speed at 10 metres above sea surface. So the scale changed from the Beaufort Wind Force Scale into the Beaufort Wind Speed Scale. From 1829 (at 55), he was appointed Hydrographer to the Admiralty and planned detailed surveys of all uncharted coasts, both at home and abroad. Beaufort's interest in making charts was a direct result of being shipwrecked at the age of 15 because he didn't have a map. Today, the sea north of Alaska is named the Beaufort Sea in honour of Francis Beaufort. He died in London, on the 17th December, 1857.

NASA's Carbon Dioxide Monitoring Satellite Crashes

A NASA’s satellite, which cost $280 million crashed into the ocean near Antarctica yesterday after a launch failure, delivering a blow to the agency's attempts to understand global warming. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite was designed to map carbon dioxide on Earth providing a major step forward for scientists attempting to understand climate change. The fault appears to have occurred several minutes into the flight when the protective shield that allows spacecraft to travel through the Earth’s atmosphere is supposed to be jettisoned. Instead the heavy cladding, including a nose cone, remained attached, slowing the Taurus XL rocket down. The rocket therefore failed to carry its multi-million dollar cargo to the intended 438 miles above the Earth.

The OCO was supposed to capture eight million carbon dioxide measurements every 16 days, a dramatic increase in the current data available from a small network of instruments on the ground, on tall towers and in aircraft. Up to 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans “disappears” each year, absorbed by processes which scientists still do not understand. NASA had hoped the spacecraft would have shed light on the natural processes which take place in forests and oceans, absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by humans. Scientists cannot currently explain why the amount varies dramatically from year to year.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

A Mammoth Discovery?

While we were on our Mid Term Break, the nearly complete skeleton of a massive Columbian mammoth who died during the last ice age has been dug out of a construction site near the La Brea Tar Pits in downtown Los Angeles. The mammoth died in his late 40's some 40,000 years ago. The Columbian mammoth was a species of elephant that became extinct near the end of the last ice age. Also included in the large collection of fossils found on the site were some 700 specimens, including a large prehistoric American Lion skull, lion bones, bones from dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, juvenile horse and bison, teratorn, coyotes, lynx and ground sloths. The discovery is expected to double the size of the museum's collection.

Like all animals discovered at the site, Zed became stuck in a tar pit along a river bed and ultimately died of exhaustion or starvation. Researchers believe his skeleton remained largely intact because soon after he died he was washed away by a flood and then covered by enough sediment, sand and debris to keep predators from making off with parts of the carcasse. They estimate his skeleton is 80 percent complete, missing only a hind leg and a vertebrae. While most mammoth tusks, which are made up of fragile material called dentine, are only found in small chunks, Zed's are intact and a remarkable 10-feet long. Examination of Zed's bones shows he was between 47 and 49 years old, suffered from arthritis and had broken three ribs during his lifetime, possibly in fights with other mammoths.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Science Fact of the Week 11 - Ireland's Only Native Lizard

There is only one land reptile species native to Ireland, the viviparous or common lizard. Common lizards are widespread throughout the country but not very common. They are normally seen around coasts, cliffs, dunes, marsh and slob lands. Common lizards are normally brown or yellowish in colour with black stripes running along the back. The length of the lizard's body is less than 12 cm (excluding the tail). The tail is 1.25 to 2 times longer than the body. The limbs are short, and the head is rather round. Males have more slender bodies than females. The neck and the tail are thick. The collar and other scales seem jagged. They love the sun and can often be seen basking on open bare ground or on a rock. When disturbed they run away and often it is the quick rustle as they disappear under cover that is the only sign of an encounter. The common lizard, unlike most other reptiles, does not lay eggs, but gives birth to live young that look like tiny replicas of their parents (hence the name viviparous). A litter can contain up to twelve young. Males reach maturity in their second year while the females take a year longer. The viviparous lizard feeds on invertebrates, mostly small insects. It shakes larger prey in its jaws before it chews it and swallows it whole. In Ireland viviparous lizards begin hibernation in September or October, underground or in log piles. Hibernation ends about mid-February. In southern Europe, the lizard does not need to hibernate.

