o The Frog Blog: May 2009

Friday, 29 May 2009

Exodus Weekend & Columba's Day

This is a busy week for the members of the Science Department. The annual sixth form dinner takes place this evening, tomorrow is Columba's Day, where we hold our annual pupil awards, and next week (after our exodus weekend) the pupils in the fifth form will travel to the Burren in Co. Clare for a combined Geography and Biology expedition. During the trip, pupils will be exposed to the unique flora and fauna of the area as well as the many interesting geographical and geological features of the Burren. We would like to wish everyone a safe journey this weekend and look forward to next week's trip. Photos will be posted of the trip late next week.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Irish Coral Reef

French and Irish marine biologists have found a coral reef off the west coast of Ireland. The site, which is approximately 200sq kilometres, is located on the Porcupine Bank in the Atlantic Ocean (shown on the map below) and some of the corals extend to a height of 100 m . This is one of the most pristine examples of a cold water reef ever discovered and is one of several such reefs discovered over the past few years. Coral reefs are quite common in warm water areas, e.g. Australia or the Maldives, but rare in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Cold-water reefs are important because they provide feeding grounds and nursery areas for fish including commercial species.

It has been known for quite a while that corals grow in Irish waters. Coral was first discovered off Ireland in 1869 by a Royal Irish Academy and Royal Dublin Society sponsored cruise. Until recently little more was known about this coral, and most research in our offshore waters has been by foreign ships. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, fishing trawlers from Dingle caught coral in their nets off the south-west coast, some of it from depths as shallow as 80-100 m. This new discovery, however, constitutes a major find and efforts are being put in place to preserve this natural habitat. Coral is composed of small primitive colonial animals. As they grow they secrete calcium carbonate, or limestone. For more information on this spectacular and important find click here to see an article on Science Daily, one of the Frog Blog's favourite sites.

Science Prizes 2009

The Frog Blog would like to congratulate all pupils who have received subject prizes over the past few months, but particularly the winners of the various science prizes. Rebecca Feeney Barry won several prizes picking up the gongs for Senior Chemistry, Senior Physics, Applied Maths and Mathematics (as well as other subject prizes). The Geology Prize was shared between Oliver Smith & Ciara O'Driscoll, who both achieved A1 grades in this year's Trinity College Matriculation Exam, while the award for Senior Biology was won by Rosemary Wentges. Rosemary's younger sister Hannah made it a splendid double for the Wentges family by picking up the Junior Science Prize - for work based on her Junior Certificate experiment report. Each pupil will receive a book token and will be officially awarded the prizes on St. Columba's Day on Saturday.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

EU Outlaws Trade in Seal Products

A ban on the sale of products from seals was passed by the European Parliament yesterday in an attempt to end their slaughter (the seals that is). The legislation will prohibit the import and sale in Europe of seal pelts and other products such as oil used in some omega-3 health supplements labelled “marine oil” or “Arctic oil” to disguise their origins. Seal fur — usually labelled as leather — is found in a wide range of consumer products, including coats, handbags, boxing gloves, shoe linings, collars and other adornments for garments. The ban, which was passed by 550 votes to 49, came after a long battle against seal clubbing backed by campaigners such as Sir Paul McCartney, who called it a “trade in animal cruelty”. It is likely to be challenged by Canada and Norway.

This is an extract from an article in today's Times. To see the full article click here. Have your say, email us to tell us what you think!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Tasmanian Devils Listed as Endangered

The Tasmanian devil, a snarling fox-sized marsupial made notorious by its Looney Tunes cartoon namesake Taz, was listed in Australia as an endangered species on Friday because of a contagious cancer that has wiped out most of the wild population. The population now stands at approximately 10,000 and there are fears that the marsupial may become extinct within 20 years. Devils do not exist in the wild outside Tasmania, although mainland zoos are breeding captive populations as a strategy against total extinction. Their numbers have declined by 70percent since the facial cancer was first reported in 1996. The disease is caused by bites inflicted on each other's faces as part of a bizarre mating ritual or while squabbling over food. It causes grotesque facial tumors that eventually prevent them from feeding, leading to starvation within months. Coincidentally, the creators of Taz, Warner Brothers are helping to fund research into the disease to help prevent further population decline.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Shuttle Lands Safely

The space shuttle Atlantis landed safely on Sunday but not at the Kennedy Space Centre as planned. The shuttle touched down at Edwards Air Force Base in California, returning from a historic mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Thunderstorms in Florida kept the shuttle from landing at its home spot on Friday and ended flying across the country to Kennedy Space Center. NASA called off all landing attempts for Saturday because of thunderstorms in Florida. Thunderstorms also thwarted Friday's landing attempts. Atlantis Commander Scott Altman and his six crewmates wound up their Hubble repair mission, which began 12 days ago. It was NASA's last visit to the 19-year-old observatory. The $1 billion overhaul should keep the telescope working for another five to 10 years.

