o The Frog Blog: 2011

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Google Give Science Gallery Early Christmas Present

Dublin's Science Gallery is planning to create eight "Science Gallery Hubs" around the world within the next eight years, working in partnership with leading universities in key cities such as London and Moscow. The hope that in each city, the Science Gallery Hubs will tap into a vibrant local creative community of researchers, designers, artists and entrepreneurs to engage and inspire the next generation of innovators. It's an ambitious plan but Science Gallery has already proven their innovative exhibitions are exportable and translate well across the globe. Last August they brought their hugely popular BIORHYTHMS exhibition to the World Science Festival in New York and I believe there are other cities pencilled in for 2012. The Science Gallery Global Network will be officially launched in July 2012, during the European Science Open Forum.

To help them achieve their goal, Google have given Science Gallery an early Christmas present - €1 million! Michael John Gorman, Founding Director of Science Gallery, describes how the very generous gift will allow them "share Science Gallery's unique approach to inspiring young adults at the interface between science and art".

It's an exciting time for the unique exhibition space. Since opening Science Gallery has welcomed over 800,000 visitors to their 18 exhibitions and they recently launched an exciting programme of exhibitions for 2012 - when Dublin will be crowned European City of Science. Science Gallery will be firmly planted at the core of the year long series of events planned.

I would like to congratulate all the staff of Science Gallery on all they do and wish them a very merry (and geeky) Christmas!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

YouTube Saturday - David Attenborough's Wonderful World

After delighting us with Frozen Planet, David Attenborough provided yet another nugget of genius for us to enjoy - a cover of Wonderful World. And what a wonderful world it is and thank you for revealing that wonder in all your do!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

NASA's Kepler Spacecraft Observes Exoplanet in Habitable Zone

Earlier today NASA reported that, since it's launch in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has discovered over two thousand planetary objects outside our own solar system. Just over two hundred of these are thought to be similar in size to Earth, nearly seven hundred were super-Earth-size, over a thousand are Neptune-size, two hundred are Jupiter-size and fifty five are larger than Jupiter. Forty eight of the planets discovered were in the "habitable zone" - a distance from their orbiting star which would allow liquid water to exist and, therefore, could potential harbour life.

The smallest planet found in the habitable zone to date was also announced earlier today - Kepler 22b. This "Goldilocks" planet (not too hot, hot too cold but just right) is 2.4 times the size of Earth and orbits a star similar to the Earth's sun. Kepler 22b is believed to have a surface temperature of around 22 degrees Celsius, which would allow liquid water exist on its surface. NASA do not know what the planet is made of - it could well be a ball of gas like Jupiter - but the find is very significant indeed. Kepler 22b is over 600 light years away - or 3,600 trillion miles - and travelling there would be impossible (with our current understanding of the laws of physics anyway).

Kepler finds planets by observing the light from stars and looking for small changes or fluctuations. The changes are caused by planets passing in front of the star they are orbiting. The Kepler scientists can then ascertain the speed of the orbit and the distance from its sun from data collected by the spacecraft. Kepler 22b is so called because it was discovered from the 22nd star observed by Kepler with the "b" indicating it was the first planet found orbiting that star (they don't ever use "a" for some reason). Some news reports are calling Kepler 22b "Earth's twin", which is complete nonsense - we have no idea what the planet is made of or if water even exists there.

Suggest Pupil Activity: Find out more about Johannes Kepler - the scientist who lends his name to the Kepler spacecraft.

Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltec

Saturday, 3 December 2011

YouTube Saturday - Science Gallery 2012 Programme Launch

Last week Dublin's Science Gallery launched an excited programme of exhibitions and events for their 2012 programme, placing the unique gallery at the fulcrum of the Dublin Science 2012 festival of science. Next year will begin with the final weeks of their current exhibition SURFACE TENSION before EDIBLE (an exhibition you can eat apparently) kicks off in early February. From April to June, HAPPY will explore why Irish people are so damn happy all the time, even on the verge of economic disaster! Over the summer months, HACK THE CITY will bring the exhibition out of the gallery and ask the public how can we make the city work for them. HACK THE CITY will coincide with the European Science Open Forum and is sure to be a highlight of the Dublin Science 2012 programme. As the schools return from their summer break Science Gallery will launch NANOLAB, delving in to the smallest of scales and exploring how thinking small may ultimately allow science to think big! Finally in 2012, Science Gallery will celebrate Ireland's emergence as a global hub in gaming and animation with GAME - an exploration on what makes a game work and look to the future of gaming with further advancements in social media, technology and virtual worlds. Click here to download the full 2012 programme.

Science Gallery is funded through the generosity of companies and individuals who share their passion for for revealing science through cross-disciplinary dialogue. Entry to all their exhibitions is free but donations are always welcome. The work done by Science Gallery in encouraging young people from all backgrounds to engage with science and technology is difficult to quantify but, as a science teacher, I am thankful for their efforts in blurring the lines between science, technology, the arts and society and revealing science in a relevant, original and wondrous way.  

If you would like to help Science Gallery achieve their goals in 2012 why not consider giving a small donation - just €20.12  - which will go towards developing our 2012 line-up. With your support, the will ensure that Science Gallery’s unique mix of art and science is at the heart of 2012. Click here for more information and to contribute to the €20.12 campaign.

Speaking at the launch of the 2012 programme were economist David McWilliams, Professor Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College Dublin; Jimmy Deenihan TD, Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; David Martin, Director, Geo Operations, Google and Michael John Gorman, Fouding Director of Science Gallery. The short film below summarises the events of the launch. (Look out for some frog action at around 2:06!)


Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Scientists Engineer Blood Cells to Fight Cancer

Researchers in the US have demonstrated for the first time that blood stem cells can be engineered to become specialised cancer killing T-cells that actively seek out and attack human melanoma. The study, carried out on mice, shows in principle that reprogramming blood stem cells in the living organism could be used to fight cancer in humans.

