o The Frog Blog: May 2012

Monday, 28 May 2012

Science +1 - Things Are Going to Change Around Here!

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure science”
Edwin Hubble

I’m frequently asked, by my friends or my students, if I ever get sick of teaching the same old stuff year after year. Of course I tell them no – every class is different, every student is different – the usual clichéd answer. However, I’m probably not being completely honest with them.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

YouTube Saturday - The Secret Life of Plankton

This wonderful video, produced as part of the Ted-Ed project, is a excellent introduction to the strange world of plankton. Using new videography and filming techniques, the team of researchers have opened up the oceans' microscopic ecosystem, revealing it to be both mesmerizing and astoundingly complex. Marine biologist Tierney Thys was part of the team responsible for producing the video, and the TED-ED lesson which accompanies it, spook with Jonathan McCrea earlier this evening on FutureProof. Click here to listen to that excellent interview! 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Early Tetrapods Didn't Walk But Shuffled

Members of the Ichthyostega genus were likely the first four limbed animals, or tetrapods, to venture out of the water and spend some time on land. Understanding that massive behavioural change is important for scientists, principally to get a better understanding of the evolutionary process. These animals, which would have had some fishy traits and some amphibian traits, may have been the ancestors of all land living animals including the dinosaurs and humans! Many believed that members of this group were the first animals to (properly) walk on land but now a new study from researchers from the Royal Veterinary College, London and the University of Cambridge adds some doubt to that idea but sheds new light on how these strange "fishapods" used their limbs.

Using sophisticated 3D modelling tools, the team created of 3D skeleton of Ichthyostega, allowing them to calculate the range of movement in the joints of its limbs for the first time. They found out that the 350 million year old animals would have been very poor walkers and would have shuffled on to land rather than walk. They would have used their front limbs like crutches, pushing its body up and forward onto land while its legs and tail trailed behind, almost like a seal. Ichthyostega would have lived in water predominantly, but would have ventured on to the shore for food.

In a way, this sends scientists back to the drawing board but may intensify the search for the first animal to walk on land. Understanding when and why this took place is important for us to understand the evolutionary pressures to move from water to the land.

For more information on this story, visit Discovery News. The original paper is published in the science journal Nature.

'Drops in Nature' Photography Competition

Get out your camera and start snapping! A new photography competition for secondary school students in Ireland & the UK is looking for your images which capture a unique and personal view of the theme ‘Drops in Nature'

The competition is being organised by the Irish Science Teachers’ Association, the Institute of Physics and Dublin Camera Club and has some amazing prizes up for grabs. The overall winning entry will receive an amazing trip to Florida, with flights, accommodation and entry to the Kennedy Space Centre for them and an accompanying adult. There are also some excellent runner-up prizes including a bright and shiny Canon SLR digital camera.

The closing date for receipt of entries is July 20th 2012. All photos must be printed and posted to Dr Brian Smyth, St Pauls’ College, Raheny, Dublin 5, Ireland. Go on, give it a go! Click here to download a poster for your school!

'PolyFuel' Impresses at Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Blackwater Community School in Lismore, Co. Waterford has built up a strong reputation over the past few years for producing some of the finest young scientists in Ireland, their students excelling in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and in SciFest. Now two of their students, Ruairi O’Neill and Eoghan Flynn (pictured above after winning SciFest earlier this year), have taken home second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last week! 

The boys, under the guidance of their expert science teacher David King (a former classmate of mine in university and truly one of the top science teachers in Ireland), came up with a cleaner and more energy efficient diesel replacement (which they called "polyfuel”) by processing used plastics they found around their house.

The project, Polyfuel: A Novel Solution to Fuel Shortages and Disposal of ELPs,  was awarded second place in the Environmental Management Category and they took home a handsome cheque for $1500! Earlier this year Ruairi and Eoghan were awarded the Intel Best Project Award in SciFest!

Marie Boran has a wonderful piece in today's Irish Times on Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and more detail on the boys great achievement!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

ESA Summer Workshops for Teachers

Let's face it! Kids love space! Using space exploration and astronomy can be a brilliant way of engaging students with science and planting the seed of inquiry in young minds. While the Irish science curricula (criminally) contains little mention of space, there is no reason why individual science teachers can't use it as a means of capturing their students' imagination. If you would like to learn more about how space could be used in this way, to engage young people with science, then the European Space Agency's (ESA) Summer Workshops are perfect for you!