Science Fact of the Week 21 - Mars

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun. It is also the second nearest planet to the Earth and will probably be the first planet visited by humans (after Earth). There are 668 Martian days in a Martian Year. Mars has a very eccentric orbit that can vary from 249 million km to 207 million km. As a result, it also experiences seasons. The planet is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. It is also referred to as the "Red Planet" because of its reddish appearance, due to iron oxide on its surface. When it is nearest to Earth – 59 million km away – Mars can be seen in great detail even with small telescopes. The polar ice caps are visible; the southern ice cap can extend down to 50° latitude or become quite small depending on the season. There are many bright areas on the red planet e.g. 'Hellas' that are in fact deep basins on the planet's surface. There are also dark areas on the planet's surface e.g. 'Sirtis Major' (in the shape of a large 'V') that were once thought to be seas, but when the atmospheric pressure was discovered to be too low for liquid water, the dark areas were then thought to be old sea beds filled with vegetation. However all this was disproved after the first fly-by mission by Mariner 4 in 1965. Two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been roaming the Martian surface since 2004 (although spirit got stuck in soft soil on May 1st this year when it damaged its wheel - pictured below).

The highest known surface point on Mars is a huge volcano known as 'Olympus Mons'. It stretches 24km high above the lava plains around it and it has a base measuring 600km. Mars has an average surface temperature of about -23°C. Its atmospheric content includes 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen and 1.6% argon. Mars is not as dense or as large as Earth and has an escape velocity of 5km/sec, only enough to sustain a thin, transparent atmosphere. However, some clouds can be seen and from time to time the occasional dust storm can completely cover the Martian surface. Mars has two moons, Phobos and Deimos, both discovered in 1877 by Asaph Hall. These two moons are shaped irregularly and are probably asteroids that were caught by Mars' gravitational pull a long time ago. Phobos orbits at a distance of less than 6000 km from the surface of Mars and, with a maximum diameter of 27 km, is larger than Deimos. Phobos has been falling very slowly toward the planet at a rate of 10 km every century, because of which it will collide with Mars in forty million years. Phobos' surface is covered with craters (the largest is the 10 km-long "Stickney," which was named after Asaph Hall's wife). Deimos is even smaller than Phobos. Its greatest diameter is 15 km and it orbits 23400 km from the planet's centre and, unlike Phobos, has a stable orbit. To view some detail of the surface of mars, why not check out Google Mars at www.google.com/mars. It's very cool!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ireland's Birds of Prey - The White Tailed Eagle

This is the first in a series of posts that will look at the native birds of prey in Ireland. There was an excellent reaction to our recent post about the poisoning of reintroduced birds around the country, and we would like to thank all those who aired their views on the matter. We will begin with the White Tailed Eagle, the majestic bird pictured in the previous post.

The White Tailed Eagle, also known as the Sea Eagle, Erne or White Tailed Sea Eagle, is a large bird of prey with long broad wings with a "fingered" effect at the outer edge of the wing. The Adult White Tailed Eagles are on average 69–91 cm long with a wingspan in the region of 182–238 cm. Adults have a brown plumage with a paler yellowish-brown head and neck. Their tail is wedge shaped and is pure white in adults (hence the name). Younger birds' plumage vary from brown to black. These magnificent birds predominantly are found along sea coasts and large freshwater lakes and rivers. They feed on fish, waterbirds, carrion and offal. They tend to build their nest on cliff-ledges or tall mature trees. Females (who are significantly larger than the males) lay on average, 2 eggs from February to April. These eggs are incubated for up to 40 days and the chicks remain in the nest for a further 10 weeks or so.

White-tailed Eagles were once widespread in Ireland, although apparently largely confined to western coasts. They died out after being trapped, shot and poisoned in the 19th century. By 1894 there were still one or two pairs in Mayo and Kerry, but by 1900 the species was gone, the last documented nesting being in 1898. In 2007, in an effort to re-establish the species in Ireland, fifteen Norwegian birds were introduced into Killarney National Park in 2007. As mentioned previously, some of the reintroduced birds have been poisoned and only 10 of the original 15 reintroduced birds now survive. White Tailed Eagles are sometimes found in Ulster, having flown across from Scotland. Europe currently has nearly 2000 breeding pairs. In Scotland, where a reintroduction programme began in 1975, there are now 33 breeding pairs. One interesting story about the White Tailed Eagle is that on the Shetland Islands, fishermen believed that as soon as a sea eagle appeared fish would rise to the surface, belly up; this led to some fishermen using eagle fat, smeared on their bait, to increase their catch. A truly majestic bird of prey.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Do Polar Bears Cover Their Noses When Hunting?