Blog Special

I spotted a common lizard a few months ago, when I was picnicking on the Wicklow mountains. Below is a video I took with my mobile phone. The quality isn't great but you can see how the lizard moves.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Satellite Crash

Two satellites have crashed for the first time while orbiting the Earth. The collision created two clouds of debris that are being tracked by experts. A communications satellite belonging to US company Iridium hit a disused Russian military satellite on Tuesday. The collision took place 800km above the Earth. NASA is tracking hundreds of particles of debris from the collision, and says the orbiting International Space Station (see previous blog post) faces a small risk of being struck. While this is an extremely unusual, very low-probability event, the Iridium constellation is uniquely designed to withstand such an event, and the company is taking the necessary steps to replace the lost satellite with one of its in-orbit spare satellites.

Cosmic collisions of space junk are not unheard of, but NASA officials say it is the first collision involving two intact satellites. The International Space Station does not have the ability to manoeuvre to avoid the debris.

Half Term begins today, so the Frog Blog will suspend posts for a period of 10 days. The next post will be on Monday 23rd February with the 11th Science Fact of the Week. Click here to see the previous 10 Science Facts!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

More Darwin Quotes - Ok he didn't hate Geology that much!

Ok I apologise to my geological friend (pictured across looking rather studious). I have to admit that Darwin didn't hate geology that much! In fact here are more quotes from the great man about his "never failing interest" in the study of the solid matter that constitutes the Earth.

"I find in Geology a never failing interest, as [it] has been remarked, it creates the same grand ideas respecting this world, which Astronomy does for the universe."

"But Geology carries the day: it is like the pleasure of gambling, speculating, on first arriving, what the rocks may be; I often mentally cry out 3 to 1 Tertiary against primitive; but the latter have hitherto won all the bets."

I promise I will never try another cheap dig! Well maybe? HJ. Oh and when did you take that photo?

The Influence of Lyell’s Principles of Geology on Darwin

My learned colleague and fellow ‘Frogger’ Mr Humphrey Jones (pictured opposite) included an interesting quote in his blog article posted earlier today (see Charles Darwin 200 Years Old Today). This was to the effect that in 1826/27, after a bad experience, Darwin vowed never to read another geology book in his life. How ironic!

As mentioned earlier in the Frog Blog (see Bradyseism in the Pozzuoli area north of Naples, 11/11/08), the most influential Geology book ever written was probably Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology published from 1830 to 1833. In these three volumes Lyell caused a revolution in the way that people thought about planet Earth and its age. At that time most geologists and particularly the Church supported the view that a series of unique catastrophes (such as Noah’s flood) were responsible for shaping the Earth.

Lyell was a great supporter of the ideas of Scottish geologist James Hutton, who thought that all that can be seen today on the surface of the Earth can be explained by the cumulative effects of the processes we see in action around us. In other words “the present is the key to the past”. This viewpoint is known as uniformitarianism and, amongst other things, it implies that the Earth must be much older than the 6,000 years or so allowed for by calculations from biblical records – a view that was surprisingly widely held by scientists of Darwin’s time.

Darwin avidly read Lyell’s work whilst on the Beagle, and even arranged for the most recent volumes to be sent out to him in S. America. Lyell’s geology book was one of the major influences on Darwin’s thinking during his voyage, and on his return to England Darwin became a personal friend of Lyell, and saw himself almost as a disciple of the great man. It is beyond doubt that without Darwin’s volte-face on the matter of reading geology books the theory of evolution by means of natural selection would not today bear Darwin’s name.


Charles Darwin - 200 Years Old Today

Today, February 12th, 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Over the past few weeks we have presented a series of posts outlining the life, works and contributions of Charles Darwin to the world of science and beyond. Today, we end the series with a number of quotes from Darwin. We hope you have enjoyed the series and that you continue to check out the many interesting articles on the Frog Blog. I'm sure, if Darwin were alive today, he'd be checking out the blog every day.

Darwin Quotes

"I believe there exists, & I feel within me, an instinct for the truth, or knowledge or discovery, of something of the same nature as the instinct of virtue, & that our having such an instinct is reason enough for scientific researches without any practical results ever ensuing from them. "

"I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think there is an eminently important difference."

"A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone."

"Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body."

"As the sense of smell is so intimately connected with that of taste, it is not surprising that an excessively bad odour should excite wretching or vomitting in some persons."

