o The Frog Blog: October 2009

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Eircom Golden Spider Awards

Yes, it's still half term but we have awoken from our slumber to hear that The Frog Blog is amongst the eight shortlisted websites in the Best Blog category of this year's Eircom Golden Spider Awards. The Golden Spiders are Ireland's premier web awards, recognising excellence in Internet and digital media in Ireland. To be nominated is a huge honour. The Frog Blog is in great company, as our St. Columba's colleague Julian Girdham, has also been shortlisted in the Best Blog category for his blog SCC English. The winners will be announced at a gala evening in the Burlington Hotel on the 19th of November. Two education websites nominated within the Best Blog category shows the relevance of Internet technology to teaching and learning in general, and specifically highlights the success of our approach here in St. Columba's.

Mourning in Chimpanzees

In a timely follow up to Fiona Boyd's essay on the close relationship between humans and the other great apes (see here), the London Times today prints an extraordinary photograph of at least 14 chimpanzees arrayed behind a fence as they quietly witness the burial of Dorothy - an elderly chimp in the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in Cameroon. Staff in the Centre "let the chimps watch the burial so they could come to terms with their loss." The photographer, Monica Szczupider, commented "Perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence." See the photo and read more here.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Half Term Break

The school closes this morning for half term. It has been a very busy time for the blog over the past few months, with 73 posts since our return in September, so we are going to slow things down over the next week. The Frog Blog's 33rd Science Fact of the Week will appear on Monday the 2nd November.

In the meantime, if you are looking for some online science stuff, check out BrainPop, an excellent website for all things biological, chemical or physical.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

New Spider Discovered

During a scientific expedition to Africa and Madagascar the largest web spinning spider in the world, Nephila komaci, was recently discovered. Only the females of this group of species are giants, with a leg span of up to 12 cm, while the male spiders are tiny by comparison. Scientists say the female spiders are capable of spinning webs that reach up to 1 m in diameter. The spiders belong to a group of arachnids called Orb Spiders. Orb spiders are a widespread group which take their name from the round webs they typically spin. The new spider was identified by Matjaz Kuntner, a biologist from the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and his colleague Jonathan Coddington, from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Humans as Primates by Fiona Boyd

A dying mother lay on the ground, her friends and family stood around her, hushed into silence. Her eldest daughter stepped out of the surrounding crowd and lay down. She wrapped herself up in her mother’s arms, for the last time. She lay there like a newborn child as her mother passed away.

This scene was witnessed by the keepers at a gorilla conservation reserve as their most prominent female gorilla died. Thus the recognition of death, grief and respect for the dead are obviously not traits possessed only by humans. Our fellow primates are very like us. They too have day to day activities and routines. Chimpanzees have been observed to have 39 distinct day to day behaviours, such as grooming, mating and tool making.

Baboons in particular have social orders and rankings like us. They are able to classify individuals based on their rank and kinship and use this to evaluate social interactions. In some cases, female baboons have been known to pick on another female baboon in a rank lower than them until the stress and strain causes her menstruation to stop, making her effectively infertile.

In 2003, researchers documented traits of fairness amongst brown Capuchin monkeys. This is the first time this trait has been recognised in any other animal than humans. The experiment was carried out on females whereby they were given a small stone by a human handler. The human then tried to take the stone back, much like getting a stick back off a dog. In return for giving it back they would receive a small treat, i.e. a piece of fruit. When the other monkeys saw some monkeys were being given some fruit even though they didn’t give the stick back, they complained, showing their ideas of fairness and equality.

In another interesting case study, flirting has been discovered among captive Diana monkeys. In their enclosure there was a sort of vending machine where you placed a token in a slot and received a treat. One monkey, a young female called Bellan appeared to have great difficulty inserting the token and constantly missed it. Keepers were suspicious that she may have been doing this to try to attract the attention of some nearby males. Sure enough one of the males came to the rescue by inserting the token for her and allowing her to eat the treat. If not flirting this shows generosity and compassion among monkeys.

All in all monkeys, apes and humans show extreme similarities. We each have culture, personality traits and great intelligence. We share an amazingly close gene pool, and can trace all of our ancestors back to the same beginnings. However in saying that, we do have differences too. But at least now, when I call my little brother a monkey, I can back up my argument!

