o The Frog Blog: June 2011

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Atlantis - The Final Countdown

NASA’s last shuttle space flight will take place next week and will mark the end of a pioneering adventure story that brought magnificent highs and terrible lows, writes Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom in today's Irish Times.

THE HUMAN adventure in space is about to lose much of its razzmatazz. July 8th sees the lift-off of the space shuttle Atlantis, the very last shuttle flight to be made.

Its departure on a 12-day trip to the International Space Station (ISS) brings to a close 30 years of space-shuttle travel and marks the beginning of an uncertain future for manned space flight.

The shuttle programme has brought us tremendous highs, watching as space-walking astronauts carried out essential running repairs to the wonderful Hubble Space Telescope, or as the shuttle’s robot arm manoeuvred another chunk of the space station into place.

It also brought us the deepest lows, with the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the deaths of 14 flight crew. They died invisibly, far overhead, but the cameras rolled, allowing us watch as the reality of loss overwhelmed the horrified crews’ family members.

One could argue that the second great age of manned space travel comes to a close as Atlantis finally touches down. This was the age of the reusable space workhorse, a vehicle carried aloft by rocket but able to land like an airplane.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

YouTube Saturday - How Animals Made Us Human

This week's YouTube Saturday is an excellent animated video from New Scientist which looks at how modern humans relationship with domesticated animals moulded our social evolution and drove our ancestors to develop tools and language. Below is an extract from the accompanying article from New Scientist called Man's Best Friend - How Animals Made Us Human

Travel almost anywhere in the world and you will see something so common that it may not even catch your attention. Wherever there are people, there are animals: animals being walked, herded, fed, watered, bathed, brushed or cuddled.

Many, such as dogs, cats and sheep, are domesticated, but you will also find people living alongside wild and exotic creatures such as monkeys, wolves and binturongs. Close contact with animals is not confined to one particular culture, geographic region or ethnic group. It is a universal human trait, which suggests that our desire to be with animals is deeply embedded and very ancient.

On the face of it this makes little sense. ... Since the ultimate prize in evolution is perpetuating your genes in your offspring and their offspring, caring for an individual from another species is counterproductive and detrimental to your success. Every mouthful of food you give it, every bit of energy you expend keeping it warm (or cool) and safe, is food and energy that does not go to your own kin. Even if pets offer unconditional love, friendship, physical affection and joy, that cannot explain why or how our bond with other species arose in the first place. Who would bring a ferocious predator such a wolf into their home in the hope that thousands of years later it would become a loving family pet?

Friday, 24 June 2011

Exam Reaction 2011 - Agricultural Science

At last, an agricultural science exam that somewhat fairly reflects the outdated syllabus yet at the same time challenges the stronger candidate and rewards critical thinking. Yesterday's paper was a thoughtfully constructed and well planned exam - the best in many years. There were no nasty surprises - no question veering beyond the syllabus. The questions were phrased better and most topics within the syllabus were assessed. There was no over focus on dairy (dairy and beef could have done with some more questions to be honest), as has been the case over the past number of years. All this said, the exam was not easy and it would have taken a very strong candidate to excel. It may well have suited the candidate studying both biology and agricultural science.

Candidates must answer six questions from the possible ten on offer (oddly still labelled 1 - 9 with question 3 having two options). Question 1 consists of ten short questions, where the pupils get marked on their best six answers. It's not compulsory yet is, in fact, worth more marks than the other questions. This year question 1 was very well conceived and contained questions from right across the spectrum of the syllabus - from ecology to plant physiology to animals science to dairy. I'm sure most candidates would easily hope to attempt at least six of the ten parts yet many should have answered more. Question 2 traditionally assesses candidates' understanding of soil science and this year was no exception. The question was decent with part (b) (a question on gleisation) offering a stern test to the top student. Question 3 has two options (still not sure exactly why) and both questions were fair and would have encouraged the top students to write freely and in detail. Option 1 had a series of questions on beef and dairy and would have required the students to link difference elements from their course work. Option 2 contained three nice questions: one on silage; one on the importance of colostrum and one on grassland management. In fact, I'd imagine that students would have loved the opportunity to answer both these questions in the exam.