The team of scientists studied T-cells (a type of white blood cell) from cancer patients, carefully isolating the receptors on the surface of the cell that correspond to a type of melanoma (tumour) in humans. The scientists isolated the genes from the receptor and introduced them in to the blood stem cell using a virus. The genes integrated with the cell DNA and became permanently incorporated into the blood stem cells, theoretically allowing them to produce melanoma-fighting cells when needed.

Dimitrios N. Vatakis , one of the researchers on the project, outlines why the study is so important. 
"The nice thing about this approach is a few engineered stem cells can turn into an army of T-cells that will respond to the presence of this melanoma antigen. These cells can exist in the periphery of the blood and if they detect the melanoma antigen, they can replicate to fight the cancer."
After the T-cells were produced in the mice using the technique described, the scientists implanted the little critters with two types of melanoma, one that corresponded to the engineered T-cells and one that did not (the control). The results showed that the engineered T-cells targeted and destroyed the corresponding cancer but not the control. In the nine mice used in the study, four were cleared completely of the melanoma and the other five saw the tumours reduced!

The scientists believe the study could be repeated in humans and could potentially form the basis of new treatments for a wide range of human cancers. Exciting stuff?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

ISTA Senior Science Quiz Final - Results

The winners of the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA) Senior Science Quiz 2011 was decided last Saturday in Trinity College, with the top teams from the regional finals competing to take home the coveted prize! The event, which was generously sponsored by PharmaChemical Ireland, was hosted by celebrity scientist Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and was a huge success.  Congratulations to the winners, Coláiste Chríost Rí from Cork, with Scoil Chaitríona from Dublin coming in second. A special mention to Mary Mullaghy, who coordinates the event, for her hard work and preparation. And, of course, well done to everyone who competed across the country.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

YouTube Saturday - The Hairy Ball Theorem

This week's YouTube Saturday video comes from the excellent folks at 'Minute Science' - who bring an excellent new science video to the table each week! In this video they graphically describe the Hairy Ball Theorem (look up it up - it makes great sense) and explain why maths says you'll always fail when try to comb a hairy ball.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Win a Trip to Space Camp!

The US Embassy in Ireland, along with Dublin City University, are giving one teacher and two students a chance to win an all expenses paid trip to Space Camp Huntsville, Alabama in the summer of 2012. Space Camp was founded in 1982 as the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum’s education program to promote the study of maths, science, and technology. This educational program couples classroom instruction with hands-on activities and teaches teamwork, decision-making, and leadership. Space Camp has become known as one of the premier science / technology / enginnering  and maths (STEM) educational programs in the United States. 

To win a free trip to Space Camp, students are asked to compete in a caption competition. Each week, over the next four weeks, a photo will be published on the embassy website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. All you have to do is come up with an interesting caption for the photo. You can only submit one caption per picture but you can enter each week. Finalists are chosen weekly with the two best overall captions receiving that amazing trip to Space Camp. Students submit their caption using this form.

There is also a great competition for teachers too. The teacher competition involves the design and submission of a detailed lesson plan on space, space travel, NASA, astronauts, spacecraft, or space camp. (There are a number of preconditions so check the competition page for more info). Lesson plans are submitted online here. The winning teacher will receive that amazing trip to Space Camp (I've spoken to teachers who attended Space Camp before and they absolutely loved it!). The closing date for receipt of entries is December 11th 2011 with the winner being announced in january.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Edublog Awards Nomination 2011

The Frog Blog would like to nominate the following blogs / teachers (under the following categories) for this year's Edublog Awards.

Some great blogs / posts / tweeters and resources there. Good luck to all!

Computerised Contact Lens Prototype Developed

The next generation of contact lenses may allow you read emails, text messages or browse the web directly in your field of vision. A team of researchers, comprising scientists and engineers from the US and Finland, have developed the first bionic contact lens with a display device built in, potentially allowing messages and data to be projected in front of the user. The prototype lenses were built with just one pixel embedded and powered by a wireless battery 1cm away from the lenses but show that there is potential in exploring the concept further. The potential uses of such contact lenses could be in messaging, gaming, navigation or they could be linked to sensors on the body, supplying real-time updates of health data like blood-glucose levels, heart rate etc.

The scientists embedded a tiny LED with sapphire into the centre of a plastic contact lens. They then laid a circular antenna around the circumference of the lens and connected it with a circuit to the LED. Using remote radio frequency transmission, the scientists could control the pixel.

The lens was made with a hard plastic that doesn't allow air flow to the eye, so would be unsuitable for human use in its current form. In addition there are problems with power generation, with the wireless battery having a range of just one centimetre. But the scientists have overcome other problems. The lenses, when tested on rabbits, didn't cause any abrasions, thermal burning or other potential negative effects on the eyes. The scientists also overcame issues surrounding focussing on images so close to the eye. Using an additional embedded lens, they were able to project the images directly on to the retina, which would allow humans see the images clearly.

The results of the study were published in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

YouTube Saturday - Studying Nanoscience?

This week's YouTube Saturday video clip (our 80th in the series) comes from CRANN - TCD's Centre for Research in Adaptive Nanostructures & Devices - and looks at why people should study nanoscience. The video forms part of CRANN's excellent new DVD resource pack Nano in my Life. For more information on this brilliant new resource pack read our post earlier today - including details of an excited new nanotechnology competition!