This slightly odd question was posed by Katie Murphy in Form VI, who really should be thinking about her exams now and not the hunting behaviours of Polar Bears. Well anyway, the answer isn't really that clear. There are several descriptions of the behaviour but many naturalists believe it to be myth. Barry Lopez, in his book Arctic Dreams - Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, describes seeing polar bears cover their noses and paws with snow when stalking seals but Polar Bears International, a group founded with the conservation of this elegant hunter as its sole purpose, believes this to be a major misconception. Similarly Ian Stirling, a Canadian naturalist, has spent several thousand hours observing the behaviour of polars bears and never seen one cover their nose. But the debate could ramble on because for everyone one who claims to have seen it, there is another who claims that it could not possibly happen. In the interest of fun though, I'm saying it's true!

Missing Link in Human Evolution?

The fossil skeleton of a small lemur like creature, nicknamed Ida, is being hailed as the missing link in human evolution. The almost complete fossil, estimated to be 47 million years old, was unearthed in 1983 in the Messel Pit near Darmstadt, Germany, but its significance is only now being revealed, after extensive study by a team of scientists in Oslo. Ida or Darwinius masillae bears a long tail but also has several human characteristics, including an opposable thumb, short arms and legs, and forward facing eyes. Her skeleton is so well preserved that you can see individual hairs, finger nails (which confirms she is a primate) and even the remains of her last meal. The scientific name honours Charles Darwin, as both the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species fall this year. The second part is taken from the Latin for the Messel Pit. Sir Davis Attenborough has hailed Ida as extremely significant and said this "little creature is going to show us our connection with all the rest of the mammals". He presents a new documentary on Ida and her significance on Tuesday next, on BBC 1. Below is a short video where he explains her significance briefly.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Penguin Corner - Galpagos Penguins

The Galapagos Penguins are found on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. In fact, they are the most northerly of all penguins and the only penguins to live in the northern hemisphere (Isabela Island). It might seem hard to believe that penguins can live on the equator, but the waters around the Galapagos Islands are rich in food and the cold Humboldt current flowing up from Antarctica means the waters are rarely too warm. To keep cool in the warm environment, they spend a lot of time swimming. Being just over 35cm tall they are smaller and more duck-like than their southern cousins of the Antarctic. Adult penguins have a bluish-black head, back and flippers when new. Their underside is white with the exception of a black line along the side and scatter feathers on the chest. The Galapagos Penguins live in colonies feeding on small fish caught while swimming underwater. Galapagos Penguins mate for life. Nesting occurs throughout the year with the majority of nests being seen between May and January. Some penguins may mate as often as every 6 months. Female penguins lay 1 to 2 eggs each season. The eggs are laid in holes under the lava and the pair shares the responsibility of watching over the nest. The total population of Galapagos Penguins is a couple of thousand and most are found on the very inhospitable island of Fernandina.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Halley's Comet

Ninety nine years ago today, the Earth passed through the tail of Halley's comet. This must have been a spectacular event and it was the first time that the comet was spotted on camera. There was also considerable panic amongst the Earth's population, as many feared the tail of the comet contained noxious gases, particularly cyanide. Another comet, known as the Great Daylight Comet of 1910, also passed within Earth's range that year, and was much more spectacular than Halley's. Halley's comet appears every 76 years or so and was last seen in 1986 and will reappear again in 2061. For more information on Edmund Halley see a previous blog post on his life and works by clicking here.