Question 4, the practical investigations, were very fair and candidates should have had experience in at least three. Question 5 would have suited candidates studying both biology and agricultural science and assessed the students' understanding of the heart - as well as a nice question on red water fever (a disease caused by the single celled babesia). Question 6 was a challenging question on cereals and would have required an understanding of the physiology of the cereal as well as its cultivation. Question 7, genetics, was on the easier side. There were two genetics crosses - a difficult di-hydrid cross and a straightforward cross on incomplete dominance - as well as three relatively simple definitions. The genetics question was certainly welcomed by those candidates that had studied genetics in detail. Question 8 contained three parts (to do two) on a range of topics from pigs to ecology. The final questions asked pupils to use their knowledge of agricultural and biology to explain a series of statements. This is a popular question year on year and this year should be no exception.

Overall, a very fair paper. It wasn't perfect but it was certainly a huge improvement on last year. There was a notable absence of any question on sheep or potatoes and very few on beef or dairy. There was a considerable amount of questions on the biology topics this year which I personally feel is no harm. These areas are an important aspect of the syllabus and have often been under assessed in recent years. Saying all that, I still feel the structure of the exam could be updated - preferable to fall in line with the style of the ordinary level paper (which this year was long yet straightforward) - and of course a new syllabus needs to be introduced sooner rather than later. It was very surprising that the NCCA failed to introduce a new syllabus for this subject when it published the draft syllabi for biology, chemistry and physics earlier this year.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Exam Reaction 2011 - Leaving Certificate Chemistry

This years leaving certificate higher level chemistry exam stayed true to form and again reflected the shift in focus also evident within the biology and physics exams. The exam was awash with topical references to current events and provided a stern test of the candidates' understanding of the practical applications of chemistry. The exam was long, with many of the questions requiring a thorough read before being attempted - which may have affected time management. Saying that, the paper would have suited those with ambitions of achieving a top grade.

Section A, which examines the pupils' understanding of the mandatory practicals, contained three decent questions. The often tipped sodium hypochloride - potassium iodide titration finally made an appearance along with questions on distillation and recrystallization of the impure benzoic acid. Pupils needed to attempt at least two of the questions within section A but many may well have attempted all of them. Section B provided a good mix of questions, of which the candidates' needed to answer at least six. There was a strong organic tinge to the questions, which probably would have been welcomed. Question 4, the short questions, were tricky yet I am sure most would have been able to find eight parts to attempt. Question 5 was a very straightforward question on the Periodic Table and atomic structure and shouldn't have caused too many problems. Question 6 was a very well conceived question on fuels and referenced the current unrest in Libya and Ireland's dependence on that country as a source of crude oil. The question shouldn't have caused too many problems. Acids and bases were examined within question 7 and question 8 looked at organic chemistry - both very doable. Question 9 was a challenging test on equilibrium yet was fairly doable. However, I was very surprised to see that half of the question was devoted to the reaction between crystalline cobalt (II) chloride and deionised water - cobalt (II) chloride was recently banned from use in schools and some students may not have had the chance to complete that practical. Question 10 requires two from three parts and was fair, focusing on rates of reactions and including brilliant questions on alcohol in the body and radiocarbon dating. The final question again had a wide choice within and included two questions on environmental chemistry, bonding and on Teflon.

Overall, another well constructed science paper from the State Examinations Commission. The final science exam is the agricultural science paper tomorrow. Last year's ag. science paper was universally condemned for going beyond the scope of the syllabus. Its unsuitability as an assessment tool was confirmed by the Chief Examiners report published recently. Pupils and teachers alike hope for a fairer exam, his time round ,which continues to assess pupils' understanding of the principles of agriculture and keeps up to date with current issues but without going beyond the syllabus.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Exam Reaction 2011 - Leaving Certificate Physics

There seems to be a shift in focus within the State Examinations Commission on the assessment of leaving certificate science subjects and the change is welcome - but it might have been fair to warn us! Yesterday's physics paper  followed on from where biology left off and included a number of questions which required an awful lot more critical thinking and analysis than students may have been accustomed to in previous years. Not too many were complaining though as the overall consensus was that the higher level paper was another well conceived, challenging yet generally fair paper.