"During my second year at Edinburgh [1826-27] I attended Jameson's lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredible dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology." (Sorry Jeremy) OK Humphrey - but see the posting above! JJS

"I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things; and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever - much cleverer than the discoverers - never originate anything"

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Darwin Award

A Darwin Award is a tongue-in-cheek "honour" given for people who "do a service to Humanity by removing themselves from the Gene pool", i.e., lose the ability to reproduce either by death or sterilization in a stupid fashion (un-natural selection so to speak). Although slightly morbid, the Darwin Award has been given to indiduals involved in many a stupid act. Examples of Darwin award winners include:

  • Juggling active hand grenades (Croatia, 2001)
  • Leaving a lit cigarette in a warehouse full of explosives
  • Jumping out of a plane to film skydivers without wearing a parachute (U.S., 1987)
  • Using a lighter to illuminate a fuel tank to make sure it contains nothing flammable (Brazil, 2003).
  • Crashing through a window and falling to your death in trying to demonstrate that the window is unbreakable.
  • Or our friend in the picture above who attempted to jump across a ridge in the grand canyon.
What can we say, some mothers do have 'em. Check out the website: http://www.darwinawards.com/!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Charles Darwin - Place Names

Charles Darwin has a number of places named after him, including a large city, several mountains and a fjord. Mount Darwin (shown above), the tallest mountain in Tierra del Fuego was named after Charles Darwin by Sir Robery FitzRoy, in honour of his 25th Birthday. A year earlier, Darwin and his shipmates were on a small island in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago (collection of islands) when a huge mass of ice fell from the face of a glacier and plunged into the ocean, causing a huge wave. Darwin ran to the shore and saved the ship's boats from being swept away. For saving everyone from being marooned, FitzRoy named the area Darwin Sound. And as if one mountain isn't enough, Darwin got three more named after him: There are other Darwin Mountains located in California, Tasmania, and Antarctica. Furthermore, the city of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory is also named after Charles Darwin. On 9 September 1839, the HMS Beagle sailed into Darwin harbour during its surveying of the area. John Clements Wickham, the captain, named the region "Port Darwin" in honour of a former shipmate. Also, there is a town in the Galapagos and an island amongst the Falklands named after Charles Darwin.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Science Fact of the Week 10 - Snow

Snow fell heavily in St. Columba's this week, so what is it and how is it formed?

Snow is formed when water vapour is deposited in the higher reaches of the atmosphere at a temperature less than zero degrees celsius, and then falls to the ground. Snow is less dense than rain, which explains why the same amount of moisture produces a greater volume of snow than rain. Snow is a granular material formed by precipitation and it is in the form of small rough particles of crystalline water ice. It has a soft, open structure unless it is packed by external pressure, and forms a variety of snowflakes. Snowflakes are typically symmetrical, hexagonal-shaped groups of ice crystals that form while falling in and below clouds. The occurrence of snowfall depends on various factors such as the season, location, the latitude and elevation of the place.

A snowflake starts out as three ingredients, water vapour, ice crystals, and dust. Ice crystals form when water vapour freezes on a microscopic piece of dust. This dust can come from volcanoes, flower pollen, meteorites falling stars, soil erosion and much more. Snow begins forming in a very cold cloud that has both super cold water droplets and ice crystals. When water vapour droplets collide with a piece of already formed ice crystal, the droplet freezes to it making it grow into a slightly larger new ice crystal. The shape of the snow crystal is determined by the temperature in the cloud. The size of an ice crystal is determined by moisture in the cloud. The more moisture there is, the bigger the crystals will be. When many ice crystals stick together and fall, they are called "snow crystals." This is what we call a "snowflake." As it falls from one cloud, it will pass through other clouds with a different temperature or moisture level and change shape and size of the snowflake. It may combine two different shapes. The speed of the snowflake falling can also change the shape of the crystal. Despite all these changes happening as the snowflake falls, you can still find single ice crystals in any snowfall. There are 7 main types of ice crystal shapes but as we know, they can change shape as temperatures change in the air, or if they combine with other ice crystals of another shape.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Charles Darwin - His Late Life & Works

Following his return to England in 1836 Darwin arranged his notes and read voraciously across many fields of science, filling notebook after notebook with his insights. By 1838 he began to make notes about the formation of new species and on his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He expanded these ideas into a 35-page paper and then into a 230-page paper, in 1842 and 1844, respectively. However, he did not publish his ideas at this time, apparently intending to keep working to produce a larger, more impressive book.

His most famous book The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, was published in 1859 and (despite the lack of a snappy title) became an instant best-seller, and an instant source of controversy. Controversy continues to this day, although the notion of evolutionary change is now firmly established as a major paradigm of the natural sciences. In 'The Origin' Darwin talks much about pigeons, dogs, beetles, and other forms of life but says nothing of man. Of humans, he only enigmatically says that light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history. In subsequent editions Darwin revised the text to read "much light".

