o The Frog Blog: March 2012

Saturday, 24 March 2012

YouTube Saturday - Einstein & Special Relativity

This week's featured video again comes from the excellent 'Minute Physics'. The animated video takes a look at how Albert Einstein and others discovered the Theory of Special Relativity. Enjoy!

Monday, 12 March 2012

What is a Scientist?

Stemming from last week's post on influential figures in Irish science, Stefano Sanvito (one of the individuals listed) conveyed his disappointment via Twitter on the lack of "scientists" on the list. However, Irish Times science journalist Claire O'Connell pointed out that most of the list had a science background and most were involved in research. Thus followed a really interesting debate on Twitter about the definition of a scientist. Sanvito was adament that a scientist is "somebody who's job is to do science", producing "new knowledge, which is reproducible and verifiable". He believed most of his colleagues would agree with his definition. O'Connell disputed this, saying an individual need not be actively involved in research to be considered a scientist. As a former researcher she considers a scientist "as someone who trained as one and uses those skills" in their everyday lives (e.g. writing about science or teaching it in my case). She described it more along the lines of "a way of looking at the world ... and beyond" and that "once a scientist always a scientist". Maria Daly from the excellent Science Calling weekly blog also became involved and I think it's fair to say was slightly divided by the argument (correct me if I'm wrong Maria!).

It was a really interesting debate which got me thinking - is there a divide amongst the science community on the definition? So I thought I would throw this short post together to share my definition of a scientist and ask for your opinion - if you are a self professed scientist or not.

My own personal view is very much along the line of Claire O'Connell's. For me, science is a way of looking at the world, of questioning what we see and looking for ways of making things better. Science doesn't have to occur in a research lab. As a teacher I often describe some of my students as "good scientists", not because they get good examination results but because they cast a questioning eye on their world, look for problems, imagine solutions, experiment and draw conclusions. This is my definition of a scientist. I studied science at university, completed post-graduate research yet have been teaching for 11 years now. I still consider myself a scientist because I too look at the world in the same way. I don't do this in a lab all the time - sometimes I look about my house, find problems, design solutions, experiment and fix things. Science is a process and a scientists follows the process.

Do you agree with Claire & I or Stefano? I'd would love to hear your definition of what a scientist is .....

Saturday, 10 March 2012

YouTube Saturday: Food Lab @ Science Gallery

If you haven't had a chance to visit Science Gallery's tasty new exhibition EDIBLE yet, get thee down to "Ireland's new science hub" now! EDIBLE is the gallery's first "foray into food", tackling the "vast topic from the perspective of the eater, probing how our actions as eaters shape what is sown, grown, harvested and consumed". The most interactive exhibit at the event is Maria Phelan's FOOD LAB and this week's YouTube Saturday video gives us a flavour of what to expect!

"Food Lab provides a flavour of the biochemical processes involved in human gustation, consumption and digestion. Test out your taste buds with a tongue map and take a closer look at life maintaining macro-nutrients on a microscopic scale. Investigate how digestive enzymes in saliva can break down starches into sugars needed for energy. Find out what the average slice of bread or a potato contains and what this means in terms of nutritional support for the body. Explore the chemistry behind using yeast in baking, the science of preserving food or the role of ethylene gas in food decomposition. Food Lab plates up an interactive experience that assesses appetite regulation and food perception, from the initial aroma of a tasty morsel to its final digestion and assimilation into the body."

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Influential Figures in Irish Science - Survey Results

Last Monday I asked for suggestions on “who are the most influential figures in Irish science?” On the face of it a simple question but at the time I really underestimated the scope of Irish science. The answer, therefore, is not clear cut. There are so many aspects in Irish science – science communication, research, policy, funding, outreach or education – that picking one individual (or indeed organisation) as the “most influential” is very difficult and probably unfair. For this reason I don’t think it is appropriate to put the list to a poll, as I had suggested in my original post. Instead, I suggest that this post serve as a “thank you” to each individual or organisation for the work they do for Irish science. 