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

David Attenborough's ode to Charles Darwin is a wonderfully compiled documentary, featuring some footage from his previous work, which illustrates how Darwin formulated his Theory of Natural Selection. Attenborough also gives an insight into his own admiration for the man and outlines how he, himself, was captivated by nature and fossils as a young boy growing up in Leicester (which of course ultimately led to him studying Geology in Cambridge). The documentary graphically visualises Darwin's Tree of Life and shows how modern technological and scientific advances in understanding have providing compelling evidence for his once highly controversial theory. A great hour in front of the telly and a must for any biology teacher!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Hubble Mission Update

The crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis today continue their mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space telescope. Over the past week or so, the team have completed four space walks (or EVA's) and during today's final EVA they plan to replace the telescope batteries, replace external shielding and install a new pointing sensor. The crew have already replaced the lens of the telescope. The mission has been a resounding success so far and the crew will return to Earth on Friday, when the shuttle touches down in the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Science Fact of the Week 20 - Goliath Frog

The largest frog in the world is the Goliath Frog, and probably the largest frog or indeed amphibian ever to live. It can grow up to 33cm long and weight nearly 3 kilograms. Goliath Frogs live in fast moving rivers and streams with sandy bottoms, typically located in the dense rain forests of Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon, both countries in West Africa. Adults are carnivores and eat insects, crustaceans, fish, and amphibians. Tadpoles (baby frogs) are herbivores that eat water plants found only near waterfalls and in rapids. Some indigenous people actually eat Goliath Frogs! Goliath Frogs are the only mute frogs, i.e. they have no vocal sack. They are also able to leap up to 10 feet. The mating season for the Goliath Frog is July and August. Each female produces several hundred eggs, which are attach to plants growing on the bottom of the river. It takes 85 to 90 days for tadpoles to develop.

Much of the dense rainforest of the Goliath Frog's habitat has been deforested for timber and to make way for agriculture. The construction of dams also threatens the breeding habitat of these frogs and this species is particularly vulnerable to habitat alteration due to its highly restricted range The Goliath Frog is not currently protected under any trade restrictions and collection continues to threaten remaining populations. Captive breeding programmes have not proven successful and the only method of effectively preserving this amphibious giant is to safeguard areas of remaining habitat.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Dangers of Eating Too Many Bananas

Someone asked in class this week if eating too many bananas can kill you. Well the answer is yes, but you would have to eat a seriously large amount of them in a short period of time! Bananas are naturally high in potassium, which is important for normal body function. It helps muscle growth, osmoregulation (or the control of water in the blood), it helps control blood pH and is vital for the nervous system and brain function. But too much potassium can lead to cardiac arrests (heart attack) and heart damage. Other problems include blood in stools, irregular heartbeat, muscle paralysis, muscle weakness. But eating between 5 and 10 bananas is unlikely to cause you any long term harm, although it may give you a stomach ache! Other foods which contain very high levels of potassium include prunes, apricots, strawberries, watermelon, spinach, salmon and tomatoes.

Friday, 15 May 2009


The Irish Times today published a scientific parody on our hopelessly downtrodden political establishment. A good giggle!

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH has led to the discovery of the heaviest element yet known. The new element, governmentium (Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons, and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons. Since governmentium has no electrons, it is inert; however, according to the team of research scientists in Budapest, it can be detected because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of two to six years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places.

In fact, governmentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as critical morass.

When catalysed with money, governmentium becomes administratium, an element that radiates just as much energy as governmentium since it has half as many peons but twice as many morons.

Motor Neurone Disease

Mr Canning spoke emotively in chapel this week about Motor Neurone Disease, and particularly its effects on Old Columban Alistair Dunwoody, a dear friend of Mr. Canning's. The Chaplain has agreed to send some money from the Chapel Emergency Fund to the help fund Stem Cell Research in the area of Motor Neurone Disease. Mr Canning also informed me about a recent article in the Daily Mail which shed light on a new finding which may help find a cure for the debilitating disease. Well known physicist, Stephen Hawking also suffers from the disease.

"A 'hero' gene that allows people with motor neurone disease to live longer has been pinpointed by British scientists, paving the way for new drug treatments for the devastating condition. Unlocking the secrets of the gene - the first of its kind to be identified - could lead to new and better treatments for the disease which kills half of sufferers within 14 months of diagnosis. Current care for Britain's 5,000 men and women with motor neurone disease, in which the nerve connections between the brain and the muscles gradually die, is largely palliative. Just one drug can slow the slide towards paralysis, although it only extends life expectancy by three to six months.

In contrast, medicines based on the 'hero' gene could boost survival by more than a year, research suggests. Dr Brian Dickie, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said: 'This is a significant finding, bearing in mind the speed with motor neurone disease can progress in patients. 'Just as there are genetic "villains" that can cause or predispose people to disease, so there are undoubtedly "hero" genes that help delay the onset of the disease or slow its progression..." Click here to see the full article.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

What causes ringing in your ears?