Leaving Certificate Biology Upgrades


The State Examinations Commission (SEC) have upgraded over 600 Leaving Certificate Biology papers country wide, after a parent of one of the candidates questioned the marking scheme’s limited interpretation of the term “predator”. Subsequently, the marking scheme was altered to expand the limited definition in the marking scheme. After the appeals process, in which 56 candidates had their grade increased, 1900 more examinations were assessed. All of these were within 3 marks of a higher grade. Of the 1900, 621 candidates had their scores increased so that they achieved a higher grade. 44 of these individuals have now received offers from universities in Ireland because of their increased grades. This is a welcome development but yet another embarrassing situation for the SEC.

In St. Columba’s, two pupils were upgraded on this occasion. This means that over 32% of candidates in SCC achieved an A grade in their biology examination with 21% achieving an A1 grade.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

1st Form Science Trip – Photo Album

Below is a slideshow of photos from this year's Form I Science Trip to Northern Ireland, as promised yesterday. See previous posts for more information on where the pupils visited while on the trip.

New Email Newsletter

St. Columba's College are replacing our termly colour paper newsletter with a new e-newsletter. Parents will receive this automatically. All others are welcome to subscribe. Click here to visit our main site, then type your email address into the field on the right of the page, 'Subscribe to College Newsletter.' A confirming message will then appear over the title 'Latest News', and you will also receive a confirming email. The first newsletter will be sent out in about a week, and there will be about two each term.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A Very Lucky Universe?

Below is an excerpt from an excellent article by John Gribbin in yesterday’s Guardian Newspaper.


“So ripples from the future are stymying the particle collider? It's more likely to be a multiverse thing.

In a desperate attempt to explain why CERN's Large Hadron Collider has suffered a series of mishaps preventing it from commencing its search for the elusive Higgs Boson particle, respectable physicists have suggested (apparently in all seriousness) that nature abhors the Higgs so much that ripples from the future are travelling back in time to stop the Switzerland-based particle accelerator working.

Reports of the emergence of these theories have prompted renewed contemplation of the "granny paradox", which some think debunks the very idea of time travel. In this scenario, a time traveller goes into the past and inadvertently causes the death of his/her granny, before the traveller's parents are born. So the traveller never goes back in time, so granny doesn't die – and, well, so on. I have a much simpler explanation for the collider's plight. Its failure is related to the existence of other universes, the "parallel worlds" beloved of science-fiction writers.”

Click here to read the full article.

NRG1 – The Human Genome Project Throws Up An Anti-Cancer Gene

A recent report by Paul Edwards, a molecular biologist in Cambridge University, has suggested that a major cause of many breast cancers and some colon, prostate, ovarian and bladder cancers appears to be the absence of a particular gene called NRG1 - which is carried on chromosome 8 and normally suppresses the growth of cancer cells.

The causes of cancer include viruses, radiation, smoking and certain chemicals, but scientists have known since the 1970s that some cancers can be caused due to the absence of particular genes. Edwards and his team looked at tissues from 54 breast tumours and found that part of chromosome 8 was missing in more than half of them. After cross-checking against results from the Human Genome Project they were able to identify the gene that was lost. Research into how the damage to chromosome 8 is caused is ongoing.

The research has been funded by the Breast Cancer Campaign and Cancer Research UK.

1st Form Science Trip Report

The members of the First Form returned on Saturday afternoon after a busy few days exploring the many areas of scientific interest in Belfast and on the Ards Penninsula. The pupils visited a number of attractions over the three days. In W5 in Belfast, the pupils explored various exhibitions centred on topics like magnetism, dinosaurs, energy, forensics and much more. At Scrabo Tower, the pupils were able to discover the geological influences that shape that area and to look out for Peregrine Falcons. In Castle Espie, the pupils discovered the wide range of birds native to Strangford Lough and learnt more about their migratory habits. In Grey Abbey, the pupils learned how the monks in the abbey grew their own herbs and used them for medicines. The pupils also visited Exploris, Northern Ireland's only aquarium and seal sanctuary. There, they got their fingers wet in the touch tank and learned about how marine life adapts to the environment. Finally, on Saturday morning the pupils visited the Ulster Transport Museum, where they explored the evolution of transport in Ireland, from bicycles to steam engines to the modern motor car.