Friday, 18 November 2011

CRANN Launch 'Nano in my Life' DVD Resource Pack & Nano Science Competition

Nano in my Life is a new teaching resources for science teachers providing resources to introduce their students to nanoscience, nanomaterials and nanotechnology. Produced by CRANN, TCD's Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures & Devices, the pack introduces nanoscience in modular form with seven sections to the course: what is nanoscience; microscopy; nano in nature (below); nanoscience & materials; nanotechnology & ICT; nanoscience & health research and nano & the environment. The pack is brilliantly presented and contains two DVD's - the first contains a short video on each of the seven sub topics and the second contains all the resource materials required by the teacher.

CRANN, having worked with three science teachers over the summer months, have produced a truly brilliant resource - ideally suited to Transition Year science students. The modules are conceived extremely well, the learning outcomes are clear, concise & attainable, the activities are interactive and relevant, the videos are brilliant produced and perfectly suited to the target audience and the PowerPoint presentations provide the teacher with a useful tool for guiding the lessons. The pack contains a set of teacher notes with background information on each topic, syllabus links for junior science and each of the senior science subjects, suggested timing of lessons and activities, worksheets, crosswords and procedures for the suggested experimental work. To get your copy of this brilliant pack email nanoinmylife@tcd.ie.

To celebrate the launch of this excellent resource CRANN, along with the Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA), have launched a new poster competition - What's next for nano? Entrants are asked to design a poster outlining future ideas or innovations for nanotechnology, based on what they have learnt during the module. Posters must be A1 in size and can be made by teams of up to four. Prizes include an iPad, iPod nanos (brilliant!), iTunes vouchers and trips to CRANN's nanoscience research centre. There is loads of time to enter, with the closing date not until March 30th 2012. The winning poster will be displayed at the 50th Annual ISTA Conference in April 2012.

Microsoft's Vision for the Future

Last Tuesday twelve Transition Year pupils from St. Columba's attended Microsoft's "Inspiring Careers Day" - a special event for Science Week provided excellent guidance for young people on the various careers paths available within the ICT sector. During the day the pupils were shown this short video, outlining the companies vision for the advancement of technology for the next four years. They produced similar video back in 2007, where most the advancements they described are now available to us. If similar advances can be made in the next four years, I can't wait!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Science Week Art Competition - Closing Date Extended

The closing date for the Frog Blog Science Week Art Competition has been extended until Sunday 20th November. We have received loads of great entries all ready but want to offer others the chance of getting in. For more information on the competition click here.

Irish Times BANG: You're one in seven billion. Feel special?

This article appeared in this month's edition of BANG, the Irish Times science mag for teens. It's written by Aoife McLysaght, a lecturer of genetics in Trinity College Dublin.

As of Halloween, you’re one in seven billion. That was the day chosen by the UN to announce we had reached this global population milestone.

Our species, which started as a small population in east Africa about 150,000 years ago, started to migrate around the world about 70,000 years ago. Slowly but surely we spread over the whole globe, increasing in numbers and adapting to new environments.

We are, all of us, related – one enormous family of seven billion members.

Some are very close relatives, sharing an ancestor just one generation back (hi mum! Hi dad!) Others are increasingly distant cousins, related through a shared grandparent, great-grandparent, great-great-grandparent and so on. As you look back through the generations you can see the list of your kin grow and grow.

We don’t have records of births, marriages and deaths going back to the origins of humans, but we do have a wonderful alternative. Our genes carry a record of our past. You inherited your DNA from your parents, who got theirs from their parents, and so on, right back to the beginning of life. Measuring the overall similarity of DNA sequences reveals how closely related any two individuals are – that is, how many generations you have to go back before you find an ancestor in common.

As people moved around the globe, they carried their genes with them. On this worldwide scale, asking the question “who are you related to?” is the same as asking “where do you come from?” Using DNA, we can all trace our ancestors back to that small population in east Africa.

The first numerically significant group of Homo sapiens to leave Africa consisted of about 1,000 individuals. They migrated and settled first in Asia, where they found Neanderthals (Homo neaderthalensis) already living. Apparently these early humans found Neanderthals reasonably attractive, because some of them mated and we can see small traces of Neanderthal DNA present in the DNA of present-day Europeans and Asians.

After some time, a group from within this migrant population decided to move again, some going east, some west. Time and again, small groups from within the larger groups decided to move on and establish a new group. Each time they did so these founders carried their particular genes with them. Tracing back genetic ancestors allows us to retrace the steps of early humans as they spread west into Europe, south through Asia into Australia and the Pacific Islands, and east into the Americas across the Bering Strait.

This history is written in our genes. Within each of us our DNA reveals our individuality – our unique inheritance from our specific set of ancestors back through the generations. Sitting alongside that individuality is our shared inheritance from a relatively small group of people who lived in Africa 150,000 years ago.

Welcome, number 7,000,000,000, whoever you are.

The original article appears here. Many thanks to Aoife who gave an excellent lecture to the pupils of St. Columba's College last night on the 'Evolution of Development'. She rocked!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

When will they invent ... the Space Elevator?

Transporting astronauts and supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS) has never been cheap. And it’s the same with the launching of satellites to low-Earth orbit – the area between 100 and 1,200 miles above the Earth.

When NASA launched the Space Shuttle in 1981, the first reusable space craft, it dreamed of an affordable means of transporting people and materials to and from the edge of our atmosphere and specifically the ISS. However, that wasn’t the case as each Shuttle launch cost about €350 million, equating to around €16,000 per kilogram. Since the retirement of the Shuttle fleet earlier this year satellites, astronauts and supplies are being launched in to low-Earth orbit using rockets, eg Russia’s Soyuz launcher. But a typical Soyuz rocket launch costs around €47 million yet is still considered the most cost-effective means of reaching space.

Could there be a cheaper way to launch satellites and transport people and materials to the ISS and beyond? Well, one interesting alternative to rockets being proposed is the construction of a space elevator.

