o The Frog Blog: September 2010

Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Goldilocks" Planet Discovered

Astronomers in the US have, for the first time, detected the presence of an Earth-like rocky exoplanet in what is known as the "habitable" or "Goldilocks" zone (i.e. not too hot, not too cold but just right). The new planet, imaginatively called Gliese 581G, reportedly has the most basic and necessary conditions required for supporting life - principally it could have liquid water on its surface, be the right distance from its Sun and be large enough to have a gravitational pull which holds its atmosphere.Interestingly, one side of the planet is always facing its star in constant daylight, while the other is in constant darkness. The most habitable zone would be the region near the line between shadow and light.

Gliese 581G is just a mere 20 light years from Earth (20 trillion miles), is three times the size of Earth and orbits a star in the constellation Libra once every 37 days. The research has taken over 11 years to bring together but the scientists don't claim that the planet has life, they merely suggest that “this is the first exoplanet that has the right conditions for water to exist on its surface.” The scientists are currently unable to carry out analysis of the planets atmosphere to ascertain if it would be able to support life. Who knows, maybe in the future Gliese 581G might be a holiday destination choice for Earthlings?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Recommended Apps - Google Earth

Google Earth is a brilliant free app available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android smart-phones (as well as your desktop). It has so many potential possible uses in the science classroom, when both used on hand-held devices or on PC's or Mac's. Explore the world's biomes, the oceans, track migrations of birds or whales, investigate the impact of humans on our planet and its other inhabitants or discover the features of the ocean floor. Use in the geography classroom to investigate the world's mountain ranges, continents, cities, river deltas and more. (Google has a page dedicated to using Google Earth in the classroom - click here). Google Earth's latest features allows you to track features of mountain terrain by swiping with two fingers and links to featured geo-located Wikipedia articles. Whether used in the classroom or not, it is an essential reference tool for your mobile device. To download Google Earth for the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad click here or for Android click here.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Science Field Trips - Belfast and the Ards Penninsula

Science field trips are a great way to enthuse your pupils about the world of science and nature. We are exceptionally lucky in Ireland to have so many attractions of scientific interest within easy reach and a few short days away can provide a huge range of teaching and learning opportunities. Our first suggested area for your next science field trip is the Ards Peninsula and Belfast, just a few hours’ drive from Dublin. This article first appeared in Science Spin and was written by Frog Blogger Humphrey Jones.

Within the Co. Down area, there is an enormous range of activities which provide an opportunity for pupils to learn more about science and nature. Here are a number of suggested activities to do during a two or three day trip to the area.

W5 (which stands for Who, What, When, Where and Why) is a science and technology exploration centre. The amazing exhibition centre stands on four floors and contains over 200 permanent exhibitions, each focusing on an aspect of science and technology. Each floor has a theme (Start, Go, See and Do) which focuses on a particular area of science. The whole exhibition centre is self guided, so very little for the teacher to do when you get there. W5 is suitable for primary school children and junior science pupils. A must when visiting Belfast. Visit http://www.w5online.co.uk/ for more information.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Realex Irish Web Awards - Shortlist

By some miracle, the Frog Blog has made the short-list for Best Education and Third Level Website in this year's Realex Irish Web Awards. There will be one more round of judging to whittle down the eleven strong list to five or six, which will then compete as finalists at the awards ceremony on the 16th October, so fingers crossed. The event takes place in the Mansion House and is a very casual affair. Tickets are available to buy now - click here - for a mere €30. Below is the list of fellow nominees, which includes the website of St. Columba's College. Good luck to all!

Scanning Technique Reveals Secrets of Snake Digestion

Scientists in Denmark have produced spectacular images of a Burmese Python's entire internal organ structure and vascular system using a combination of computer tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The python was digesting a rat at the time!

By fiddling with the settings for contrast and light intensity during the scanning process, the scientists were able to highlight specific organs and make them appear in different colours. The non-invasive CT and MRI scans could let scientists look at the snake's anatomy without the need for other invasive methods such as dissections. The results are spectacular, with full body images of the python and the rat digesting inside it!

The Burmese Python was scanned before ingesting a rat and then at two, 16, 24, 32, 48, 72 and 132 hours after dinner. The images revealed the gradual disappearance of the rat's body, accompanied by an overall expansion of the snake's intestine, shrinking of the gallbladder and a 25 percent increase in heart volume. The picture across shows the python mid - digestion.

Last year Lorcan Maule, currently Form V, wrote an essay on the Burmese Python. According to Lorcan "the Burmese Python is the 6th largest snake in the world, it is native to tropical areas of southern and south east Asia. They are found near water and they are semi aquatic, but can also be found in trees. They are normally 3.7 meters long, but some have been found to be up to 5.8 meters long. They are light coloured snakes with many brown blotches boarded in black down the back of the snake." Click here to read the full article.