The individuals and institutions mentioned below were all nominated through the web form or on twitter. In hindsight I might have preferred if the discussion had been more open and had occurred in the comment thread of the original post, rather than via an anonymous form. Saying that, I hope that this post serve as a forum for further discussion on the influences in Irish science and maybe help each of us understand the other tiers of influence more clearly. The comment thread can also be used to add names not on the list below. While all submissions through the website were done anonymously I believe all were made in good faith. 

As mentioned already, the “influential figures” named below come from various areas. Some are actively involved in research with many at the top of their fields nationally and internationally. Some are science communicators, using various forms of media to promote science as fun, interesting, relevant etc. Others are politicians or public servants who play an important role in developing science policy over in the short and long terms. There are also a number of organisations or informal groups mentioned. Some of the figures were named once, others numerous times. Bizarrely my own name was mentioned and I have included it below (which I debated over) but I want to assure you that this post was not designed to be a tool for self praise. I certainly don’t consider myself an influential figure in Irish science. 

So here is the list of individuals nominated and some of the comments made about them – not all comments are published. 

Pterosaur Bone Found in Velociraptor Gut

A detailed analysis of a 75 million year old fossil in the Gobi Desert has sparked debate amongst palaeontologists. The fossil is that of the voracious predator Velociraptor - the dinosaur made famous by Jurassic Park - with the remains of a Ptersoaur (flying dinosaur) bone in it's gut. Although represented in Jurassic Park as a seven foot tall monster, Velociraptor was actually no bigger than a domestic turkey and probably had a light dusting of feathers.

The pterosaur bone was 75mm long bone was found in the rib cage of the Velociraptor, where its gut would have been. There is little fossil evidence of theropod feeding so the result if significant. One of the co-authors of the report, published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology, is David Hone - a palaeontologist and friend of the Frog Blog who was working in UCD at the time of the study. He describes how rare the find is:
"Gut contents are pretty rare and pterosaur bones are rather fragile and don't preserve well, so it is an unusual find." 
"It would be difficult and probably even dangerous for the small theropod dinosaur to target a pterosaur with a wingspan of 2 metres or more, unless the pterosaur was already ill or injured,"
This would therefore suggest that the Velociraptor was likely scavaging from the carcass of the fallen pterosaur. In addition to proving that Velociraptors took advantage of ailing animals, Dr Hone suggests that the evidence also suggests small dinosaurs were well able to eat relatively large bones - something shared by modern crocodiles.

However, its likely that the little Velociraptor didn't get too much time to enjoy his meal. The fossil evidence suggests that the pterosaur bone was not eroded by stomach acids so its likely the little predator died shortly after his meal. The detailed fossil hints at a rib injury as the cause of death.

To find out more about this story visit David's excellent blog Archosaur Musings or read a report from the BBC Nature website on this significant find.

Image Credit: Brett Booth.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Improbable Frequency - A Musical With Science

'Improbable Frequency', the award winning hit comedy musical, returns to the Gaiety Theatre from March 13th to 24th. 2012. Produced by Rough Magic Theatre Company, written by Arthur Riordan with music from Bell Hellicopter, the hilarious comedy follows the exploits of British codebreaker Tristram Faraday’s during a secret mission to Dublin during WWII as he investigates suspicious radio broadcasts. Before long, he is drawn into a morass of intrigue and deception that involves overthrowing the British, undermining the Nationalists and subverting the forces of nature.

As the name might suggest there are many an improbable encounter along the way, with the likes of John Betjeman (the English Poet moonlighting as a spy); Nobel Prize physicist Erwin Schrödinger (Radio waves, sub-atomic theories and and the laws of probability are all central to the plot); Myles na gCopaleen, the surreal Irish Times satirist; and Agent Green, and old flame of Tristram’s and fellow spy and crossword. In order to avert disaster and perhaps impress the lovely Philomena, Tristram will have to draw on his uncanny ability to solve crossword puzzles and his ...... well, that’s pretty much all he can draw on actually. Tickets are on sale from here - from €15 to €49.50. A great night guaranteed!

