o The Frog Blog: April 2011

Saturday, 30 April 2011

YouTube Saturday - Carl Sagan: Darkness

With the recent news that SETI Institute, an organisation tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life, is closing due to a lack of funding this video (with words from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot) highlights the need for searching into the abyss of space in search for life in the cosmos.

Friday, 29 April 2011

NCCA Reveals New Biology, Chemistry & Physics Syllabi

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment have revealed their new syllabi for senior biology, physics and chemistry. The concurrent release of the syllabi is no coincidence and marks a new direction for senior cycle science in Ireland, or so they promise. The NCCA have also formally opened a consultation process on the new syllabi, asking teachers, parents, students and members of the science community to comment on the content and approach outlined in their documents.

There has obviously been changes to the content of each of the syllabi but the biggest change in approach to senior cycle science is the introduction of a practical component in the assessment procedures for each of the subjects. Twenty percent of a pupils total mark in each of the subjects will be awarded 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, assessing their practical skills and ability to analyse data and draw conclusions. Some of the material within this practical assessment will be beyond the scope of the syllabus.

A brief look at the syllabi reveals plenty use of "copy and paste" between them (the most obvious of this is in the assessment procedures of each syllabus, which are so alike they all are entitled "ASSESSMENT IN LEAVING CERTIFICATE BIOLOGY"). The key skills targeted in each syllabus are appropriate and laudable (the key skills are identified as information processing, being personally effective, communicating, critical and creative thinking and working with others). I applaud the use of terms like "design", "apply knowledge", "interpret", "discuss" and "analyse" in the learning outcomes of each syllabus but I am concerned that the syllabi is still very teacher driven and exam orientated.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Debating Science Issues All Ireland Final - Winners Announced

Congratulations to St. Vincent’s Secondary School, Dundalk, Co. Louth who recently won the 2011 All-Ireland Debating Science Issues Competition. The grand final, which took place at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, was the result of a field of 56 schools narrowing to just four. In a confident display, the team from Dundalk successfully persuaded the esteemed judging panel, that “animal testing is necessary for the advancement of disease treatment”. The runners up were Colaiste an Phiarsaigh of Glanmire, Co. Cork with St. Catherine’s Vocational School, Killybegs, Co. Donegal and St. Joseph’s College, Garbally, Co. Galway making up the final four.

Debating Science Issues is a cross-border schools science debating competition supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award for four consecutive years and is supported by eight partners: the Regenerative Medicine Institute (REMEDI) at NUI Galway, W5 in Belfast, Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI) at DCU, the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, CRANN at TCD, CLARITY at UCD, Tyndall National Institute and Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre both at UCC. Co-ordinated by REMEDI’s Outreach Officer Danielle Nicholson, the competition encourages young people to engage in debate on the cultural, societal and ethical implications of advances in biomedical science. 

Schools taking part initially receive a 3-hour biomedical, bioethical workshop to facilitate discussion on the ethical issues raised by stem cell research, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, health and self-testing kits or flu vaccinations. School students research further in preparation for the debate motion related to the initial workshop. From there, the debate motions circulate so that students debate on an array of controversial topical issues. Boston Scientific and NUI Galway’s College of Science sponsored the provincial trophies and prizes. A brilliant initiative which encourages young people to look at the ethical and societal implications of up to date scientific research. Well done all involved!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Hands on Universe - Astronomy Courses for Science Teachers

European Hands on Universe (EU-HOU) is an organisation helping to bring "front-line interactive astronomy to the classroom". They provide a range of tools, software, exercises and advice to teachers hoping to incorporate astronomy into their science lessons. EU-HOU also organise training courses for teachers from around Europe to help them bring astronomy to life in their lessons. EU-HOU have just announced their new new training sessions for late 2011 and early 2012, with courses taking place in Portugal, France and Germany. There are two types of course: a five day introductory session looking at a range of astronomy tools (including remote telescopes, software etc) and a two day session specifically focusing on radio-astronomy. There are no specific course costs and attendees can apply for a Comenius grant to cover the travel and accommodation costs of the trip. For more information visit the EU-HOU website. Application form available here. Having attended a similar course in Amsterdam (run by the Galileo Teacher Training Programme, GTTP), I can recommend these courses highly. The dates and venues for the training sessions are as follows:

