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ISSUE 23 July 07 €3 including VAT £2 NI and UK




da Vinci visits Ireland WHERE DO METEORITES COME FROM?






St Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview An illustrated history by Aidan Collins detailing how the hospital, started with money handed over to an informer, provided a safe haven for the mentally ill over the course of 150 years, while shaping the way nurses are trained. The hospital, small by modern standards, looms large in the development of Fairview, and among the well known figures associated with it are James Joyce, and the antiquarian Francis Grose. The original Grose home, Richmond House still stands in good order, and is just one of the architectural features described by Aidan Collins in this unusual book. Available in large format softback and de-luxe hardback. Softback €20. Hardback €35. (144pp) Order direct from the publishers and post is included in the price. Please supply (Copy if you do not want to tear this page) copies

hardback €35 paperback €20

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More than just rocks, meteorites can bring a wide variety of minerals in from space. Here, we see how an ultra-thin slice of a meteorite looks like when illuminated under a microscope with polarized light. (US Museum of Natural History)

Publisher Duke Kennedy Sweetman Ltd 5 Serpentine Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. Email: Editors Seán Duke Tom Kennedy Business Development Manager Alan Doherty Design and Production Albertine Kennedy Publishing Cloonlara, Swinford, Co Mayo Proofing Aisling McLaughlin Printing Turner Print, Longford Contributors in this issue: Margaret Franklin, Eoin Gill, Marie-Catherine Mousseau.




An open forum is being established to launch a big science event in 2008.

Science Speak


Good impressions


Seven young researchers explain what they do.


Marie-Catherine Mousseau explains that meteorites provide us with clues about our origins.



Tom Kennedy reports that high speed computing is changing the way scientists conduct research.

10 Science education 12 A new report looks at what students think about science.

13 Experiencing the journey without Going to Mars

leaving Earth.

The inventive mind


Leonardo da Vinci was inspired by science and his notes are now on show in Dublin.

Articles published in Science SPIN may reflect the views of the contributors and not the official views of the publication, its editorial staff, its ownership, or its sponsors.


Tom Kennedy reports on the lucky survival of woodblocks, used to print scientific illustrations in the 19th century.

Geological Survey of Ireland Suirbhéireacht Gheolaíochia Éireann

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Chemistry for the good life

Margaret Franklin reports on the visit of distinguished chemist, Mary Archer.

32 Presidential awards 34 Recognising the leading scientists of tomorrow.



Coford experts look at biodiversity in the forest.


Giving something back

Marie-Catherine Mousseau reports on how people can use their experience and knowledge to help others.

Higher Education Authority An tÚdarás um Ard-Oideachas


Top: Sargassum muticum, (Jacqueline Pratt, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute). Above: Sargassum fluitans, (Berkely Education). Main image, the first observation from space, (ESA).

Floating jungle ENSHRINED in sea lore with stories of ships becoming entangled in an area of floating vegetation, Sargassum continues to fascinate scientists. The dense growth of Sargassum, far from land, is thought to be a haven for migrating eels and salmon, and the seaweed is believed to play an important role in trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There are, in fact, several species of Sargassum, but one thing that they have in common is that have gas filled sacs that keep them afloat. In the days of sail, ships crossing the Atlantic often became becalmed in the depths of enormous floating rafts. Marine life thrives among

the weeds, and some species, such as the Sargassum fish, Histrio histrio, is so well adapted to this environment that it is hard to distinguish from the weed. Scientists have a lot to learn about this seaweed, but now they can start to monitor its growth from space. The ESA satellite, Envisat, has captured images showing extensive growth of Sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Dr Jim Gower and Stephanie King of the Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences and Dr Chuamin Hu of the US University of South Florida, this is the first time for Sargassum to be observed from space.

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Sargassum is usually regarded as confined to the North Atlantic because this is where the original stories about the Sargassum Sea came from. However, as the satellite observations confirm, growth extends over a much wider area. The observations were made by a spectrometer (MERIS) sensing in wavelengths (665, 681, and 709 nanometres) that indicate reflection from chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is of great interest to scientists as it is nature’s way of capturing energy from the Sun and recharging the atmosphere. The scientists intend to follow up this initial observation by trawling through five years of MERIS data. Requiring powerful grid computing, the analysis of data is expected to yield a global estimate of Sargassum biomass. SPIN

The auroch survived long enough to be recorded in this splendid German woodcut by Thierbuch, published in 1557. Below: vivid and remarkably modern in style, those horned animals at Lascaux, drawn thousands of years ago, are thought to be aurochs, and whatever their species, they existed long before we had domestic cattle.

Cattle THE ancestors of our cattle are thought to have displaced the ancient, and now extinct, auroch. A study of cattle genes, carried out by scientists from TCD’s Smurfit Institute of Genetics, working with a large team of experts from other parts of Europe settles a long running debate as to the possible role of the auroch in shaping modern cattle. Dr Ceiridwen Edwards, Prof Daniel Vradley, Dr Ruth Bollongino, and Prof Joachim Burger looked at DNA recovered from auroch skeletons and compared their findings to prehistoric and modern cattle. The auroch was enormous, almost as large as an elephant, and although they had survived across Europe from the Ice ages, they were extinct by the 17th century. Although common, no evidence was found to show interbreeding between aurochs and cattle. The scientists now believe that modern cattle breeds came in with Neolithic immigrants.

Galway researchers The 250 contract researchers at NUI Galway have launched their own organisation. In a move welcomed by Professor Tim O’Brien, Director of the Regenerative Medical Institute, the

Finding enough DNA to amplify for study was one of the problems in tracing the origins back to the Near East. However, genetic evidence for early domestication was eventually

found in the Near East’s Fertile Crescent. As people moved west and north from this cradle of civilization, their domestic cattle seem to have displaced the aurochs.

researchers aim to create a good working environment which fosters excellence and career development. The Galway Research Staff Association is being headed up by Dr Barry Glynn, who is based at the National Diagnostics Centre at NUIG. It is important, he said,

to recognise the role that researchers are playing in the development of a knowledge economy. As Science Spin reported in issue 21, researchers are at the core of science, yet they have little or no long term career security.


Black diamonds

Paul Duffy, Galway Fire Service, Dr Iognáid Ó Muircheathaig, President NUIG, and Paul Bruton from the Fire Service, with student Eoin Morrissey.

Firefighters EnginEEring student, Eoin Morrissy, from Clarinbridge, Co galway, has developed a database that will help firefighters to maintain their equipment in good condition. Eoin developed the database as his final year engineering degree project at nUi galway. Eoin’s system, now being used by the fire service in Galway, is

an improvement on manual checking of equipment, and it can, for example, alert users to recharge compressed air cylinders so they are always ready for use. Eoin, who has also helped in a community building project with other nUi galway students in ghana, plans to take up a career in the fire service.

Fixing neurons onE of the biggest problems with damage to neural cells is that they lack the ability to regenerate themselves. researchers at the Max Delbruck Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, have made some progress in tackling that problem. Harish Babu and Dr gerd Kemperman have been able to grow new neurons in a mouse brain tissue culture. stem cells were isolated from the a small region of the hippocampus, the enate gyrus. the study confirmed that the brain does indeed have stem cells, and in this case they had the ability to develop into neurons of the hippocampus.

A whippet, ‘Barbarossa’, racing ahead to win at an event in Canada

Racing gene tHE fastest whippets, close relations of the greyhound, carry a single gene that triggers muscle development. However, breeding from two top performers may result in a musclebound dud. While the single gene produces just the right amount of muscle to make the dogs athletic, a pair causes over-expression, making the dogs slow and bulky. scientists at the Us national Human genome research institute, led by Elaine ostrander, discovered that a mutation in a gene coding for a muscle protein, produces greater mass. Whippets with one normal gene and

a mutation win almost all the races, so scientists have started to wonder what breeders will make of the discovery. the discovery also raises questions about performance in other animals, including humans. in cattle, heavy breeds are due to a similar mutation, but while livestock are valued for their weight, whippets and horses are bred for speed. the mutation is a mixed benefit, and it seems that while muscles grow, the lungs shrink. Heavy cattle have been found to have smaller lungs. the mutant gene does not appear to occur in greyhounds, but as Dr ostrander observed, additional muscle would not help if the lungs became smaller. greyhounds run on longer courses, so they need plenty of lung power.

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Most of our diamonds were formed deep within the Earth’s crust, but scientists at the Us Brookhaven national Laboratory believe that some dropped in from outer space. these are known as the black ‘carbonado’ diamonds. Carbonado diamonds have only been found in Brazil and Central Africa, and they were given their name by the Portuguese because of their similarity to charcoal. researchers, garai, Haggerty, rekhi, and Chance using infrared synchrotron radiation found that compared to ordinary diamonds, carbonados had more hydrogen. this suggests that black diamonds were formed in hydrogen rich interstellar space. the view is supported by evidence on the ground. Black diamonds have never been found in any of the world’s diamond mines. one of the researchers, stephen Haggerty, said that black diamonds could have originated in supernovae explosions, and they could have been a kilometre or more in diameter before falling through the Earth’s atmosphere.

(US National Science Foundation)

Erasmus ovEr the last 20 years more than 24,000 irish students have spent study periods abroad under the Erasmus Programme. At present about 1,600 students from 34 higher education institutions are participating in Erasmus. the programme is run through the HEA, and tom Boland, the Chief Executive there, said that “much more can be done, much more.” Engagement with others and familiarity with the European experience, he said, is not so much an option as an imperative in education. Under Erasmus, students can study for three to twelve months in EU states or in Liechtenstein, norway and turkey.

Irish Science Open Forum q ISOF ISOF

the Irish Science Open Forum is to be an annual event consisting of an industry exhibition, workshops, seminars, and highlevel presentations. ISOF is to be a showcase for the best in Irish science and research. The event will focus attention on the wealth of scientific talent in Ireland and the scale will be large enough to command international attention. The academic programme is to be drawn up by an independent Council representing the colleges, the institutes, industry, and the State agencies. The colleges and the agencies will be invited to become active participants by organising some of the associated events. While preparatory work is in progress now, a workshop meeting will be held at the RDS in October

q ISOF is to be an independent body involving all those involved in science and research in Ireland. Expressions of interest in promoting the aims of ISOF are invited. Simply e-mail your name and address, and we will include you on our ISOF database. Details on this database will not be passed on to third parties. q A core, steering Council, has been formed, representing a number of different interests, including universities, research institutions, scientific bodies, and researchers. Although this ISOF core Council is to remain relatively small, a number of sub-groups are to be formed when ISOF is officially launched in October 2007. q ISOF is to be registered as an independent not-for-profit organisation, and until this is done, Science Spin, will provide administrative support and help promote the aims of ISOF.

2007 to launch the ISOF programme and confirm the appointment of a steering council.