The expedition was a great success, and a great time was had by all. Over the next week or so, the pupils will be completing a project on their trip, focussing on their particular areas of interest. Tomorrow, we will post a slideshow of photos from the trip!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Meteor Explodes Over Dutch Skies

A new picture has emerged of the fireball meteor which zipped across the skies of the Netherlands last Tuesday evening before exploding in to the North Sea. Many people in the Netherlands witnessed a large “fireball” meteor in the sky. Observations indicate that the orbit of the meteor came from south to north. Further research is being carried out about the precise path of the meteor. It is not sure what damage, if any, would have been caused if the meteor had hit land. Earth is constantly being bombarded by smaller debris from comets, asteroids, and even other rocky planets in the solar system. But a fireball of this size and brightness is likely to be seen anywhere in the world only every 20 to 25 years.

Science Fact of the Week 32 - Duck Billed Platypus

The Duck-billed Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, is a primitive Australian mammal that lays eggs. They have a muzzle shaped like the bill of a duck, webbed feet, and a tail like that of a beaver. The bill is not hard like that of a bird, but leathery. The bill and feet of a platypus are black while the fur is usually a dark brown colour. The platypus is one of only two mammals that do not give birth to live young but lays eggs instead (the other is the Echidna, a spiny ant-eater, of which there are 2 species). After birth, the young (called puggles) live on milk provided by the mother. However, the platypus does not have nipples. Instead, glands along the side of the mother secrete milk and the young puggles lap it up. This is what makes the platypus a mammal, the fact that it feeds its young with milk. Platypuses generally have a life span of 10-17 years. They live in burrows and spend much of their time in freshwater ponds and streams.
The platypus is about the size of a domestic cat. It has thick, waterproof fur all over its body. The legs sprawl out to the side of the body, giving it a lizard-like walk. Males are actually venomous - they have a poisoned spike on their ankles which the platypus can use to kill small animals in self-defence. They are carnivores (they eat meat) and use their bills to strain tiny prey, like crayfish, worms, insects, snails, and shrimp from muddy water. The platypus can store food in cheek pouches while it is hunting underwater. Interestingly, the platypus has an electro-sensitive bill which can detect the tiny electrical currents given off by its prey. They also have excellent senses of sight and hearing. They are protected by Australian law and are not thought to be in danger of extinction, despite being easily affected by pollution.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Form I Science trip

Just about now, all of Form I are getting on the bus for their annual Science Trip to Northern Ireland. The group will be escorted by three teachers, Ms. Hennessy, Mr. Jones & Dr. Stone, and will visit a wide range of sites of scientific interest in Belfast and the surrounding areas. This afternoon, the group will visit the wonderful W5 (which of course stands for whowhatwherewhenwhy). Over the next three days the pupils and staff will visit the Ulster Transport Museum, Grey Abbey, Scrabo Tower, Exploris Aquarium and Castle Espie Wildfowl Reserve. The pupils will be based in Portaferry, on Strangford Lough. This trip is often the highlight of Form I, and a great bonding session for our new batch of pupils.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Becoming Human

Becoming Human is a brilliant website dedicated to the story of human evolution. The website contains an interactive documentary (which you can download onto your PC or MAC), a newly added timeline of human evolution, games, activities, lesson plans and much more. Pupils can use an interactive tool to "build bodies" or compare their chromosomes to those of apes. Information on new research in the area is also published, but in a readable and interesting manner. This site is a must for every biology teacher! Go to http://www.becominghuman.org/.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Man Who Turned Blue!

Paul Karason, a 57 yearl old man from California in the United States, has turned blue. Karason’s skin started turning blue nearly 10 years ago when he used a used a silver preparation to treat a bad case of dermatitis on his face that broke out due to stress when his father died. The condition he has is called argyria and is caused by the silver that Karason used to treat his dermatitis and has been drinking in a liquid form called colloidal silver on and off for some 14 years. Colloidal silver is a suspension of silver in a liquid base — in this case, distilled water. Karason makes it himself by running an electrical current through water with a piece of silver in it, a process called electrolysis.

Silver has antibacterial properties and has been used to fight infection for thousands of years, even by Roman soldiers. But it went out of use with the development of antibiotics, which are far more effective. It continued to be used in some over-the-counter medicines until 1999, when the Federal Drug Administration in the US banned it because it causes argyria, which is a result of the silver reacting with light the same way it does in photography. The silver collects in the skin and other organs and does not dissipate. Mr Karson is in good health, but ironically, his dermatitis was not cured by the silver. The condition is not reversible.

