o The Frog Blog: February 2012

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

How Many Neurons in Your Brain?

Homer Simpson's brain may contain fewer brain cells or neurons than the average cartoon character's (except maybe SpongeBob SquarePants - sponges don't have brains). But the question remains - what is the average number of neurons in the human brain? Now a new study, led by neuroscientist Dr. Suzana Herculan-Houzel from Brazil, has found out.

Houzel and her team of researchers used some nasty sounding techniques to determine the number of neuronal cells in the brain. Using four brains from individuals who donated their organs to science, the scientists turned the brain tissue in to a "brain soup". They then dissolved the cell membranes, therefore mixing up all the nuclei. They then sampled the soup, counted the number of neuronal nuclei, scaled up the figure and hey presto! 

So what is the average number of cells in the brain? Well, the brain consists of neurons and other cells called neuroglia or just glia (these glial cells help maintain homeostasis, form the insulating myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons in the brain - they include Schwann cells which you might have heard about). The researchers found that, on average, there are 86 billion neurons and 84 billion glial cells in the brain. This is far less than originally thought, with many scientist estimating the figure was closer to 100 billion.

The researchers also found that the ratio between glial cells and neurons in the human brain structures are similar to those found in other primates, and their numbers of cells match those expected for a primate of human proportions. The findings challenge the common view that humans stand out from other primates in their brain composition and indicate that, with regard to numbers of neuronal and glial cells, the human brain is just a scaled-up primate brain.

The research is published in Journal of Comparative Neurology.

Racing Academy: Scientific Enquiry Through Gaming

The use of gaming technology to facilitate enquiry based learning in science is increasing in popularity. Research has shown that its use can help develop critical thinking and problem solving skills in young people - important skills for future generations of scientists and engineers. Racing Academy is one such tool being used in Irish and UK schools. It's a racing video-game built on an advanced physics simulation engine "intended to support an online community of learners’ increased familiarity with engineering concepts, through racing and engineering realistic virtual models of cars". The use of the web means collaborators need not be in the same school, let alone country. To date, the games developers (FutureLabsLateral Visions) have produced a prototype, which has been trialled with older teenagers, and now feel there is scope for it to become a multi-generational learning environment.

The students use the game to design, build and maintain their cars and race them using realistic driving simulations. They must then monitor and analyse their performance using data from a variety of telemetry outputs, competing as teams within a virtual community of engineers and drivers. The gaming "engine" allows users to manipulate over 1,000 parameters on their vehicles. Students have to build and maintain their vehicles in order to enter and compete in races.

Now Irish teachers can get access to this wonderful technology. Blackrock Education Centre will host a workshop next week (Wednesday March 7th @ 7pm) on using Racing Academy as a tool for enquiry-based learning. Attendees will be given access to the programme for their students. Places are limited to 20 but spaces are still available. This activity is in partnership with Pathway to Inquiry Based Science Education project in DCU.

For more information and to book your place for this exciting project click here.

Technology Rocks at Engineers Ireland

Engineers Ireland are hosting a really interesting event this Thursday evening (6:30pm to 7:30pm) on the science behind the electric guitar. 'Technology Rocks' is aimed specifically at post-primary school students (aged 12-15) and forms part of the brilliant programme of events for Engineers Week 2012. The talk promises to entertain and inform - bringing the science of sound, electricity, magnetism and electromagnetism to life. The evening will also see Scientific Sue sending music across the room using a laser pen and there will be a large collection of cool gadgets, such as remote controlled cars and helicopters and a wall climbing car, helping to demonstrate scientific principles. 

The event is completely free but booking is essential (there are only some limited spaces available). Click here to find out more and to book your tickets.

Why Do We Have Leap Years?

A leap year occurs every four years, when February has an extra day (today). This day is called a leap day or intercalary day. Dr. Mary Singleton, St. Columba's College physics teacher explains the reason for this extra day.

A year in astronomical terms is the time taken for the earth to complete one full orbit of the sun. This time is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 sec. This means that by having a year of 365 days, we are getting out of step by 5 hours 48minutes and 46 seconds each year. While this might not seem like much the result would be that over the course of a century the difference between the solar year and the calendar year would amount to 25 days, so relatively quickly the accepted seasons would get out of kilter. In order to avoid this situation an extra day is added to the calendar every four years, thus accounting for the overshoot.

However this is not completely correct. In fact by doing this the calendars are still out by 11 minutes 14 seconds. This would mean that every 128 years we would have gained an extra day. To correct for this an extra rule was introduced, that a century year is not a leap year unless it is evenly divisible by 400!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

YouTube Saturday: Science Nation Army

Using real footage and sounds from a working science lab, a group of students from Imperial College Science Communication Masters have produced a unique version of the White Stripes song Seven Nation Army. The video is cleverly edited, but shows all aspects of laboratory work. The researchers filmed are researching the effects of explosions from IED's (improvised explosive device) on cells, tissues and whole limbs. They spent hours setting up equipment to create a huge explosion lasting mere seconds, and then spent further hours analysing the results. One of the team, Anna Perrman, has a great piece on how the video went viral on the Guardian website and why they are so proud of what they've achieved!