The central idea behind a space elevator is a long (very, very long in fact) cable going from a base station at the surface of the Earth – most likely somewhere along the equator – to a huge counter-weight in geostationary orbit (look that one up) about 100,000km from the surface of the Earth (that’s almost a quarter of the distance to the moon). This counter-weight will spin at the same speed as the Earth, keeping the cable stretched tight and prevent the cable from falling back down to the surface. Moving along the cable would be one or more climbing units, carrying the payload in and out of low-Earth orbit. It sounds cool, right? Well, scientists need to figure out a few things first.

To begin with, they must be able to manufacture a cable long enough and, more importantly, strong enough to be able to carry its payload. Amazingly, steel, titanium or other metals wouldn’t be nearly strong enough or, indeed, flexible enough for the job.

Some scientists have suggested using a paper-thin carbon nanotube ribbon for this purpose (look that one up too, it’s pretty cool). This innovative and revolutionary material is extremely robust, flexible, conducts electricity and would be the ideal material for the 100,000km long cable.

The counter-weight would need to be very heavy to ensure it maintains orbit. Some scientists have suggested using an asteroid for the purpose, while others suggest a man-made counter-weight – perhaps made from the materials which transport the nanotube ribbon into space.

The base station would need to be relatively mobile, allowing the cable avoid space debris or incoming meteorites if needed. To achieve this scientists suggest that the base station should be in the Pacific Ocean, near the equator.

This would put the base station directly below geostationary orbit, allow the base move more easily and keep it away from potentially destructive hurricanes and storms.

While all this sounds a little bit like science fiction, the construction of the first space elevator may not be that far away. Most of the technology needed already exists; except for the long carbon nanotube cable (the longest carbon nanotube made so far is 18.5cm). However, with advances in nanotechnology, the space elevator may well replace rockets within 50 years. Space elevators would prove cheaper to operate than rockets with scientists estimating a launch cost of just €500 per kilogram. This would make transporting materials into space a more frequent occurrence and would have enormous economic and technological advantages. The estimated cost of constructing an elevator is around €15 billion.

Irish Times BANG Returns for Science Week

The Irish Times brilliant science monthly for teens (and big kids) BANG is back, with a jam packed issue especially for Science Week. Learn about the science of Robbie Keane (from Claire O'Connell), how science catches criminals (by John Holden) and how elements are recycled in nebulae (from Dick Ahlstrom). Marie Boran talks intelligent machines and Aoife McLysaght (who visits St. Columba's this evening) asks "do you think you're special" now that you are just one in seven billion? There is also a brilliant series of photos from TCD Nanoscience research centre, CRANN, another slice of movie science - this time on Hugh Jackman's latest hit Reel Steel and a round up of some of Science Week's highlights. Most importantly don't forget to check out my own piece on "When will they invent .... Space Elevators?".

BANG is free in today's edition of the Irish Times and also comes with a brilliant double sided periodic table wall-chart (pictured above). On one side are graphics and information on each element and the other side has QR codes which link to videos on each element. A great addition to any bedroom or classroom wall! 

You can follow BANG on Facebook or Twitter too! We'd love to hear what you think!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

TY Pupils Attend Microsoft Inspiring Careers Day

Twelve members of St. Columba's Transition Year, accompanied by Mr. McAlindon, are spending the day at Microsoft European Development Centre (EDC) in Leopardstown. The event is organised as part of Science Week and the day is jam packed with a wide range of activities and talks for the students on the careers available within the IT sector, including marketing, sales and programming. There is also a panel discussion on the future of ICT, a Game Zone to chill out in and a Science Fair! A full pupil report will follow in the coming days on the St. Columba's Transition Year blog, Serpents & Doves.

Better Batteries on the Way!

A team of engineers in Northwestern University in Chicago have have created an electrode for lithium-ion batteries, rechargeable batteries found in your iPod or mobile phone, that allows the batteries to hold a charge up to 10 times greater than current technology. Batteries with the new electrode also can charge 10 times faster than current batteries. This would mean a typical iPhone with these new batteries could fully charge in 15 minutes and last for over a week! In addition to better batteries for cellphones and iPods, the technology could pave the way for more efficient, smaller batteries for electric cars. 

Lithium-ion batteries charge through a chemical reaction in which lithium ions are sent between two ends of the battery, the positive (anode) and the negative (cathode) ends. As energy in the battery is used, the lithium ions travel from the anode, through the electrolyte, and to the cathode; as the battery is recharged, they travel in the reverse direction. 

In current rechargeable batteries, the anode is made up of several layers of graphene (a carbon based material) sheets which are store the lithium ions. These new batteries have anodes made up of layers of graphene and silicon sandwiched together. They also used a chemical oxidation process to create miniscule holes (10 to 20 nanometers) in the graphene layer. Both these changes have the combined effect of allowing more lithium ions to be stored in the anode (meaning the batteries last longer) and allowing the lithium ions return more quickly to the anode when recharging!

According to the research team, the technology could be seen in the marketplace in the next three to five years. They also envisage further improvements in battery life when they begin work on the cathode end of the battery. A paper describing the research is published by the journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Stunning Time Lapse Video of the Earth from Space

Wow! This video is truly stunning, capturing the Earth as it's most beautiful from a location view will get a chance to experience - 300km above us on the International Space Station. The video shows time lapse sequences of photographs taken with a high resolution camera capable of capturing extremely low levels of light. It was filmed by the crew of expedition 28 & 29 onboard the ISS from August to October, 2011. Illuminated cities, glowing aurorae and lightning storms are all seen, as the camera seems to fly above us. As I said, wow! Enjoy.