Noise levels louder than a shouting match can damage parts of our inner ears called hair cells. Hair cells act as the gatekeepers of our hearing. When sound waves hit them, they convert those vibrations into electrical currents that our auditory nerves carry to the brain. Without hair cells, there is nothing for the sound to bounce off, like trying to make your voice echo in the desert.
Hair cells reside in the inner ear inside the shell-shaped cochlea. Bundles of hair-like extensions, called stereocilia (shown above), rest on top of them. When sound waves travel through the ears and reach the hair cells, the vibrations deflect off the stereocilia, causing them to move according to the force and pitch of the vibration. For instance, a melodic piano tune would produce gentle movement in the stereocilia, while heavy metal would generate faster, sharper motion. This motion triggers an electrochemical current that sends the information from the sound waves through the auditory nerves to the brain. ­When you hear exceptionally loud noises, your stereocilia become damaged and mistakenly keep sending sound information to the auditory nerve cells. In the case of rock concerts and fireworks displays, the ringing happens because the tips of some of your stereocilia actually have broken off. You hear those false currents in the ringing in your head, called tinnitus. However, since you can grow these small tips back in about 24 hours, no real damage is done. From "How Stuff Works.com".

This question was posed by Robbie Hollis in Form IV.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Samuel Beckett Bridge

The Samuel Beckett Bridge, Dublin City’s newest bridge, is due to open to traffic over the Liffey in early 2010. Beckett Bridge, near Macken Street in the Dublin Docklands, will have four traffic lanes with cycle tracks and footpaths on either side of the bridge, and has the capacity to facilitate bus and Luas rails in the future, while being capable of opening to accommodate maritime traffic. This landmark structure, of unique character, will have a curved profile leaning northwards resulting in a dramatic shape giving the appearance of a harp lying on it’s side.

Designed by the world famous Spanish architect and engineer, Dr Santiago Calatrava, the Samuel Beckett Bridge began its journey from Rotterdam, where it was built, just over a week ago. . While winds hampered its initial arrival, the final stages of construction will begin shortly. The total cost of the project is approximately €60 million. Calatrava is also responsible for the James Joyce Bridge on the Liffey

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Space Shuttle Atlantis Launched

Seven astronauts took to the skies yesterday on the last space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission is expected to extend Hubble's life until at least 2014 and provide it with its best vision yet. The space shuttle Atlantis successfully reached orbit about nine minutes after blasting off at 6:01 pm Irish time, from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 11-day shuttle mission will be the last to visit the iconic telescope. Over the course of five consecutive spacewalks, astronauts will install six new gyroscopes that help the telescope stabilise itself, six new batteries, repair two new science instruments and will replace two others.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a space telescope that was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1990. It is named after the American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Although not the first space telescope, the Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well-known as both a vital research tool and a public relations boon for astronomy. The Huble Space Telescope is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. It is set to be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope which will be launched in 2013.

Spirit of Ireland Energy Proposal

The Spirit of Ireland is a voluntary group consisting of Engineers, Academics, Architects, Geologists, Construction groups, Consultants, Legal, Finance professionals and ordinary citizens who are proposing a radicle new approach to energy production in Ireland, which is renewable, clean and has the potential for energy exportation. The key principal of the project is to harness the power of the wind, which Ireland experiences at a higher level than most European countries. But the proposal doesn't just stop at that. Because wind is difficult to predict, intermittent, variable in strength, often there when not required and not there when required, the group proposes the combination of Wind Farms and Hydro Storage Reservoirs. Such reservoirs would use wind energy to pump water to reservoirs (constructed within natural glacial valleys) when the demand for energy is low, e.g. at night. Then when wind is not available but there is an energy demand, the reservoirs can be used to produce energy using hydroelectric technology. The group are looking for your opinion on the matter. They foresee this project costing approximately 10 Billion Euro, but look at the job opportunities and the chance to export energy as some of the major advantages of the project. They believe, and I tend to concur, that such an infrastructure investment could end our dependence on imported oil, gas and coal for power generation.

They have a wonderful website which answers all the possible questions about this rather optimistic proposal. I, for one, would love to see such a project go ahead. Making Ireland fossil fuel free would be a gift to our generations to come. See http://www.spiritofireland.org/ for more information and to show your support.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Science Monster

Science Monster is a fun, colourful and interesting website which focuses on astronomy. You can take a tour of the solar system, the earth, take a star search or explore gravity and inertia. They also have a great set of weblinks for pupils looking to find our more about astronomy. Go to www.sciencemonster.com for more information.