Five Day Introductory Courses:

  • 17-21 October 2011 - Cascais, Portugal
  • 14-18 November 2011 - Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris
  • 12-16 March 2012 - Observatorio Astronomico de Coimbra,
  • 2-6 April 2012 - Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris
  • 21-25 May 2012 - Observatorio Astronomico de Coimbra, Portugal
  • 4-8 June 2012 - Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris

Two Day Radio-Astronomy Courses:

  • 6-7 February - Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France
  • Dates not announced yet - Argelander-Institut für Astronomie, Bonn, Germany

Dublin City of Science 2012 - Call for Public Engagement Proposals

By now everyone should know that Dublin will stand proud as the European City of Science next year and will host the Euroscience Open Forum in July of 2012. Now Dublin City of Science 2012 have announced they will be compiling a year long programme of science events and are looking for ideas from the public and other bodies to fill that programme. They are looking for new and exciting ways to engage the public with the sciences, with events in all formats welcome. According to their guidelines proposals could be:
"... by way of promoting an existing or pre-planned event/activity/idea. It could be something completely new, something you’d like to develop within your own group / organisation / institution, or in partnership with others. We welcome activities in any format, indoor or outdoor, through the medium of theatre, film, exhibitions, workshops, debates, interactive dialogues, online events, etc. The list is endless!"
So if you have a great idea to engage the general public with science and wish to help promote Dublin as the European City of Science for 2012 visit their website and read the proposal guidelines. 2012 is shaping up to be a great year - a year long Science Week you could say! 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Hubble is 21!

On this day, April 25th 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed in space from the Space Shuttle Discovery into an orbit 381 miles above Earth. It was the first major orbiting observatory, named in honour of American astronomer, Edwin Powell Hubble. It was seven years behind schedule and nearly $2 billion over budget. In orbit, the 94.5-inch primary mirror was found to be flawed, giving blurred images and reduced ability to see distant stars. However, correcting optics were successfully installed in 25 Dec 1993. The 43-ft x 14-ft telescope now provides images with a clarity otherwise impossible due to the effect of the earth's atmosphere. Instrument packages capture across the electromagnetic spectrum. To date, Hubble has looked at over 30 000 celestial targets and amassed over half a million pictures in its archive. It is set to be replaced by the James Webb Space Telescope which will be launched in 2013.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

YouTube Saturday - Extremophile Bacteria

Professor Richard Hoover studies extreme weather conditions to find new extremophiles - micro organisms that can live in extreme weather conditions and climates. This interesting video from the 2006 BBC Horizon programme 'We Are the Aliens' to discover the weird life forms that populate frozen penguin guano, nuclear fuel rods, and hot water.

Friday, 22 April 2011

National Geographic - Weaver Ant Special

Ants, who worldwide would match the weight of the seven billion people on the planet, live in large, highly organized, cooperative societies, practising activities from strategic army warfare to agricultural and livestock herding! In the May issue of National Geographic magazine entomologist Mark Moffett gives readers an inside look at the remarkable and highly organized skills of weaver ants. Below is an extract from the article Sisterhood of Weavers. There is also an excellent photo gallery of weaver ants - click here to view.
"Scientists have likened weaver ant communication to a type of language with primitive syntax. Urban planners examine the organization of ant societies. Mathematicians draw upon analyses of ant behavior to devise parallel computing formulas (where multiple problems are solved simultaneously). Ants serve as models in all kinds of studies aimed at figuring out how big, complex jobs get done with small parts and a minimum of instructions."
The image above describes weaver ants building a nest in Malaysia as they must pull one leaf toward another. A long body, about a third of an inch, is a boon, as each ant grabs on to adjacent leaf edges with feet and jaws. If one body isn't sufficient, the insects interlock to form chains. Check out this wonderful article now.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