Altogether, Darwin wrote 14 books, in addition to 4 monographs on the taxonomy and biology of barnacles, and his narrative of the Voyage of the Beagle. After Darwin had written down his ideas in his long paper of 1844 he was stricken with bouts of bad health and several tragedies in his personal life. He also spent 8 years working on his barnacle monographs, an accomplishment which made him the world's leading authority on barnacles. These events were responsible for some of the delay in writing his "big book" on natural selection.

In 1871 his book The Descent of Man was published, in which he argued that humans were no different from all other forms of life, and that we too, in our evolutionary history, have been influenced by the forces of natural selection. Then, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, he dared to claim that most of our refined and most particularly human behaviour - the expression of our emotions - also reflected our evolutionary past.

In 1839 he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood. They had 10 children together, 7 surviving to adulthood, and lived a long and happy life together, untouched by the slightest hint of poverty or scandal. After living several years in London they moved to a country house at Downe in Kent about 16 miles from the outskirts of London. Darwin never again left the British Isles and rarely travelled far from Down House.
Darwin was not an atheist. He described himself as an agnostic, and it is likely that he retained a belief in some kind of personal God, although not a deity who, like some master puppeteer, took a direct and continuously intervening role in the evolutionary process and in human affairs. In early 1882 he had several minor heart attacks. His condition worsened and on April 19th, 1882, at 73 years of age, he died at Down House, after several hours of nausea, intense vomiting and retching, symptoms of a chronic illness that bedevilled him for the last 40 years of his life. Darwin's last words, spoken to his wife Emma, were, "I am not in the least afraid to die."

On April 26th, 1892 Charles Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey only a few feet away from the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. His pallbearers included Alfred Russell Wallace (a man also accredited with the theory of Natural Selection) and the two scientists who were his closest friends and staunchest defenders -- Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Try Science - New Website

Try Science is a website designed to allow pupils of science to experience the excitement of contemporary science and technology through on and offline interactivity with science and technology centres worldwide. Their motto is simple; "Science is exciting, and it's for everyone". Try Science contains some fabulous experiments, interactive expeditions, live cameras in numerous science centres around the world and much more. It's colourful and highly interactive and well worth a look both as a teacher looking for ideas or a pupil looking for some mischief..

Thursday, 5 February 2009

St. Columba's in the Snow

As promised, here are more pictures of St. Columba's in the snow, taken over the last number of days. It has been quite magical here of late and the snow continues to fall, even as I type this.

Galapagos - Recommended DVD

The Frog Bloggers would like to recommend the following DVD, the BBC production Galapagos - The Islands That Changed the World. This excellent series looks at the history, geology, biology and future prospects for the Galapagos Islands. Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the series uses high definition pictures to show the beauty and mysterious nature of the islands. The islands were the inspiration for Charles Darwin in his development of his Theory of Natural Selection and this DVD illustrates how the islands may well have influenced his thinking. A truly excellent production which is available on many websites such as Amazon.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

New Frog Species Found

Ten new amphibian species, including a transparent “glass” frog (shown above), have been discovered in an expedition in the Darien Gap bordering Panama. Naturalists led by Conservation International and the Ecotropico Foundation of Colombia identified about 200 species of reptiles, birds and amphibians, many apparently unique to the area. We say yippee, as many amphibians are in serious danger of extinction world wide. (Story from The Times)

Penguin Corner - The Emperor Penguin

Emperor penguins are the largest of all the penguins standing 120 cm tall (almost 4 ft.) and weighing 30 to 40 kg. They live and breed at the beginning of Winter, on the fast ice all around the Antarctic continent. The total population is estimated to be about 200,000 breeding pairs. Emperor penguins can mate when they are 4 years old and can live to be 20 years of age. Emperors live in the coldest climate on earth. Temperatures can drop as low as -60 degrees celsius on the Antarctic ice. After mating, the female lays one large egg. The egg is then immediately rolled to the top of the male's feet. The egg is then incubated (kept warm) on the male's feet by a thick fold of skin that hangs from the belly of the male. The males manage to survive by standing huddled in groups for up to 9 weeks. During this time the female returns to the open sea to feed. During the time the male incubates the egg, he may lose about half his body weight because he does not eat. When the egg hatches the female returns to care for the chick. Once the female returns, the male will go to the open sea to feed. The male will return in a few weeks and both male and female will tend to the chick by keeping it warm and feeding it food from their stomachs. After 7 weeks of care, the chicks form groups called "créches" and huddle together for protection and warmth. They are still fed by the parents. The chicks know their parents by the sound of their call. The chicks are fully grown in 6 months, which is the beginning of the Summer season in the Antarctic. At this time all the penguins return to the open sea. The shape of their body helps them to survive. They have short wings that help them to dive up to 275 m (900 feet) to catch larger fish. They can swim 10-15 kilometers an hour which lets them escape their main enemy, the leopard seal (shown on your left). They can stay warm because they have a thick layer of down under the outer feathers and a layer of blubber. The layer of downy feathers traps air that keeps the body heat in and cold air and water out. They also have large amounts of body oil that aids in keeping them dry in the water.

