o The Frog Blog: October 2011

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! 

ISTA Rocket Launch Workshop

The Irish Science Teachers' Association (ISTA) and the Institute of Physics are holding a Rocket Launch Workshop at the Galway Education Centre this Saturday (October 22nd)  form 10am to 1pm. The workshop will show you how to make a compressed air rocket launcher from plumbing parts, which can also be adapted to a dragster racing car.  Both are easy and cheap to make in class. Participants willl construct and take their launcher back to school. 

Each teacher will also receive a DVD full of resources to use with the launcher. 

For  more information visit the ISTA Website!

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Almost "Perfect" Dinosaur Fossil Discovered

Palaeontologists have unearthed an almost fully intact dinosaur skeleton in Germany. The fossil of the young theropod is almost 98% complete and represents the best preserved dinosaur skeleton ever found in Europe. Fossils of theropod dinosaurs, which include Tyrannosaurus, are generally rare and usually fragmented. The best-preserved Tyrannosaurus  for example is only about 80 percent preserved. This find also includes some remain of the dinosaur's skin and protofeathers - fuzzy, filament-like precursor to feathers seen in other theropods.

This particular dinosaur is believed to have died around 135 million years ago and his team of palaeontologists think it was no more than a year old. It is still undisclosed what species of dinosaur the fossil represents.

The fossil was revealed by scientists from the Bavarian paleontological and ecological collections (BSPF) in Munich, Germany

Colony of Stromatolites Discovered in Northern Ireland

Some of the oldest known fossils in the world are colonial structures produced by some of the smallest living things that have ever existed - the stromatolites. Stromalotites are colonies of tiny blue green algae or cyanobacteria that are thought to be some of the most ancient life form that is still around today, after more than three billion years. The blue-green algae that form the stromatolites helped create our present atmosphere by breaking down carbon dioxide and excreting oxygen. Their appearance on this planet is seen as a turning point in the earth's evolution. 

These days stromatolites are only found in warm and often hyper saline waters, conditions which discourage predators, but now scientists from the University of Ulster have made a remarkable finding - the existence of stromatolites amongst the basalt pavements in the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Found is a tiny brackish pool on a remote corner of the Giant's Causeway, fully exposed to the violence of waves and easy prey to the animals that are already living amongst them, the discovery is hugely significant. It is expected that  further detailed analysis of the stromatolites will be carried out over the coming weeks and months and that the a search for similar colonies will begin around the Irish coast.

The blog, Why Evolution is True, has an excellent piece on this remarkable finding. To find out more about stromatolites click here.

YouTube Saturday - Adam Rutherford's 'The Cell'

Adam Rutherford's excellent series, 'The Cell', is a brilliant resource for teachers of biology. The three part series is produced to a very high standard and expertly presented by the amiable Rutherford. 'The Cell' examines the history of human understanding of the workings of the cell, principally by focusing on key scientists and experiments in microscopy, genetics and the discovery of DNA. It's truly excellent! The video below forms part of episode three of the series, 'The Spark of Life' which examines the quest for creating artificial cells, recreating the conditions of the primordial soup and the advent of the age of genetic engineering. The series is not available for purchase on it's own but comes free with Michael Moseley's 'The Story of Science - available on Amazon here.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

How Numbers Rock Your World

This excellent article appears in the Science Today section of today's edition of the Irish Times. It's written by the ultra talented John Holden (who really must get on Twitter).

ALMOST everything we do in life could be described mathematically. Almost everything that drives our modern technological society is based on maths – and practical applications are being used by Irish mathematicians in a variety of areas. Feeling oblivious to the numbers all around us? You just have to look a little bit closer.

Maths Week Ireland kicks off tomorrow. Now in its sixth year, it aims to promote the subject at primary and post-primary level and demonstrates just how much of everyday life is driven by maths.

A noble endeavour indeed, but the event has a long way to go in terms of making any real difference in Irish society. Despite maths’ prominence in everything we do, the world still appears in terms that shy away from all things numerical for most people.