The first ISOF event is to take place in late 2008, and this will incorporate an applied research/industry trade exhibition. Apart from adding to the scale, the trade exhibition will help bridge the gap between industry and researchers. The industry exhibition will be organised by SDL, the company responsible for launching the IRCHEM show, for many years the main event for the chemical and pharmaceutical sector in Ireland. Over the past five years there have been a number of successful science



q In many respects the Irish Science Open Forum is similar in aims and scope to the recently launched European Open Science Forum. However, the focus of ISOF is on the best of Irish science, engineering, research, and innovation. q One of the aims of ISOF is to raise the profile of Irish research internationally, and also within the European Research Zone. A science and research showcase publication is being planned by Science Spin, and links to European organisations are to be explored. q The ISOF Council will be meeting within the next few weeks to set an agenda for a public meeting at the RDS on 15th October. At that meeting the plans for ISOF will be explained in more detail, and there will be an opportunity to initiate dialogue with the Council.

events in Ireland, and there has also been the recently launched European Open Science Forum. The ISOF Council is drawing on these examples to create an event for Irish research similar in impact to the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. The aim is not to replace existing events, but to provide a platform from which Irish scientists can reach a much wider audience both at home and abroad. Science Spin, will be involved, generating and publishing news relating to ISOF, and a new showcase publication, in the format of a popular handbook, is planned to highlight the work of Irish researchers. Until a dedicated in-depth web site is created, web space for ISOF will be provided by Science Spin at

q The Council members include Peadar McArdle, Director of GSI; Paul Nugent, Institute of Physics; Margaret Franklin, Athlone Institute of Technology; Aoife O’Mahony, STEPS to Engineering; Avril Kennan, Researchers’ Association, Shiela Donegan, CALMAST; Ciaran Regan, Vice Principal Research & Innovation UCD, Catriona Boylan, Teagasc, Jenny Melia, Framework 7 National Contact, and Claire Mulhall, Science Executive RDS. q A good attendance will help make ISOF succeed, but it is important to register with us in advance as places may be limited. Please register your interest by email to the ISOF co-ordinator, Tom Kennedy; The time and date will be confirmed to all who register well in advance of the meeting.

Contact: ISOF co-ordinator, Tom Kennedy at

Do they work?

Two students from the Institute of Technology, Kevin Moyna (left), and Nigel Flynn (right) will be representing Ireland in a world competition in mechatronics. The event, World Skills, will be held in Japan during November. Mechatronics involves computer control of manufacturing processes, and the two Sligo IT students were selected following a national competition held last March.

After hours MaNY of our activities are regulated by our body clock, and that sense of time can be strong enough to make us ill. In humans most of our biorhythms are controlled by a small region of the brain, the hypothalmus, and this in turn responds to our perception of light. Travellers know all about jetlag, but in certain occupations, where the disruption is constant, the impact on health is more serious. Night shift workers are not just going to suffer from jet-lag like fatigue, their health is likely to be compromised by a depressed immune system. It appears that our clocks do not always match, and while 23.6 hours has been found to be the norm in mice, some have been found to be on a 27 hour cycle. The discovery was reported by sofia Godinho, elizabeth Maywood, Patrick Nolan and others from the Mammalian Genetics Unit at harwell, Oxfordshire, working with colleagues at the New York University school of Medicine. In a paper, published in Science, the researchers describe a mutation, which they named ‘afterhours’ on a gene previously unknown to have any links to the circadian cycle. In a separate study, this gene was found to be involved in the break-down of a clock protein known as cryptochrome. The body clock system is now known to involve a number of regulatory steps, partly controlled by the break-down of cryptochrome. as this protein degrades the clock advances. When the researchers looked at the mice with the mutation they found that the degradation rate of cryptochrome was slower than normal. Researchers now intend to screen humans to see if they can identify the same sort of mutation.

DO alternative treatments really work? With so many dubious medicines around, most medics play it safe by sticking to the conventions, even if they are not always the best. One of the problems is that traditional treatments are completely inconsistent, and they have seldom been subjected to clinical trials. another related problem is that long established medicines cannot be patented unless they incorporate something ‘novel’. The pharmaceutical industry is not in the

UPFRONT business of providing free-for-all drugs, so industry has no interest in checking the safety of traditional treatments. Realising that the high cost of getting approval is not always good for health, the Osher family in america donated the equivalent of €5.7 million to the Karolinska Institute in sweden. The money is to be used to subject a whole range of alternative treatments to clinical trials and scientific assessment.

5,000 volunteers ReseaRcheRs at Waterford Institute of Technology are embarking on a 25-year long study on age-related blindness. The focus is on degeneration of a small portion of the retina, a leading cause of blindness. The study is to track progress of many volunteers between the age 40 to 60 for a period of 20 to 25 years. Dr John Nolan, who runs the Macular Research Group at WIT, said a lack of protective pigment increases the risk, and that genetic factors are involved. Volunteers can contact the Macular Pigment Research Group at Waterford Institute of Technology, phone 051 845505 or visit

Spacetime warp aT a recent meeting of The american Physical society Francis everitt from stanford reported that the warping of spacetime in the vicinity of earth has now been detected with high precision. The effect was observed by studing the behaviour of groscopes on board a craft in polar orbit. For the past three years the Gravity Probe B satellite has been in orbit. The warping, known as the geodetic effect, was close to that expected from general relativity. This was not the only phenomenon observed. What were described as ‘glimpses’ of spacetime dragging were recorded. This is believed to arise by the rotating earth dragging spacetime around,

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in much the same way as it would be expected to do if space were a fluid. In einsteins view, space was rigid, but in fact, this does not seem to be the case. This drag, calculated to be 170 times weaker than the geodetic effect, is another force acting on the gyroscopes, and Francis everitt believes that this is showing up in the data. The golf-ball sized gyroscopes used to make these observations are thought to be the most perfect spheres yet made and they were suspended electrostatically as puffs of gas spun them around at 4,000 revs per minute. The niobium coated balls are just a few degrees above zero Kelvin, and as they rotate their magnetic signature could be read from the craft’s instrumentation. Above, preparing the craft, and below, assembling the probe.

Rock-Rose Chafer

Nature watch ONE of the flowers that visitors to the Burren watch out for is the low-growing rock-rose. Where rock-roses grow, a small chafer, the rock-rose chafter, is likely to be near, for this species feeds on the pollen. Keen sighted naturalists may see more than chafers. Ants are often observed running over the irridescent backs of the chafers, and like the birds feeding inside the open jaws of crocodiles, they seem to provide a clean-up service. The chafters are indifferent to the ants, and it seems that the ants get some form of food in return.

Biodiversity THE European Union is larger than most of us realise, and if we include those far flung spots such as the Canary Islands and French Guyana, the territory encompasses a wide diversity of habitats. According to the Commission, Europe has five of the world’s recognised hotspots of biodiversity. These are areas with an unusually high number of species, hotspots of evolution, but are sensitive to change. Apart from life on land, Europe’s marine territory has 10 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, and 20 per cent of the world’s lagoons. Eleven research organisations, from France, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK are to work through the NET-BIOME initiative.

Young Scientists


If you are the sort of person that likes to keep an eye on nature, have a look at The site has been designed as tool which everyone can use to record observations about wildlife in Ireland. In 2005 the site was set up as a nature calendar, where visitors could help in tracking the progress of the seasons. This tracking, known as phenology, shows us how seasons can drift over the years. Phenology is one of the indicators for climatic change. Paul Whelan, who established the site, said that it’s a shame that such a facility is not taken more seriously in Ireland. “No other site is like it, in Ireland or worldwide,” he notes, and it’s the sort of resource that should be very useful to professional biologists. One of the great strengths of the site is that it is completely open to interaction with the public. Although the original aim was confined to phenology, the site has become more than just a place to note observations. For example, visitors can look up details of where species, such as badgers, occur, and Paul, who has made a great job of revamping the site, said these developments will continue.

Fingerprinting fruit THE apples and pears in the UK National Fruit collection are to be genetically fingerprinted in a three-year project. Scientists at the East Malling Research centre are profiling 2,300 apple and 250 pear trees. Distinguishing between different varieties just on looks is quite difficult, yet those differences in taste and character can be significant. DNA profiling will save a lot of unnecessary duplication as old varieties are taken into the collection for preservation.

Nature’s Web THE Summer issue of the Sherkin Island newsletter is up on the web and ready for downloading as a pdf. Ideal reading for the kids with lots of items on birds, plants, and aquatic life. This, and previous issues are available at:

Marine Institute

Foras na Mara


SCHOOL students have been given their call to action for the coming BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition. Now is the time to start thinking of projects which have to be ready by the closing date, 5th October 07. As always, the choice for topics is wide, and the standard is high. Many of those who participated, even if they did not win top prizes, comment that they had learned a lot by working on projects. Not just science, but how to work with others, and how to follow through on projects. Further details about the event and how to enter, are on the site: The numbers to call for more information are: 1800 924362, or from NI, 0800 9171297 Marine Institute Rinville Oranmore Co. Galway telephone 353 91 387 200 facsimile 353 91 387 201 email

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Foras na Mara


MOON CLASSIC MOON POSTER Jumbo sized print — 59 cm by 84 cm, (23 by 33 inches) ready to pin up or frame. Only €14.94 post included. Discount available for orders of two or more. The giant print is packed with detail about the Moon and its features. John Moore brings us on a grand tour of the craters, the magma oceans, the high mountains, and the sites where crafts either landed or crashed. To order, visit John Moore’s great Moon website

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SPEAKING OF SCIENCE At ScIeNce SPeAk, organised by the RDS, The Irish Times, and the Universities Promoting Science, seven research students, finalists in a series of college competitions, had just over ten minutes each to explain what they do and why their work is important. Sandra Galvin a second year PhD student from NUI Galway, described how bacterial contamination of water has become more sinister because there is now genetic swapping of resistance to antibiotics. Water quality is already poor, with 30 per cent of our groundwater contaminated by E coli and Enterococcus. However, these are just indicator species, their presence shows that there is pollution, but more serious is the hidden rise of drug-resistant genes. Bacteria can swap these genes, so resistance can jump from species to species. this means that any escape of resistant micro-organisms into the wild is something we should become more concerned about. In analysing water from a variety of sources, Sandra found that hospital effluent is a problem, because this is where drug resistant bacteria are most likely to occur.

VACCINE. ciaran Skerry, who is

studying for his PhD at NUI Maynooth, explained that a global rise in whooping cough means that we should develop a new vaccine. About 300,000 people a year die from whooping cough, caused by the bacterium, Bordetella pertussis. In the past vaccines brought the number of deaths down, but the disease is on the rise again because the second generation vaccine, developed as a safer alternative to the first type, only gave limited immunity. A new vaccine, as effective as the first type, but without its toxic side effects, has now been developed. ciaran is currently testing this new aerosol delivered vaccine on mice, and in a follow up study he wants to find out what bacterial genes are involved in causing infection.