Applications are now open for ESA's summer 2012 workshops, being held at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC), Noordwijk, the Netherlands! 
During this workshop, participants will be presented with innovative and inspiring methods using space as a means for engaging students with the sciences. In addition to networking with their peers from across Europe, participants will have the opportunity to gain new skills that will enhance their teaching methods and refresh existing lessons.
The workshop is open to teachers of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in secondary schools (students 12-18 years old) of ESA Member and Cooperating States (which includes Ireland) and participating teachers are subject to a number of conditions (namely their willingness to share their newly acquired skills with teachers in their own country). During the workshop, participants will be introduced to ESA’s wide range of educational resources, such as classroom materials, teaching tools and scientific data to motivated teachers. I attended a similar workshop in Amsterdam a number of years ago and couldn't recommend the experience highly enough!

Application Forms are available here and should be submitted by 4th June 2012.

The Ernest Walton Bridge?

The Institute of Physics (IOP) Ireland are campaigning to have the new bridge across the Liffey in Dublin at Marlborough Street named for Ernest Walton – Ireland’s only physics Nobel prizewinner. They have a petition on their website where they ask those in support of the idea to sign up - it takes just a couple of moments. 

Walton received receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951 (sharing it with John Cockcroft) for his work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge with the world's first linear particle accelerator. The two scientists built an apparatus to bombard the element lithium with energised protons, spitting the lithium nucleus to produce helium nuclei. They were the first to successfully convert one element into another by artificial means and, in doing so, verified Einstein’s famous equation E=mc².

Monday, 21 May 2012

What is the Thatcher Effect?

Anyone who has visited Science Gallery's latest exhibition, HAPPY, will likely have seen a striking image of a upturned man rather pleased with himself. However, if you turn flip the image, so as the young man appears in the right orientation, and again take a look, he doesn't seem at all pleased. In fact, he doesn't even seem recognisable as human. 

The striking image utilises a phenomenon known as the Thatcher Effect (because it was first demonstrated using a photo of Margaret Thatcher) - a strange illusion which ultilises specific psychological processes involved in face perception. If we study the images above we can see that with both heads upside - down, the man is instantly recognisable as Barrack Obama. But when turned in the correct orientation, the picture on the left seems unnatural, again almost inhuman. And of course it is - the eyes and mouth have been clearly flipped. But how come we recognised Obama when turned upside-down?

While not fully understood, scientists believe the effect is mostly likely related to how we have evolved processes in our brains to differentiate between different faces. This process is believed to rely on the configuration of facial features like the eyes, nose and mouth. Obviously, these processes have evolved to see faces "the right way up" so, when you flip the faces, the process of differentiation cannot take place. Therefore, the brain is unable to detect the minor changes to the altered image when upside-down but can easily recognise the differences when flipped the right way up. 

The brain is a wondrous organ yet we still don't know everything about how it works. It is likely that we will learn more about face recognition with further advances neuroscience. 

For more information on the Thatcher Effect, check out this page on the Bang Goes The Theory website.

A Phytoplankton Future?

Phytoplankton are autotrophic (meaning they make their own food) members of a group of organisms known as plankton and represent 90% of all marine plant life. The word phytoplankton comes from Greek, phyto meaning plant and plankton which means that it is made to wander or drift. They are microscopic organisms that can live in both salt or fresh water environments. They cannot be seen with the naked eye but can be seen in large colonies because of a green discolouration in the water due to large amounts of chlorophyll. They are divided into two main groups; photosynthetic cyanobacteria or unicellular algae. Phytoplankton is the base of the whole marine food chain, without it marine life would cease to exist.

I don't have a fetish for algae but I do believe that phytoplankton will play a dominant role in shaping our future. Phytoplankton contain chlorophyll and this enables them to trap vast amounts of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. This is why the oceans are capable of significantly reducing the amount of carbon dioxide on our planet and are currently responsible for up to 50% of carbon fixation.

The carbon dioxide is trapped in the phytoplankton because they build up a thick silica skeletal shell. When they die, they sink to the bottom and constant deposition of the sediments results in the phytoplankton becoming buried. This leads to the formation of crude oil over millions of years of compression. The carbon is also fixated when it is consumed by heterotrophic marine life and the small amount of carbon that is released in respiration is recycled once again by the phytoplankton. They account for approximately 1% of the earth's photosynthetic biomass but are responsible for producing more than 50% of atmospheric oxygen.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

YouTube Saturday - The Truth About Exercise

A few months back, Michael Mosley's exposé on "The Truth About Exercise" became one of the most watched Horizon episodes ever. In this wonderful hour of television, Mosley uncovers the surprising new research which suggests many of us could benefit enormously from just three minutes of high intensity exercise a week. He also discovers the hidden power of simple activities like walking and fidgeting, and finds out why some of us don't respond to exercise at all. Typically, Mosley uses himself as a guinea pig and uncovers the surprising new research about exercise that has the power to make us all live longer and healthier lives. Captivating telly! Enjoy!