Science Fact of the Week 19 - Earth's Atmosphere

The Earth's atmosphere is a thin layer of gases that surrounds the Earth. It is composed of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, 0.9% Argon, 0.03% Carbon Dioxide, and trace amounts of other gases. This thin gaseous layer insulates the Earth from extreme temperatures; it keeps heat inside the atmosphere and it also blocks the Earth from much of the Sun's incoming ultraviolet radiation. The Earth's atmosphere is about 300 miles (480 km) thick, but most of the atmosphere (about 80%) is within 10 miles (16 km) of the surface of the Earth. There is no exact place where the atmosphere ends; it just gets thinner and thinner, until it merges with outer space. However, it is no thicker in comparison to the layer of varnish on a typical sized globe.

The atmosphere of the Earth may be divided into several distinct layers, as the diagram across indicates. The troposphere is where all weather takes place; it is the region of rising and falling packets of air. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, where air flow is mostly horizontal. Planes generally fly in the stratosphere. The thin ozone layer in the upper stratosphere has a high concentration of ozone, a particularly reactive form of oxygen. This layer is primarily responsible for absorbing the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere and above that is the ionosphere (or sometimes called thermosphere), where many atoms are ionized (have gained or lost electrons so they have a net electrical charge). The ionosphere is very thin, but it is where aurora (Northern & Southern Lights - See Previous Science Fact of the Week) take place, and is also responsible for absorbing the most energetic photons from the Sun, and for reflecting radio waves, thereby making long-distance radio communication possible.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

New Solar Cycle Predictions

The sun's new solar cycle, which is thought to have begun in December 2008, will be the weakest since 1928, according to a panel of international experts, although some of whom maintain that the sun will be more active than normal. But even a mildly active sun could still generate its fair share of extreme storms that could knock out power grids and space satellites. Solar activity waxes and wanes every 11 years. Cycles can vary widely in intensity, and there is no foolproof way to predict how the sun will behave in any given cycle. While we are predicted a slow period in the sun's activity over the next year or so, i.e. fewer sun spots, it is predicted that the cycle will reach its peak around 2012.

A massive solar storm could cause enormous economic disasters, as many satellites could be damaged by increased solar radiation. This could lead to brighter and more spectacular aurora but that would be the only positive. The last major solar storm was in 1859 and it damaged a large amounts of telegraph wires and caused fires in North America. However, the advent of technology since then means there is more at stake if a similar electrical storm occurred. Above is a picture of two large (about the size of earth) sun spots that appeared on the Sun's surface this week. These are caused by massive "knots" in magnetic energy. For more information on the sun, click here. For more information on the new solar cycle, click here.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Ultrasonic Communication in Frogs Discovered

UCLA scientists report on the only known frog species that can communicate using purely ultrasonic calls, whose frequencies are too high to be heard by humans. Known as Huia cavitympanum, the frog lives only on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.

Ultrasounds are high-pitched sounds more than 20 kilohertz (kHz) in frequency, which exceeds the upper limit of sounds detectable by humans and is far higher than the 5 to 8 kHz frequencies most amphibians, reptiles and birds are capable of hearing or producing. Key parts of the ear must be specially adapted to detect ultrasounds. These frogs can hear sounds up to 38 kilohertz, the highest frequency any amphibian species has been known to hear, the scientists report. Humans can hear up to about 20 kHz and typically talk at 2 or 3 kHz. While most of the more than 5,000 frog species worldwide have eardrums that are flat on the side of the head, Huia cavitympanum has eardrums recessed in the side of the skull, similar to mammals.

The Basking Shark

The Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the sea after the Whale Shark and is a seasonal visitor to the Irish coastline. Feeding only on plankton, Basking Sharks can grow up to 10 metres in length and weigh up to seven tonnes! That’s the same weight and 1.5 m longer than a double decker bus! There is limited information on the reproductive strategy of Basking Sharks. No one has ever examined a newborn basking shark or has seen a pregnant female. No one even knows where the animals give birth. However, they are believed to be ovoviviparous (eggs are laid in the womb that hatch internally, the shark then gives birth to live young) with the pups demonstrating oophagy (they eat each other in the womb).

Basking Sharks feed on zooplankton and are thought to be capable of filtering over 1800 tonnes of water per hour. Basking Sharks are found all over the world but generally in cold to warm temperate waters. They are often seen singly or in groups of up to 100 feeding at the surface. In the past, Basking Sharks have been heavily fished for their liver oil, meat, fins and cartilage but are now protected under law.