SUPER E. Dawn Griffin from the

Department of chemistry at University college cork, explained that if we think ecstasy is a already problem, it is mild compared to one of the latest ‘designer’ drugs. Super e, also known as ‘tiles’ because it is often supplied on dainty, friendly looking transfers, is a real horror. First synthesised in 1967, 4-bromo-2.5dimethoxyamphetamine is not just a stimulant, it induces hallucinogenations, and psychosis. In other words, it makes you crazy, and because it is slower to act than ecstasy, users, thinking that nothing is happening, overdose themselves, and

the effects are long-lasting. the innocent looking patches are quite deceptive, and the drug itself is likely to be contaminated with inpurities. As Dawn explained, there are different ways to synthesise super e, and as it happens, the easiest method is also the worst. the people who make these drugs, she added, are not particularly concerned about quality control, but this helps in tracking down the sources of supply. When seized drugs are analysed, they often show a distinctive chemical signature.

BREAST CANCER. elaine McSherry from the conway Institute at UcD explained that breast cancer, apart from being quite common, is serious because it spreads rapidly. even so, in some women the cancer is there, but it does not spread. When elaine investigated this she found that there are two forms of the cancer, invasive, and non-invasive. the cancer begins in cells lining the milk ducts, and in the non-invasive form, these cells are unable to break through into surrounding tissues. elaine is now looking for genetic differences, or factors that induce a LAck of exercise is making school pupils ill, and the fact that they seldom walk or cycle is adding to the problem. In her presentation at the RDS for the recent Science Speak event, Norah Nelson from DcU said when 5,000 pupils from Dublin and the Midlands were assessed, 65 per cent of them took under one hour of physical exercise a day, one in five were overweight, and ten per cent had high blood pressure. these findings show that there is a very serious health problem in schools, and as Norah explained, a lot has to do with the fact that 63 per cent are using inactive modes of transport to and from school. Poor physical health is not the only problem. Pupils are not walking and cycling to school because they have to pass through a hostile environment. No one wants to cross busy roads or walk through a dismal, unfriendly environment. Bad planning, argues Norah, is damaging our health. Planners, she said, need to know that aesthetics have a function. Adequate lighting, trees, pedestrian crossings, and the feeling that a journey can have lots of destinations, are all factors influencing how we choose to travel.

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change in how genes are expressed. If we know what causes a non-invasive cancer to become invasive, she said, there is a good chance that scientists will be able to intervene with treatment before the change occurs.

NANOTUBES. Shane Bergin is

working on carbon nanotubes at tcD’s crann institute. All they consist of is carbon, yet these nanotubes are much stronger than steel, better at conducting electricity than copper, and lighter than almost any other material. In recent years people have become familiar with carbon in the form of Buckeyballs, and the nanotubes, explained Shane, are a bit like these, but rolled out into a tube. As Shane observed, the opportunities to make use of carbon nanotubes must be endless. However, getting them out of the lab is not that easy. the nanotubes are tiny, 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, and they clump together, so research is concentrating on special solvents that can unbundle the strings. this approach, said Shane, is working, and the researchers have reached the stage where they can produce thin sheets of ‘Buckey paper’.

SAND PHYSICS. Barry Fitzgerald, at the Department of Physics at the University of Limerick has been looking at the behaviour of granular material. Sand is probably the most familiar of these materials, and as Barry explained, every time we walk across a damp strand, we see what is known as ‘dilatency’ in action. the sand is wet, but water does not fill the deep impressions made by our feet. this, said Barry, is because of the way forces are distributed, and to understand what’s going on, he compared the situation to logs floating down a river. If there are not too many, the logs float along, but once a critical mass is reached, they snag and jam, blocking everything upstream. In sand, the pressure and vibration causes larger particles to move to the surface, and the granular material begins to behave like a fluid. there is a phase transition from a stationary to a flowing state. Granulated materials are very common in industry, and dilatency can cause big problems. these unexpected lines of force, said Barry, have often caused silios to collapse. From the seven, clear and informative presentations, three were named as winners, Shane Bergin, Dawn Griffin, and elaine McSherry. (tk) SPIN

Astrophysicists use high performance computing to model the forces that created the Universe. These studies help us understand what’s going on in massive formations, such as the Crab Nebula, where a pulsar neutron star near the centre of this image from the Hubble Telescope is accelerating high energy particles.


Tom Kennedy reports that computation is not just speeding up the delivery of results, but is radically changing the way scientists work.


ot only can researchers share enormous amounts of data, but complexity is no longer the barrier it was. Scientists can construct virtual molecules, climate change can be modelled, and physicists now have sufficient computational power to test out concepts on the origin of matter. As Prof Luke Drury, one of Ireland’s champions of super-computing, remarks, science having gone from in vivo to in vitro, has now moved on to in silico. The average computer sitting on the desk is an amazingly fast machine, performing millions of calculations a second, and storing gigabytes of data in memory. Processing speed continues to rise, doubling every year, but even so, the most powerful office machine has only a fraction of the processing power required for such tasks as molecular modelling or simulation of natural processes, such as earthquakes. Scientists were quick to learn that machine computing is a very useful tool indeed, but the processing power of ordinary computers could never match their ambitions. Linking individual machines can overcome some of those problems, because processing of data

can be shared. By forming clusters, researchers in a number of institutions found that they could harness the processing capacity of a dozen or more machines. Instead of lying idle for some, or even most of the time, the processors on otherwise unused machines could be set to work. The application of parallel processing, made a big difference to scientists, and it meant that they were no longer constrained by the limitations of a single machine. However, linking up scores of PCs has its limitations, and while Irish scientists were doing what they could through clustering, they realised that their computing resources were quite limited compared to the best in international standards. In theory, any number of machines can be run in parallel, but in fact, technical and financial considerations limit how large such a system can become. This pooling of PCs, while very useful, can never be much more than a dedicated facility at a specific location. For universities and institutions, such as DIAS and Met Éireann, this form of clustering was never going to be enough, so they invested in larger, more

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powerful machines. These machines are powerful mainly because they already incorporate a number of processors working in parallel. However, even these machines do not have the processing power required for advanced computing, but like PCs, they too can be linked into clusters, and this approach remains the basic approach of grid-computing. Grid-computing was the real break through into highperformance computing. The existence of HEAnet facilitated the linking up of sites. HEAnet was developed as a high-capacity backbone for education and academic users, and apart from providing a high enough capacity in bandwidth, the development of grid computing gave operators an opportunity to gain experience in managing more complex systems. The existence of a high capacity academic network made it possible for a few different groups to enter into the realm of grid-computing. In this sharing out of high-end computing resources, an analogy could be made with an electrical power distribution grid. As in this, peaks in demand at one point can be supplied by the excess capacity elsewhere, so resources are used efficiently, while the grid itself remains stable. With a computing grid, the computers are used more efficiently, and through good management, operators can schedule jobs to use some, or, if required, all of the available capacity. In Ireland there is now a fairly large and growing community of high performance computer users, and various groups have emerged. At TCD the Centre for High Performance Computing began in 1997. Collaboration between the Geological Survey of Ireland, the Marine Institute and four universities led to the development of the MarineGrid. With HEA PRTLI funding, the Institute for Information Technology and Advanced Computing was established. One of these gridcomputing groups, CosmoGrid, brings together a number of partners working on the computational physics of natural phenomena. CosmoGrid, led by DIAS, involves the participation


TO REACH beyond the needs of specialised groupings, the Irish Centre for High-End Computing, ICHEC, was formed to bring all the major players together. ICHEC, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the Higher Education Authority (through PRTLI support of CosmoGrid), has been built through collaboration, on existing projects. ICHEC is a distributed project, operating remotely between Dublin, Cork, and Galway. There is a great deal of sharing, not just of resources, but of people. Until last year, when Dr Jean Desplat came in from the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre to head up ICHEC, Prof Luke Drury from CosmoGrid was the Acting Director. of DCU, NUIG, UCD, HEAnet, Met Eireann, Armagh Observatory, and Grid Ireland. CosmoGrid was established under the HEA PTRLI 3, with funding of â‚Ź12 million to cover the purchase, commissioning and support of a 256 computer processor (CPU) node cluster. Like the other grid computing groups, CosmoGrid developed around a core of researchers working on themes that have something in common, but as experience has shown, the groups themselves have similar needs. This, in turn has led to a great deal of convergence into the emergence of a powerful national grid infrastructure. As Prof Drury reports, setting up CosmoGrid provided a platform on which to build grid computing expertise. Up to now 18 research students have embarked on, or have finished PhDs, over 100 peer reviewed articles have been published, and a number of training courses in computational methods have been run. Grid computing is driven by two main groups; the scientists who want to use more powerful tools, and the IT experts who develop and provide the technology. By working together in groups, such as CosmoGrid, scientists and computer specialists have gained valuable experience, and as Prof Drury has pointed out, this is an essential part of building up the national infrastructure. Grid computing has progressed rapidly in the US and Europe, and unless

scientists here have access to a strong enough infrastructure, Irish research could be left out on the periphery of international science. The success of CosmoGrid and the other groups, led DIAS to propose the development of e-INIS, the Irish National e-Infrastructure. The idea of this, explains Prof Drury, is to consolidate, and build on the initiatives to date. Without having groups such as CosmoGrid, he said, we could not now be thinking of taking a favourable position in the international arena. The initial progress, he explains, made it possible for Irish researchers to link up with similar groups abroad,


No matter what discipline scientists are working in, their computational needs are usually much the same. As Prof Luke Drury explains, physicists studying a whole range of natural phenomena, from earthquakes to supernovae explosions, face the same computational challenges. The calculations applying to fluid dynamics also govern convection in the Earth’s core, waves in the atmosphere, and blasts from supernovae. Until the development of grid computing, the scientists involved in these studies had little opportunity to interact. CosmoGrid not only provided a common platform; it also created a virtual department for scientists working at the higher end of computing.


How fast is fast? With one Gibaflop, a processor can perform 1,000,000,000 basic multiplications, referred to as floating point operations, a second. To be up with the rest in international computing, Irish researchers need to be 1,000 times faster before entering the Teraflop class. A Teraflop represents 1,012 floating point operations per second. Two years ago, Dr Andy Shearer, an astrophysicist at NUI Galway, and one of those involved in ICHEC, noted that Ireland had an installed capacity of 6,000 Gigaflops, and up to twenty installations had 64 Gigaflops or more. Since then that capacity has been rising fast, as has the experience to undertake computational intensive projects. Prof Drury at DIAS said that we are now in a position to think seriously about joining international projects as equal partners.