Sea Mucus

Reports from the Mediterranean are that the amount of giant sea mucus is on the increase. These giant blobs of slime contain a cocktail of bacteria and viruses, which potentially harbour disease that could affect fish, swimmers and other marine wildlife. Enormous sheets of such mucus occur naturally throughout the Mediterranean, especially in the Adriatic. But in recent years, as sea temperatures have risen, these sea congregations are exploding in number and size - sometimes stretching over hundreds of kilometers, generally near coastlines. A mucilage begins as "marine snow", clusters of mostly microscopic dead and living organic matter, including some life-forms visible to the naked eye—small crustaceans such as shrimp and copepods for example. Over time, the snow picks up other tiny hitchhikers, looking for a meal or safety in numbers, and may grow into a mucilage. Below is a video from National Geographic.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Science Fact of the Week 31 - The Brain

The human brain — a spongy, 1400 g mass of fatty tissue — has been compared to a telephone switchboard and a supercomputer. But the brain is much more complicated than either of these devices, a fact scientists confirm almost daily, with each new discovery. The extent of the brain’s capabilities is unknown, but it is the most complex living structure known in the universe. This single organ controls body activities, ranging from heart rate and sexual function to emotion, learning, and memory. Ultimately, it shapes our thoughts, hopes, dreams, and imaginations. In short, the brain is what makes us human.

About 75% of brain cells are in place before birth and the other 25% are in place by the age of 1 year. In fact, during early pregnancy neurons (nerve cells) multiply at a rate 250,000 neurons per minute during early pregnancy. A newborn baby's brain grows almost 3 times in the course of the first year. The brain continues to produce neurons throughout our lives and the average brain consists of about 100 billion neurons. Amazingly, your brain uses 20% of your body's energy, but it makes up only 2% of your body's weight. It needs a lot of oxygen too, and about 750ml of blood pumps through your brain every minute! In turn, it generates 25 watts of power while you're awake; enough to illuminate a light bulb. The brain is divided into two sides. The left side of your brain controls the right side of your body; and the right side of your brain controls the left side of your body. All this, yet the human brain is approximately 75% water.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Animating the Cell

Below is a video from the brilliant Ted.com from David Bolinsky, a biological and medical illustrator, in which he brings to life the inside of a cell using dramatic computer animation. Our thanks to our colleagues at SCC English for the link.

Friday, 9 October 2009

X-rays and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

In 1901 Wilhelm Röntgen was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for Physics, for his ‘accidental’ discovery of x-rays. Röntgen was a modest man who never patented his discoveries, but there can be few who have done more to relieve human suffering - as the use of x-rays has completely transformed surgery, and many other areas of medicine.

In the late 1880s Sir William Crookes, amongst others, had been investigating the effect of running electrical currents in partial vacuums and noted that photographic plates stored in his lab kept getting 'fogged up' before he could use them – but apart from writing to complain to his photographic suppliers he thought nothing more of it. In 1879 Crookes had invented a piece of apparatus which allowed a current to be passed through an evacuated glass tube, and Röntgen was working with such a ‘Crooke’s Tube’ (or ‘Hittorf Tube’) in 1895 in Würzburg when he noticed that a nearby piece of paper coated in barium platinocyanide started to glow whenever the electric current was switched on, even though the tube was completely blacked out. He deduced that some invisible ray was passing through the card blackout onto the paper, and on testing other materials found that the ray passed through wood and plain paper but not metal. When Röntgen’s wife held up a photographic plate in front of the tube, an image of the bones in her hand, complete with its wedding ring, became one of the first x-ray photographs ever produced.

Carl Linnaeus by Lorcan Maule

Carl Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné, was a Swedish botanist and a zoologist and the founder of the binomial nomenclature system of classification. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy, and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology. Linnaeus was born in the countryside of Smaland, in southern Sweden. His father wanted him to be in the church, instead his interest in botany made an impression on a local physician, who realized there might be a future in the field for the young Linnaeus, and on his recommendation Linnaeus's father sent his son to study at the local university in Lund. He then moved from Lund because the botanical gardens were very neglected, and went to Uppsala University.

His time in Uppsala was rough and he was too poor to buy shoes, he repaired discarded shoes and wore them until he met with the scientist Olof Celsius. Celsius, impressed with Linnaeus' knowledge and botanical collections, offered him board and lodging. In 1735 Linnaeus moved to the Netherlands, where he was to spend the next three years. Here he earned his only academic degree, at the University of Harderwijk, in 6 days. This degree in Medicine consisted of a three day printing job of his botanical notes in Latin. He then went to Oxford for a few months, and he met many important scientists.