The Frog Blog is giving away two tickets to the (official) opening night of 'Improbable Frequency', on Thursday March 15th 2012 in the Gaiety. To be in with a chance simply tweet a link to this post on twitter  - make sure @TheFrogBlog is mentioned! (or if you don't subscribe to the "twitter machine" just leave your name and email address in the comment box below). The winner will be announced on Friday!


Monday, 5 March 2012

Who Are The Most Influential Figures in Irish Science?

Science, technology and engineering have a greater presence in online media, print media, radio and television of late - which is to be welcomed! This can be attributed to many things: Dublin's proclamation as 'European City of Science 2012'; the eminent European Science Open Forum; RTÉ's recent call for new science programming; a growing list of Irish science blogs; a vibrant science community with Science Gallery as its fulcrum; our science twitterati; good science journalism (principally in the form of the Irish Times) along a more media savvy scientific community, conscience of the need to communicate the significant scientific advances being made by Irish researchers. 

So I thought I'd ask the Irish science community, and anyone else who feels they want to get involved, who  they think are the most influential figures in Irish science? 

Might it be our Minister for Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation Richard Bruton, our government's Scientific Advisor Patrick Cunningham, prominent researchers like SFI Researchers of the Year Jonathan Coleman in TCD, Irish science celebrities like Dara O'Briain or Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, science communicators like Aoife McLysaght (who is of course also a top researcher in her field of genetics) or Michael John Gorman from Science Gallery? Is Irish Times science editor Dick Ahlstrom the voice of Irish science or are there other individuals or groups which need mentioning?

My hope is to create a list of all the suggested individuals or groups and then maybe put it to a poll (not appropriate I think)? Let me know what you think and use the form below (or on twitter by using the hashtag #irishscience) to nominate.

Survey now over - click here to see who was nominated.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

YouTube Saturday - Cutting & Pasting DNA

This weeks YouTube Saturday video comes from cell biologist Dr Jenny Rohn. In the video she describes how cutting and pasting DNA and genetically manipulating cells can make them change shape or function. The film was made by physics teacher and film maker Alom Shaha.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Amazing Line-up Announced for ISTA 50th Annual Conference

Details of the 50th Irish Science Teachers Association Annual Conference have been announced and boy is it shaping up to be a cracker! A 'Symphony of Science' is this year's theme and the line-up of speakers and workshops is extremely impressive. Delegates are sure to be inspired and have their passion for science teaching ignited! The programme of events takes place over the weekend of April 20th - 22nd in Trinity College Dublin & the Science Gallery and registration is now open!

There are several key figures from the world of Irish science speaking at the event as well some of the UK's great science communicators. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing Dr. Michael Mosley, presenter of BBC's 'Inside the Human Body' series (as well as many others) giving the plenary lecture on the Saturday afternoon. Also in the line-up are UK based physics teachers and film maker Alom Shaha, TCD Biochemistry Professor Luke O'Neill, UCC's Professor of Microbrial Food Safety Colin HillDr Eric Finch (Senior Lecturer TCD School of Physics), Dr Ronan McNulty (UCD School of Physics), friend of the Frog Blog Dr Aoife McLysaght (TCD Genetics & science communicator), Dr Ciara McMahon (Director of Environmental Surveillance and Assessment) and many more. Also on the programme of events are a series of workshops for teachers of physics, chemistry and biology as well as exhibits from SciFest. Mary Mulvihill from Ingenious Ireland will give a two hour science themed walking tour of Dublin on the Sunday moring too - something that will surely shake off the cobwebs from the night before! Winners of the PharmaChemical Ireland Teacher Awards will also be announced at the event, with the finalists each giving a short presentation on the work they do to promote science in their schools. I'll be there too - speaking on the opening night but attending all weekend - so come along to put a face on the frog!