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Powerful computers are being used to model and manipulate virtual molecules. Nanotube modelled by Chris Ewels.

and with further development that position would improve. Certainly this is a view shared by Science Foundation Ireland, which, like the HEA, has been a major supporter of grid-computing. Grid computing is now looked upon in much the same way as buildings and laboratories were seen as vital building blocks to support the emergence of Irish science. Prof Drury believes that gridcomputing will move Irish science up into another higher level, and he said we can expect it to open up a lot of new opportunities. For example, it is now possible to link observatories to combine data on deep space. Irish astrophysicists already have valuable experience in grid-computing, so Ireland could become one of the points in an international network of observatories. Because they have gained experience in high-end grid computing, Irish researchers have been able to participate in European projects such as JETSET, an astrophysics network, and VOLUME, a geophysics group involved in modelling large scale geological processes. This ability to become involved in computing intensive projects is being fostered, so Irish researchers are not likely to be left out of the in silico revolution. Greater recognition is being given to the skills needed by scientists to enable them to benefit from high-end computing. Workshops and training courses have become more common, and the universities plan to back these initiatives up with graduate courses for scientists in advanced computational methods. Apart from researchers, Prof Drury would like everyone to know what grid computing can do for science. To create more awareness, an exhibition showing how advanced computing is being used in astronomy and studies of climate change, is to be launched next year. SPIN

How relevant is science education? ASK any group of boys and girls if they are interested in science and most of them are likely to respond with a yes, but they do not necessarily want to become scientists, and many of them will admit to finding the set curriculum dull, and more to the point, irrelevant. It seems that many educators fail to grasp that the majority of students are not really that interested in re-inventing the wheel, and the last thing they want is prescriptive instruction by teachers who act like guardians of knowledge. There has been a great deal of debate on how science should be presented to young people, but while studies often focus on methods of teaching, what about the attitudes of recepients? To find out what the students themselves think of science, a major international survey was carried out over 37 countries. Students were asked what would they like to learn about, what did they think they would like to work at, how did they think of environmental challenges, and what sort of out-of-school experience had they of science. The survey, Relevance of Science Education (ROSE), was based at the University of Oslo, and in all participating countries the same 217 questions were asked of fourteen to sixteen year olds. The cultural spread was wide, and apart from EU states, India, Japan, Zimbabwe and other countries were involved. In Ireland the ROSE questionnaire was completed in 2003 by 688 transition year or fifth year students, of which 330 were girls, and 358 boys. Dr Philip Matthews from the School of Education TCD, who compiled the Irish ROSE report, explained that it was important to ask students for their views on science in general, and not just about science in school. That distinction, he noted, ‘is vital’ to understanding how young people really regard science. One of the key findings is that the declining numbers opting for science subjects does not mean any decline in interest. In a competitive environment, students can shy away from subjects such as physics and chemistry because they are perceived to be difficult. On this point, Philip Matthews concedes that it is indeed difficult to achieve high grades in these subjects, but this is not a good reason to back down on standards. Lowering standards, he argues, is to miss the point, and science is not necessarily

going to become more attractive by becoming ‘easy’. There have been reports in the past, recommendations on teaching science are nothing new, but this study is different in that it is student centred, and it compares the situation in Ireland to attitudes abroad. Many of these comparisons are quite revealing on how economic and cultural differences can be such a strong influence on performance at school. Apparent disinterest can stem from comfort, while in emerging countries, children are trying much harder to succeed. Some of the trends confirm male female stereotypes, and the attraction of toys for boys is certainly not a myth. In all countries, Ireland being no exception,

there are significant differences between boys and girls. Not that this should surprise us, those differences are perfectly natural, but the importance of this survey is that these differences are now being defined more clearly. This could have implications not just on how science is presented to boys and girls, but on career expectations. There is a significant gap between interest and career expections, and the survey suggests that one of the problems lies in thinking that science and applied technology are the same. Many of the students who expressed a strong interest in science, were indifferent to technology. (TK) The report on Ireland is available from the Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. The survey results are also available on the web site:


How 14 to 16 year olds answered the question — would I like to get a job in technology? SCIENCE SPIN Issue 23 Page 12


Arctic expedition wants you! Have you ever dreamed of taking part in an expedition among an international crew of scientists and engineers? Well here is your chance!


he Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) will take place from 12 to 26 August 2007 and is being led by Hans E.F. Amundsen from the Earth and Planetary Exploration Services (EPX), Oslo, in collaboration with Andrew Steele from the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW), and scientists and engineers from other NASA- and ESArelated institutions.


AMASE develops and tests payload instruments for future Mars missions on Mars analogue field sites in Svalbard, including instruments onboard both NASA’s MSL- and ESA’s ExoMars missions. Field sites include the Bockfjord Volcanic Complex (BVC) with a unique combination of volcanoes, hot springs and permafrost, which is the only place on Earth with carbonate deposits identical to carbonates in the Martian meteorite ALH84001. BVC provides a unique opportunity to study the interaction between water, rocks and primitive life forms in a Mars-like environment and is an ideal testing ground for instruments under development for future “Search for Life” missions to Mars. Research topics centre on formation and weathering of carbonate deposits in various BVC

localities including cryogenic carbonate deposits and blue ice vents in sub-glacial volcanoes and associated microbial activity, bio-geo interactions and organic chemistry. There is an opportunity for one student to participate in AMASE. The role of the winning student in the expedition will either be to propose and carry out her/ his own experiment linked to this field of research or simply to observe and assist the other experimenters. The winner will also be expected to write a daily ‘blog’ or diary, in English, for the ESA website.

How to participate

To apply please register by sending an email with an attached letter in MS Word format explaining why you want to take part to with ‘Application’ in the subject line. If you have any questions concerning your application please send them to the same address, indicating ‘Question’ in the subject line. The attached letter in English should not exceed 800 words and should include the following:

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• full contact details i.e. name, nationality, age, university and field of current study, year of study, tel/ fax • your motivation for participating in AMASE • an explanation of why your field of study is relevant to AMASE • brief description of your experiment proposal, if applicable (not mandatory) • your idea for the daily ‘blog’ please send us as a sample an invented blog entry for one day The deadline for all registrations is 29 June 2007 and ESA will announce the winner by 13 July 2007.

Note for applicants

Only applications from university students up to Masters level or equivalent, and from ESA Member States* will be accepted. The winner is expected to have a good command of English for writing the ‘blog’ entries and should be available for the entire duration of the expedition. For more information visit: education_0.html *Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.


The inventive mind of da Vinci Eoin Gill describes how Leonardo da Vinci was a man so far ahead of his time that many of his ideas had been rediscovered by others before the original notes in mirror writing came to light.

Tawareness in Ireland, the Blackrock his is a great year for science

Castle visitor centre opens, the Exploration Station plans are unveiled and Leonardo da Vinci visits Dublin. Well, Leonardo’s scientific notebook, the Codex Leicester is visiting at any rate and will be on display at the Chester Beatty Library until August 12th. Written 500 years ago, the Codex Leicester comprises 72 pages of text written in his characteristic mirror writing and startling illustrations relating his observations, investigations and theories of the physical world. The 72 pages are written in ink on the left and right and front and back of 18 sheets of linen. The front and back of the 18 sheets are displayed in the specially remodelled gallery at the Chester Beatty. The Codex is owned by Bill and Melinda Gates and is loaned out to museums worldwide. It is a tremendous achievement for the Chester Beatty to bring the Codex to Ireland as it is sought after by some of the largest and most famous museums in the world. The Chester Beatty Library, European Museum of the Year 2002, has one of the most important collections of near Eastern and Far Eastern material and is able to display the Codex in the company of relevant and contemporaneous works, many of which influenced Renaissance thinkers and some of which were read by Leonardo. Many of the displayed works remind us of the importance of Islamic scholars who preserved classical knowledge, added to it and reseeded European learning, and others remind us of the rich history of Chinese science and technology. Accompanying these are interactive displays developed by CALMAST, which recreate Leonardo’s investigations from the Codex Leicester. These interactives bring the Codex to

The Codex Leicester, Leonardo’s draft for a treatise on water contains such a diversity of sciences including astronomy, atmospherics, geology, hydraulics and mechanics. It provides a fascinating insight into one of the most interesting minds of history as he explores the physical world. Leonardo The Codex Leicester: Reflections on the water and the moon continues at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle until August 12th. Free admission but booking is required at

few paintings, but some of the most important ever painted and certainly one, the Mona Lisa is the most famous. After his paintings his inventions are probably best known; the helicopter and flying machine, the tank and automobile, did he even build the first robot? In fact he was employed as an engineer and spent a great deal of his time on science. There is little awareness of his scientific work and even his tremendous investigations in anatomy are often explained as a painter dissecting simply to better represent the body. Leonardo’s interest in anatomy wasn’t inspired by his art rather his art and science were inspired by a burning curiosity and facilitated by an amazing faculty of observation. Leonardo also did extensive investigations in the areas of optics and geometry, which were also related to his painting through perspective and light. He conducted studies in acoustics, astronomy, geology, natural history (especially the flight of birds), mechanics and the nature and flow of water. The nature and flow of water is the main theme of the Codex Leicester.

Renaissance Man

life giving visitors the opportunity to understand and appreciate Leonardo’s scientific explorations. Da Vinci didn’t know everything and he didn’t invent everything, in fact many of his designs were impractical and many of his beliefs incorrect but Leonardo doesn’t need exaggeration or hagiography: he achieved so much is so many areas. Although known generally as an artist he left us only a

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Leonardo was born in 1452 near the village of Vinci west of Florence. The most famous man of the Renaissance would have been expected to have a more auspicious start in life. Leonardo’s mother Caterina was a peasant girl, his father Ser Piero was a notary and a land owner. So marriage was out of the question — at least with Caterina. Ser Piero went on to marry three times, each match good for his career but this start in life barred university and the professions for his first born son. Brought up on the farm by his grandparents and uncle Francesco, Leonardo would have spent his childhood close to nature whetting his curiosity and honing his powers of observation. In his early teens Leonardo became an apprentice in a leading studio in Florence that of Andrea del Verrocchio. Florence was at the centre of the greatest movement of European

thought in over a millennium. The Renaissance was to allow Leonardo the painter and subsequently the engineer and scientist to flower. The Renaissance was a time of new ideas, but largely it was about the rediscovery of classical learning. Greek learning had been transmitted through Islamic scholars and the fall of Constantinople. When Leonardo was a baby he would have seen Greek scholars fleeing to Italy for refuge. In engineering, architecture and art, Europeans had not been able to match the works of ancient Greece and Rome, but 15th Century Italians began to rediscover and even surpass the ancients in art, architecture and engineering. The understanding of the natural world was heavily influenced by scripture and classical thought. Even Leonardo followed the Aristotilean view of the four elements: earth, water, wind and fire, and in the Codex Leicester he explains many phenomena in these terms. Refreshingly, he shows contempt for alchemists and astrologists and although Leonardo never fully emerges from this classical world view he does sound very modern at times.