Science Quotes - Isaac Newton

"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants"

"No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess"

"I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people"

"This most beautiful system [The Universe] could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being"

Saturday, 25 September 2010

YouTube Saturday - Peregrine Falcon & Goshawk on Camera

The Peregrine Falcon is one the fastest animal on the planet, able to reach speeds close to 200mph during their impressive stoops. This BBC production shows the Peregrine like you've never seen it before. Using tiny spy cameras attached bird head, you really get a sense of the awesome speed of these beautiful birds. In the second part of the video, see the impressive Goshawk manoeuvre through dense woodland.

I took the picture above during a visit to Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, with the Peregrine visible on the top right after swooping down at high speed. For more information on the Peregrine Falcon, click here to see a previous Frog Blog post.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Come to our Open Day

On Saturday next, September 25th, we at St Columba's have our annual Open Day, from 10am to 1pm. This is a genuinely open invitation. Just turn up and you will get a tour of the College facilities, led by senior pupils, and be able to meet teachers and current parents. Our website has a huge amount of detail about the school for your interest, and you can learn there about the very high academic standards (including recent exam results) and the excellent extra-curricular life.

However, we thought we'd get together with our colleagues over at SCC English and write a joint post on what we offer as English and Science Departments to our pupils. Both Departments, as can be seen from our blogs, are forward-looking, enthusiastic and technically-innovative.

Here are some reasons to come to St Columba's from the perspectives of the Science and English teachers:-

"Lost" Amphibians Discovered

Scientists have discovered two "lost" species of frogs and a "lost" salamander during a recent Conservation International expedition. The three species had been presumed extinct, having not been seen for decades. With more than a third of all amphibians threatened with extinction, efforts to conserve frog, toad and salamander numbers world wide prompted the new study. The endangered status of frogs, toads and salamanders is thought to be due to a variety of causes, including fungal infections, pollution, loss of habitat and climate change. Here is a brief description of each of the three newly rediscovered species:

Mount Nimba Reed Frog (Hyperolius nimbae), from Ivory Coast, was last seen in 1967. Small and well-camouflaged brown frog found in a swampy field in Danipleu, an Ivorian village near the Liberia border.

Omaniundu Reed Frog (Hyperolius sankuruensis, pictured above), from Democratic Republic of Congo, was last seen in 1979. It's described a "beautiful frog with bright green — almost fluorescent-looking — spots on a dark brown background". They had to wait until nightfall to find it, directed by its unique call.

Cave Splayfoot Salamander (Chiropterotriton mousaueri) was found in Mexico's Hidalgo province and had not been seen since the discovery of a single individual in 1941. The salamander is described as "pink-footed and brown" and is believed to only live underground in cave systems. Several were found by scientists during this exhibition, in a cave system which is only accessible by abseiling down a large pothole.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

IASTA Biodiversity Competition

2010 is International Year of Biodiversity (the variety of life, from bacteria and fungi to grasses, ferns, trees, insects, and mammals) and to celebrate the Irish Agricultural Science Teachers Association (IASTA) have launched a new competition for pupils of agricultural science. Farms can potentially play a very significant role in maintaining biodiversity through farming strategies and providing land for life to flourish. The competition is open to Transition Year and Leaving Certificate pupils of agricultural science and the brief is simple: Write an essay, make a film, produce a PowerPoint, make a poster (basically any method of communication) on "How can we conserve and enhance Biodiversity on Farms?". Entries are now being accepted and more information can be obtained from their new website - click here.

In other ag science news, Mr Jones travels to the National Ploughing Championships in Athy today, accompanied by his band of agriculture pupils. The event is always great fun and a must for any pupil of ag science.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Giant "Toothed" Seabird Discovered in Chile

An "exquisitely and exceptionally preserved" fossil of an ancient sea bird has been unearthed in Chile. The newly discovered species, Pelagornis chilensi, had a 5.2 meter (17 ft) wingspan and sharp, spiny "pseudoteeth," making it one of the scariest and largest seabirds ever to have lived.

Pelagornis chilensi lived between five and ten million years ago in the area now known as Chile and was part of a prehistoric group known as the bony-toothed birds. The ferocious seabird's beak had a series of hollow spikes allowing the well adapted predators to grab slippery squid and fish from the ocean.

The well preserved and almost complete skeleton contains the largest and most complete fossil bird wing ever excavated, making the wingspan measurement extremely accurate.

Science Quotes - Alfred Nobel

"If I have a thousand ideas and only one turns out to be good, I am satisfied."

"I intend to leave after my death a large fund for the promotion of the peace idea, but I am skeptical as to its results."

"It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be Scandinavian or not."

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Are Exams Getting Easier? A Leaving Certificate Rant!

As a teacher, this has been the most successful year of my life - at least in terms of the exam success of my pupils (as was last year... and the year before that... and the year before that...). Indeed if we use overall exam performance as the arbiter of academic success then, each succeeding year, pupils all over the world must be working harder and harder, and must be getting increasingly more intelligent (perhaps it’s something in the water).