Science Week @ St. Columba's

It's Science Week and we have a full line-up of events for the pupils and teachers here in St. Columba's College. As well as science themed madness all week long, the Frog Blog team have organised a series of lectures, presentations and workshops every evening this week. Tonight Élis McGrath from TCD's CRANN will give a presentation to the pupils of St. Columba's on 'What is Nanoscience?' (incidentally, CRANN will release the latest version of their excellent "Nano in my Life" DVD on Thursday, as well as a whole bunch of brilliant resources for teaching nanoscience to transition year science classes); tomorrow Deirdre Kelleghan will give our younger pupils a workshop mixing art and astronomy; Wednesday we welcome friend of the Frog Blog Aoife McLysaght - a geneticist from TCD - and on Thursday Nigel Buttimore, a physicist from TCD,will give a presentation on the experiments at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.

On matters outside the school, tomorrow twelve Transition Year students will spend the day at Microsoft's centre in Sandyford for their "Inspiring Careers Day" where they will learn more about the kinds of jobs available in the ICT centre. More information and a full review will follow on 'Serpents & Doves' - the Transition Year Blog! 

On Thursday evening six members of Form VI will represent the school at the regional finals of the ISTA Senior Science at Trinity College. Good luck to them!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

YouTube Saturday - How To Build a Timemachine!

Time travel is more than just science fiction: it technically could be possible according to the laws of physics. However, building a time machine would likely be difficult and require technology that doesn't currently exist. The animation below, produced by New Scientist, looks at how to build a time machine and the perplexing implications of such a feat. To find out why time machines haven't been invented yet click here to read a previous Frog Blog post.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Fossil Whale Bone Reveals Prehistoric Shark Attack

Scientists have uncovered a fragment of whale rib bone which provides a rare glimpse into the interactions between prehistoric sharks and whales, some 3 to 4 million years ago. The fossil has three distinct tooth marks indicating the whale was once severely bitten by a strong-jawed animal. Scientists have studied the distance between the teeth marks, some 6cm, and believe the attacker was the enormous giant toothed shark Carcharocles megalodon or another similar species of large shark which was alive at that time. The whale appears to have been an ancestor of a great blue or humpback. Scientist know the whale wasn't killed by the attack immediately though but the shark likely took a nice chunk out of it!

Scientists know the whale survived the attack because most of the fossil fragment is covered with a type of bone known as woven bone, which forms rapidly in response to localized infection. However, the presence of the woven bone indicates the healing was incomplete and the whale did eventually die (most likely as a result of the Megalodon attack) probably between two and 6 weeks later. 

Based on the curvature of the shark's jaw, as indicated by the arc of the impressions of its teeth, the scientists believe the shark was relatively small, possibly around 8 meters long.

In the realm of palaeontology, only a handful of fossils show these kinds of interactions, Stephen Godfrey, the scientist who discovered the fossil, explains. 
"There are lots of bite marks on fossils showing where the animal died and its carcass was scavenged. This fossil is one of a very few examples that shows a trauma clearly attributed to another animal, yet also shows the victim survived the event."
Don't worry though, Megalodon is long extinct and it's now safe to go back in the water! To find out more about Megalodon click here to see a previous Frog Blog post.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cork Scientists Develop Biodegradable Chewing Gum

It sticks to footpaths, shoes and sometimes even hair. It hides under chairs and tables .... but makes our breath smell fresh all the same. Yes, it's chewing gum! 

Chewing gum doesn't stick to your insides or block your digestive tract if swallowed like some might suggest, but it does have serious effects on the environment and litter in particular. This is mainly due to the fact that the rubbery base that makes gum chewy is not biodegradable, is sticky and can't be dissolves by acids or commercial cleaners. 

But, the rubbery base is important in gum because it helps improve flavour, chewiness and shelf- life.  Over the past number of years scientists have been trying to develop a rubbery substance that would do all this, but could be swallowed safely and removed quickly from footpaths, roads, shoes and even hair! 

Now scientists from University College Cork's (UCC) School of Food and Nutritional Sciences look like they have developed a new type of biodegradable chewing gum, using cereal proteins as the main ingredients. The team of scientists, led by Prof Elke Arendt, have modified the proteins though, giving them extra elasticity and "chewiness". The gum holds flavour very well and you can even blow a bubble through it! But most importantly, after 45 minutes the gum breaks up and can be safely swallowed and digested by the body.

The scientists are now hoping that chewing gum manufacturers will use their new recipe for chewing gum and develop its potential further. Here's to no more sticky chairs and desks!

Murmuration of Starlings

A murmuration is a term ascribed to a large collection of starlings seen swirling and dancing almost in a cloud-like formation. These spectacular events are common enough, signalling the onset of winter and are more commonly viewed around dusk. The video below has become something of an Internet sensation, going viral over the past week. It features a murmuration of thousands of starlings, circuling and dancing almost as one. It was taken by two English ladies holidaying in the Shannon region in Ireland's northwest. They were canoeing on one of the Shannon lakes and witnessed, and luckily filmed, this spectacular sight. Scientists are yet to figure out why or how these birds seem to move as one and the patterns are being studied more by physicists than biologists. Fascinating stuff! Anyway, enjoy!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Recommended Websites: Learn.Genetics

Learn.Genetics from the University of Utah is a brilliant website for anyone who wants to learn more about genetics, genes and DNA. The website uses a series of interactive video presentations and animations to help you learn about the basics of cell biology and genetics including genes, chromosomes, variation, natural selection, protein synthesis and DNA. There is also a wonderful look inside the dynamic world of the cell and a brilliant animation to show how cells size up to other structures and molecules. The website also presents easy to read information on new areas of study within cell biology like stem cells, epigenetics, gene therapy, cloning and transgenic organisms. There is also a virtual lab, allowing the visitor carry out DNA extractions, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reactions), gel electrophoresis and DNA microarray. There is also a section for teachers containing loads of resources and lesson plans so that the website is best utilise in class.