Codex Leicester

So what of the Codex Leicester? It is full of questions notably those about luminosity of the Moon, the occurrence of fossils on mountains and the circulation of water. He begins with the Earth, Sun and Moon. Using beautiful drawings, he advances his theory about light reflecting from the Moon, which he reasons must be covered in water to allow such reflection. Remarking that many believed the Moon to be a convex mirror he argued that if it were we would only see the light reflected from a small portion of it making the Moon appear smaller and much brighter. The reflections from the waters on the Moon, he reasoned, indicate that the water must be in waves and that of course, proves that there is also wind there. While we know this to be incorrect, Leonardo did not have the benefit of the

telescope. In this portion of the Codex (sheet 2A) he became the first person to correctly explain that the lumen cinereum, the shaded portion of the crescent moon, is faintly visible to us because of the reflection of the sun’s light from the earth. Leonardo, holding the classical belief that microcosm reflects macrocosm, considered the Earth like the body of an animal with veins circulating a lifegiving fluid — water. “The body of the earth like the bodies of animals is interwoven with a network of veins which are all joined together, and are formed for the nutrition and vivifying of this earth and of its creatures; and they originate in the depths of the sea, and there after many revolutions they have to return through the rivers formed by the high burstings of these veins.” Leic. 4A 33v (translation:


In one of the drawings Leonardo illustrated his theory. He thought that these veins originate in the bottom of the sea and run under the land and up through mountains where they would burst through as springs and form rivers. These rivers then brought the water back to the sea. Leonardo used this theory to explain how rivers can start near the tops of mountains. He did not believe that rain could be the cause and he also observed that rivers flow in dry areas where there is no rain. But, he had to explain how the water flows up through these veins. He proposed and tested a number of ideas: capillary action (as in a sponge), evaporation and condensation and syphonage. He explored these mechanisms in other pages of the Codex. However Leonardo couldn’t come up with a convincing explanation for this movement of water because his theory was wrong. Leonardo did much better in his observations of rivers after they rise. He correctly explained how rivers wear away soil and rocks and described how they carve out valleys: “….the persistent action of the rivers ... cut through the mountains; and the rivers in their wandering courses carried away the high plains enclosed by the mountains; and the cuttings of the mountains are shown by the strata in the rocks which correspond to the sections made by the said courses of the rivers.”

Two figures jump up at the same time on a balanced plank, showing forces at work.

changed into soil. The waters wear away their bases and the mountains fall bit by bit in ruin into the rivers.” Leic 17B 17v

(translation: Richter )

His studies of droplets of water and bubbles, illustrate his powers of observation and careful recording. “Water attracts other water to itself when it touches it: this is proved from the bubble formed by a reed with water and soap, because the hole through which the air enters there into the body and enlarges it, immediately closes when the bubble is separated from the reed, running one of the sides of its lip against it opposite side, an joins itself with it and make it firm.” Leic 12B 25r McCurdy Page 753

On sheet 10B he gives this beautiful observation of a falling drop of water: “That water may have tenacity and cohesion together is quite clearly shown in small quantities of water, where the drop, in the process of separating from the rest, before it falls becomes as elongated as possible, until the weight of the drop renders the tenacity by which it is suspended so thin that this tenacity, overcome by the excessive weight, suddenly yields and breaks and becomes separated from the aforesaid drop, and returns contrary to the natural course of its gravity, nor does it move from there any more until it is again driven down by the weight which has been reformed.” Leic. 10B 27r McCurdy He goes on to draw two conclusions from this observation firstly “that the drop has cohesion and nerve structure in common with the water with which it

Leic 1B 1v (translation: Richter )

The lumen cinereum, reflected light from the Sun.

On a subsequent page he predicted that eventually the mountains will be levelled by water erosion: “How in the end the mountains will be levelled by the waters, seeing that they wash away the earth which covers them and uncover their rocks, which begin to crumble and subdued alike by heat and frost are being continually

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Studies of water flowing.

is joined; secondly that the water drawn by the force breaks its cohesion, and the part that extends to the break is drawn up by the remainder in the same manner as is the iron by the magnet.” A major question for Leonardo was how sea shells are found in rocks up mountains a great distance from the sea. Most people believed that they were carried up from the sea by the Biblical Deluge. Many people even suggested that they grew in the rocks. Leonardo dismissed the “stupidity and ignorance of those” saying “such an opinion cannot exist in brains possessed of any extensive powers of reasoning”. “In this work of yours you have first to prove how the shells at a height of a thousand braccia were not carried there by the Deluge, because they are seen at one and the same level, and mountains also are seen which considerably exceed this level, and to enquire whether the Deluge was caused by rain or by the sea rising in a swirling flood; and then you have to show that neither by rain which makes the rivers rise in flood nor by the swelling up of the sea could the shells being heavy things be driven by the sea up the mountains or be thrown there by the rivers contrary to the course of their waters.” (Leic. 1B 1v translation McCurdy) Leonardo reasoned that sea shells could not have been carried up by flood waters as they sink in water. To those who suggest that sea shells could have crawled up there, he pointed out that forty days is not long enough for shells to travel hundreds of miles. He also pointed out that if sea creatures were carried up by the flood they would be all broken and mixed up together, like on a beach. However, they are found gathered in the same manner as they would be found on the sea shore. “If the Deluge had carried the shells for distances of three and four hundred miles from the sea it would have carried them mixed with various other natural objects all heaped up together; but even at such distances from the sea we see the oysters all together and also the shellfish and the cuttlefish and all the other shells which congregate together, found all together dead; and the solitary shells are found apart from one another as we see them every day on the sea-shores.” Leic. 9B 9v (Translation Richter) Leonardo believed that the rocks were formed under the sea by deposition and correctly reasoned, therefore, that the sea once covered the mountains. This was far ahead of his time. He believed that the sea level fell, uncovering the mountains rather than the land rose up from the sea. It was not for almost another 300 years that James Hutton, the “father of modern geology” proposed that land folded up

into mountains. Hutton also famously claimed that the “present is the key to the past”. Three centuries earlier in the Codex Leicester Leonardo said that the rocks are a testament to time, writing “Since things are more ancient than letters, it is not to be wondered at if there is no record of how the aforesaid seas extended over so many countries ….Sufficient for us is the testimony of things produced in the salt waters and now found again in the high mountains, sometimes at a distance for the seas.” Leic 6B (31r). The behaviour of flowing water was of significant interest to Leonardo the engineer, designer of bridges, canals and flow control in rivers. In the Codex he presented a series of compelling drawings of water flow around obstacles, showing eddy formation for different shapes. These drawings compare well to 20th Century photographic investigation into fluid flow. He examined waves in great detail reporting experiments with wave propagation and reflection in bowls of water. He investigated several mechanisms for moving water, such as syphonage and the relationship between flow from a vessel and depth of liquid in the vessel. Leonardo even found time to investigate the reason why the sky is blue hundreds of years before Rayleigh and Tyndall: “I say that the blue which is seen in the atmosphere is not its own colour but is caused by warm humidity evaporated in minute and imperceptible atoms on which the solar rays fall rendering them luminous against the immense darkness.” Leic 4A 4r Richter

Detail showing bubble of water on a reed.

Leonardo’s scientific legacy

How do we assess Leonardo the scientist? It is easy to assess his influence on modern science – it was very little. Why? Because during his life he didn’t publish his theories; he didn’t even manage to organise his findings in a very coherent manner- they were spread over more than 10,000 pages of notes. The Codex Leicester importantly, is one of the most organised and gathered works. After his death efforts to organise his work were soon abandoned, it didn’t help also that the notes were in Italian, in back-to-front mirror writing and they jumped from one subject to the next. The notebooks were split up and dispersed, the drawings alone being valued. Alas, by the late 19th century when serious efforts were made to ‘mine’ his works, most of his scientific notions had been discovered by others or disproved. While Leonardo doesn’t need exaggerated praise, he doesn’t deserve detractors, but inevitably he had to be assailed by those to whom revisionism is bread and butter. Some academics even challenge Leonardo’s right to the mantle “scientist”. Leonardo was not a modern scientist in the fullest sense, but saying he is not a scientist is like saying his contemporary Columbus was not an explorer because he didn’t use GPS and he ended up in the wrong place. A brief encounter with the Codex Leicester will quickly convince the reader of Leonardo’s place in the history of science. SPIN

Eoin Gill, an engineering lecturer at Waterford Institute of Technology, comanages CALMAST, the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Maths Science and Technology with Sheila Donegan at WIT. Eoin and Sheila are current EU Descartes Laureates for Science Communication through the written word and they recently received the first ever national Science, Engineering and Technology Awareness Award from Engineers Ireland.


Translations are taken from the following books. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Edward MacCurdy, 1939. The Literary Works of Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Paul Richter, first published 1883.

Further reading:

A catalogue has been published by the Chester Beatty Library for the exhibition. Leonardo da Vinci The Codex Leicester, edited by Michael Ryan, with essays by Philip Cottrell, Michael John Gorman and Dorothy Cross. Available at the Chester Beatty Library.

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GEOLOGICAL PHOTOGRAPHY COMPETITION 2007 Entries are invited for the 9th Du Noyer Geological Photography Competition George Victor Du Noyer, who served as a geologist with the Geological Survey of Ireland from 1847 to 1869, was a skilled field artist whose numerous sketches and pictures, with their combination of artistic skill and technical accuracy, were the “field photographs” of their day. This competition seeks to encourage the same blend of artistic and scientific skills through the medium of photography.

Photograph of Brandon Bay, Co Kerry by Sean Tomkins, one of the winners in the 2006 Du Noyer competition. Total prize money of €800 will be awarded in two categories, Irish and Foreign. There will be 3 prizes in the Irish category – 1st Prize €300, 2nd Prize €200 and 3rd Prize €100. The Foreign Category Winner will receive a prize of €200. All photographs entered must be clearly labelled with the following information: • Name • Address • Telephone number • Email of entrant/photographer • Short description of geological content • Place and Date when taken Please write on a label and stick it onto the back of the photographs, or include a note with each entry. DO NOT WRITE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH.

Entrants may submit a maximum of 4 photographs, illustrating any aspect of field geology or scenic landscapes. Images must be prints of not less than 6 x 4 inches. These prints may be accompanied by a digital image, if available. Both successful and unsuccessful entrants will be notified by e-mail. The competition will be judged by a panel including representatives of the IGA, the GSI and external nominees and their decision will be final. Entries will be exhibited and prizes awarded at a GSI Cunningham Awards ceremony in early December. We are not in a position to return entry material. GSI reserves the right to reproduce entries in its publications and promotional activity with due acknowledgement. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 23 Page 19

Entries should be posted in an envelope marked “Du Noyer Competition” to: Cartography Unit, Geological Survey of Ireland, Beggars Bush, Haddington Rd, Dublin 4. Evaluation Criteria • Creativity (25 marks) • Technical Skill of the Photographer (25 marks) • Geological Content of Photograph (50 marks)

The closing date for entries is: Friday, 12th October 2007


Good impressions Good impressions Tom Kennedy reports that hundreds of wood blocks, used for printing scientific illustrations in the 19th century, were re-discovered at the Geological Survey of Ireland.


efore photographs could be reproduced in print, illustrations had to be engraved on plates of metal or blocks of wood, and as we can see in old books, the results were often so good that many deserve framing as works of graphic art. Engraving was a highly skilled occupation, and until the arrival of photo-mechanical technology, blocks had to be cut by hand. As in all skilled trades, some engravers were better than others, but the prevailing standard was high, and driven by the huge rise in demand for illustrated books and magazines, quality reached a peak in the mid to late 19th century. Then, of course, came the sudden decline. Once line drawings and photographs could be rendered photo-mechanically the engravers were out of a job. Almost overnight an army of skilled engravers were cast out onto the scrapheap, unwanted, and with just a few exceptions, forgotten. In general,

the new generation of illustrations were crude, coarse grained, and dismally grey. They may have been inferior, but they were a lot cheaper to produce. In the same way that offices throw out their old computers, out-of-date at five years old, and totally antiquated at ten, printers and publishers began dumping the old blocks. Scientific institutions may have been a bit slower to do this because blocks were often reused for different publications, and this was the case with the Geological Survey. However, even the Survey had to move with the times, and whenever an illustration had to be reused, the printers simply reproduced the hardcopy original. Fortunately, the Geological Survey did not throw out their blocks, at least not in Ireland, and after they had been packed away in ammunition boxes they ended up in a corridor between the National Museum and Leinster Left: Petra Coffey has catalogued the collection of woodcuts, most of which, like the one on the right, are in remarkably good condition.