In 1737 Linnaeus spent a year studying and working on the Heemstede garden of George Clifford, a wealthy Amsterdam banker introduced to him by Herman Boerhaave. Clifford had many business connections with Dutch merchants and collected plants from around the world. His garden was famous. In 1738, the work was done, and he started his journey back home. On his way he stayed in Leiden for a year, during which he had his Classes Plantarum printed; then travelling to Paris, before setting sail for Stockholm. He then returned to Sweden in 1738, he practised medicine and lectured in Stockholm before being awarded a professorship at Uppsala in 1741. At Uppsala, in the University's botanical garden, he arranged the plants according to his system of classification.

In Stockholm, he settled as a physician. In September 1739 Linnaeus married Sara Elisabeth Morea. In 1739 he was one of the founders of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1741 he ascended to the chair of medicine at Uppsala and moved there. The position was soon exchanged for the chair of botany. In 1743-44, Linnaeus designed today's thermometer scale by reversing that invented by Anders Celsius originally 100 was the melting point of ice and 0 the boiling point of water.

Linnaeus's main contribution to taxonomy was to establish conventions for the naming of living organisms that became universally accepted in the scientific world—the work of Linnaeus represents the starting point of binomial nomenclature. In addition Linnaeus developed, during the great 18th century expansion of natural history knowledge, what became known as the Linnaean taxonomy the system of scientific classification now widely used in the biological sciences. His groupings were based upon shared physical characteristics. Only his groupings for animals remain to this day, and the groupings themselves have been significantly changed since Linnaeus' conception, as have the principles behind them.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Saturn's Largest Ring

Scientists have discovered a new dark ring around Saturn, which is the largest known planetary ring in the solar system. NASA's Cassini spacecraft spotted the faint ring on September 17 when the sun passed behind Saturn, providing a bright backlight for the planet's ring system. Scientists think the new ring is made from dust-size particles kicked up as comets and other space debris slam into Saturn's outer moon Phoebe. If the new ring were visible from Earth, it would look twice as wide as the full moon. Saturn’s rings were first discovered almost exactly 400 years ago by Galileo Galilei and are visible with even the smallest telescopes, but this ring is only visible in the infra-red light. The new ring could explain a long-standing mystery about the strange two-tone colouration of Phoebe's neighbor Iapetus, another Saturn moon. Half of walnut-shaped Iapetus is icy and bright. The other half appears to be covered in a soot-like material of mysterious origin. Now the researchers think the dark coating comes from particles from the newly discovered ring.

Peter Artedi and the Work of Linnaeus

Although Leaving Certificate Biology students across the country are always told that Linnaeus was responsible for our system of naming and classifying organisms, it seems that this is not quite the whole story. Nicola McGirr, writing in Nature’s Connections (London Natural History Museum), tells us that it was Peter Artedi (1705 – 1735), a friend of Linnaeus, who first started using 'binomial nomenclature' for naming species of plants in the Family Umbelliferaceae (cow parsley etc.).

Artedi’s work has largely been forgotten due to his untimely death at the age of 30 when he fell into a canal and drowned in Amsterdam when on the way home after a meal. Linnaeus was devastated by the death and helped to posthumously publish Artedi’s work The Natural History of Fishes in 1736. This work contained the classification system that Linnaeus used to classify plants in 1753 in Species Plantarum, and which he subsequently used in classifying animals in 1758 in Systema Naturae. At the time Linnaeus paid tribute to the work of his friend, but over the years Artedi’s name has been forgotten and Linnaeus stands alone as 'the father of classification'. In fact, although Artedi and Linnaeus introduced the concept of generic names, it seems to have been Linnaeus’s students who started to use specific names, to speed up their work in the field.

Perhaps somewhat callously the English biologist George Shaw wrote the following epitaph for Artedi's gravestone:

Here lies poor Artedi, in foreign land pyx'd
Not a man nor a fish, but something betwixt,
Not a man, for his life among fishes he passed,
Not a fish, for he perished by water at last.

Parasitic Infection Killing Greenfinches

The following is an extract from a very interesting article from today's Irish Times.

A DISEASE which cannot be controlled in the wild is killing off one of Ireland’s most popular garden birds, the greenfinch. While trichomoniasis, caused by the parasitic trichomonad organism, has been hitting all bird populations, greenfinches have been the species most affected. The parasite lives in the bird’s upper digestive tract, its actions progressively blocking the bird’s throat, making it unable to swallow, thus killing it by starvation.