The paper covered almost every topic within the syllabus and again used a variety of practical everyday examples to assess the candidates' knowledge and understanding of the principles of physics. Section A, which contains four questions of which three must be attempted, assessed students' understanding of the mandatory practicals completed over the two years. These were relatively straightforward with experiments on conservation of momentum, Boyle's Law, measuring the wavelength of monochromatic light and the relationship between current and potential difference as electrical current flows through an electrolyte. Two of the four required graphs to be constructed.

In Section B there was a wide range of topics assessed. Question 5, the short questions were fair and should have provided enough choice for the candidates. Question 6 was more difficult than in previous years. Using a variety of everyday examples, including a rocking toy and merry-go-rounds, the candidates were asked questions relating to equilibrium, forces and centre of gravity. I believe it was a well constructed question but quite challenging none the less. Question 7 looked at heat and temperature with more everyday examples incorporated into the question. There was an excellent problem within Q7, asking candidates to calculate the heat capacity of a spoon placed in a hot drink. Question 8 assessed sound and included a question on the type of harmonics produced by a clarinet. Question 9 was focused on electricity and was on the easier side while question 10 gave students the choice of nuclear reactions (including a question which reference the Large hadron Collider) or the electric motor - both were fine. Question 11 followed its traditional structure and contained a passage to read followed by a series of questions. This year it looked at a comparison between CFL bulbs and traditional filament bulbs - another excellent example from everyday life. Finally question 12 -  which always gives students the option of two from four topics - contained straightforward questions on Hooke's Law, the refraction of light, heat conduction and the use of radioisotopes in the manufacture of newsprint paper. Overall, the exam would have been an enjoyable test for anyone with a passion for physics and, particularly, its application to everyday life. Let us know what you thought of the paper. Please leave a comment below.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Anyone 4 Science Summer Camps

Anyone 4 Science is a brilliant programme which aims to create an environment where children discover tust how much fun science can be - through active learning through investigation, experimentation, play and demonstration. Anyone 4 Science have been running workshops, school visits and school tours since 2005 and are now offering places for their SCIENCE SUMMER CAMPS. They have camps for all age groups - from inquisitive Junior Infants to science mad teens - and all across the country. Packed full of experiments and investigations, these camps are sure to inspire the next generation of Irish scientists.

Interestingly, there are three dedicated "TEEN CAMPS" (Junior Cert), being hosted by UCD and Tallaght IT, with a brilliant range of activities planned. These include investigating hot ice, growing crystals. experiments on antifreeze, investigating plastics and carrying out a forensic analysis of a virtual crime scene. There will also be an opportunity to prepare a project for SciFest or the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

The camps cost €160 and are sure to be popular. For more information on Anyone 4 Science Summer Camps visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

YouTube Saturday - Neuro-Marketing

A few days ago, science journalist Claire O'Connell wrote a brilliant article in the Irish Times on how scanning the brain activity of teenagers, as they listen to music, can help determine whether the track will be a hit amongst the wider population. Then, Science Week co-ordinator Donna McCabe recommended this video - a clip from 'Science of the Movies' - which looks at how movie studios are using science to determine if their movie trailers will attract an audience. Fascinating stuff. You might also find these videos interesting - a brain scan of a man aged 20-25 as he watches the trailer for 1. Avatar and 2. Beyonce's "Single Ladies"

Friday, 17 June 2011

Astronomers Detect Black Hole Devouring Star

NASA's Swift telescope scans the skies for gamma ray bursts - enormous energy explosions associated with the implosion of ageing stars - in an effort to study these mysterious and cataclysmic events. Swift discovers around 100 gamma ray bursts every year and each lasts only a moment (releasing as much energy as our Sun would over its lifetime) but a recent discovery has given astronomers an insight into a very rare astronomical event - a star being devoured by a super massive black hole. Back in late March Swift discovered a unusual gamma ray burst from the centre of a small galaxy in the Draco constellation, located about 3.8 billion light-years from Earth. Within a four hour period Swift detected four gamma ray bursts from this one area. Working with Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Gemini and Keck Telescopes, they determined that the huge release of energy was down to the black hole feeding on a star (illustrated above). This event is extremely rare - astronomers expect only one in every galaxy every 100 million years or so. National Geographic News has more on this story - click here.