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House. In 1923, following Partition, all the blocks relating to Northern Ireland were sent off to the Ulster Museum, and in 1924 the rest were evicted, to make room for the post Civil War government. After some shifting around, the boxes ended up in the basement of the Geological Survey at Beggar’s Bush, the contents not so much abandoned as undisturbed. At the Geological Survey, some of the staff realised that the blocks were well worth preserving, so a project to restore and catalogue the entire collection was launched. Matthew Parkes found that his interest in the blocks was shared by Padraig Connaughton, and Petra Coffey. Petra had been researching the life and work of George Victor Du Noyer, one of the 19th century surveyors responsibe for producing some of the best illustrations. Not only was Du Noyer a talented artist, producing fine watercolour studies, but he had mastered the craft of engraving. Some of the blocks in the collection had been cut by Du Noyer. By a fortunate coincidence, the Geological Survey is next door to the National Print Museum, where,

conveniently, there is a collection of old presses. The blocks had been packed simply to get them out of the way, so many had their inked faces up against each other, and of course, storage conditions had not been ideal. At one stage of being shifted around, they had been kept in a former biscuit factory. Even so, except for some warping and splitting, the blocks were well preserved, and when Padraig Connaughton had them cleaned with dilute spirits, they were ready for a new lease of life. One of the reasons why the Print Museum had been set up in the first place was to preserve not just the machinery, but the craft of printing. After blocks and fonts for text were assembled and locked into position, the surface was inked, and an impression made on paper. That might seem simple, but it took a great deal of skill to get the best results. Not only had the blocks and fonts to be set up correctly, and perfectly in alignment, but the inking had to be precise, and the quality of the paper could make a big difference. A good printer could not only deal with those difficulties, but could turn them to advantage, and that is why so many old books are a pleasure to read. For the Print Museum, the blocks presented a welcome challenge, and as work got underway on making fresh impressions, Petra Coffey started cataloguing the collection. Many of the labels, identifying subjects and places, had suffered, so relabelling became part of restoration, and as Petra worked through the blocks, she entered the details into a database. To make the database complete details were also collected about the blocks stored in the Ulster Museum. The blocks themselves now lie on a 3mm layer of polyethylene foam in metal drawers in an environmentally controlled and fireproof National Archive room.

Blocks have been sorted, boxed, and indexed, and the fact that some remain unfinished or un-used adds to the value of the collection. steady hand. The illustration was first drawn onto the smooth face of the block, which was then passed on to the engraver. Engraving was a fairly big business, and while many blocks were cut for publishers in London, at least some of the engravers for the Geological Survey were based in Dublin. One of the names appearing on blocks is Booth, and Petra Coffey has traced this back to a family business. During the mid 19th century, the Booths had a timber store, and ran, what was described as an “artists’ warehouse”. Mapping continued until 1890, and by that time photo-mechanical

production of plates had begun to displace hand engraving. Printers had discovered that illustrations could be photographed onto extremely high contrast film, so that the lines in a drawing stood out strongly. As a photographic process, the original images could be reduced or enlarged, and of course, the big negative, after development, could be worked over with a fine blade or brush dipped in opaque ink. By placing the film over a metal plate coated with photo-sensitive chemicals, this negative image could then be transferred by exposure to light. Films are rendered sensitive to light by coating them with silver halide

Blackened with ink, one of the used blocks. The vertical crack shows where two pieces of wood had been joined. Fine grained wood was expensive, so small pieces were often glued together.

Steady hands

As described previously, in Science Spin 22, the Geological Survey began mapping the rocks of Ireland in 1846. The 201 six-inch maps covering the entire island were accompanied by descriptive memoirs, and these were where many of the old illustrations appear. The engraving process required a lot of skill, good eyesight, and a

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chemicals. Exposure to light creates a change, but this remains latent until the film is immersed in a developing solution containing hydroquinine. This acts as a reducer on the exposed silver salts. Where light has fallen, the silver is reduced to its metallic form, often referred to as the grain. At this stage, films are still sensitive to light, so to stop any further development, the film is dipped in a slightly acid bath to change the pH, or simply washed. Then it is fixed in a solution of sodium thiosulphate. The sodium thiosulphate, usually known simply as ‘hypo’ dissolves away any of the silver that has not been reduced to its metallic state, so the exposed parts of the image remain as the negative, insensitive to light, and, after washing to remove the hypo, about as permanent as anything can be in this world. If you look at an ordinary negative closely, edge on, in oblique light, it is possible to see a faint impression of the image as a positive. This is because the silver image has depth, very slight, but enough to make it stand out in relief. In transferring the negative image to the metal plate, the photographic process was much the same, but an extremely high contrast developer was used, and instead of producing almost extremely shallow depth, the fixing and finishing was much more aggressive. The developed lines acted as a mask so that chemical etching could continue until the the lines in an illustration ended up standing out in high relief. Like the wood engravings, these metal blocks could be set up with the type for printing.

To make a block, the illustration was first drawn carefully in reverse onto the smooth face, and then the wood was etched away. Above is a rare survivor, a block drawn on, but never etched. With the emergence of this new technology, some of the original illustrations were copied, resized, and occasionally altered. In one case the original illustration of a limestone cave by the Lower Lake, Killarney, was not just resized, but the figure of a person was removed. In many of the memoirs towards the end of the series, the illustrations were produced from a Illustrations, such as these fossil plants, were drawn directly onto the stone for lithographic printing.

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mix of wood and metal blocks. Blocks, once made, could be re-used, and often were. Authors and publishers frequently borrowed blocks, but there was a limit to how many impressions could be made. Eventually blocks wore out, and when lines started to blur, it was time to discard or cut a replacement. Metal blocks started to make their appearance in the GSI collection in 1885, but they were not necessarily greeted as an improvement. The Director-General of the Geological Survey in 1892, Archibald Geikie, remarked distainfully that the photo-mechanical method was far removed from engraving on wood. As always, however, cost eventually won that argument.

Among the illustrators, one man stands out as an exceptional artist. George Victor Du Noyer, born in 1817, not only produced some of the best illustrations, but he also engraved some of the best blocks. Du Noyer was a man of many talents, and he worked as a surveyor first with the Ordnance Survey, and then with the Geological Survey. George’s skill in drawing and his ability to observe the landscape owed a great deal to his early training by the celebrated antiquarian, George Petrie. Du Noyer was keen to engrave some of his own work, but as a letter from one of his colleagues in 1836 to Petrie indicates, he had to acquire the skill. His initial attempts were described as “barbarous.” Ten years later, Du Noyer, who was being described as an exceptional draftsman, seems to have made considerable progress in mastering the skills of etching, perhaps just as well, as he was accused of making too many demands on the professional engravers. One of the engravers, Mr Grey, whose initials can be seen on many illustrations, told the Geological Survey that he would have to charge a higher rate because Du Noyer’s minute shading required so much extra time and work. In a letter to Du Noyer, J B Jukes of the Survey noted that, “I have

consulted with Mr Grey, the engraver, concerning our sketches and he tells me that he could not engrave some of them for less than £3 a piece.” Du Noyer was told to keep his sketches bold and simple, and no doubt this encouraged him to do more of his own engraving. Du Noyer did not just confine his attention to engraving on wood. One of the best techniques for printing is to draw onto a block of extremely fine grained stone. This is the original lithographic process, in which the clear areas around a drawing repel ink. By carefully inking the stone, the wet image can be transferred by contact to a sheet of absorbent paper. Like wood cuts, lith transfer produces results of great beauty and character, and it ranks as one of the best in an array of amazingly high quality printing

techniques being applied in the 19th century. Among the hundreds of wood blocks, now being kept under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity, are some lithographic stones, some, much to heavy for one person to lift. By contrast, the wood blocks are small and dainty, and as Petra explains, they are quite unique. Similar blocks were used to illustrate surveys in Britain, but they appear to have been dumped, possibly when the Geological Survey there ran out of space in 1900. Different circumstances, and a lot of luck, favoured the Irish. SPIN


For fine detail, engravings were made on dense, hard woods, such as box, cherry or hornbeam. Box, the slow growing small leaved shrub, Buxus sempervirens, was one of the most popular species, and it was planted extensively for this purpose. In Surrey, Box Hill gets its name from a time when Buxus was grown commercially. Buxus, familiar to many in the small low hedges in older gardens, grows slowly, and it never becomes large, so when large illustrations had to be engraved, blocks were spliced together, and sometimes the joints show up as flaws in the printed pictures.

Long line

Printing from woodblocks originated in the Far East, where a tradition of drawing in line goes back over a thousand years. Fine print making, with colours often added from multiple blocks, was greatly admired by collectors in China and Japan. The techniques of printing from woodblocks eventually reached Europe, where it quickly became popular as a way to illustrate books. Many of the earlier woodcuts, have simple, bold black lines, often following the grain of the wood, but by the 16th century artists, such as Mattioli and Albrecht Dürer, reached a peak of refinement in producing prints of exceptional quality.

Using woodcuts to illustrate books, popular song sheets, and pamphlets continued into the 19th century, when there was a marked increase in detail and realistic accuracy, matching technical improvements in printing. Popular papers, such as the Dublin Penny Journal, were illustrated with woodcuts, and the engravers were kept busy until photo-mechanical methods of reproduction and photography made them redundant. At first, it was discovered that black lines, as in drawings could be reproduced, and then it was found that the continuous tones of a photograph could be copied simply by breaking the picture down into a ‘half-tone’ screen of black dots. The quality of

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Slow to grow but fine grained, a 5 cm cross section of Buxus from the GSI collection. those early half tones was really poor, and for a time around the turn of the 19th century, many publishers, for quality reasons, choose to continue rendering photographs as hand-made engravings. The skill in matching photographic realism in magazines such as The Graphic, Illustrated London News, or The Strand, has never been matched since, but that must have been cold comfort to all the engravers who, having reached a peak in perfection, suddenly found themselves redundant.