A new study has unearthed some fascinating insights into the behaviour of the Basking Shark. Scientists knew very little of their migratory habits until a group of scientists attached tracking devices. The results were very interesting, with one group of five sharks travelling over 2400km! Click here to visit the Discovery Channel Website and find out about this new study.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Happy Birthday Coca-Cola

Today,in 1886, Coca-Cola, the very popular and rather tasty soft drink, was first sold to the public at the soda fountain in Jacob's Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia. It was invented by a pharmacist, John Stith Pemberton, who mixed it in a 30-gal. brass kettle hung over a backyard fire. It was originally called cocawine and until 1905 contained extracts of cocaine as well as the caffeine-rich kola nut. The drink was marketed as a "brain and nerve tonic". The name, using two C's from its ingredients, was suggested by his bookkeeper Frank Robinson, whose excellent penmanship provided the first scripted "Coca-Cola" letters as the famous logo. In 1888, Asa Candler marketed Coke to the world after buying the company from Pemberton.

Thursday, 7 May 2009


A healthy human diet should include the right amounts of: protein, carbohydrate, lipid, minerals, fibre/roughage, water and of course vitamins.

Vitamins are chemicals needed, in small amounts, for the body’s internal chemistry (“metabolism”) to work correctly. We have to eat (or drink) our vitamins directly, as they can’t be made in the body. If we lack any vitamin we suffer from a deficiency disease, and in some cases too much of a vitamin can cause problems as well. It is widely said for example that you should not eat a polar bear’s liver because it is so rich in vitamin A (and it will also, no doubt, anger the polar bear). Eating a large amount of vitamin A in a short time leads to “chronic vitaminosis A”, the symptoms of which include: drowsiness, blurred vision, peeling skin and ultimately liver damage, coma and death.

Vitamins all have a chemical name and also a code letter (+/- a number). They are generally divided into two groups: those that are water soluble (B vitamins and vitamin C), and those that are fat soluble (vitamins A, D, E and K). Unlike the water soluble vitamins, fat soluble vitamins are relatively easy to store in the body – hence the problems with overdosing. Water soluble vitamins are lost in urine and during cooking and processing of food, and the body needs a steady supply of them.

The discovery of vitamins and their role in human nutrition started with the work of Christiaan Eijkman – a Dutch doctor who discovered in 1897 that chickens fed on polished rice (with the husk removed) suffered from polyneuritis (known as beriberi in humans), but soon recovered when fed on cheaper unpolished rice. Eijkman proposed that there was something in the rice husks which stopped the condition developing – we now know this ‘something’ as vitamin B1 or thiamine. Chemist Casimir Funk followed Eijkman’s idea and in 1911 isolated a chemical from rice husks which cured polyneuritis in pigeons. He named this chemical “vitamine” i.e. an amine compound vital to life. It later turned out that the chemical was not an amine compound after all – but the name stuck, with the loss of the final ‘e’. In 1913 vitamins A and D were discovered, and in 1928 vitamin C (ascorbic acid) was isolated by Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who received the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1937 (as had Eijkman in 1929).

At first, when the precise chemical nature of the various vitamins was not known, for ease of reference, they were called “fat soluble A” and “water soluble B” etc. In 1920 Jack Drummond suggested they should simply be known as A, B etc., “until their true nature was identified”. Vitamin K was discovered in the late 1920s, and was so called after its German name Koagulationsvitamin, as it was found to be necessary for blood to coagulate.

Birds of Prey Poisoned

Over the past few weeks and months, many may have heard of the deaths of reintroduced birds of prey across the island of Ireland. These birds have been introduced from countries like Norway or Scotland back in 2007, but there is concern amongst conservationists that the reintroduction was in vain. The White Tailed (or Skellig) Eagle, shown above, was one such bird introduced. But, of the 15 eagles that were brought to Ireland, and specifically Kerry, 5 have been found dead, probably as a result of eating poison laden carcases put in place by farmers trying to curb pests like foxes. Similarly, in Donegal there are concerns for the re-introduced Golden Eagle and in Wicklow for the Red Kite after deaths of some of these birds earlier this year. It is very apparent that the influence of humans was a major cause of their original decline and to repeat such a catastrophic event would be horrific. The use of these poisons is illegal and must be stopped. I have witnessed the White Tailed Eagle in flight and it is one of the most beautiful birds and we should all be concerned about this horrendous practice. It is a national disgrace.

Planet Earth

The BBC produced Planet Earth series is a fascinating look at the unspoiled areas of our planet containing amazing video footage of the natural world. This monumental series took five years to produce and was the most expensive nature programme produced by the BBC. It consists of 10 beautifully produced episodes, each one focusing on an ecosystem of the planet, e.g. mountains, shallow seas etc. The first episode, From Pole to Pole, summaries the series. Many pupils in the school may have seen an episode or two in their Biology or Geography classes but this is a series that everyone should own, adults and children alike.