According to Oran O’Sullivan of BirdWatch Ireland, its records have shown greenfinches have declined from 7th to 10th place in the most commonly observed birds in gardens. “This is the most accurate indication we have of falling numbers and we are concerned about what is happening, especially when the disease cannot be controlled in the wild.” The disease was first noticed about four years ago when Birdwatch began receiving reports of garden birds dying. The main outbreaks are during the late summer and autumn, but there are already signs of an outbreak in 2009.... click here to see more.

Ireland's Birds of Prey - The Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine is a large, powerful falcon that is quite widespread in the Northern British Isles. Coastal cliffs, mountain crags and open moorland are its preferred hunting grounds, although they are increasingly being found in cities. Its black hood distinguishes the peregrine from other similar sized falcons. Adult birds have slate coloured upper parts with grey barring below. The preferred method of hunting for the peregrine is to circle high overhead and then descend onto its prey in an action referred to as the "stoop." Medium sized passerines such as thrushes and starlings, wood pigeons, domestic pigeons, gulls, waders and game birds form the main staples in the Peregrine's diet. Peregrine numbers in Ireland are on the increase. The Republic of Ireland Peregrine population is estimated to be 265 breeding pairs and Northern Ireland appears to have 100 breeding pairs. Peregrine Falcons do not build nests but lay their eggs on ledges of sea or inland cliffs or quarries, in old raven nests, on tall building ledges or in church spires. They generally lay between three and five eggs which incubate for approximately 30 days. The Peregrine Falcon is a very fast flier, averaging 40-55 km/h (25-34 mph) in traveling flight, and reaching speeds up to 112 km/h (69 mph) in direct pursuit of prey. During its spectacular hunting stoop from heights of over 1 km, the peregrine may reach speeds of 320 km/h (200 mph) as it drops toward its prey. The Peregrine Falcon is one of the most widespread birds in the world. It is found on all continents except Antarctica, and on many oceanic islands.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Barcode

Today is the 57th anniversary of the first patent on the bar code. Inventors Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver filed the patent in October 1949, and it was granted, No. 2,612,994, on October 7, 1952. The original patent was for a system that would encode data in circles (a bulls eye pattern), so that it could be scanned in any direction. To celebrate the fact, Google have replaced their distinct logo with a barcode. Not to be outdone by the search engine giants, so have the Frog Blog!

Sauropod Footprints Break Record

Last Tuesday a group of French palaeontologists revealed the discovery of the largest fossilised footprints ever found. The footprints are of a 40 tonne sauropod dinosaur and were found in April of this year near Lyon. (Sauropods are very large herbivorous dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, having a small head a long neck and tail and five-toed limbs). Some of the footprints span over one and a half metres in width. The footprints are circular depressions in Upper Jurassic chalky sediments (around 150 million years old), made when the area was covered by a warm, shallow sea.

Even though these are the biggest footprints ever discovered, many animals would have left even larger footprints. Dinosaurs like Amphicoelias fragillimus or Argentinosaurus (an artist's impression is shown below), were thought to exceed 100 tonnes (about the same as 40 Asian Elephants) and would have been 40 to 60 metres in length.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ireland's Oldest Plants

It is thought that all plants trace their ancestry back to aquatic green algae. The plant groups evolved as a response to a move onto land which, according to liverwort-like spores from a borehole in Oman, probably occurred in Ordovician times, around 475 million years ago. The move by plants onto land resulted in soil formation and increased oxygen levels in the atmosphere, and this cleared the way for the subsequent move onto land by animals.

The oldest plant macrofossils (2 cm to 3 cm high) are Silurian, from around 425 million years ago, and come from Devilsbit Mountain, Co. Tipperary in Ireland. These moss-like specimens belong to the genus Cooksonia, which was first described from S. Wales by W.H. Lang in 1937, and named after fellow palaeobotanist Isabel Cookson. The Tipperary specimens were discovered by TCD postgraduate student John Fehan in the 1970s. Specimens have since been found in Scotland, England, Bohemia, Kazakhstan, Siberia, USA, Canada, China, Bolivia and Brazil. In 1992 Diane Edwards published photographs of xylem vessels in Cooksonia specimens from Shropshire – thus confirming that this was a vascular plant. The first seed plants did not evolve until the end of Devonian times, some 65 million years later.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Science Fact of the Week 30 - Lake Nyos

Lake Nyos is a crater lake, located in an apparently idyllic spot in Cameroon's north-west province. A lake two kilometres long, it sits high on the flanks of an inactive volcano in the Oku volcanic plain. Quiet and warm, it is surrounded by granite cliffs, corn fields and steep grassy slopes. But carbon dioxide (CO2), a by-product of volcanic activity in the rocks beneath, seeps constantly into the depths of Nyos, 200 metres below the surface.