Meteorites Clues to origins of the solar system Marie-Catherine Mousseau explains that stones do indeed rain down upon us, and meteorites are quite common.


t 10:10pm on the 28th November 1999, people in County Carlow saw a remarkable fireball, reported “as bright as the full moon”, which lit up the sky and sent out booming explosions. Shortly afterwards, a grand-mother who wished to remain anonymous found a golf-ball sized rock on a local road, “dark black and wonderful!” She had found what would be known as the Leighlinbridge meteorite.

Space rocks, or meteorites, do fall from the sky, even in Ireland, and the Celtic inhabitants of Gaul may not have been that crazy when claiming their biggest fear was the sky falling

upon their head. Falling meteorites do cause damage to property, livestock, and even people. Not to mention the very big ones; those that strike the ground with cosmic velocity, vaporised by the impact and leaving behind huge craters, like the one in Arizona, 47,000 years old and nearly a mile across, or the Sudbury crater in Ontario, Canada, which reaches 200 to 250 km in diameter. The force of such collisions has the potential to cause widespread destruction. Most people have heard about the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico), 175 km

Above, and below, this huge crater in Arizona is a reminder that not all meteorites are small. The right top inset is an image of the asteroid Ida, captured by the NASA Galileo spacecraft from a distance of about 6,500 miles. The 52 km long asteroid has a moon, Dactyl, thought to have been knocked off in a collision.

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across, caused by a meteorite that might have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs — and in fact most life then on Earth. But meteorites are not all that bad. Only few of them are large enough to create impact craters. According to astronomers’ calculation, such major collisions are quite rare — one every 300,000 years on average. Instead, most meteorites typically arrive at the surface at their terminal velocity (freefall) and, at most, create a small pit. And these bodies coming from outer space can be of inestimable value in learning about our Universe. Indeed, what is so fascinating about meteorites is that they give us direct clues about what the cosmos is made of. Think about it; what palpable material other than meteorites do we have to get to know our surrounding Universe? A few samples from the Moon, or comet dust; but so far, we have never been able to bring back any sample even from Mars, the closest planet to Earth, (and according to NASA experts we’re unlikely to do so till 2011 at least). So most of our direct evidence — as far as alien chemistry is concerned — remains with meteorites.


Fortunately we are not short of them. Although more likely to be spotted in populated areas, such as Europe, Japan, or northern India, meteorites fall virtually everywhere. The vast majority come from asteroids (small celestial bodies that revolve around the Sun). Indeed, there are lots of bodies out there, especially in the so-called asteroid belt (between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter), fragments of which might get ejected due to collisions and cross the Earth’s path. A few Antarctic and hot dry desert meteorites also come from our closest neighbours the Moon and Mars. They might have been ejected by the explosive impact of some asteroid. To be called meteorites, however, these fragments need to survive an impact with the Earth’s surface. This is not as straightforward as it may seem. If they are too small (less than a few grams), or are going too fast, they do not get through the Earth’s atmosphere because they are burned up as a result of friction with the air. They become incandescent and appear as a streak of light — those are the shooting stars which sometimes fill our sky at night.

A 16th century woodcut shows Peter Apian, the first person to observe that the tails of comets point away from the Sun. Overall, an estimated 500 meteorites ranging in size from marbles to basketballs or larger do reach the Earth’s surface each year. And of those, only about six are recovered and made known to scientists. Of course this means very few have been found in Ireland. According to Mike Simms of the Ulster Museum, there may be 10 meteorites a year of walnut size

or larger that strike the Irish surface; but most of them are lost. “Most meteorites contain at least some iron metal and so rust quickly in humid climates such as Ireland”, he explains. “Since most geologists would be hard pushed to actually recognise them, they are unlikely to be found before they rust away completely.” Therefore, only the meteorites which are actually

Most of our meteorites come from asteroid belts, bands of shattered fragments in orbit around stars, such as the Sun.

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The Bovedy fireball, and right, hole made by a meteorite in the roof of the RUC building at Sprucefield seen to fall — like the fireball seen in Carlow mentioned at the beginning — can be quickly retrieved. The 1999 Leighlinbridge meteorite was in fact the last meteorite ever discovered in Ireland; the one prior to Leighlinbridge was discovered 30 years previously (and was called the Bovedy meteorite – see below).


So what do meteorites tell us about our Universe? Obviously, they can tell us something about its composition. The vast majority of meteorites (90 per cent) are made of stone. Most of these stony meteorites are called chondrites, because they contain small, round particles called chondrules, composed mostly of silicate minerals that appear to have been melted. There is also a small proportion of meteorites

composed chiefly or partly of iron; but chondrites are by far the majority, accounting for about 84 per cent of all existing meteorites (see box below for meteorite classification). Meteorite composition tells us about their parent bodies — that is, for most of them, asteroids. And believe it or not, it is particularly interesting to know about asteroids, because asteroids are like ancient witnesses. Chondritic asteroids in particular, which contain the small spheres called chondrules, are some of the oldest and most primitive materials in the solar system. We think they are fragments of small planets created as a result of collisions when the solar system was forming — chondrites are actually considered to be “the building blocks of the planets.” Elucidating how chondrites are formed, and more specifically how chondrules inside


Some facts and definitions l Definition: a piece of rock or metal that has fallen to the Earth’s surface from outer space. l Only a small fraction of the initial meteorite mass remains to reach the ground. l Meteorites are named after the geographical localities in which they were found. l About six new fallen meteorites are recovered each year around the world. l One every 30 years on average are recovered in Ireland.

Origin l Most meteorites are believed to be fragments of asteroids, but quite a few lunar and martian meteorites have been found in the Antarctic or in dry deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.

Composition and weight l Traditionally, meteorites are divided into three main types. I – 90 per cent are made of stone. Including 84 per cent of chondrite and 8 per cent that are achondrites, i.e. stones that have no chondrules

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them are created, would thus give us fascinating clues about our history i.e. the origin of our Solar System and the creation of planets. Brian McBreen, Associate Professor at UCD School of Physics, comments about the scientific importance of these melted pieces of rocks: “the best discovery about meteorites are undoubtedly chondrules,” he said. “You would never have guessed that the material has been melted in the manner that it has. It’s only once we looked inside the meteorites and found these melted droplets of material, the chondrules, that we got a clue as to what occurred.” Because, as he pointed out, for rock to melt and chondrules to form you need a temperature of 1600ºC. So the question is: what caused such heat? Prof McBreen did not actually set out to determine the origin of chondrules. However, as often happens in science, his research led him there while he was studying some a priori unrelated phenomenon – gamma ray bursts.

Gamma rays and planet formation

Working in the area of gamma ray astronomy, Prof McBreen and his team made the association with meteorites and came up with an original theory, which they published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal. Their theory put lightning strikes, caused by gamma ray bursts, on the central stage.

and resemble the rock called basalt (could come from the crust of Mars or the Moon, or the large asteroid Vesta) II – Seven per cent have an exceptionally high iron content (with a small percentage of nickel) III – One per cent are stony-iron meteorites (made of both iron and stone in varying proportions) l Stone meteorites have masses between about 100 grams and 1,500 kg and iron meteorites between a few grams and 20,000 kg. l Those much larger than the largest recovered meteorites produce craters in the Earth’s surface and are blown apart on impact.

Left: thin section of a chondrite viewed through a microscope. The round bodies are chondrules.

“Explosions that occur at the A section through an iron meteorite. endpoint of stellar evolution [the Right: a slice cut through the Bovedy meteorite death of a star] generate huge fluxes showing that it is made of little bits — of gamma rays,” he says. “If you’re chondrules (the specimen is about 10 cm wide) anywhere near them — within 300 light years — they are sufficiently account for all planetary systems” he intense to melt grains of sand or adds. various oxides. When these melted In fact, Prof McBreen’s theory grains cool down, they will form may not account for the formation lovely spherical shapes, the shape of of our Solar System, but he thinks it the chondrules.” can account for a minority of other So, according to Prof McBreen, huge systems. “Astronomers are now aware lightning strikes caused by a dying of that theory. Sooner or later the star could account for the formation chondrule signature will be found of chondrites and consequently near gamma ray bursts in other rocky planets, some 4.6 billion years protoplanetary systems,” he concludes. ago. To test the theory, one of his As for our planetary system, there PhD students, Paul Duggan, did is still no consensus as to what heated an experiment using a ‘wonderful it. While many still believe that facility’ as Prof McBreen describes it, lightning could account for chondrule the European Synchrotron Radiation formation, not everybody agrees. Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. As pointed out by Brian, there are a Paul irradiated some dust particles (a number of other theories – for instance precursor material made of various phenomena such as shockwaves oxides) with a gamma ray beam to or X-ray flares from the sun could simulate a gamma bursts. And the have been involved in the creation of results were just like the theory had planets “at least in our Solar System, predicted. The gamma ray beam and presumably in other similar physically melted the particles, giving systems.” rise, on cooling, to the remarkable But there is one particular theory chondrules. that seems to fit very nicely with our This was all very good, but for observations… this process to take place in reality the theory needs an intense source of The rocky surface of Mars. The stones are thought gamma ray burst near a place where to be meteorites. planets were formed (a protoplanetary system). “This was a phenomenon that could only occur in a nearby protoplanetary system that got blasted by gamma rays,” Prof McBreen says. Well, don’t get the wrong idea, when astronomers say nearby, it has not exactly the same meaning as for the rest of us. “By nearby we mean from distances from here to 10 times beyond the nearest stars,” he indicates. “As far as we know, there are not enough gamma ray bursts to

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The key role of radioactivity

A major proponent of this theory is another Irish scientist, one of the most prominent meteorite experts in Ireland – Ian Sanders, geologist and lecturer at TCD. Ian Sanders has been working on meteorites for 14 years, and his research is precisely about the first few million years of the Solar System. He has his own idea about what happened. “Personally, I do not believe that flash heating of dust clumps (to make chondrules) was an important process, and may not have happened at all.” His theory is actually an old theory that he has resurrected. “The theory goes back to Harold Urey (Nobel Laureat), but was first clearly expressed by a guy called Herb Zook in 1980,” Ian Sanders comments. “It claims that planetesimals [very small planets] became substantially molten, then splashed on mutual collision, releasing copious volumes of molten droplets that cooled to become chondrules.” Ian’s theory is also the one favoured by Mike Simms. Mike enthusiastically explains the whole process in simple terms. Very early in the history of the Solar System, gravity was pulling the dust into bigger lumps; once it got into lumps bigger than about 10 km across (small planets), heat built up and melted them. “So the first million and a half year of the Solar System, orbiting the sun you had only small planets mostly melted with a thin solid crust”, he says. He continues: “There would have been so many of these molten planetesimals that they would have been crashing into each other all the time.” And every time they crashed they would generate showers of

molten rock droplets. These droplets would have frozen pretty quickly in space and then gravity would have pulled them together again. That’s the best explanation for the chondrules, Mike Simms concludes. But why would planets spontaneously heat up and melt in the first place? The reason is given by an interesting clue: the magnesium isotope, 26Mg. Meteorites have been found to have more 26Mg than you would expect. And 26Mg is what the radioactive isotope aluminium 26Al decays to, so this leads to a single cause: radioactivity. “Aluminium 26 is radioactive with a half life of about three quarters of a million years,” Mike Simms explains. “During the first million year and a half of the Solar System, there was a lot of 26Al in the dust. The heat generated by radioactive decay would melt the small planets once they had reached a big enough size”. He concludes “what we know of the dates of the chondrules fits very

Parent bodies l Planetesimal: minute planets created when the solar system was forming l Silicate crust with an iron core is what we think a number of asteroids are made of (differentiated asteroids). l Achondrites might come from the crust of asteroids while iron meteorites come from their core (and stony-iron from the frontier core/crust). l Chondrites come from undifferentiated asteroids. l Asteroid belt: Doughnut-shaped concentration of asteroids orbiting the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. l Asteroids are some of the oldest and most primitive materials in the solar system.

nicely with what you would expect from the half life of aluminium decay.”