In the UK the A-Level pass rate rose in 2010 for the 18th year in a row, and overall GCSE results improved for the 23rd year running. In Ireland research by Martin O’Grady (of Tralee I.T.) compares Leaving Certificate grades in 1992 and 2006, and finds a very strong case for grade inflation. For each of the 24 comparable Higher Level subject exams there was an overall 55% increase in the percentage of A and B grades achieved in 2006 – compared with 1992. The level of A1s awarded overall increased by over 300% during the same period. The increases in achievement at Ordinary Level are even higher.

Agricultural Science Resource & Induction Workshops

The newly formed Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST - which will replace the SLSS) is organising a series of induction courses for newly qualified or first time agricultural science teachers this October. The induction courses will take place in three locations - in Laois, Cork and Galway. The participants will each receive an induction pack containing invaluable resources for the first time teacher of agricultural science. Click here to find out about times, dates and how to book. During November, the PDST are organising 11 resource workshops for agricultural science teachers, both newly qualified and experienced, to launch their new Resource CD for agricultural science. The CD will contain a whole range of resources for teachers including a full set of lesson presentations, quizzes, tests, images, video content, teaching strategies, exam archive material, laboratory advice and guidelines, information on the practical assessment and much more. It will be an essential tool for teaching agricultural science. The CD has been prepared by teachers for teachers. The workshops will also be a great opportunity to meet other agricultural science teachers in your area and to share collective experience. For more information on dates and venues and to book visit click here.

In other agricultural science news, the Irish Agricultural Science Teachers' Association have just launched their new website (www.iasta.ie). Details of their up and coming annual seminar are now available on the website including the booking forms by clicking here. The event this year is being held in Maynooth and the UCD Lyon's Estate and is sure to be a brilliant few days as usual.

YouTube Saturday - Exploring Magnetism

We're slightly cheating this week with YouTube Saturday in the sense that this week's video does not come from YouTube at all, but Vimeo. The video looks at the secret lives of invisible magnetic fields, revealed as chaotic ever-changing geometries. It's a wonderful introduction to the world of magnets - ideal for Junior Cert Science.

The video was suggested by Noel Cunningham, a physics teacher who has his own blog: Thinkforyourself.ie. Noel also maintains a Google Group for science teachers who are willing to share resources, discuss teaching methods, share ideas, weblinks and more. The group, called Sharing Science, is available to anyone and you can join by emailing here. So far there are nearly 70 Irish teachers on the group (including myself) and it is a great way to network with other science teachers and share a common passion.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Oh Grow Up! (the onset of puberty)

Recent research, reported in the London Times, has shown that the onset of puberty is happening at progressively earlier ages. Over the last 200 years the average age for girls in Britain has dropped from 14 to 10 - in terms of breast growth (with the menstrual cycle kicking-in around 2 years later). Many ideas have been put forward to explain this, with some authorities suggesting that what triggers puberty is an inner belief held by an individual that they are simply 'ready'. At a more mundane level, others cite improvements in diet and health over the last two centuries, and an increase in childhood obesity - fat girls tend to mature faster. In general it seems that Afro-Caribbeans seem to mature slightly earlier than Caucasians. In boys the onset of puberty, marked by the first appearance of pubic hair, occurs around two years later than in girls (on average); and it may be that fat boys mature even more slowly.

Creating a Blogging Network for Irish Science Communicators

Blogging, for me, is an opportunity to reveal the wonders of the natural world to all age groups and bring to light the vast multiplicity that exists in the world of science, nature, technology and engineering. It is about promoting critical thinking and questioning skills, informing and enthusing and, specifically as a teacher, it's about dispelling the view of science as stagnant and dormant, as portrayed by our inadequate science curricula. Science is an ever evolving field, where individuals seek the truth and aim to solve our society and world problems through investigation, experimentation and exploration.

Science is now more important to the Irish public than ever before, as our government finally begins to see the value of scientific research in the face of economic meltdown. Over the coming years and decades, our government aims to create a “smart economy”, with Irish people working in science, technology, engineering and other cutting edge fields. Ireland’s young people are now being encouraged to study science and related courses in university and, for this reason, it is extremely important that good science communication be available to the Irish public.

Ireland is awash with excellent science communicators. Established science bloggers like Eoin Lettice, Mary Mulvihill, Shane O’Mara, Sean Duke, James McInerney, Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, Marie Boran, Cormac Sheridan, Diarmaid Mac Mathúna, Noel Cunningham and Michael Seery do an excellent job promoting their fields. The Irish Times science team, which includes Dick Ahlstrom, Claire O’Connell and William Reville, are the sole national media organisation to have a devoted science section. The science message is getting out there, but I ask one question, is its message reaching a wide enough audience?

Not meaning to offend anyone, science blogs have a specific followership – generally those already with an interest in science – and every blogger / writer wants to improve their readership figures. Our national broadcaster, RTÉ, is doing little to promote the sciences to a general audience (unlike the BBC) and it is being left to science blogs and a few other publications (like the Irish Times and Science Spin) to enthuse, inform and promote the work of Irish researchers. Of course, I must mention the brilliant work of Discover Science and Engineering and the wonderful Science Gallery in the elevation of science communication in Ireland too.