All in all, Learn.Genetics is one of the best educational websites I have come across with loads of brilliant material for teachers of both junior and senior cycle biology!

Saturday, 5 November 2011

YouTube Saturday: 7 Billion - How Did We Get So Big So Fast?

In the week when the world's population tipped 7 billion, this week's YouTube Saturday video is an excellent presentation from Adam Cole looking at why the population has grown to quickly in the last two centuries and when will it start to level off or even decline. 
"It was just over two centuries ago that the global population was 1 billion - in 1804. But better medicine and improved agriculture resulted in higher life expectancy for children, dramatically increasing the world population, especially in the West. As higher standards of living and better health care are reaching more parts of the world, the rates of fertility - and population growth - have started to slow down, though the population will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. U.N. forecasts suggest the world population could hit a peak of 10.1 billion by 2100 before beginning to decline. But exact numbers are hard to come by - just small variations in fertility rates could mean a population of 15 billion by the end of the century."

Friday, 4 November 2011

Simulated Mission to Mars Ends

The European Space Agenecy's (ESA's) 520 day simulated mission to Mars is over. The six strong highly trained crew, made up of three Russians, two Europeans and one Chinese citizen (Alexander Smoleevskiy, Sukhrob Kamolov, Alexey Sitev, Diego Urbina, Romain Charles and Wang Yue), "landed" back in Moscow after over a year and a half in isolation. The purpose of the investigation was to see how the human mind and body would cope on a long-duration spaceflight.

The mission began way back on June 3rd 2010, at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow and followed the stages of a real mission to Mars: the long flight, insertion into orbit around the planet, landing, surface exploration, return to orbit, a monotonous return flight and arrival at Earth. During the ‘flight’, the crew performed more than 100 experiments, all linked to the problems of long-duration missions in deep space. To add to their isolation, communications with mission control were artificially delayed to mimic the natural delays over the great distances on a real Mars flight.

ESA’s Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain greeted the crew from Paris after they stepped from their module. 
“I welcome the courage, determination and generosity of these young people who have devoted almost two years of their lives to this project, for the progress of human space exploration.” 
Romain Charles, ESA’s French crewmember commented: 
“One year and a half ago, I was selected by the European Space Agency to be part of the Mars500 crew. Today, after a motionless trip of 520 days, I'm proud to prove, with my international crewmates, that a human journey to the Red Planet is feasible".
The question is now - where to next?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Things that go bump in the night, or things that go bump in your brain?

This article appeared in yesterday's edition of the Irish Times and was written by Claire O'Connell.

We are headed for the spookiest night of the year: Halloween. But what does science make of the paranormal?

Many so-called paranormal phenomena can be explained by non-paranormal events, according to Chris French, the professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University of London and outgoing editor-in-chief of the Skeptic Magazine in the UK. French will be giving a talk tomorrow today at Dublin City University about anomalistic psychology. “It’s essentially the psychology of ostensibly paranormal experiences and paranormal beliefs and generally weird experiences,” he says.

Anomalistic psychology is interested in aspects of the paranormal that include extrasensory perception, psychokinesis and evidence relating to the possibility of life after death, as well as claims of alien abduction and conspiracy theories.

“There are high levels of paranormal belief, in all of the societies we know of, both geographically and historically,” says French. “We are interested in the cognitive biases that affect everyone which mean we might misperceive or misremember or misinterpret things in a way that means we think we might have had a paranormal experience.”

So how could our brains lead us to believe in ghosts? “We are successful as a species because we think heuristically: there are quick and dirty rules of thumb that usually give the right answer. But there are certain situations where we systematically get the wrong answer,” says French.

One example of a specific brain glitch putting on a seemingly paranormal show is “sleep paralysis”, where you are half awake and half asleep but you can’t move, according to French, who says that for a small number of people, the experience can be more intense. “In about 5 per cent of the population you also get other associated symptoms, like a strong sense there is something or someone present in the room and they don’t mean you any good at all. You might see lights or dark shadows, you might hear voices or mechanical sounds, you might feel as if someone is dragging you off the bed. You may also have difficulty breathing and an intense fear; you feel like you are going to die. If you get the full monty, it can be a terrifying experience.”

While it might feel like a ghostly, alien or demonic visitation, the reality could be more rationally explained. “During REM [rapid eye movement] sleep the muscles of your body are paralysed so you don’t act out the actions of the dream,” says French. “But something goes a little bit haywire in sleep paralysis and you become conscious of the fact that you can’t move and you have then got this interesting mix of normal waking consciousness and dream consciousness: you can see you are in your bedroom but there is all this weird stuff and you can’t move.”

Other examples of brain-centred explanations for the paranormal include near-death experiences. French says the reported experiences can also be induced in patients undergoing brain surgery just by stimulating a specific part of the brain’s cortex. “For me that tends to be very strong support for the idea that we are dealing with something that is caused by unusual patterns of brain activity,” he says.

The seeming insights of psychics could, he says, be down to tricks of language and enquiry.

Prof Chris French will speak at 1pm tomorrow at the Larkin Theatre in DCU, Glasnevin, Dublin 9.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

David Hone Talks Dinosaurs

I had the delight of meeting palaeontologist David Hone today when he visited St. Columba's College and gave two excellent presentations to our pupils. David worked in UCD during last year and we were delighted that he gave up his time today to visit the school and speak to our pupils - and with some passion. David gave an excellent presentation to our Form V and VI biologists and geologists on the evolution of birds from dinosaurs - with the pupils really finding the content interesting and David's presentation style engaging. Later in the day he spoke to members of Form II, giving another excellent presentation - this time on "Dinosaurs: How we know what we know". In this presentation he showed how scientists use different techniques to reconstruct dinosaurs from the fossil evidence and gain an insight into their shape, colour, physiology and even the sounds they might have made.