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Scale of the Universe

In a previous post we highlighted a brilliant flash animation from Learn.Genetics to show the scale of living cells to atoms. Now a similar animation goes much further, allowing you explore the entire scale of the universe, using a simple scroll bar. As a teaching tool it's perfect for introducing DNA, exploring the atom, sub-atomic particles, wavelenthgs of light, comparing planet or star size in astronomy or simply just for fun. It's "fascinating for any biologist, chemist, physicist, astronomer, cosmologist, science student or simply anyone who marvels at our insignificance in the grand scale of things". Click here to visit 'Scale of the Universe'

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Weird Watery Exoplanet Confirmed

As planets go, GJ 1214b is right up there on the weird stakes. However, it's also wonderful! Representing a new category of exoplanet, GJ 1214b has been confirmed as a mysterious waterworld with a thick steamy atmosphere by astronomers working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Dubbed a "Super-Earth", the exoplanet is about 2.7 times the diameter of our home planet but weights nearly seven times as much. It orbits a cool, dim red-dwarf star (80% of all stars are red dwarves) at a distance of just two million KM (Earth is nearly 150 million KM from our Sun). Yet, because the red dwarf sun is much cooler than our own home planet, the temperatures on GJ 1214b probably don't exceed 230°C. Spectral analysis and estimations of its density suggest the planet consists mainly of water.

With the high temperatures and pressures on the surface of the mysterious waterworld things get a little freaky though. It is believed that the water might behave strangely in these conditions, creating exotic materials like 'hot ice' or 'superfluid water', substances not found on our world. The planet is like nothing astronomers have ever seen before and, being relatively close to Earth (around 40 light years), there will be opportunities for further analysis in the future - principally using the new James Webb Space Telescope which will be launched in around 5 years time.

The excellent Bad Astronomy blog has more on this story. The research paper is available here.

David Puttnam on 'Technology, Education & Ireland'

The 'Open Minds Series' returns next Monday (February 27th) with the brilliant David Puttnam speaking on "Technology, education and Ireland: How new ways of learning can assist economic recovery". The 'Open Mind Series' is a collaborative effort from McCann FitzGerald and TCD's Science Gallery, which will see some of the world’s leading thinkers coming together to support the development of Ireland as a global centre for science, technology and innovation. The event kicks off at 6:30pm sharp and pre-booking is essential. Tickets cost €10 or €6 if you are a student. Further information can be access from the Science Gallery website here.

David Puttnam - A Short Biography.

As well as producing award winning films like The Mission, The Killing Fields, Local Hero, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone and Memphis Belle, David Puttnam has been working in the areas of education, the environment, and the 'creative and communications' for nearly 15 years. He founded the National Teaching Awards, was the founding Chair of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and spent 10 years as the Chancellor of The University of Sunderland. He is President of the Film Distributors’ Association, Chairman of The Sage Gateshead, Deputy Chairman of Channel Four, Deputy Chairman of Profero and a trustee of the Eden Project. He is also the present Chancellor of the Open University,

The talk is sure to inspire and engage, and might prove a nice way to top off what is sure to be a cracking weekend at the CESI Conference in Portlaoise?

Reposted from More Stress Less Success.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Origins of Photosynthesis in Plants & Algae Revealed

A detailed new study has revealed the origins of photosynthesis in modern plants and algae, and confirms that all plants and algae share a common ancestor. This common ancestor would have formed by endosymbiosis - a theory that eukaryotic cell organelles (like chloroplasts) originated from bacteria that were taken inside the cell. 

The team of scientists from Rutgers University sequenced over 70 million base pairs of the genome of the single celled alga Cyanophora - an extremely simple and ancient organisms - focusing on the plastids or chlorplasts. By comparing the results with DNA sequences from plastids of modern plants and algae, the scientists were able to find common genes between modern plants and these ancient algae. They also found that the Cyanophora also share some gene sequences from their cyanobacterial cousins! The results were published in the journal Science.

For more information on this study click here.

PDST Data Logging Workshops for Junior Science

The Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST) have annouced a new series of follow-up workshops are follow-up on using DATA LOGGING technologies in junior science lessons. During the sessions, participants will be guided through the Vernier's Logger Pro software and how it can be used to enhance investigative science. Any issues involving the use of LabQuests or TI Calculators will be addressed. The main focus on the night will be on how to create graphs and charts in LoggerPro, transferring data from loggers to LoggerPro, analysing graphs, inserting text, photos, etc. into LoggerPro and how to add pages to a LoggerPro report. All participants who bring their laptops will also be given the most up to date software for LoggerPro. 