A pocket of magma lies beneath the lake and leaks CO2 into the water, changing it into carbonic acid. Nyos is one of only three known lakes to be saturated with carbon dioxide in this way, the others being Lake Monoun, at a distance of 100 km south, and Lake Kivu in Rwanda. It took many years of study for the science community to agree that the origin of CO2 within Lake Nyos is due to CO2 that rises from volcanic activity.

As the CO2 dissolves into ground waters, it is transferred to the lake resulting in the slow saturation of the hypolimnion (the dense, bottom layer of water in a thermally-stratified lake). In most crater lakes, turnover of the stratified waters occurs periodically and harmless amounts of dissolved gases are released; however, the problem with Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun is that these two particular lakes do not periodically turn over. Thus, dissolved gases are allowed to reach much higher concentrations.

On the 21st August in 1986, possibly triggered by a landslide, the lake emitted a large cloud of CO2 which was responsible for the deaths of 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock within a 15 km radius. Though not completely unprecedented, it was the first known large-scale asphyxiation caused by a natural event. To prevent a repetition, a degassing tube that syphons water from the bottom layers of water to the top allowing the carbon dioxide to leak in safe quantities was installed in 2001. Today, this lake holds the place in the Guinness book of records as the ‘Worlds’ Deadliest Lake’.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Ardi - The Mother of Humanity?

The remains of a woman who lived and died at the dawn of humanity have been uncovered in Ethiopia, giving the clearest picture yet of the origin of our species. The partial skeleton, the oldest from a human ancestor ever ­discovered, belonged to a female who walked on two legs but was adept at climbing trees and moving through the forest canopy some 4.4m years ago (1.2 million years before Lucy). Experts have described the find as the most important regarding human evolution in the past century. The woman, named Ardi by the researchers who worked on her, belongs to the species Ardipithecus ramidus and may be the earliest human ancestor ever discovered that was capable of walking upright. The finding sheds light on a critical but unknown period of evolution at the root of the human family tree, shortly after our ancestors split from chimpanzees more than 6m years ago.

Ardi stood four feet (1.2 m) tall and weighed a little under eight stone (50 kg), making her similar in size and weight to a living chimpanzee. But many of Ardi's features are far more primitive than those seen in modern apes, suggesting chimpanzees and gorillas have evolved considerably after they split from the common ancestor they shared with humans. The discovery of Ardi provides vital clues about the earliest human ancestor that lived at the fork in the evolutionary road that led to humans on one side and chimps on the other.

The Ig Nobel Awards

The Ig Nobel Awards or Igs took place yesterday in Harward Univeristy. The Igs are an alternative to the Nobel Prizes, where recipients findings generally provide more questions than answers. This year the awards were presented by real Nobel laureates, with only 60 seconds allowed for acceptances speeches. A summary of the awards is below:

  • Veterinary Medicine Prize - Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson at Newcastle University's school of agriculture share the award for the groundbreaking discovery that giving cows names such as Daisy increases their milk yield.

  • Peace prize - Awarded for research on whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full beer bottle or an empty one, the prize went to Stephan Bolliger and colleagues at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

  • Public Health Prize - Awarded to Elena Bodnar of Hinsdale, Illinois, for patenting a bra that, in an emergency, can be converted into a pair of gas masks.

  • Medicine Prize - To Donald Unger, a doctor in Thousand Oaks, California, who cracked the knuckles of his left hand, but never those on his right, every day for 60 years to investigate whether it caused arthritis. It didn't.

  • Chemistry Prize - Javier Morales shares the award with two colleagues at the National University of Mexico for turning the national drink, tequila, into diamonds.

  • Physics Prize - Awarded to Katherine Whitcome at the University of Cincinnati and colleagues for a detailed explanation of why pregnant women do not topple over.

  • Biology Prize - Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University graduate school of medical sciences in Japan share the prize for demonstrating that kitchen waste can be reduced by more than 90% by using bacteria extracted from giant panda excrement.

  • Mathematics Prize - Awarded to the governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank, for ordering his bank to print notes with denominations ranging from one cent to one hundred trillion dollars.

  • Literature Prize - Awarded to our very own Gardaí for issuing more than 50 penalties to a man they supposed to be the most persistent driving offender in the country: a Mr Prawo Jazdy, whose name in Polish means "driver's licence".