“Maths in everyday life goes beyond just using arithmetic in a shop to pay for your groceries,” says Dr Brien Nolan of DCU. “We use it in so many ways throughout the day. If you read an article in a newspaper you need to be able to understand percentages, statistics and opinion polls. You need maths to form an opinion about climate change. Playing sports, gambling or trying to decide between ESB and Airtricity to be your utility provider, all require mathematics. These are just some mundane encounters we face everyday,” he adds.

“Contrast this with the stuff where maths is under the bonnet – in telecommunications and IT. When you make a phone call or send a text, there’s a mathematical algorithm working in the background that deals with the incoming data. You don’t need to see it or know how it works. But you’d find life incredibly difficult if it wasn’t there.”

Irish Science Blogs

At last, there is now a one stop shop for all the best posts from Ireland's leading science bloggers. A new Tumblr has been set up which aggregates and collates all the latests posts from some of the best of Ireland's science blogs including Science Calling, Think or Swim, Communicate Science, The Strange Quark, Scibernia, Science.ie, Live at the Witch Trials and many more. There is also an associated Twitter account: @IrishSciBlogs (which is unfortunately currently suspended but should be back up and running in a day or so). Happy reading.

Visit: Irish Science Blogs to start exploring now.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

YouTube Space Lab

YouTube have launched a brilliant competition for students aged 14 to 18. Collaborating with NASA, ESA & JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency), YouTube want you to design an experiment to perform on the International Space Station (ISS) - with the winning entry actually be carried out on the ISS and streamed lived around the globe (as well as taking home some more awesome prizes). Entries should design the zero gravity experiment carefully and upload a video explaining it to YouTube. The expert panel of judges include world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking.

Students may submit experiments individually or in groups of up to three young scientists. The European finalists will win a visit to the training facilities of the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne while two global winners - one from the 14-16 age group and one from the 17-18 age group - will have their experiments conducted on the ISS. The winners also will be given the option to either fly to Japan to see the shuttle containing their experiment launched into space or given a chance to train at Star City, the Russian training camp for astronauts.

For more information on YouTube Space Lab visit their dedicated website or watch the video below. Closing date for entries is December 7th 2011. Get brainstorming and good luck!

Has Evidence of the Mythical Kraken Been Discovered?

Over 200 million years ago, during the Triassic Period, the oceans of Earth were roamed by giant marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs. Larger than school buses, these toothed giants topped the food chain or so it was thought. However, new evidence from fossils analysed by paleontologist Mark McMenamin suggests that an even larger predator fed on these sea monsters - one which could resemble the mythical kraken, a giant octopus like sea creature. 

Studying the fossil of a 45 foot long Shonisaurus popularis (illustrated above) at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada, McMenamin studied the etching on some of the bones. The etching suggested that the shonisaurs were not  killed and buried at the same time. It also looked like the bones had been purposefully rearranged. In addition, the arranged vertebrae resembled the pattern of sucker discs on a cephalopod tentacle, with each vertebra strongly resembling a coleoid sucker. This got McMenamin thinking about a particular modern predator, the octopus, which drowns or breaks the neck of their prey before dragging the corpses to their lair. The modern octopus is also known to arrange the bones of its prey. But such a predator would need to be colossal to bring down the Shonisaurus, leading McMenamin to believe that the mythical kraken may once have existed.

However, there is no direct evidence for the beast - which would have been the most intelligent animal on the planet at the time - though McMenamin suggests that's because it was soft-bodied and didn't stand the test of time. McMenamin presented his work yesterday at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in the US. Don't worry though - it's safe to go in the water!


In April last year, the Gulf of Mexico was on the brink of an environmental disaster when over 200 million gallons of oil leaked from a damaged pipe from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But how much impact globally did the oil leak cause, how could this oil have been used and how long would it have lasted if it were used up? This excellent two minute Vimeo presentation is an excellent classroom discussion piece and the perfect way to introduce non-renewal energy sources to a wide range of age groups.

Monday, 10 October 2011

RDS Science Live

The RDS Science Live Series continues during October and November and I am told there is some limted availability for some of their up and coming events. The workshops include ' A Statisical Approach to Calculus' (Transition Year and up) on October 12th 2011, 'Battleship Maths' (Junior Cycle & Transition Year) on November 14th 2011 and their popular 'Fire!' (Junior Cycle & Transition Year). A place on each of these talks costs just €2 per student and places will be offered on a first come first served basis. To book your place contact Karen Sheerin at the RDS. For full details on the entire Science Live Series click here.