The Froggies are massive fans of David Attenborough (although he was not involved in the production of the series he does narrate the episodes) and we keep a large collection of his series in the science DVD library. We also enjoyed his new series on Charles Darwin and look forward to the delivery of the DVD.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

New Frog Species Found

Between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar, practically doubling the currently known amphibian fauna. The Spanish Scientific Research Council (CSIC), who carried out the study, believe the find could practically double the number of amphibians known in the world if the results are extrapolated at a global scale. The study, published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA" suggests that the number of amphibian species in Madagascar has been significantly underestimated. During the past 15 years, scientists have discovered and described over 300 new frog species alone from Madagascar.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

First U.S Space Flight

Today, in 1961, the US made their first venture into space. Alan Sheppard Jr was launched on Freedom 7 and spent 15 minutes in the outer atmosphere while experiencing weightlessness for 5 minutes. However, he was not the first person in space. This accolade belongs to Yuri Gagarin, who spent 108 minutes in orbit (something the US did not achieve with the Freedom 7). Gagarin made his launch on April 12th of the same year. Sheppard later commanded the Apollo 14 mission and became the 5th man to walk on the moon.

From the Earth to the Moon is a fantastic series, now available on DVD, which gives a dramatic account of the race to the moon. Produced by Tom Hanks, the series begins the story with Yuri Gagarin entering orbit and follows the subsequent Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. The series is excellent and uses real news footage, unseen videos from Russian sources as well as dramatic scenes to tell this extraordinary story of human endeavour. The box set is available from Amazon.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Science Fact of the Week 18 - Dust Mites

Dust mites are very small, microscopic creatures that primarily live on dead skin cells regularly shed from humans and their animal pets. Dust mites are harmless to most people. They don't carry diseases, but they can cause allergic reactions in asthmatics and others who are allergic to their droppings. Skin cells and scales, commonly called dander, are often concentrated in sofas, mattresses, carpets, beds and pillows which often harbour large numbers of these microscopic mites. Most people are unaware that they share their bed with up to ten million dust mites. These microscopic organisms are related to spiders and are too small to see with the naked eye. They particularly thrive in warm, humid environments.

The adult female Dermatophagoides farinae can lay up to eighty eggs, either one at a time or in small groups of about three to five eggs each. When the larva first comes out of the egg, it has six legs. However, after the first time they molt, they will have eight legs. This is their nymph stage and they actually go through two nymphal stages before reaching adulthood. The time period between the hatching and adulthood is approximately one month and the adult will survive up to another three months. Their life cycle is approximately four months in total.

Swine Flu, a real threat?

As Ireland hears of their first confirmed Swine Flu case, a man recently returned from Mexico, I firmly believe we are being a little over the top at present. The Mexican authorities have reduced their numbers of confirmed cases of Swine Flu to just 99 with only 12 deaths. There are now only 148 confirmed cases of Swine Flu worldwide, most of which will not prove fatal. Yet despite this there is almost worldwide panic. The Egyptian authorities have ordered the slaughter of 300,000 pigs, despite the fact that pigs are not thought to be linked to the disease's ability to spread at all, and especially through consumption of pork! In Iraq, three wild boars were killed in a zoo in Baghdad, despite no single case of swine flu ever being recorded amongst wild boars. People are wearing face masks in cities across the world, despite their chance of catching the virus being almost zero. But why? The media are blowing this way out of proportion. For instance, have they forgotten about swine flu's seasonal cousin. Last year, 36,000 people died, yes died, of the good old fashioned seasonal flu in the United States. In Ireland the cases were in the hundreds, in the UK thousands! In the US, that corresponds to nearly 100 deaths per day, on average. Maybe if the media were spreading the message about seasonal flu, this number could be reduced. I know there are other factors: the widespread nature of the seasonal flu virus (or viruses to be more precise), the fact that most of these deaths are amongst the elderly or weak, the limited spread of the swine flu virus. But come on! Let's not get ahead of ourselves. At the moment, normal anti flu medicines are effective against the H1N1 virus and a vaccine is probably less than a few months away from widespread production. I for one am not panicking!

Robotic Penguins

Below is a video from New Scientist showing the design, production and testing of a new robotic penguin, no joking. Not only can these robotic penguins swim, but they can also fly and indeed can communicate with each other to avoid collisions.