What is Laser Eye Surgery

Laser Eye Surgery is a procedure that can reduce a person's dependency on glasses or contact lenses. The procedure permanently changes the shape of the cornea (the delicate clear covering on the front of the eye). For clear vision, the eye's cornea and lens must bend (refract) light rays properly, so that images are focused on the retina. If the light rays aren't clearly focused on the retina, the images you see are blurry. This blurriness is referred to as a "refractive error." It is caused by an imperfectly shaped eyeball, cornea, or lens. Laser Eye Surgey uses an ultraviolet laser to precisely remove corneal tissue to correct the shape for better focusing.
Laser Eye Surgery is performed most often on people who are short sighted (myopic), which means that they only see nearby objects clearly; anything far away is blurry. Below is a You Tube Video showing an eye undergoing the surgery. It's not pretty, but very interesting. Thanks to Rebecca Stewart for recommending this to me.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

New Wallpaper

Above is a specially created wallpaper, composed of a series of pictures from the blog since its creation, to commemorate the 132nd post of the Frog Blog (Something like the 100th or 200th would be too much of cliché). Enjoy!

Charles Darwin - The Beagle Journey

The offer of a position on the Beagle, which Charles received on August 30th, 1831, came through his advisor, Henslow, at Cambridge. Henslow himself had been invited to be the naturalist for the ship, but had turned down the opportunity. The voyage had been commissioned by the government to map the coast of South America and was being captained by Robert FitzRoy, a 26-year-old gentleman who had led an expedition to South America the year before. FitzRoy was eager to have the companionship of someone who, unlike the sailors and officers of the ship, was of his social class. A gentleman naturalist would fit the bill perfectly, providing companionship while increasing the usefulness and prestige of the voyage. Most well-established naturalists, like Henslow, had proven to be busy or disinclined, so the job had fallen to the promising but inexperienced Charles Darwin. Despite the objections of his father Robert, and numerous failed attempts to launch due to bad weather, Charles finally began his voyage on December 27th, 1831.

At the beginning of the voyage of HMS Beagle, Darwin was almost incapacitated with seasickness. He swung miserably in his hammock in the small cabin he shared with several of the ship's officers or hung by the rail of the ship. Eventually, the nausea passed away and he was able to focus on the voyage itself. The ship's first stop was meant to be Tenerife in the Canary Islands, the same place that Darwin had hoped to visit with Henslow. Unfortunately, because of a recent cholera outbreak in England they would have been quarantined for twelve days before landing, so Captain FitzRoy gave the order to set sail for St. Jago in the Cape Verde Islands, 300 miles off the African coast. Along the way, Darwin began his work as a naturalist by collecting plankton. When they landed at St. Jago he hiked through the volcanic hills, encountering his first tropical jungle in a small valley and seeing real evidence of geological change: a layer of compressed sea shells in the cliffs thirty feet above sea level. Leaving St. Jago on February 8th, 1831, they stopped at St. Paul's Rocks to kill birds for food, then crossed the equator on February 16th.

They reached South America at Bahia, at All Saints' Bay, on February 28th - where they spent several weeks before departing for Rio on March 18th. On arriving, on April 5th, Darwin received letters from home for the first time since leaving England. Over the next few months and years, as the Beagle surveyed the coastline, Darwin explored the interior. He starting filling books with notes on the flora, fauna, and geological formations he encountered. He hunted and collected, setting aside samples to be sent to Henslow in England. Darwin even took part in a very successful Andes expedition. Towards the end of his trip, the Beagle headed west and on September 15th 1835 the team soon caught their first glimpse of the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin was later to make famous.

The Beagle returned home on October 2nd, 1836, nearly five years after he had departed. Darwin returned home with a massive amount of scientific data and a developing theory in his head.