Form I Science Trip - Photo Slideshow

Here are a selection of photos from the highly successful Form I Science Trip to Northern Ireland last week. If you have any photos you would like to add, email them to contact@frogblog.ie.


Form I Science Trip - Day 3

We awoke to a calm bright morning and all had a hearty breakfast. The breakfast room was quite as the pace of the last two days was taking its toll on the pupils. We walked round to the 'Exploris' aquarium and started with the touch tank. As always this was greatly enjoyed by the pupils as many of them had not handled many of the animals before. The squirting of the scallops when they were removed from the water was the most popular activity. As the guide took us through the general exhibits he was listened to with concentration and many notes were taken. Once again the quality of the questions asked by the pupils was commented on. Eventually we came to the seal tanks and there were many oohs and aaghs! Then it was onto the bus and the ferry and back home. 

This was once again a most successful tour where the pupils learned a lot of scientific information and perhaps, even more importantly, they became much more bonded as a group. All the staff were impressed by the good behavior and interest of the pupils. Well done all.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

YouTube Saturday - What is the Higgs Boson

Our latest slice of scientific YouTube action sees Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln describes the nature of the elusive Higgs boson. Several large experimental groups around the world are hot on the trail of this mysterious subatomic particle which is thought to explain the origins of particle mass. Enjoy!!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Form I Science Trip - Day 2

Day two started bright and breezy. We all enjoyed a full Irish breakfast with potato scones before heading for W5 in Belfast. The new Titanic interpretive centre looks fabulous with its silver bow shaped cladding representing the Titanic and its sister ships. The first activity of the day was a chemical reactions workshop where they did exothermic and endothermic reactions, neutralisation and the screaming jelly baby experiment. This was greatly enjoyed by all. Next we went into the main exhibition areas where all the pupils had great fun trying the numerous interactive exhibits for over an hour. We ate lunch in W5 and as we made our way to the bus we had a close look at the ‘Seacat’ a catamaran ferry.

Just as we were setting off for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at Castle Espie the heavens opened. Fortunately our driver Wayne offered to take us on a tour of Belfast. He took us down the Falls Road and the Shankill Road with their numerous colourful murals and explained much of the history of the area during the recent troubles. We stopped at the Peace Wall and disembarked to examine and sign the wall. The pupils were particularly intrigued by the Europa Hotel; the most bombed hotel in the world. He also showed us HMS Liverpool one of the only two remaining ships to have fought in the battle of Jutland during WWI and the two giant Harland and Wolf cranes affectionately called ‘Samson and Goliath’.

The deluge continued but we set off for Castle Espie. As we pulled into the car park the rain miraculously stopped. John McCulloch the education officer met us and took us on a guided tour. We saw the Hawaiian Goose and the Marbled Teal whose population has been decimated by Saddam Hussein when he diverted the Tigris to drain the southern marshes in an effort to dislodge the local population of Marsh Arabs. We then went to the main hide and saw a large proportion of the 23 700 Brent Geese; the vast majority of the world’s population. John explained the ins and outs of their migration and fielded some very interesting questions from the pupils.

Next we saw a Neolithic house and several other lesser attractions including the world’s most expensive toilet. It was the back to the hostel for a tasty dinner followed by an hilarious game of Twister using questions based on the day’s activities. Another fantastic action packed day.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Form I Science Trip - Day 1

Setting off bright and early Wednesday morning, more or less on time, the school's youngest pupils were full of chatter for most of the way to the exciting and hugely impressive Armagh Planetarium. There the pupils and teachers were treated to a video of the stars and planets in our solar system and then a second video about the effects of space on the human body - both treated to a series of "Ah's" from the pupils.

After the impressive videos the pupils took part in a rocket building workshop -  which went down a treat especially launching the rockets. Each team had a most successful set of launches and it was impossible to pick a winner as all of them flew so far. After lunch the pupils were reassigned to outdoor duty - the planetarium's 'planet park' where the kids were split into groups and each group was assingned a planet to collect information about in preparation for making a presentation, without notes, later in the evening. They all set about this enthusiastically. 