What I wish to propose is this – a central network of Irish science bloggers similar in structure to the newly launched Guardian Science Blogs. Such a network would provide a medium for the provision of science news and stories relevant to the Irish public. All that would be required are five or six principal writers, each with a specific remit, contributing one or two accessible pieces per week. Of course, there should also be scope for guest bloggers too, providing the Irish public with a vibrant platform for learning, debate and entertainment.

The most effective way to introduce such a network would be through an already well established and highly trafficked platform – ideally a national newspaper like the Irish Times, Irish Independent etc. The Irish Times immediately comes to my mind, as it is the only Irish newspaper and media website with a dedicated science section.

I don’t mean to sound preachy on this – I am just a lowly science teacher after all – so I would like to invite anyone to comment on the idea and provide suggestions for its implementation, should consensus be established on the value of such a network (Please be aware that the Frog Blog is aimed at science enthusiasts of all ages so comments are moderated). Ireland needs good science communication right now and, I believe, it is time for science communicators to work together and unite in the promotion of science.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

UCD Science Shadowing Day

Are you interested in studying science at university? Do you want to get a flavour of what it is like for a science student? Well, the University College Dublin (UCD) Science Shadowing Day is an opportunity for 5th and 6th year students to spend a day with an undergraduate science student attending lectures and an afternoon on a guided tour of our undergraduate labs and facilities in UCD. The Shadowing day is designed to give you an insight into life as a UCD Science student and to explore the opportunities available in research after graduation and takes place on November 9th. The Shadowing Day is available for 5th and 6th year secondary school students only and mature students. Priority will be given to 6th year students.Students must be studying at least one laboratory science subject for the Leaving Certificate. The cost of the day is just €10, which includes lunch, and is payable on arrival at UCD on the 9th November 2010. But prebooking is required/ To download the applciation form and parent permission slip click here and here respectively.

Chem Ed Ireland Conference 2010

This year's Chem Ed Ireland conference will take place in DIT on Saturday 9th October. The theme this year is "Motivating and Engaging Students" and will have keynotes addresses from include Dr Jane Essex, University of Keele and the Chief Examiner for Chemistry in the SEC. The organisers have a range of workshops organised including:

  • Teaching groups of differing ability
  • Assessment of Leaving Cert chemistry
  • Supporting entrants for the Young Scientist Exhibition and/or SciFest
  • Context-based learning materials (Forensic and Environmental Chemistry, Nanotechnology)
  • Using Web 2.0 for teaching (wikis, blogs, bookmarks etc)
Registration forms are available and can be found here and further information can be obtained here - the closing date is fast approaching!

Junior Certificate Results 2010

Congratulations to the pupils of St. Columba's College on attaining an excellent set of Junior Certificate results yesterday. The pupils truly excelled, obtaining grades well above the national average. In science, over 87% of pupils sat the exam at higher level and all achieved an A, B or C grade (16% of which were A's). In mathematics, 77% of pupils sat the exam at higher level and again all achieved an A, B or C grade (a massive 29% obtaining an A grade), which is astonishing considering the worrying trend of declining standards in maths nationally. Results were equally impressive in other subjects including History (38% of pupils achieved an A grade in Higher Level) and English (84% of pupils achieved an A,B or C grade at higher level). The pupils yesterday celebrated their successes with a trip organised and supervised by Mr. Sherwood. The pupils visited the Dublin Wheel, went on a speedboat tour of Dublin bay and rounded it off with a trip to the cinema. The pupils should be extremely proud of their achievements and can look ahead to the senior cycle with renewed optimism.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Cure for Myopia on the Horizon

Scientists in the US have discovered a gene which causes myopia in white Europeans. The discovery provides a greater insight into how short sightedness occurs in humans and which could give clues to how it could be cured in the future. Myopia happens when the focal point of an image falls just short of the retina at the rear of the eye, causing blurred distance vision. Often the discovery of a gene still means that many years could pass before a treatment becomes available. However, gene therapies are already working well in some eye conditions. The gene discovered, known as RASGRF1, plays a key role in the development of the eye and the passing of visual signals to the brain for processing. And, according to the scientists, within just ten years, a drug that prevents short-sightedness or stops it in its tracks could be in widespread use, making the wearing of glasses negligible..

To find the gene, the scientists compared the DNA of more than 4,000 British twins. They then confirmed their results by studying the genetics of another 13,000 British, Dutch and Australian individuals. Some 45 per cent of Britons have the rogue gene and those who have two copies of it are almost twice as likely to be short-sighted as those who are free of it. The findings have been published in ‘Nature Genetics’ journal. Fascinating stuff.

The Alternative Irish Genome

Following on from last week's news that the Irish genome has been mapped for the first time, Frank McNally from the Irish Times has taken a deepen look into the research and discovered some fascinating and hilarious findings. 

This article first appeared in last Saturday's Irish Times Weekend supplement and has been reproduced here with the author's permission.

Scientists have mapped the DNA of an Irish person – an anonymous male volunteer – for the first time. Now the challenge is to find out which of the 300,000 previously unrecorded genetic variations is unique to, or typical of, Ireland. We predict some of the findings.