There are a number of sessions planned - the dates and venues below.
  • Donegal Education Centre - Tuesday March 6th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Galway Education Centre - Wednesday March 7th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Galway Education Centre - Thursday March 8th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Navan Education Centre, Tuesday March 20th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Limerick Education Centre - Thursday March 22th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Blackrock Education Centre - Monday March 26th, 7 – 9 pm
  • Kilkenny Education Centre - Tuesday March 27th, 7 – 9 pm

To apply for a place on any course email your name, number and school details to sciences@pdst.ie.

National Library of Ireland Launches 'Particles of the Past' Exhibition

The National Library of Ireland (NLI) will shortly launch a new interactive multimedia exhibition entitled 'Particles of the Past', showcasing a fascinating selection of science-related gems from their collections. The exhibition forms part of the Dublin City of Science 2012 programme of events and promises to provide a wonderful insight in to the works of some of Ireland greatest scientists and engineers.

There is an eclectic mix going on display including booklets and postcards on the wondrous engineering feat that was Ireland's first hydroelectric power station at Ardnacrusha (a massive tourist attraction at the time), a handwritten journal recording Captain Cook’s second voyage and displays of early Irish photography.

NLI Co-Curator Riona McMorrow recognises that, despite being a humanities library, their collection houses some wonderful pieces that “reflect what was going on in the scientific world hundreds of years ago"

The library will also display Robert Boyle's seminal work ‘The Sceptical Chymist’, and a book containing an interesting collection of home remedies for everything from sore throats to piles. NLI Co-Curator Aoife O’Connor describes some of here favourite 17th century cures:
“In the 1700s they were doing things like crushing up earthworms, powdering them and feeding them to people; the powdered earthworms were generally served with white wine it seems! Another remedy involved the use of human faeces to cure eye complaints. Fantastic stuff!”
As mentioned before, 'Particles of the Past' is very much an interactive exhibition. So, in addition to viewing items in their cases, visitors will be able to examine them in greater detail by using our innovative ‘Discovery’ touchscreens. Each item will also have an accompanying video where visitors can listen to an expert discuss the item in greater depth. Finally, visitors can also look forward to the conservation and preservation elements of the exhibition where they can see how science is used here in the NLI to protect individual items in our collections so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

The exhibition opens next Tuesday, February 28th, promising to be a brilliant exhibition and a highlight of the Dublin City of Science programme.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

YouTube Saturday - Smart Futures: Made in Ireland

Recently I wrote how choosing a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) would provide young people with the necessary skills needed for the competitive jobs market ahead. This video, created by STEPS as part of their Smart Futures campaign to highlight the career opportunities available for young graduates in ICT, furthers that argument illustrating the accelerating pace of change in society and technology in recent years. The excellent video also reveals why engineers will always be necessary to keep finding solutions for society.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

YouTube Saturday - How Do 3d Glasses Work?

3D movies are everywhere and some, like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, are simply mind bogglingly good! But, just how do those nifty 3D glasses work? Professor Phil Moriarty, a member of the Sixty Symbols team, explains all!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

"I See Dead People" - The Human Body Exhibition Opens in Dublin

The Human Body Exhibition returns to Dublin today, opening for a three month stint at the Ambassador Theatre on Parnell Street. The controversial exhibition features preserved human bodies, modelled to reveal the true complexity and beauty of this wonderful machine. The 200 specimens, spread over nine galleries, provide insight into how the human body functions and how it is affected by lifestyle choices, such as smoking and overeating. The exhibition is designed to educate, encourage and enlighten, often displaying the physical damage caused by neglecting your body. One display starkly reveals the differences between a pair of healthy human lungs and those of a regular smoker.

The exhibition travels all around the world and where it goes controversy always follows. There has been criticism over the source of the bodies - nearly all are "unclaimed" bodies of Chinese citizens and there has been some suggestion that some of the bodies were those of Chinese prisoners. According to the exhibition curators, Dalian Hoffen Bio-technique Laboratory, all the bodies are "legally donated". 

The preservation technique is very interesting indeed. Using a process called plastination, the body water is removed and replaced with a liquid silicone rubber that is treated and hardened. The end result is a rubberised specimen, preserved to the cellular level, showcasing the complexity of the body’s many bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and organs. The full-body specimens can take over a year to prepare. 

The exhibition is deeply controversial but one cannot deny its educational potential. It will foster an appreciation of the complexity of the human body amongst the young and old, and hopefully spark a debate around ethical issues in science and technology.

The exhibition is open daily, from this evening. Ticket information on Ticketmaster.ie.