David has a number of wonderful websites. His blog, Archosaur Musings, is a frequently updated website detailing his research and his travels. He also runs 'Ask a Biologist' - where, as the name might suggest, one can leave questions for David (and a few others) to answer on biology.

In his time in UCD, David published a number of interesting papers including the discovery of close relative of T rex and a feathered digging theropod. David informs me that he has a number of extremely interesting papers being published in the coming months so watch this space.

Thanks again to David and do take the time to visit some of his excellent websites.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Frozen Planet: A World Beyond Imagination!

There are few things that raise my levels of serotonin more than a new David Attenborough series (The Frog Blog's name was part inspired by picture on the front cover of Attenborough's 'Life on Earth' DVD!) Tonight's premier of the magician's latest offering, Frozen Planet, once again looks set to awe, inspire and educate with the seven part series surely setting a new bar for natural history programmes. 

Fulfilling a life long dream of visiting the North Pole, Attenborough reveals the bountiful life within seemingly inhospitable surroundings. Tonight's episode (To the Ends of the Earth) will, for the first time in some cases, show the courtship rituals of polar bears, penguins surfing ashore to mate and a pod of killer whales hunting their prey. Tonight's episode also visits the South Pole, exploring the mysterious creatures below the ice (including prehistoric giants, terrifying sea spiders and woodlice the size of dinner plates). and the geoligical gems above the ice including the summit of Erebus, the most southerly volcano on earth. In addition, Attenborough retraces the steps of early explorers across the formidable Antarctic ice-cap. 

Frozen Planet will confirm the BBC's standing as the king of natural history programming and Attenborough as the 'King's Hand'. Frozen Planet begins on BBC 1 this evening at 9:00pm. Set your Sky+ box now!!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Two Irish Science Blogs Nominated for Eircom Spider Award

Irish science blogs are once again well represented in the 'Big Mouth' category at this year's Eircom Spider Awards. Maria Daly from Science Calling and Eoin Lettice from Communicate Science are included in the eleven strong short list for the people's choice award. It is great to see two science blogs once again included in the short-list - last year Communicate Science were also nominated alongside The Frog Blog. On that occasion, the Frog Bloggers took home the trophy and let's hope that another science blog can do the same in 2011!

As mentioned before, the winners of the 'Big Mouth' Award is decided by a public vote - which currently aren't open as yet - but let's make sure that it's science that once again shouts the loudest! Well done Eoin & Maria!

On other award news - congratulations to all the team at Science Gallery who took home the Irish Web Award for Best Education and Third Level Website on Saturday night. Well done all!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

YouTube Saturday - Quantum Levitation

This is simply mind-bloggling! For an explanation of the science behind this neat science trick click here:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Science Community Asked to Help Shape Future of Irish Science Education

The National Council for Curriculum & Assessment (NCCA) revealed earlier this year their new vision for senior cycle science education in Ireland – new draft syllabi for Leaving Certificate biology, chemistry and physics and a dramatic change in how they could be assessed. The NCCA also opened up a consultation process to allow scientists, outreach groups, teachers, parents, students or anyone interested in science education the chance to mould the future course of science education in Ireland. 

The NCCA’s aim is to create a “learner centred” approach to science education with a spotlight on developing scientific literacy, critical thinking skills, communication skills and the cultivation of analytical proficiency across all the senior sciences. 

There have obviously been some changes to the content of each of the syllabi with some material added and other elements removed – which is sure to cause much discussion. However, the most significant change is a shift in the focus of the assessment from purely examination based to the incorporation of a new practical component

When introduced candidate will receive twenty percent of their total mark, in each of the subjects, based on the completion of mandatory practicals throughout the two years of study (5%) and a 90 minute practical test (15%) where pupils will be asked to complete a series of three or four short set tasks. These tasks will aim to assess their practical skills and their ability to analyse data and draw conclusions. Some of the material within this practical assessment will be beyond the scope of the syllabus. 

The terminal exam will also look to challenge the candidates more and reward students with a greater understanding of the scientific method. The NCCA have just recently released samples of the types of question which could be included and they are a welcome move from the current style of exam question in Leaving Certificate which, more often than not, rewards the students capable of remembering facts and regurgitating them on paper come exam day. 

The consultation process, which closes on Friday (October 28th), is a chance for anyone with an interest in science to shape the future direction of science education. 

Over the past number of weeks, science teachers around the country have been meeting to discuss the new syllabi, the proposed changes, additions, deletions and to consider the new approach to assessment. By all accounts these meetings have been very productive and the Irish Science Teachers’ Association (ISTA) will be submitting the teacher feedback to the NCCA

However, it is also incredibly important that the Irish scientific community are willing to contribute to this consultation process. It is vital that the new syllabi are up-to-date with new scientific thinking; include the latest advances in scientific understanding; contain relevant content and develop the required skills for the next generation of Irish scientists. 

This is an excellent opportunity to influence how science will be taught in this country over the next decade and there is a responsibility on everyone involved in Irish science to ensure that this new direction is the right one. So please take some time to review the new syllabi and to fill out the short questionnaires so that the NCCA can mould these draft syllabi into structures that promote the sciences and develop scientific literacy.

Surface Tension @ Science Gallery

This morning I was treated to a tour of Science Gallery's latest exhibition 'Surface Tension' - a wonderful collection of 40 brilliantly conceived art pieces which "explore the future of water, playing on its physical properties, its role in politics and economics, and ways in which it may be harnessed, cleaned, and distributed". Open to the public tomorrow, the exhibition space seems open and inviting - the (currently) gleaming white floor illuminating each element of the collection. 