CH1 The CH1 gene variant gives rise to a condition, believed to affect countless thousands of Irish people, known as “cute hoorism”. Sufferers have unusually sensitive skin, capable of identifying which way the wind is blowing, even when there’s no wind. By contrast, certain areas of the body – typically the neck – appear to be less-than-usually receptive in those affected. Carriers of the CH1 gene are known to be at high risk of a career in politics or selling second-hand cars.

BEG Located on chromosome 21, the Irish begrudgery gene primarily exercises a memory-control function. When triggered by a friend’s lottery win, a colleague’s promotion or a neighbour’s purchase of a top-of-the-range BMW, it calls up a photographic image of that person, earlier in life, when he “didn’t have an arse in his trousers”. See also LRH.

CK1 Contrary to what the GAA would have us believe, county identities are not part of the Irish DNA. Cork people, however, may be an exception. Overproduction of a protein normally regulated by a gene found on chromosome 11 appears to be responsible for many of the traits known collectively as the “Cork personality”. Work on a cure for this condition continues, and recent experiments on mice have yielded promising results.

Science Quotes - Albert Einstein

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it."

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits."

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Fota Wildlife Park Unveils Baby Red Panda

The latest addition to the brilliant Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, a baby red panda, will make its first public appearance today. The little cub was born on the 8th of July this year and is the first red panda born in the park since 1993. The red panda is an endangered animal and breeding programmes like are extremely important for the survival of the species. According to their website, the birth came as a bit of a surprise to Park Director Sean McKeown:
"The male red panda Bamboo who is 15 years old is one of the oldest red pandas in Europe to breed, was due to go on retirement to the continent with the female Binthy who came from the Netherlands in Oct 2008 to be paired with a new male from Germany, however these moves will now be reviewed given the successful breeding."
The birth of the cub has proven difficult for its 4 year old mother and unfortunately Binthy was unable to produce enough milk for the cub, so it needed to be hand-fed for the last few months. But now the healthy cub will be available to see in its incubation centre this weekend. The park is also looking for kids to come up with a name for its new arrival and is holding a competition. The person with the winning name will win a VIP behind the scenes tour of the impressive and continually improving park. Click here to suggest a name for the red panda cub.

YouTube Saturday - Attenborough on Science & Religion

This week's selected science video from YouTube.com is a video of our idol, Sir David Attenborough. In this excellent video, taken from the BBC show "Life on Air", see Attenborough explain his views on science and religion in this very personal interview with ex-Monty Python, travel guru and fellow Attenborough fan, Michael Palin.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Curing Malaria in Mosquitoes

Malaria is a disease caused by single celled protists from the Plasmodium genus but is transmitted by mosquitoes. Many mosquitoes suffer from the disease as a result of their unwanted tenants but others are able to resist the infection. Recently scientists have been studying the mosquitoes that are naturally immune to malaria in an effort to cure them from the disease and, hence, cure the human form too. Our immune system is very different from that of a mosquito. When we are infected by a pathogen we create a specific response - different for each invader. But mosquitoes react in the same way for all infections but the results are just as effective.

To find out how mosquitoes fight off the Plasmodium, the scientists from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Maryland US, fed two groups of mosquitoes mouse blood crawling with Plasmodium. One group became infected, but the other - placed in a room too hot for Plasmodium to grow - did not. Seven days later, the researchers fed both groups the Plasmodium-infected mouse blood again, this time under the same conditions. The researchers found that the previously infected group was up to 10 times better at killing the Plasmodium.

So why were the previously infected mosquitoes better at fighting off the infection? Well it appears mosquitoes fight malaria in two ways, firstly by special immune cells called granulocytles and, secondly, with the help of some of their gut bacteria. So knowing how the mosquitoes fought the infection, the scientists created a vaccine for the mosquitoes. They injected some serum made from the blood of infected mosquitoes into other mosquitoes and then exposed them to the Plasmodium. The scientists discovered that these insects were less likely to suffer from the disease. 

So what does this all mean? Well we now have a means of vaccinating mosquitoes against malaria. If they can naturally fight off the infection then they will not be able to pass on the Plasmodium to humans - and hopefully that will mean the end of the human form of the disease. But be patient, this is a long process and may take several years before the results of the findings transfer to the field - but the research is very promising.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Guest Post - Nanoscience Part 3

In the final part of Michael Seery's guest post on an introduction to nanoscience, we investigate the concept of nanophobia and look at nanoscience in Ireland. To read the previous parts click here and here.