Later in the afternoon, the pupils visited the Ulster Transport Museum in Hollywood, although they didn't have enough time to explore the centre fully so, instead, spent a lot of time arriving visiting the Titanic Exhibition - which proved very popular. 

Setting off from Hollywood, we made for the ferry at Strangford. This again caused great excitement especially when we let them out onto deck. When we got to Barholm House we found it totally refurbished and under new management. Supper was of a very high standard and so was this mornings breakfast. Next came the presentations. All the groups had used teamwork each individual contributing to the presentation and the standard was amazingly high, especially as they were not allowed to use notes. The prize for best presentation was won by Penny Nash, Max Hillary and Ralph Sweetman for a very well researched and presented talk on Saturn. After that we watched a video and thence to slumber - after a lot more chattering.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Form I Science Trip

The annual Form I Science Trip to Northern Ireland begins today, with all the members of Tibradden & Beresford Houses excited with the prospect of spending a few days away from Dublin exploring the sights and sounds of Belfast and the Ards Peninsula. Today the youngest pupils of St. Columba's will visit the Armagh Planetarium and the Ulster Transport Museum before arriving in their host town of Portaferry. Over the next few days they will visit Exploris (a wonderful aquarium and seal sanctuary), W5, Castle Espie, Scrabo Tower, Grey Abbey and other sites of science interest. We hope to have a pupil report and loads of photos in the coming few days.

Nobel Prizes in Science 2011

Since 1901, awards for excellence in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine have been bestowed on some of the greatest minds on the planet, but who have been taking home the coveted awards in the sciences this year and why? 

On Monday the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to both Bruce A. BeutlerJules A. Hoffmann and Ralph M. Steinman. The three were all involved in furthering our understanding of how our body fights infection. Beutler and Hoffman discovered how the body's first line of defence was activated while Steinman discovered the dendritic cell, which helps defeat infection. 

Yesterday the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae" with one half to Saul Perlmutter and the other half jointly to Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess. The three scientists studied what are called Type 1a supernovae, determining that more distant objects seem to move faster. Their observations suggest that not only is the Universe expanding, its expansion is relentlessly speeding up.

And today, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Daniel Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals (pictured above) - strange and elusive crystals with a structure thought once to be impossible. The discovery was highly controversial and provoked seriously debate when first reported on - causing him to be kicked out of his research group. Quasicrystals was made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units - unlike all other crystals that are regular and precisely repeating. Quasicrystals have since been found in nature (a lake in Russia) and can now be produced in laboratories far more readily. Indeed, a Swedish company has found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery. Scientists are also experimenting with using quasicrystals in coatings for frying pans, heat insulation in engines, diesel engines and in light-emitting devices, or LEDs.

All three prizes winners will receive approximately €1.5 million when they receive their awards in December.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Tevatron Particle Accelerator Closes Down

The Tevatron particle accelerator near Chicago - the US equivalent of CERN's Large Hadron Collider - has closed down, due to the cessation of capital funding. For the past 26 years, the Tevatron atom smasher has been delving into the secrets of subatomic particles - the tiny building blocks of our universe.

The Tevatron, which accelerates and collides protons and antiprotons in a four-mile-long (6.28 km) underground ring has been superseded by the much larger LHC, under the French-Swiss border, which is capable of creating much higher energies than the US project. Physicists at the U.S. lab will now turn to smaller, more focused projects — such as building the most intense proton beam — as they pass the high-energy physics baton to CERN's bigger, better atom smasher.

Tevatron’s greatest achievement is arguable the discovery of the top quark in 1995, the heaviest elementary particle known to exist. Though it is as heavy as an atom of gold, the top quark’s mass is crammed into an area far smaller than a single proton. 

While the Tevatron will no longer be running experiments, the scientists there have not given up hope of making a major contribution to finding the Higgs boson – thought to be the agent which turned mass into solid matter soon after the Big Bang that created the universe 13.7 billion years ago.