  • Economics Prize - Awarded to the directors, executives and auditors of four Icelandic banks: Kaupthing bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir bank and Central Bank of Iceland, "for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa – and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy".

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Famous Irish Scientists - Robert John Kane

Robert Kane, the eminent Irish chemist, was born in Dublin on 24th September 1809. His father John Keane had been involved in the 1798 rebellion against British rule by the United Irishmen (led by Wolfe Tone) – and had to flee to France afterwards, where he studied chemistry in Paris. On returning to Dublin in 1804 John changed his name and set up the ‘Kane’ chemical factory, manufacturing sulphuric acid amongst other things.

Robert was brought up at 48, Henry Street – near his father’s factory, which no doubt helped him to gain an early interest in chemistry. He entered Trinity College Dublin in 1826 to study medicine, but maintained his interest in chemistry and 2 years later, at the age of 19, he published his first academic paper, "Observations on the Existence of Chlorine in the Native Peroxide of Manganese". In 1830, following in his father’s footsteps, he moved to Paris to study pharmacy. In 1831, at the age of 22, Kane returned to Dublin and published his first book Elements of Practical Pharmacy. In the same year he accepted the post of professor of chemistry at the Apothecaries' Hall in Dublin, was elected to the Royal Irish Academy, and founded the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science. Kane continued to publish on a wide variety of chemical topics, helping to uncover the nature of acids, the electropositive nature of hydrogen, and the existence of the ethyl radical. In 1834 he took up a new post as lecturer and then professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Dublin Society, and in 1836 spent some time in Germany working with Liebig in his laboratory in Giessen (about 30 miles north of Frankfurt).

Between 1841 and 1843 Kane produced his massive treatise The Elements of Chemistry, and in 1844 he produced his most famous work The Industrial Resources of Ireland, and was awarded the Cunningham Gold Medal by the Royal Irish Academy. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel appointed Kane as director of his newly established Museum of Economic Geology in Dublin, and then appointed him President of Queen's College Cork (the other constituent colleges of the Queen's University being Galway and Belfast) – now University College Cork.

1845 marked the start of the Potato Famine, and Kane became one of the 8 Relief Commissioners, as well as a member of the Board of Health (looking at an outbreak of typhus), and a member of the Commission set up to investigate the causes of the blight. Although he was knighted in 1846 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1849 – at least partially for his work on litmus as a pH indicator, he seemed to lose some of his drive and interest after the famine, and in 1853 there was an official enquiry into his prolonged absences from Queen’s College Cork (it seems he was often in Dublin with his family).

Kane retired in 1873, taking up the post of National Commissioner for Education and then becoming President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1877 – until his death on February 16th 1890. Kane was a rounded and highly cultured man and an extremely able linguist, and he was an early champion of the important role that science has to play in a fully rounded education.
"Should an ambitious parent desire to give his son a good education, although he is to be in trade, he puts him through College. He devotes the best years of his youth to reading Grecian poetry, and Latin plays, to learning by rote the dialectics of the middle ages and principles of abstract metaphysics, and awakens, after the solemnity of getting his degree, to find that he is to obtain his living by principles and pursuits to which his education has had no reference whatsoever."

The Search for Lunar Water

NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) is racing toward a double-impact on the moon at 7:30 am EDT on the 9th October. On the 11th September NASA announced exactly where the crash will take place. The target crater is Cabeus A. It was selected after an extensive review of the best places to excavate frozen water at the lunar south pole.

LCROSS will search for ice by plunging its spent upper-stage Centaur rocket into the permanent shadows of Cabeus A, where water might be trapped in frozen form. The LCROSS satellite will then fly into the plume of debris kicked up by the impact and measure the properties of the plume before it also collides with the lunar surface. The LCROSS team selected ‘Cabeus A’ based on a number of conditions, including -:
  • A debris plume which will be visible from Earth, where astronomers will be watching closely.
  • It has a high concentration of hydrogen (a constituent of water, H2O)
  • A suitable terrain - flat floor, gentle slopes and the absence of large boulders.
Professional astronomers will use many of Earth's most capable observatories to monitor the impacts including the Infrared Telescope Facility and Keck telescope in Hawaii; the Magdalena Ridge and Apache Ridge observatories in New Mexico and the MMT observatory in Arizona; the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope; and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The LCROSS mission has been dedicated to the memory of Walter Cronkite, who covered NASA missions from Mercury through the space shuttle.