o The Frog Blog: June 2012

Saturday, 16 June 2012

YouTube Saturday - Supercooled Water Explained

Supercooling is the cooling of a liquid below its freezing point without it becoming solid. So, supercooled water is water that remains liquid, despite being below its normal freezing point (0 degrees Celsius or -273 Kelvin). But why does it happen. This excellent video explains all. 

Try it at home using an unopened bottle of distilled water. Click here to find out how to do it.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Want To be A Daddy? Ditch the Y-Fronts!

Men who wear loose fitting boxer shorts, as opposed to "tighty whities", are more likely to have a higher sperm count. This was one of the main findings of a new study from researchers at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester, published recently in the Journal of Human Reproduction. The researchers also found that men who smoke, consume alcohol or are obese did not have lower viable sperm counts than those who did not.

The team of researchers, led by Dr. Andrew Povey, recruited 2,249 men from 14 fertility clinics around the UK and asked them to fill out detailed lifestyle questionnaires. They then compared the lifestyles of the 939 men with poor sperm quality with the 1,310 men with normal sperm quality involved in the study. The report showed that men with poor quality sperm were 2.5 times more likely to have had testicular surgery, and twice as likely to be of black ethnicity. Men with poor sperm quality were also 1.3 times more likely to do manual work or not to have had a previous conception.

The sperm producing testes require a slightly lower temperature than the rest of your body, approximately 35 degrees, so men who wear tight fitting underpants will be pushing their testes closer to the body and, hence, warming them up. By wearing loose fitting boxer shorts, the testes are allowed to "hang loose" and are in perfect sperm making condition. Dr Povey is encouraging men who wish to have children to change their underwear, rather than "become monks".
"Although if they are a fan of tight Y-fronts, then switching underpants to something a bit looser for a few months might be a good idea."
It must be mentioned, however, that the researchers are urging men to adopt healthy lifestyles and avoid smoking and drinking alcohol to excess.
"In spite of our results, it's important that men continue to follow sensible health advice and watch their weight, stop smoking and drink alcohol within sensible limits. But there is no need for them to become monks just because they want to be a dad.
The research is published in the Journal of Human Reproduction.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Exam Reaction 2012 - Leaving Cert Biology

This year's Leaving Certificate Biology exam (HL) was well received here in St. Columba's College. A fair and reasonable test of the candidate's two year's of study, this exam would have troubled few, although there were one or two challenging elements to the paper. However, the most significant element of the exam was its over reliance on recall as a means of assessment - with only a smattering of higher order questions. I thought the State Examinations Commission were making headway after last year's well thought out paper but they may have taken a brief step backwards this time round. However, it still marks an improvement from two or three years ago. Here's what came up.

Section A, the short questions, were reasonable but were heavily reliant on recall. As always, accuracy is important in this section and candidates with their definitions "learned off" would have done well here :-( . Food and biomolecules was assessed in Question 1 - a reasonable question, although the phrase "chemical composition" might have caught out a few weaker students. Question 2 was a straightforward question on cell diversity and tissue culture and shouldn't have caused too many problems for prepared students. Question 3 assessed the structure of the long bone - a nicely structured question - and again not too difficult. Ecology featured also in Section A (unusual to see two questions from Unit 1) and was fine - assessing the human impact on the environment. Question 5 was another well thought out question, this time on plant structure - specifically monocot stems. There was a need for a logical approach to the question but it still shouldn't have caused too many problems. Section A concluded with a question on variation and mutations, It was ok, but part (c) required the knowledge of two types of mutation - which is not on the syllabus. It will be interesting to see how this is marked. Overall though, the short questions fell in line with previous years and should have provided capable students with the confident start they needed.

In Section B, the trend of a general question continued. Question 7 contained ten short questions on a range of practical activities. Sadly though, it was all recall and no where near as effective as question 7 in last year's paper. However, it was broadly welcomed by the students but I would prefer that they might include an unseen practical which would assess the students ability to use the scientific method. Question 8 looked at the growth of leaf yeast - a fairly straight forward question although the graph might have confused a number of pupils. Section B concluded with a very simple question on the effect of temperature on enzyme activity - broadly welcomed and very straightforward.