RDS Science Live for Teachers

The RDS Science Live for Teachers Programme returns to the University of Limerick this June with a new workshop on "Chemical Magic Shows". The four day residential course takes place from June 13th - 17th 2011 at the University of Limerick, and is aimed at Leaving Certificate chemistry teachers who want to improve their demonstration skills and would like to be able to run a chemical magic show as part of their classwork. The course will involve a mixture of tuition, practice and the design, testing and presentation of a chemical magic show.

The cost of this workshop is only €100, which covers tuition, materials, meals and 3 nights B&B on the University of Limerick campus. Places are limited and early booking is advised. For bookings and further information please email Sarah Hayes at the University of Limerick or phone here at 061 234915.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

New Science Gallery Exhibition - Human +

Dublin's Science Gallery's newest and most exciting exhibition of the year opens tomorrow and will run until June. Human + aims to explore the future for our species, through a series of evocative exhibits including the Human Pollination Project (which considers a future where humans may need to pollinate flowers instead of bees), Human Version 2.0 (exploring humanoids and our interactions with machines), Strategies in Genetic Copy Prevention (including a small selection of strategies of reproductive control that have been developed and used in modern times), Area B5 (which contains 60 robotic skulls with eyes which watch your every move) and Free Will (an experiment to explore to see if our willingness to take risks is predetermined by our genetics).

The exhibition is surely to be one of their most thought provoking yet and a massive hit with the Science Gallery faithful. But it is also likely to draw new fans to one of Dublin's most interesting attractions. Visit the Science Gallery website to check out Human + before you go and, as with all exhibits, Human + is free to the public!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

50 Years of Manned Space Flight

On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. His spacecraft, Vostok 1, had radio, television and life-support equipment to relay information on his condition. The flight was automated. Gagarin's controls were locked to prevent him from taking control of the ship, although a key in a sealed envelope was provided in case of an emergency. After re-entry, Gagarin ejected and made a planned descent with his own parachute. However for many years the Soviet Union denied this, because the flight would not have been recognized for various FAI world records unless the pilot had accompanied his craft to a landing. Gagarin died in a plane crash 7 years later.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

ESA Missions - Planck

Planck is the European Space Agency's (ESA) deep space telescope studying the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the relic radiation from the Big Bang, in an effort to understand more about how the Universe began and how it will evolve in the future.

Launched on May 14th 2009 on board an Ariane 5 rocket (along with ESA’s Herschel Infrared Observatory) Planck is currently 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, orbiting the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system (on the night side of the Earth). If Planck were placed in orbit around Earth, heat from our planet, the Moon and the Sun would interfere with its instruments, reducing their sensitivity.

The spacecraft is equipped with a powerful telescope and two instruments operating at radio to sub-millimetre wavelengths. A sophisticated cryogenic system keeps their detectors at temperatures close to absolute zero. The primary job of the telescope is to focus the light onto the detectors. This is done with two large mirrors, one around 1.5m across and another 0.5m across. On board the two instruments, called the "Low Frequency Instrument" (LFI), and the "High Frequency Instrument", measure tiny fluctuations in the CMB with an accuracy set by fundamental astrophysical limits. The Mission Operations Centre (MOC) is located at ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Planck is named after the German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. Click here to see a 3D model of Planck. Recently, Planck's first results were published by the European Space Agency. Click here to find out more.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Recommended Apps - Rat Dissection

From the people who brought us the award winning Frog Dissection App, comes a new interactive tool for the iPad which simulates a Rat Dissection. The app walks you through a series of steps on how to dissect a rat. All you have to do is simply follow the written instructions, along with voice-over, to dissect and explore the rat’s internal organs. Besides a virtual chloroformed specimen, Rat Dissection comes with all the dissection tools. The organs are all presented as 3D images. Users can tap on the individual organs to see what they look like from different angles. Detailed information on the organs is provided to help the student learn about their structure and function.