Suggested Activity: Find out more about gamma ray bursts - here's a good place to start.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Exam Reaction 2011 - Leaving Certificate Biology

Today's Leaving Certificate Biology Paper (HL) was a fair yet challenging representation of the syllabus and contained some well constructed questions which would have required the candidates to "think" far more than previous years. This style of examination question is to be welcomed, but some of the candidates may not have expected this departure in form and could have been intimidated slightly. I might imagine that some exam purists may argue that some questions were "not on the syllabus" come the marking conference but, saying that, I'd imagine the majority of pupils and teachers would feel the paper was reasonable. 

Section A, the short questions, was generally straight-forward. Question 1 assessed food science and biomolecules and was fine, although the number of amino acids in proteins may have caught out a few. Question 2 was on mitosis and meiosis and was on the easy side, question 3 involved matching different ecological terms with their definition and shouldn't catch too many out while question 4 was a nice assessment of pupil understanding of temperature control in animals. Question 5 assessed the digestive system in humans and was fine, except for a poorly drawn liver / gall bladder (I can't tell to be honest) and section A finished off with a straight-forward question on respiration (which many pupils would have expected to be assessed in the longer questions).

Section B, the experiment questions, was challenging this year, particularly question 7. This involved an unseen experiment, a departure from previous years (a decision which will surely be controversial but I personally welcome), which aimed to assess the students understanding of the scientific method and their ability to apply that knowledge to an unseen investigation. There were a few tricky parts to this question, which may have put some people off, and was certainly more difficult than the other two options. Of these, question 8 was a mixed bag of easy questions from various mandatory investigations and question 9 was a clear cut assessment of the separation of DNA from plant tissue investigation. I think the examiners may find that questions 8 and 9 will have been attempted more often than question 7, which is a pity.

On to section C, the "long" questions, although they tend to be a series of shorter questions really. Question 10 again assessed ecology with part (b) a particularly well constructed series of higher order questions - this part asked pupils to make deductions based on different observations of animal and plant activity in nature. The question was fair yet challenging! Question 11 saw plant growth regulators and human hormones being given a full question for the first time and shouldn't have caused too many problems - the questions generally being in the lower order bracket. As tipped, question 12 was an undemanding yet thorough look at the human excretory and urinary systems - again with a few welcome questions requiring the candidate to think. Genetics and evolution were assessed within question 13 and neither the definitions or the genetic cross should have troubled the well prepared student. Question 14, which had three options to do two, was again straight-forward. Part (a) looked at an exam favourite - the rate of photosynthesis investigation - but again contained a few higher questions. Part (b) was a mix of trouble free questions on enzymes, biomolecules and metabolism and part (c)  was another mix of questions on cell structure, movement of materials between cells and amoeba - neither should have caused too much bother. The final question on the exam again had a choice, two from three parts, and assessed the ear and hearing, plant structure and transport and a welcome question on Rhizopus.

Overall, this year's Leaving Certificate was a slight departure from tradition with more higher order questions which would have challenged the candidates. It certainly would have rewarded those with a good understanding of the principles of the scientific method and not those who are more used to information regurgitation. For this, the examiners are to be commended.

Let us know what you thought of the biology paper - leave a comment below.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse

Night watchers across Ireland will be treated to a total lunar eclipse tonight, weather permitting of course, beginning at around 10pm. Moon gazers are likely to see the moon turn a deep rich red colour, as the Earth's shadow blocks the sun's rays from striking the moon. Total lunar eclipse's occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned exactly, or at least closely, with the Earth in the middle. Hence, there is always a full moon the night of a lunar eclipse. This will be the last total lunar eclipse for four years so let's hope for fine weather when the moon rises from the south east tonight. Ireland will experience the eclipsed moon for around an hour and may well rise already in eclipse. What is for sure is that it sure to be a wonderful site. If you take a photo of tonight's eclipse, why not send it our way?

Suggested Pupil Activity: Find out what is the difference between a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse? Here's a good place to start.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Is 'Playing the Field' Genetic? Apparently!

A scientist in Germany has discovered that promiscuity, or the willingness to 'play the field', may be inheritable. Dr Wolfgang Forstmeier, and his team, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology studied a captive population of more than 1500 Zebra Finches over five generations. During their research, the team recorded the birds' sex lives on videotape (weird I know) and then carried out paternity tests on the offspring, determined which males and females had the most offspring. The results were very interesting!