Section C began with a very simple question on DNA, genetics & genetic engineering. Again, the emphasis was on recall of definitions and a well prepared student should not have been troubled in the slightest. Question 11 assessed ecology. It was a mixed bag - part (a) was simply three definitions, part (b) a nice question on "exotic species" requiring students to use their scientific logic (thank you SEC) and part (c) assessed the students practical ecology experience - a question easily prepared in advance. Question 12 I liked as well. It assessed both photosynthesis and respiration and once again included a section which would have required the students to think outside the box. However, the majority of the marks (45 out of the 60) will be awarded for lower order questions and simple comprehension. Question 13 assessed the students knowledge of the nervous system and again relied heavily on recall. This question contained one of only two  diagrams the candidates were asked to draw (as far as I can see anyway) - which is unusual. Again, anyone who had prepared this topic wouldn't have been troubled. Question 14, as always, had a choice of three parts. Part (a) was a straightforward set of recall questions on plant reproduction, part (b) a set of recall questions on early human development and part (c) a set of recall questions on Rhizopus and a simply diagram. The final question on the paper again has three choices. Part (a) assessed human digestion (and was fine), part (b) assessed blood cells (mostly recall) and part (c) was a series of simple comprehension questions on homeostasis.

Overall the paper would have been received well by well prepared pupils and should have given enough choice to those not so well prepared. However, I am concerned once again by the over reliance on recall and simple comprehension questions. Why are students not asked to compare, contextualise or, heaven-forbid, think critically? Biology is an ideal subject to assess in this way and it baffles me how over reliant the exam remains on basic recall. It seems purpose if more important than substance.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Science Comes to RTÉ - The Science Squad

With Dublin proclaimed as European City of Science and next month set to take centre stage as the host of the European Science Open Forum (ESOF), "science" is the word on everyone's lips at the moment (well, as well as soccer). There seems to be a hunger for science at the moment amongst the Irish public so I am extremely delighted to see RTÉ's new dedicated science programme kicks off later this week. 

'The Science Squad' is set to take an entertaining look at some of the exciting and important scientific research that is currently under-way in Ireland. The six part series will look at the latest developments in Irish scientific research, across a wide range of sectors, and crucially will aim to make the work being carried out relevant to our everyday lives. 

Details of each episode have been released and I am genuinely excited! The first episode will focus on Ireland's advancing research in sensor technologies, focusing on how new technologies are being used in professional sport (the Irish rugby team), tuning in the newborn brains and meeting people with severe disabilities who are using sensors to create and play music with their eyes. The second episode will "think small", looking at current research in nanotechnology and genetics. Episode three will focus on "connections", taking a look at how research in maths, computing and biology are helping us overcome the challenges of our reliance on technology. Episode four sounds great - as well as focusing on ESOF, the team will speak to researchers who are using social networking techniques for novel global media applications, and meet the environmental scientists who are investigating how our current behaviour is detrimentally affecting our health. The final two episodes of the series will look at "the world before us" and "visions for the future", looking at how Irish researchers in environmental science, space exploration, agriculture and medicine are set to change the way we live our lives forever.

So who are "The Science Squad" anyway? The talented team of presenters include Irish science ambassador (and fellow Science 140 curator) Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin, former Scope presenter Kathriona Devereux and Newstalk's Future Proof presenter Jonathan McCrea. It's a strong team - all three are at the heart of  Irish science communication - and I am confident the show will be extremely entertaining and informative. I think the show will need to be entertaining first and foremost if it is to grab the Irish public attention, with the science getting them to ask questions and keep coming back for more. It certainly couldn't have asked for a better time slot for the first episode - just before Ireland kick off against Spain in the European Championships - and hopefully the first episode will capture the public's imagination and make them come back the following week. I am personally delighted to see RTÉ embrace a science programme like this - not afraid to deal with "real science" as they have done so often in the past. I'm excited and can't wait for the show to kick off.

The first series of 'The Science Squad' kicks off this Thursday (June 14th) at 7:00pm on RTÉ One but will revert to it's normal time slot of 8:30 from June 21st onwards. You can also follow 'The Science Squad' on Twitter or Facebook.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

YouTube Saturday - What is Graphene?

An excellent introduction to the graphene - science and technology's new wonder material!