As with any new technology, there is always an unknown risk. It is the job of scientists to quantify this risk, and say whether it is significant. With my own students, I give them a chemical risk sheet for a "dangerous chemical" which says that it is toxic, and can cause all sorts of nasty diseases and problems. The chemical is sodium chloride - common salt. It is not dangerous to most people because the exposure is very low - but a small number of people need to consider this toxicity information, as they may be dealing with large quantities of it. Unfortunately this point is lost on a lot of media reports, and in truth scientists need to do a better job of getting a clear message out. Nanotechnology has enormous potential to do a lot of good for human kind, and indeed it is essential for technologies such as modern solar cells to work. There are recent reports that sunscreens, which contain nanoparticulate titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which blocks out harmful UV radiation, are being sold as "Nanofree". The reason nanoparticles are included in sunscreens (and a lot of cosmetics) is that they are so small, they don't appear white, as they do in bulk form, so it is cosmetically advantageous to have a clear sunscreen than a milky white one. These have been tested, to show that they pose no danger, as the nanoparticles, although small, are too large to penetrate the dermal layer. However, this is lost on media, which unfortunately can often base articles on pseudo-science. There is an important job for scientists to do in quantifying any risk that may be involved, and then make a call on whether it is safe to use such materials.


Ireland punches well above its weight in nano-research, given the size of the country (pun partly intended!) There are large research institutes in Trinity College Dublin - the CRANN centre and in UCC - the Tyndall Institute. In my own institution, DIT, we have the Focas Institute. My own research is based around nanoparticulate titanium dioxide, which is used as a self cleaning surface to kill off bacteria and other infectious material in hospital environments. The concept is that these materials are incorporated into paints and other surfaces in hospitals. They are continually activated by visible light from the room lights, which initiates reactions at the surface of the nanomaterial and and bacteria that are present, destroying the bacteria.

Links to further information and resources
Image Credit:

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Great Ape!

The world's fattest orang-utan is going on a diet! At over 100KG (15 stone), Oshine's diet has consisted of marshmallows, sweets and jelly but now the pudgy primate needs to cut the junk and move to fruit and veg. Oshine spent the last 13 years of her life living as a pet in South Africa but has recently arrived in the UK and will be staying at the Monkey World Ape Rescue Center in southern England. The centre has a total of 230 apes at Monkey World, many of whom have been rescued from captivity. Here's hoping Oshine can cut the calories and lose the pounds. She may even bring out her own fitness video for Christmas!

Irish Web Awards

We are delighted to announce that the Frog Blog has been nominated for an Irish Web Award in the Best Education and Third Level Website category. Thank you to our anonymous nominator! We are not going to get too excited though as the list of nominations is long and contains some of our favourite sites, namely Myscience.ie and Scoilnet.ie. The list of nominated websites also includes most of Ireland's university websites including UCD, UCC, UL, DCU & TCD. Also amongst the nominees in this category is the website of St. Columba's College, which we believe to be the best school website in Ireland! So, here's hoping the Frog Blog can slay the university giants and take home the gong, or at least make the short-list. Also a quick congrats to friend of the Frog Blog, Communicate Science, for being nominated in the Best Web Only Publication category.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

T Research - Autumn 2010 Edition

The new Autumn edition of T Research has just been published. T Research is a brilliant magazine produced by Teagasc to highlight the research work they, and their supporting bodies, carry out in the area of food and agriculture. Rightly, the people at T Research believe that "scientific research will be one of the key drivers of the knowledge-based economy in Ireland in the future. The need for effective communication of research and the promotion of science is more important then ever, if young people are to be attracted to study science and to pursue a career in research". So it is refreshing to see real science being communicated so effectively to a wide audience. The new edition is available online to download now. Click here to see this and all other editions of T Research.

Scientists Reveal Irish Genome

Scientists from the Conway Institute at University College Dublin have successfully analysed the genetic code of an Irish person. Researchers used advanced DNA sequencing technology to carry out the landmark study which took a year and cost €30,000. It now provides the first complete genetic picture of a typical Irish person and the study hopes to be able to find answer as as to why we are more susceptible to certain diseases, like cystic fibrosis. The DNA from an Irish man with a confirmed Irish ancestary spanning three generations was used - he also had a variation that was typically Irish. Scientists have already made one discovery - a variation in the sequence that disrupts a gene associated with inflamatory bowel disease. The first ever analysis of a human genome was completed in 2003. See two great articles in the Irish Times for more: here and here.

RTÉ & Science Programming

As our national broadcaster, RTÉ is failing science. Our government, who funds the Donnybrook organisation, see Ireland's future generations working within science and technology based careers in the "sincere" hope of creating a smart economy. All government policy decisions "apparently" are aimed at moulding a more creative, competent and knowledgeable work force. But the promotion of science and technology is being left to the minority. There are a number of websites and blogs: Science.ie, Communicate Science, Discover Science, Mary Mulvihill or LifeScience.ie to name but a few (click here to see a list of 30 science blogs in Ireland). Magazines like Science Spin do their bit but our national newspapers generally let science down too, with the exception of the Irish Times being the only national paper to have a dedicated science section. But it is RTÉ that really fails us. They commission little or no science programming year on year, with the odd exception to a few nature documentaries. Scope, a half decent effort, was cancelled in 2006 and since then science and technology have had little air time. There is a new children's "science adventure" programme starting shortly but I can imagine it will be more adventure than science. RTÉ even failed to have a scientist on the short list for Ireland's Greatest (when people like Stephen Gately made the list, Robert Boyle was left hanging). Clearly science is not a priority in Montrose. 