This is a useful app for showing the internal structure of small mammals or as an introduction to a true dissection. Good value at just €3.99. Click here to find out more and to download on iTunes.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Biodynamics & Lunar Plant Growth

It is commonly known that the moon affects many things, such as the tides and some have the belief that it affects our behaviour. However it is widely unknown that cosmic-terrestrial rhythms have an effect on cultivated plants. This was first recognised by the Austrian academic Rudolph Steiner who, giving a series of lectures in 1942, explained how astronomic forces exerted their influence on the growth of our plants. Although his name was attributed to the discovery, it has been seen throughout history as a common practice. In “The Gardner’s Labyrinth,” one of the first gardening books ever published, in 1577, an astrologer and gardener Thomas Hill outlined what he had discovered. He had successfully linked the lunar patterns to periods for planting and harvesting. He referred in his book to past practices and quoted the Roman writings of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), a Roman historian who said:
“The idea that the Moon exerts a determinable influence on plant and crop growth may be as old as agriculture. The idea is found embedded in the folklore of many ancient societies, ranging from the Celts in early Britain to the Maoris in New Zealand. As far as recorded comments on the subject are concerned, gives many instructions on how to regulate agricultural activities according to the cycles of the Moon.”
Experiments have shown that the lunar phases affect the flow of moisture in the soil and in the plants. But how does it work? And can we as a modern, technological civilization benefit from paralleling our growth seasons with the moon?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Relax, it is OK to Leave the Kids in the Crèche!


A recent issue of New Scientist picks up an interesting story about how our collective approach to looking after children may underpin human social awareness and cooperation.

Humans are peculiarly empathetic when compared with our closest relatives the chimps, and researchers claim that this may be due to psychological changes which are linked to the care of children by individuals other than their mother. These changes result in the “enhanced cooperation and altruism that ultimately led to culture, language and technology”.

As humans we work well together in teams and are generally good at reading other people’s emotions and supporting each other accordingly. We sometimes even extend our kindness to perfect strangers. Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich ran an experiment in which people were given €20 and asked to share as much or as little of it as they liked with an anonymous partner whose identity would never be revealed and who would never know the giver's identity. It makes sense to keep the lot but, against logic, most people gave away between 25 and 50 per cent of the money.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

YouTube Saturday - What is Biodiversity?

This week's YouTube Saturday video comes from Wonderville, a brilliant science website for kids and their teachers (read our recent review here). The featured video looks at biodiversity -the range and variety of organisms on our planet. According to the Wonderville website "understanding biodiversity allows us to better help the earth's animals and plants to survive and thrive. It also provides humans with insights to use this diversity in new and less harmful ways. You'll see - even the smallest creature is important". Enjoy!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Applications for RTÉ's Science Adventure Show 'The Mountain' Now Open

RTÉ are now accepting applications for the second series of their brilliant science adventure show 'The Mountain'. It's a science adventure game show which sees two teams complete science-based challenges around an adventure style course with the winning team reaching "The Mountain" summit. Applicants need to be aged 11 or 12 on April 30th 2011 and complete in teams of three. The participating teams will be required for one day and the series will be filmed on location in Carlingford, Co Louth, in May. For more informaiton and to download the application form visit 'The Mountain' website. The closing date for receipt of applications is Monday April 11th 2011.

SCC Biology Prize 2011

Aoife McLysaght with the Finalists
Congratulations are due to Rabindranath Sheeran, who carried off this year’s St. Columba's College Biology Prize on a fascinating and highly stimulating evening last Tuesday.

Entries for the prize were invited, in the form of abstracts of 500 words or less, on any topic of biological interest. Those selected then had to prepare a talk of 7 minutes for presentation to our guest judge Aoife McLysaght of Trinity College – in front of an audience of their peers and teachers.