The exhibits themselves are dynamic and many use motion and interactivity expertly to captivate the viewer. The exhibition also moves outside with Bit.Fall -  an artificial waterfall, designed by German artist Julius Popps, cascading drops of water in the shape of words. The words are selected from an internet link - today from the Irish Times website -  selecting words as they are most popularly used in online newsfeeds.

Other exhibition highlights include: 
  • 'Pouch' by Olivia Decaris where she proposes a new method of consuming water - inspired by the cow's udder
  • 'Urban Water Needs' - a world map made of sponge with each country's water needs expressed in terms of the water absorbed by each sponge
  • 'Event Horizon' - a whirlpool in perpetual motion inside an upturned bell jar.
  • 'Protei_002' - a prototype for a remote control sailing ship that could clean up oil spills in the future.
  • 'Bottled Waste' - a water pump that requires the same amount of energy to fill a plastic bottle as would go into producing it - approximately 3 hours of pumping per litre (an astonishing 1000 times more than a litre of tap water).

If that's not enough, visitors must dodge the remote control floating fish wandering around the exhibits. I'm sure they will help the gallery staff wile away the hours but they also make a gallery visit more interactive and colourful.

Surface Tension is Science Gallery's biggest exhibition to date and is sure to capitivate visitors of all ages. Using a simple concept - water - the exhibits blur the lines between art, science, society, politics and economics. This, I feel, has always been Science Gallery's greatest strength. Dull syllabi & textbooks often remove the wonder that exists in the world of science and places like Science Gallery bring it back to life. Speaking today to Michael John Gorman, Science Gallery's Director & Curator of Surface Tension, he sees Science Gallery's role in secondary education as revealing science to be dynamic, evolving and multidisciplinary field. He believes that subjects need not exist in isolation but can intertwine and inspire each other. At Science Gallery, art and science definitely collide but so too society, politics and economics!

Surface Tension opens to the public from tomorrow and runs until January 20th 2012. Check out Science Gallery's wonderful website for details of up-coming events and workshops which will complement the exhibition, including a once off performance by artist Mary Coble who will filter and tell the stories of water samples collect from all over the Dublin area.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Does Facebook Alter the Brain?

Facebook fries your brain, or so they say, but can the level of use of social media websites actually  be down to physical differences in the structure of the brain? Well a new study, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences journal, indicates a real correlation between the number of friends declared on the social media website Facebook and the grey matter density of certain sections of the brain.  Grey matter is responsible for mental processing. 

The research, carried out on 125 university students in London, showed that grey matter density was higher in the right superior temporal sulcus, left middle temporal gyrus & entorhinal cortex regions of the brain in individuals with more Facebook friends. These areas have roles in memory, reading social cues and supressing autism. It is not clear if using social networks boosts these areas or if individuals with higher levels of grey matter in these areas are more likely to use online social media.
"Our study was by design cross-sectional and so cannot determine whether the relationship between brain structure and social network participation arises over time through friendship-dependent plasticity in the brain areas involved; or alternatively whether individuals with a specific brain structure are predisposed to acquire more friends than others."
Interestingly, the study also reveals that the number of online friends a person has is reflected in their of "real-world" friends. A previous study revealed the link between grey matter density in the amygdala region of the brain - a structure associated with memory and emotional responses - and the size and complexity of real world social networks. This study showed that individuals boosted grey matter levels in the amygdala also have boosted grey matter densities in the regions associated with online social interaction.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Carnotaurus: Tiny Arms, Big Tail, Super Fast!

Carnotaurus (which literally means "meat eating bull") was a seven metre long prehistoric predator, which terrorised smaller plant eating dinosaurs in the southern hemisphere (where Argentina is now) in the late Cretaceous period, around 75 million years ago. But now new research from scientists from the University of Alberta, published today in PLOS One, suggest this terrifying beast was actually more deadly than initially thought.

Fossil evidence might suggest Carnotaurus was a wimpy-armed meat-eating dinosaur but this new study reveals the creature's enormous and powerful tail muscle said made it a "speedster" and one of the fastest running hunters of its time. 

Scott Persons, the lead researcher, started his study by dissecting modern lizards and crocodiles and seeing how the tail related to leg movement. A close examination of the tail bones of Carnotaurus showed its caudofemoralis muscle had a tendon that attached to its upper leg bones. Flexing this muscle pulled the legs backwards and gave Carnotaurus more power and speed in every step.

Earlier research, also carried out by Persons, found a similar tail-muscle and leg-power combination in the iconic predator Tyrannosaurus rex. Many scientists assumed T. rex's huge tail might have simply served as a counterweight to its huge, heavy head.

Persons' examination of the tail of Carnotaurus showed that along its length were pairs of tall rib-like bones that interlocked with the next pair in line. Using 3-D computer models, Persons recreated the tail muscles of Carnotaurus. He found that the unusual tail ribs supported a huge caudofemoralis muscle. The interlocked bone structure along the dinosaur's tail did present one drawback: the tail was rigid, making it difficult for the hunter to make quick, fluid turns. Persons says that what Carnotaurus gave up in maneuverability, it made up for in straight ahead speed. For its size, Carnotaurus had the largest caudofemoralis muscle of any known animal, living or extinct.

Want to learn more? Ed Yong has an excellent detailed piece on the Carnotaurus tail.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Frog Blog's Science Week Art Competition

Science Week takes place this year from November 13th to 20th and the Frog Blog will once again be holding an Art Competition! We want you to draw, paint, sketch or sculpt on any aspect of science, discovery, space and nature! Entry is completely free and open to anyone in primary or secondary school in Ireland. Just photograph or scan your work and email your entries to art-comp@frogblog.ie. The winner of each category (Primary & Secondary) will receive a €50 iTunes Gift Voucher!!! The closing date for entry is Wednesday 16th November 2011 and the winners will be announced at the end of Science Week. So get painting!