Female Zebra Finches are normally monogamous, staying with the same male for life. Yet, some females in this study were observed to "sleep around" and mate with others occasionally. But why? Well, Dr. Forstmeier's results indicate that female finches that slept around are more likely to come from fathers who were themselves more promiscuous. 

So could a willingness to sleep around be inheritable in humans? Well, this research proves that promiscuity  in finches is inheritable and more research will need to be done to find out which genes are actually responsible for this behaviour. However, the principle of animal sexual behaviour is the same for humans as it is birds and a similar phenomenon is likely to occur in humans! It's no excuse though!

Dublin City of Science 2012 - Tweet Up

Dublin City of Science is calling all "Irish science bloggers, podcasters, twitter addicts and on-line science warriors" to join them in the Science Gallery Cafe on the evening of Friday the 24th June for the first Dublin City of Science Tweet-up. The number of Irish scientists / science communicators online is growing exponentially and the people over at Dublin City of Science, principally Ellen Byrne, want them all to meet in person and to dicuss topics relevent to the upcoming Euroscience Open Forum and Irish science scene in general. 

The Dublin City of Science team recognise the growing online science community on our fare island, especially the 50 or so Irish Science Blogs as well as "several top quality science podcasts" including, but not exclusively, Scibernia, Future Proof on Newstalk Science, Science Chats and Science Spin. Let's not forget he Irish science 'twitterati'.

For more information and to RSVP visit @DublinScience2012 on Twitter or their Facebook page. If your don't know what Twitter or Facebook are - just show up on the day with a note explaining your lack of an online presence! Also, the closing date for receipt of applications for Public Engagement Proposals and Scientific Sessions for the Euroscience Open Forum is fast approaching. Click here to find out more.

Burren 2011 - Photo Slide Show

Below is a series of images, taken by Mr. Jones, from the recent Form V Biology expedition to the Burren.  The photos display some of the activities carried out by the pupils and some of the animals and plants of the area. For more photographs from science department expeditions and trip click here.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Burren 2011 - Day 4

The final day of this year's Form V biology expedition to the Burren saw the pupils visit the Ailwee Cave and the adjacent Burren Bird of Prey Centre as well as a number of historical sites of the area including an earthen fort and the Poulnabrone Dolmen. In the Ailwee Cave, the pupils were given a tour of the impressive natural structure and were taught the difference between stalagmites, stalagtites and columns. At the Bird of Prey Centre the pupils explored the various types of Irish raptors before being treated to a wonderful flight display. The displayed birds included a Eurasian Eagle Owl (pictured above with Junior Frog Blog Reporter Rab Sheeran), Harris Hawks and Lanner Falcons.

The whole trip was a huge success with the pupils (and teachers) maintaining their sense of adventure, high work ethic and good form throughout - well done to all the pupils. A full slideshow of the adventures in the Burren will be published shortly.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

YouTube Saturday - CERN Capture Antimatter for 1000 Seconds

We recently reported that CERN had manufactured and successfully captures atoms of anti-hydrogen as part of the ATLAS Project in their Swiss facility. This week's YouTube Saturday is from CERN News and gives some more information about the project and their recent achievement.

Burren 2011 - Day 3

The third day of the Form V biology expedition to the Burren was another busy one, but had a more relaxed feel to it. The day began with a trip to the Cliffs of Moher to do some sightseeing and bird watching before heading to the Gortlecka Fen on the foot of Mullach Mór for lunch, frog watching and some more practical work. Here, the pupils were given a fictional scenario where they had to prepare a report on the plant and animal life in the area to support of an objection to a "proposed" interpretive centre for the fen. They also had to make out a key to allow people distinguish between the six types of yellow flower found in the area.

After the activity, which the pupils revelled in and really enjoyed, the pupils and teachers headed on a leisurely hill walk. The two hour trek saw the team (split into small groups) climb three mountains - Mullach Mór, Sliabh Rua and Knockanes. The weather stayed on our side too and the team were basked in glorious sunshine throughout. After the walk a few brave pupils went for a cold dip at Bishop's Quarter before heading back to the hotel. That evening the pupils competed in the Brains of the Burren quiz with team number 1 (Ecology not Economy) winning out. 