RTÉ need to start using our taxes to help promote the sciences in Ireland - if they are to continue to receive state funding. They have a captive audience and the funds available (let's be honest - RTÉ directly fund little programming anyway - all work is commissioned by production companies). Follow the example of the brilliant BBC Science and Nature department. The quantity and quality of their productions is astounding. Yes, they have a much greater budget than RTÉ but why not work with the BBC in producing science programming? Share resources and share airing rights. Why not produce a weekly science and technology news show (people like Adrian Weckler or Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabhái immediately come to mind as hosts). Such a show would require a modest budget but would do so much for Irish science.

Recently Ireland celebrated our capital city, Dublin, being awarded the European City of Science for 2012. As part of this Ireland aims to incorporate "a media programme to promote science communication". Surely our national broadcaster needs to be involved in such a media programme? RTÉ, as Ireland's national broadcaster, has a responsibility to promote the sciences and help our government enthuse people about science and technology. If we really want a smart economy, before we can work on improving standards in science, maths and technology subjects, we need to get people interested in them!

Monday, 6 September 2010

Science Quotes - Thomas Henry Huxley

"Science is simply common sense at its best that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic."

"It is a popular delusion that the scientific enquirer is under an obligation not to go beyond generalisation of observed facts...but anyone who is practically acquainted with scientific work is aware that those who refuse to go beyond the facts, rarely get as far."

Guest Post - Nanoscience Part 2

Making Nanomaterials

Now that we know what size nanomaterials are, how do we go about making them. There are two main approaches - one is called the top-down approach, the other is the bottom-up approach.


The top-down approach is a physics/engineering approach. It involves taking bulk material and carving out the nanomaterials, much like a sculptor would carve out a statue, only on a much smaller scale. The advantage of this technique is that you can create very precise shapes and structures using lasers or atomic sized needles. The disadvantage is that there is an enormous cost in the precision instruments that are required to make nanoscale materials. Computer chip companies like Intel would use an approach like this in generating nanoscale computer chips - you can find out more by looking up techniques such as "photolitography".

Bottom-Up approach

The bottom-up approach is a chemistry approach and involves making nanomaterials from simple molecules, assembling them together into the shape you want. A key feature of this is what's called molecular self assembly - where molecules are arranged together and mixed in sequence so they add together and "self-assemble" into the desired arrangement. As an example, imagine we wanted to make a protein sensor discussed above. We would have some sort of surface, a platform that is going to hold our device - with a metal strip onto it. the first step would be to dip this into a solution containing long alkane chains - maybe 15 carbons, that have an alcohol (-OH) or thiol (-SH) group on the end. These are like velcro to the metal, and stick on. At the other end, there would be a group that we could easily replace in a simple chemical reaction - so all we have to do is put out platform with alkane chains into a beaker and add in what ever we wanted to stick on the end - after it reacts, we can use the combined device as a sensor. For example, the group at the end might give off light when there is no protein attached, but not give off light when there is - so we could see very easily it there was protein present in the sample we were analysing. Self-assembley is very cheap, and can make large quantities, although sometimes the actual chemistry in the lab is a bit harder than I am making it sound on paper!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Frog Blog on the Last Word

Last Tuesday evening Matt Cooper was joined by Sunday Business Post tech journalist Adrian Weckler and teen techie Tommy Collison on his Today FM programme, The Last Word, to discuss back to school technology (following on from their brilliant feature in last week's paper). When discussing useful websites for pupils, parents and teachers, Adrian mentioned The Frog Blog and our friends SCC English in extremely high regard. If you missed it click here to have a listen. Thanks to Adrian and Tommy for the unprompted positive comments and both are welcome in St. Columba's any time!

Recommended DVD's - Wonders of the Solar System

Wonders of the Solar System is a spellbinding series where "rock star physicist" Professor Brian Cox visits come of the most extreme locations on Earth to explain how the laws of physics carved natural wonders across the solar system. Using top class CGI and buoyed by Cox’s infectious enthusiasm, the series is sure to stimulate your pupils and have them wanting to learn more about science and astronomy. Wonders of the Solar System is available in all good DVD stores and on Amazon, from around €20. And look out for a new series starting in 2011 - Wonders of the Universe.

YouTube Saturday - What is the Universe Expanding Into?

Yes, here at The Frog Blog we like try to answer the easy questions about science. This week's slice of YouTube action is a brilliant video which looks at the expanding universe and tries to explain what the universe is expanding into. 

Friday, 3 September 2010

Guest Post - Nanoscience Part 1

This excellent interactive guest post has been produced especially for the Frog Blog by Michael Seery, a lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). Michael also has his own blog, Is This Going To Be On The Exam?, which contains a wide range of posts surrounding chemistry and education. You can also following Michael on Twitter here. The post will presented in three parts, the first will look at what is nanoscience and why is it important. 

What is Nanoscience?