The Smooth Newt

The Smooth or Common newt is Ireland's only tailed amphibian. Although a native member of our fauna, it is rarely seen and relatively under-recorded. This is probably partly due to its elusive nature and also because it is regularly mistaken for a lizard. They breed from February in weeded ponds and the female lays her eggs singly, attaching them to underwater vegetation. Newts do not have territories, though the male does need some time to reach breeding condition. Newts spend up to four months of the year in water. The male has large black belly spots, whereas the female has a speckled belly. During the breeding season the male develops a crest along his back and the belly becomes a rich orange. Newts engage in elaborate courtship dances during breeding. Tadpoles develop into small newts and they mature in about eighteen months.

That's it for our Amphibians, but next week I will post something about our reptiles. Yes, we do have reptiles!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Snow Falls in Columba's

Here are a few photos taken just a few minutes ago of snow falling in Columba's. I'll edit this later to include many more.

Mount Asama Erupts in Japan

Japan's Mount Asama has erupted, throwing hot rocks out of the crater and depositing a fine layer of ash on parts of Tokyo, some 90 miles to the southeast. Mount Asama is known for a huge eruption in 1783 that caused widespread damage and killed around 1,500 people. This eruption has caused the evacuation of over 45,000 people in the surrounding area. The volcano has not yet erupted lava but is expected to in the coming hours. Mount Asama, one of Japan's more active volcanoes, had its biggest eruption in 21 years on September 1st 2004, spewing hot rock and raining ash on areas as far as 200 km (125 miles) away. That eruption, however, did not cause any major damage.
Volcanoes occur in Japan because it lies on the boundary between the Pacific and Eurasian tectonic plates. This is an example of an ocean/ocean convergent plate margin, where the Pacific plate is being subducted beneath the eastern edge of the Eurasian plate. Subducted plates are forced down to great depths where high temperatures cause melting and magma generation. Such margins result in the formation of a slightly curved line of volcanic islands known as an "island arc" (i.e. Japan). The relative movement of the two tectonic plates accounts for Japan's frequent earthquakes.

Science Fact of the Week 9 - Diamonds

Diamond is composed of pure carbon. It is important to note, however, that diamond is an example of a network covalent compound. In the diamond structure the atoms are connected by covalent bonds, with each carbon atom bonded to four others in a tetrahedral shape. A diamond is the hardest natural substance on earth, however, if it is placed in an oven and the temperature is raised to about 763 degrees Celsius, it will simply vanish, without even ash remaining. Only a little carbon dioxide will have been released. Diamonds are formed over a period of a billion or more years deep within earth's crust - from 150km to 450km deep - and are pushed to the surface, by unusual volcanic activity, in magma which forms 'kimberlite pipes'. Kimberlite intrusions are important sources of diamonds (e.g. near Kimberly in S. Africa). Diamonds can also be recovered from rivers and the sea where exposed kimberlite has been weathered and eroded.
A diamond is 58 times harder than the next hardest mineral on earth, corundum (from which rubies and sapphires are formed). It was only during the 15th century that it was discovered that the only way to cut diamonds was with other diamonds. Yet, diamonds are brittle. If you hit one hard with a hammer, it will shatter. The world's largest diamond was the Cullinan (shown below), found in South Africa in 1905. It weighed 3,106.75 carats uncut (One diamond carat is 200 milligrams). It was cut into the Great Star of Africa, weighing 530.2 carats, the Lesser Star of Africa, which weighs 317.40 carats, and 104 other diamonds of nearly flawless colour and clarity. They now form part of the British crown jewels. The Cullinan was three times the size of the next largest diamond, the Excelsior, which was also found in South Africa. The world's largest documented polished diamond - unearthed in 1986, also in South Africa - is called Unnamed Brown. It weighs 545 carats and was cut down from a 700 carat rough diamond. It took an international team of expert cutters 3 years to complete the masterpiece. Another impressive diamond that also took 3 years to cut, and also is part of the British crown jewels, is the Centenary Diamond. It weighs 273.85 carats and is the world's largest flawless diamond. Not all diamonds are white. Impurities lend diamonds a shade of blue, red, orange, yellow, green and even black. A green diamond is the rarest. Diamonds actually are found in fair abundance; thousands are mined every year. 80% of them are not suitable for jewellery - they are used in industry.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Darwin's Legacy

Stamford University in the United States recently published a series of lectures to help commemorate the Darwin Bicentenary. The lectures were delivered by some of the US' top scientists in a variety of fields, to explore Darwin's Legacy in areas as diverse as anthropology, religion, medicine, psychology, philosophy, literature, and biology. It’s now available on YouTube and you can access the full library of lectures by clicking here.