The pupils head home on Saturday afternoon, but not before fitting in a bit more geology, biology and even a bit of history!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Burren 2011 - Day 2

The second day of the Form V expedition to the Burren was jammed full of activities for our budding biologists. The day began on the foot of Slieve Carran - a nature reserve known for the enormous variety of plants found there. The pupils were introduced to using keys as a means of identifying plants, using Webb's "An Irish Flora", and set about using their new found knowledge to identify a number of plants including Dryas octopetala and Potentilla erecta. The pupils then carried out a qualitative assessment of the plants within the area, focusing on how the plant species changed as we moved further towards the mountain (from dry conditions to marshy to woodland). Finally, before leaving Slieve Carran, the pupils followed the "path of the dishes" to the hermitage of St. Colman Mac Duagh - a 6th century Christian recluse who lived in a cave on the side of Slieve Carran for six years before setting up a monastery on the southern border of Co. Galway. On the way back down the path, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Jones spotted a few Black Fly Orchids (Mr. Jones' picture above), an elusive and wonderful plant whose flower resembles a fly - hoping to attract a "mate" to collect and disperse its pollen.

After lunch, the pupils headed for Fanore Beach. There the pupils conducted another ecological survey, this time exploring succession from the sand dunes to the meadow, before going for a (cold) dip in the Atlantic! In the late afternoon, we moved a little further up the coast to carry out an extensive survey of a rocky seashore ecosystem. The pupils conducted both a qualitative and quantitative (belt transect) survey of the plant, alga and animal populations there. Back to the hotel for dinner followed by a wonderful talk by Mr. Jackson on the unique plant life in the Burren. Another busy day!

NASA Releases Stunning Image of ISS & Endeavour

NASA have released a stunning image of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in an intimate embrace with the International Space Station before undocking and re-entering the Earth's atmosphere ten days ago. The image was taken from a Soyuz spacecraft which departed the station on 23 May carrying Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli back to Earth. Once their vehicle was about 600 feet from the station, Mission Control Moscow commanded the station to rotate through 130 degrees. This allowed Nespoli to capture photographs and a stunning video of shuttle Endeavour docked to the station during her final mission. A simply breathtaking photo!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Burren 2011 - Day 1

Day one of this year’s Form V biology expedition to the Burren kicked off yesterday as the 40 strong group of pupils and staff made the long journey west to one of the most beautiful and unique areas of the Irish countryside. The team, led by the four biology teachers (Jeremy Stone, Peter Jackson, Karen Hennessy & Humphrey Jones), made a few stops along the way - first for lunch in Loughrea followed by a brief stop off at the 'Devil's Punch Bowl' in Beagh just outside Gort, where the Gort River dissappears beneath the limestone - a classic example of a collapsed cave called a doline. The next stop was of a historical nature - at Kilnaboy Church - a 16th century building with a couple of unique architectural features. On the gable end of the church is a well preserved "Cross of Lorraine" while over the main door is a "Sheela na gig".

Onwards then to our hotel in Lisdoonvarna before heading into the Burren proper, along the coast to Black Head. There we disembarked and made our way up the hillside - the pupils being introduced to the geology and plants of the Burren as we climbed - towards Caher Dun Irghus (a fairly well preserved stone fort atop the hill). There we were treated to some sunshine and a spectacular view of Galway Bay and the Aran Islands.

After dinner, back at the hotel, the pupils were treated to a short introductory lecture of the geological history of the Burren by Dr. Stone before a little star gazing with Ms. Hennessy. A busy day, but only the beginning!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Upping the Anti-Matter

Scientists at CERN have successfully produced and trapped more than 309 atoms of anti-matter (anti-hydrogen to be precise) for over 16 minutes, long enough for the scientists to study them in huge detail. The international team of scientists work on the ALPHA experiment (Anti-hydrogen Laser PHysics Apparatus) at CERN, an experiment aiming to find out more about the mysterious and elusive particles of anti-matter.