Details of the event and registration (which is absolutely essential) are on the ISTA's dedicated conference website. Credit must go to Mary Mullaghy, Chairperson of the ISTA Dublin Branch, for all her hard work in compiling such an impressive line-up!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

TMED7 - The "Big Switch" in Our Immune System

To fight off infection from nasty bacteria and viruses the human body has evolved a really sophisticated immune system. Our white blood cells are responsible for the production of antibodies to help destroy foreign bodies but their work must be controlled carefully. Built in to the immune system is a safety "off switch", which makes sure the immune response doesn't go too far, preventing life threatening illnesses.

Now a collaborative research project involving scientists from Trinity College Dublin and Norwegian University of Science and Technology have discovered a gene for a new ‘off switch’ in our immune response. Developing a further understanding of how the gene (and the protein it codes for) works could help fight diseases caused by over-activation of our immune system and help to improve vaccines for diseases like HIV & malaria. 

The research team, led by Dr Anne McGettrick and Professor Luke O’Neill, at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, have discovered that the new protein, called TMED7 (which stands for Transmembrane Emp24 Domain-containing protein 7 - now you know its called TMED7), can shut down part of our immune system once an infection has been eliminated. Dr. McGettrick explains why sop signals are so important.
“Without stop signals like TMED7 our immune system would continue to rage out of control long after the infection has been cleared, leading to diseases such as septic shock,” 
There is a danger that the immune system, if not properly shut down, could start to attack our own cells - a situation which can prove extremely dangerous. However, in certain cases, removing stop signals and boosting our immune system can be advantageous. This is particularly the case in the development of effective vaccinges for tricky diseases like malaria or HIV. Vaccines for these diseases have failed because our immune systems do not mount a strong enough immune response to the vaccine. The newly discovered protein, TMED7, actually makes vaccines less effective by blocking another protein called TLR4 - which is involved in activating our innate immune system. If we could block TMED7 from working this could help boost our immune response to vaccines and make the vaccines much more effective. The research team aim to carry out further research on TMED7, and the family of proteins to which it belongs, to try to find more exciting new prospects for understanding our immune system.

The findings of the study are published in the journal Nature Communications

New Drama Investigates 'Stopping the Spread of Superbugs'

How can you stop the spread of harmful superbugs? The Society for General Microbiology are taking a novel approach to teaching the public about exactly that in an interactive hospital based drama coming to the Convention Centre Dublin in March. Stopping the Spread of Superbugs is described as a "fast-moving, hospital-based drama" where the audience are encouraged to get involved and question the experts! The play investigates how two hospital cleaners deal both personally and professionally with the outbreak of a superbug and see Dr Anthony Hilton guiding the audience through the scientific and ethical issues faced by infection control professionals and patients alike.

This play is directly aimed at secondary school students (and of course the general public) and tickets are completely free!! (You don't hear that very often). Tickets can be booked in advance here or at the door on the night. The event takes place in the main auditorium of the Convention Centre on Wednesday March 28th at 6:30pm! Be there and bring your face mask and disinfectant!

St. Columba's Biology Prize 2012

Applications for the St. Columba's College annual Biology Prize are now open. This years prize will be awarded based on an essay competition. It couldn't be simpler. Find something interesting from the world of biology (we mean anything) and write a 500 word essay on it (500 words is a maximum, not a minimum). The best essays will be interesting, entertaining, personal, unique yet informative. As always, plagiarism will not be tolerated (avoid Ctrl V & Ctrl C altogether) and, if possible, all essays should contain references to text / websites consulted.

Essays can be based on any area within biology including, but not limited to, botany, zoology, bacteriology, virology, mycology, anatomy, physiology, cytology, biochemistry, biotechnology, neurology, medicine, genetics,  ecology, bio-geography or embryology. A selection of the best essays will be published on the Frog Blog. Click here to see some of last year's entries.

Applications by email to Mr. Jones on or before March 30th (loads of time). Sadly, only pupils from Forms IV, V & VI (and from St. Columba's College) can apply.