The six finalists were: Hannah Wentges (Magnetic Nanoparticles), Patrick McGonagle (Genetics & Homosexuality), Mimi von Blomberg (The Three Gorge Dam and its Environmental and Biological Effects), Rab Sheeran (The Black Mamba and the Effects of Neurotoxin Venom), Aoise Keogan Nooshabadi (Allergens) and Robbie Hollis (The Panda).

After each presentation there was some pretty feisty questioning - which all the participants dealt with very well, then following quite lengthy deliberations. Dr. McLysaght rounded up the proceedings with some telling and pertinent observations before declaring the winner.

Thanks and congratulations to all six speakers for providing such an entertaining and informative evening - I have to say I came out at the end buzzing with enthusiasm for the world of Biology and not a little pride at the sorts of young scientists being nurtured here in SCC. Thanks also to our excellent judge who made a big contribution to the evening and has generously promised to return in the future to talk about her research in genetics. Finally of course, thanks to Mr Jones for organising and coordinating the event with his characteristic blend of enthusiasm and efficiency!

Irish Scientist Unearths T-rex Cousin

An international team of scientists and palaeontologists have unearthed a new species of gigantic theropod dinosaur, a close relative of T. rex, from fossil skull and jaw bones discovered in China. Led by UCD Scientist Dr. David Hone, the team published their findings in the scientific journal Cretaceous Research. The new dinosaur "Zhuchengtyrannus magnus", which means 'Great Tyrant from Zhucheng' is comparable in size to T-rex measuring about 11 metres long, standing about 4 metres tall, and weighing close to 6 tonnes. This new dinosaur is one of the largest theropod (carnivorous) dinosaurs ever identified by scientists. Theropods dinosaurs are known for their small arms, two-fingered hands and large, powerful jaws capable of bone-crushing bites. For more information on this story visit today's Irish Independent. Dr Hone also recently discovered a parrot sized theropod - read a previous Frog Blog post here.

Irish Times BANG - Celebrity Brains

Whether celebrities are singing, dancing, acting up or falling down, their stories are always in the news. So what bits of their brains are working behind the scenes? CLAIRE O’CONNELL takes a look.

Making Music

It might look easy when professionals do it, but making music involves lots of brain activity. A singer or musician might have to remember words or melodies they have practised before, so they engage the hippocampus deep within their brain. Or if they are improvising, they may be making choices and switching off inhibitions using their prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in how they act.

Meanwhile, their nerves are picking up information from their sense organs – seeing musical notes written on a sheet, hearing sound cues from the backing track, even feeling the rhythm vibrating. Their brain integrates these incoming signals, then the person reacts on time by relaying messages out along motor nerves to control their breathing, limbs and fingers.

Are you looking at Jedward and Justin Bieber in a whole new light now?


Shakira, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga – good dancers always catch your eye, and a portion of the brain called the cerebellum is a key mover in throwing those shapes while keeping to the rhythm.

The cerebellum, which is tucked away underneath the back of the head, helps a dancer’s body track a beat, keep balance and move muscles. Add in the brain-chatter that needs to go on to link those dance moves to the soundtrack and you have a big party going on in there.

Brain Conditions

Just like the rest of us, celebrities can have brain conditions, and some choose to use their fame to help raise awareness of them. Singer Kerry Katona and actor and comedian Stephen Fry each have bipolar disorder, where the person can go through periods of intense depression, then “manic” phases of extreme optimism and energy, or sometimes even have both at the same time. Medicine and psychological treatment can help to manage the symptoms.

Another high-profile advocate for patients with brain disease is Canadian actor Michael J Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30. In Parkinson’s, brain cells die away in a portion of the brain that’s involved in movement, and symptoms include tremors or shaking. Fox supports research into new forms of treatment, including therapies that use stem cells.