Anti-matter is made up of "anti-particles" that have the same mass as corresponding particles of matter, but an opposite charge. For example, the antimatter counterpart of a negatively charged electron is a positively charged positron. Antimatter is very difficult to keep in existence because the moment it comes in contact with matter, which makes up most of our universe, both the matter and anti-matter are annihilated, producing pure energy. To trap the anti-matter, the scientists use a sophisticated magnetic trap to slow down and suspend the particles within a vacuum. The team this time managed to trap the anti-matter particles for over 16 minutes (1000 seconds) - significantly longer than previous attempts (the first time anti-matter was trapped it was released after one fifth of a second). The results of the experiment were reported in Nature - click here for more information.

Suggested student activity: Why not find out more about anti-matter and its potential uses. Here's a good place to start.

Stem Cell Research Branches Out to New Horizons (Irish Times)

As research uncovers the complexities of engineered stem cells, it turns out they could be more useful for studying disease than directly treating it, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL in today's edition of the Irish Times.

Few areas of scientific research invoke as much hope or hype as stem cells. The concept of using “master cells” to heal or replace damaged tissues is a seductive one, but it’s by no means straightforward, and recent discoveries are changing expectations.

There are three main types of stem cell, embryonic, adult and induced, explains Prof Frank Barry, who directs the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science at NUI Galway and is a principal investigator at the Regenerative Medicine Institute (Remedi).

Embryonic stem cells are derived from an early stage in development called the blastocyst, so ethical issues abound. The attraction is that they are “pluripotent”, so they have the potential to develop into several cell types in the body.

But Barry notes that the clinical proof just isn’t there yet as how useful embryonic stem cells could be.

“My own perspective on this is that the clinical evaluation of embryonic stem cells hasn’t yet happened and we have no data at all as to whether they will be effective or not in treating any human disease,” he says.

Another type of stem cell – the so-called “adult” stem cell – incurs fewer ethical problems because it is taken from from tissue after birth. But it may not have the same potential for forming different cell types as its embryonic cousins. “Clinically, there’s a much larger body of data about the use of adult stem cells, with the bone marrow probably being the most important, when a patient has a bone marrow transplant that’s essentially a stem cell therapy,” says Barry.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

YouTube Saturday - Evolution of Complex Life

This week's YouTube Saturday video is from the recent BBC4 short series 'The Gene Code', presented at Adam Rutherford. In this short extract, Dr Rutherford discusses the early evolution of complex life on Earth with geneticists Professor Steve Jones and Dr. Nick Lane.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

ESO Spot Milky Way 'Twin'

Astronomers at the European Space Observatory (ESO) have photographed a distant 'twin' of the Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy, imaginatively named NGC 6744, is more than 174 million trillion miles away. Astonishingly, the light from our distant twin has taken 30 million years to reach us. NGC 6744, a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way, resides in the southern hemisphere constellation of Pavo (The Peacock). However, our 'twin' is almost twice as big as the Milky Way at nearly 200,000 light years across. For more information on NGC 6744 visit the ESO website.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Endeavour Lands After Final Mission

NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour has safely landed at the Kennedy Space Center after a successful final mission to the International Space Station. The six strong crew of astronauts ended their 16-day journey, where they travelled more than 6.5 million miles, with a night time landing just after 2:30am today. Endeavour, the youngest member of the Shuttle fleet, has flown in 25 missions, spent 299 days in space, orbited Earth 4,671 times and traveled 122,883,151 miles - all during its 19 year career.

During their mission, the team of astronauts from NASA and the ESA delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the ISS, an instrument designed to help researchers understand the origin of the universe and search for evidence of dark matter, strange matter and antimatter. Endeavour also delivered the Express Logistics Carrier, a platform carrying spare parts that will sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired from service. The astronauts performed four spacewalks to maintain station systems and install new components. These were the last scheduled spacewalks by shuttle crew members and brought the final number of shuttle excursions to 164. During 159 spacewalks for assembly and maintenance of the space station, astronauts and cosmonauts have spent a total of 1,002 hours and 37 minutes outside.

The 135th and final shuttle mission, STS-135, will see Space Shuttle Atlantis fly to the International Space Station for further maintenance and upgrading. This flight is scheduled for 5 weeks time on July 8th. Atlantis is currently on its move from Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A.

Suggested Student Activity: Why not cut out and build a Space Shuttle glider and find out more about how the Space Shuttle works. What fuel does it use? How fast does it travel? How big is it? Here's a good place to start.