Nanoscience is the science of very small things. How small? Well before we answer that, see how good you are at thinking about the size of things. The quiz below consists of a lists of things of various sizes - can you rank them in order of size, starting with the biggest?

So how did you get on? It's clear from the list that there are some very big things and some very small things. To help group things into similar sizes, we use a scale. For example, the milliscale is used to group things the size of things based around the size of millimetres - 1 thousandth of a metre. The microscale is the scale of one billionth of a metre, 0.000001 m. When we use a microscope, we can view things on this scale. The next scale down has recently come into view, with new sophisticated instruments and clever ways of making things at this scale - this is the nanoscale - things in the size range below 1 billionth and above 1 trillionth of a metre - one nanometre is 0.000000001 m or more conveniently 10 -9 m. At this scale, we start to see things like viruses, which are 100's of nanometres in size, DNA strands, which are a couple of nanometres wide. However, this scale is bigger than simple molecules such as water - which are only parts of nanometres and atoms which are smaller still.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

What are the real alternatives to oil?

This post is designed to aid teachers and pupils in a classroom discussion on renewable fuels and the real alternatives to oil, gas and coal as means of producing energy for our planet. This article first appeared in Science Spin and was written by Frog Blogger Humphrey Jones.

The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused enormous ecological and economic damage to the area. The company responsible, BP, have had a PR nightmare and have suffered enormous financial hardship with the cost of the spill somewhere close to $6 billion. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from the damaged well in the 87 days from the beginning of the disaster (which ironically was Earth Day) until the leak was finally capped on July 15. This incident has served to remind us though that oil will not be there forever, with peak production close, and we need to begin the search for real alternatives to powering our technology dependant planet.

Everything we do these days seems to depend on the use of electricity, the majority of which is formed by the burning of carbon based fuels, gas and oil. These materials are finite and within 100 year we will have to rely on other forms of power generation. But which is the best option? Renewable energies are clean and safe, yet currently expensive. Some people don’t want to have “unsightly” wind turbines or solar panels in their back yard. It also needs to be seen if renewable energy generation techniques provide enough electricity to meet our needs. Hydrogen has the potential to replace petrol or diesel in road vehicles without any emissions, and is currently being field tested in California and Hong Kong. And then there is the nuclear question? Can safety concerns be addressed in the world’s nuclear power stations? Can cold fusion be achieved to create large amount of energy from hydrogen, this mimicking the reactions in the Sun?

There are so many questions around this area which can lead to an excellent class discussion. Now let us take a close look at some of the potential solutions to our energy problems and some of the many unanswered questions surrounding them.

Wind Power
Wind turbines have been propping up all around the Irish countryside with opinion mixed on whether they are elegant or an eyesore. But these turbines are contributing greatly to Ireland’s energy needs, with all turbines on the island producing over 1200 Megawatts of energy, which accounts for approximately 10% of our yearly demand. But could be possibly increase the current numbers? Maybe expand the Arklow Bank Wind Farm? There was an interesting proposal from “The Spirit of Ireland” group which called for wind turbines to be used in conjunction with hydroelectric dams – to pump water up from the sea at night time. The hydro station would then release the water during the day to generate power. Would this work? Visit www.spiritofireland.org to find out more.

Science Spin

Frog Blogger Humphrey Jones has recently contributed a number of articles to Science Spin, Ireland's only dedicated science, nature & discovery magazine. The new issue contains a fantastic series of articles on a range of science topics including a brilliant look at Fermanagh's Marble Arch caves and an in-depth look at learning, memory and IQ. Within Science Spin is "School Spin", a series of articles aimed specifically at secondary teachers and pupils of science. Mr. Jones has contributed pieces in School Spin on recommended iPhone apps for science, recommended science DVD's, an article which looks at suggested science field trips (this time in the Co. Down area) and a discussion piece on renewable energies. To view the latest issue of Science Spin online click here or check out your local newsagents. 

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Recommended App - Pocket Body

Our friends from eMedia in Galway (creators of the excellent Pocket Heart app) have just released a brilliant new app for the iPhone and iPad which allows you explore the human musculoskeletal system in extraordinary detail. Pocket Body uses state of the art 3D animation to allow the biology student learn more about the skeleton, muscles and how they interact. According to Mark Campbell of eMedia:
"Pocket Body features a fully anatomically accurate human character with nine layers of musculoskeletal content, enabling the user to navigate from the skin layer through the superficial to deep musculature, and on through to ligaments and the skeleton. In each layer, structures are pinned for identification and associated with each pin is additional concise relevant information including clinical notes. All of the information is presented in an interactive, mobile and accessible format which takes full use of the features of the device on which the app runs (iPhone, iPad or iTouch)"
Pocket Body is perfect for undergraduate students of science but equally useful for Leaving Cert biology pupils and medical professionals. Now, it doesn't come cheap (€11.99 for the iPhone and €15.99 for the iPad) but we think it will be extremely useful as a teaching and learning tool. Before you buy, why not check out their website to see a demo of the app being used. Click here. Another winning app from eMedia! To download Pocket Body for the iPhone click here or the iPad click here.