Bovedy meteorite

Interestingly, an Irish meteorite served as an important clue for Sanders’ revival of the theory. Not the Leighlinbridge meteorite (the one recovered in 1999 by the anonymous grandmother); this one turned out to be quite plain. No, he used the previous one, which fell on the 25th April 1969. It is in fact called Bovedy/Sprucefield because the larger stone fell at Bovedy while a smaller fragment crashed through the roof of a RUC store at Sprucefield, 60km to the SSE. “Bovedy/Sprucefield fall is easily the most scientifically important Irish fall,” Mike Simms comments. “All the other Irish meteorites are pretty dull, equilibrated ordinary chondrites”. “Bovedy/Sprucefield is highly unequilibrated.” Mike Simms explains what he means by equilibrated. Two million years after the beginning of the Solar System, the chondrules are already formed and a lot of the radioactivity has gone, but there is still faint

Under the microscope, a thin 30 micron thick section of a chondrule illuminated by polarizing light. US Museum of Natural History.

or the X-wind, to name but two, fall down on many other aspects,” he adds. “Ian’s theory can account for many of the observations of what we see in meteorites.”

And beyond

A section through an iron meteorite found in New Mexico during the late 19th century. The crystalline bands of alloy are believed to have been formed by slow cooling over millions of years. US Natural History Museum. radioactivity. While not enough to remelt the chondrules, there is however enough to heat them and cause transfer of some of the elements. “And if you heat up a chondrite to a few hundred degrees, after a few million years what happens is that the chemistry of all the chondrules end up being pretty similar” Mike Simms says. “This is what is called equilibrated.” Bovedy is different, in so far as it was never really cooked; so each chondrule has its particular chemistry. Mike explains why: all chondrite meteorites are parts of a bigger planet, or some planetisimal that was smashed to pieces by collision. Most fragments come from the middle and would have been heated up. But there are a few bits at the edge or at the surface which would not have been heated much. Bovedy probably comes from the edge. As a result, “you can see the chondrules very clearly in Bovedy, much more clearly than what you can see in other meteorites,” Mike says. “It’s very important because they are

pretty rare and tell us much about how chondrules and chondrites form.” Ian Sanders explains how looking at Bovedy’s texture under the microscope helped elaborate his thesis. “Two aspects of Bovedy initiated the line of reasoning from which the theory emerged,” he says. “First, back in 1992 it was one of only four chondritic meteorites that had been shown to have bits of planetary rock alongside the chondrules.” According to him this clearly shows that planetary bodies had first evolved and become fragmented before the chondrules formed. “Secondly, the chondrules in Bovedy are not spherical, but have shapes that indent one another, as though the chondrules were still hot and plastic at the time of their accretion,” he says. “This observation implies local production in batches – a feature consistent with planetesimal splashing.” Mike Simms believes in Ian Sanders’ theory. It is “by far the most plausible and parsimonious theory for chondrule formation. “The various other theories, such as lightning strikes

Do meteorites mostly fall during meteorite showers? What do these showers consist of? There is no link between meteor showers and meteorite falls. The former are mostly sand-sized bits from comets; the showers occur when the Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by the passage of a comet, and they burn up long before reaching the ground. Meteorites are fragments of asteroids and fall randomly. What are the methods geologists have at their disposal to tell where a meteorite comes from? In a few cases if enough people have observed the fall and noted its direction, or the fireball is captured on film, we can work out its trajectory. The few for which this has been done show they come from the asteroid belt. As for specific asteroids, we look at the chemistry of the meteorite and compare with reflectance spectra for asteroids. (Answers by Mike Simms)

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So because meteorites are very old, and because they all come from within our Solar System, they tell us a lot about what happened during its formation. But they might even bring us beyond that. “Ultimately, the matter the solar system is made of must have come from something earlier, something around since the beginning of the Universe,” Mike Simms notes. He points out that a lot of meteorites contain ancient tiny crystals of diamond, silicon carbide, etc older than the Sun. “These presolar grains have actually survived when most of the other compounds may have been homogenised,” he explains. They are microscopic traces, but with many interesting sources. Ian Sanders comments about their origin: “presolar grains within unheated chondrites are fascinating because they contain the stellar sources of the atoms from which we are made.” Experts actually believe these ancient grains come from various supernovae – not less than 40 different ones, according to Mike Simms. But, “the origin and consequences of short-live radioactive isotopes is an unsolved puzzle,” Ian Sanders remarks. Actually, a supernova might also be the source of all the radioactive aluminium thought to be involved in planet formation. “There must have been a supernova not that far away which blasted all this 26Al into the Solar System and set the whole thing going” says Mike Simms. “Without that things would have been very different….” So whether it be through gamma ray bursts or radioactive aluminium, the whole process seems to come down to a universal life cycle — a dying star transferring its modelling imprint to a new born star system.

Web link:


More about Irish meteorites: http:// meteorites/SEIRE.HTM


Chemistry for the good life Margaret Franklin reports on what the distinguished scientist, Mary Archer, had to say about the importance of chemistry to everyday life. Dr Archer gave presentations at Athlone Institute of Technology, Cork Institute of Technology, and DCU at the invitation of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland.


r Archer began her lecture, by listing the many benefits that chemistry has brought to society. These include, for example, lifesaving and health-giving medicines, fertilizers and pesticides so important to agriculture, construction materials such as cement, paints and other surface coatings, plastics and textiles, dyes and inks and of course biofuels. Given these benefits, one may ask why chemistry is not a popular subject choice for third level students. This may have something to do with developments in maths teaching, where students are allowed to use calculators, rather than being encouraged to do mental arithmetic. This has led to a decline in numeracy among school pupils and so the calculations involved in solving chemistry problems may seem rather daunting to some. Dr Archer conceded that chemistry has also been given a bad image by some high-profile accidents, such as the explosion in Bhopal in India in the 1980s, which released a cloud of toxic fumes, resulting in many fatalities and casualties. Two decades earlier, another negative image had been portrayed by the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which raised awareness of the harmful environmental effects of the use of pesticides, in particular DDT.

Solar energy conversion

Dr Archer’s favourite theme is the use of chemistry in solar energy conversion. Photosynthesis by green plants is of course the primary natural mechanism for harnessing the sun’s energy, using the green chrolophyll pigments to trap the energy and use it to convert carbon dioxide and water, first into sugars, then more complex carbohydrates, which are in turn

This year, Athlone Institute of Technology was invited by the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland, to host one of the lectures in its Eva Philbin Annual Award Lecture series. The award, inaugurated in 2005, is named for the Late Eva Philbin, who was a Professor of Chemistry in UCD for many years. It is presented annually to a distinguished chemist with an international reputation, who is also able to relate and communicate the importance of chemistry and chemical research to everyday life. This year’s award recipient was Dr. Mary Archer, Baroness Archer of Weston-super-Mare, an eminent British chemist, who has specialised in the use of chemistry for solor energy conversion and is an expert in the development of biofuels. converted into all the chemicals of which biological organisms are made. Fossil fuels yield up that energy when they are burned, but in so doing, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a much faster rate than it was consumed in the first place, leading to increased levels of this gas in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The advantage of the new biofuels is that they are ‘carbon neutral’. This is because they use crops that are grown in a single growing season at the present time (in contrast to fossil fuels which required millions of years to be formed) and the rate at which the carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere during combustion, is offset by its removal during the next growing season by photosynthesis of the next year’s crop.


Comparing various plant sources of biofuels, Dr Archer said that cane sugar was the most energy efficient crop. It is easy to grow and has an energy ratio of 8:1. The sugar is extracted from the cane and is fermented with yeast to yield ethanol, which can be burned as a fuel. In the

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United States of America, corn starch is being used as a source of bioethanol, to ensure security of energy supply, even though its energy ratio is not as good as that of cane sugar. Another possibility is to use cellulose, but this substance is more difficult to break down, as special enzymes are required. The US Government has put €250 million dollars into developing methods of producing bio-ethanol from cellulose. The great advantage of this is that cellulose forms such a large proportion of the mass of a plant crop. However, ethanol is not an ideal fuel, as it is too volatile and so evaporates rapidly. It is also rather corrosive, especially when it picks up water, with which it mixes well. Butanol, on the other hand, is a higher molecular weight alcohol and so is less volatile. It is immiscible with water and is less corrosive than ethanol. In addition, having more carbon atoms (four in butanol compared to two in ethanol) it is more energy dense. So it would be a preferred fuel. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to make than ethanol. However, experiments are under way in the UK to use beet sugar as a source of bio-butanol.


This is a type of biofuel that can be made from plants that produce oily seeds and is highly suitable for use in motor engines. Mary Archer told the gathering that in fact the first diesel engine, invented by Diesel himself, ran on peanut oil. Rapeseed oil is suitable for conversion to fuel and the oilseed rape plant is now being grown extensively in many European countries for this purpose. To make biodiesel, the oil, which is a triglyceride of fatty acids, is reacted with methanol. This yields glycerine as a by-product (which can be sold to the cosmetics industry) while the biofuel product is a mixture of methyl esters. The esters contain oxygen as well as carbon and hydrogen, and so do not belong to the same class of chemicals as the hydrocarbons found in petroleum. However, they have similar molecular weights and combustion characteristics as diesel oil and so are referred to as bio-diesel.

Left to right: Dr Dave Birkett, Institute of Chemistry of Ireland; Gráinne O’Malley, Head of Department of Life and Physical Science, AIT; Dr Joseph Ryan, Registrar, AIT; Dr Mary Archer; Doreen Gerety, Élan, Pearse Murphy, Head of Department of Nursing and Health Science, AIT; and Margaret Franklin, lecturer, AIT. Pic: Padraig Devaney

Chlorophyll mimics

Mary Archer explained that a very fine piece of chemical research, reported by D M Guldi et al in 2002, had resulted in the synthesis of a molecule that mimics the way in which chlorophyll traps solar energy. This has a very interesting structure. The molecule has a ‘Buckyball’ at one end (similar in structure, though on a molecular scale, to the geodesic domes designed by the architect, Buckminster Fuller, consisting of a sphere formed by interlinked hexagons and pentagons, like a football) and a Ferrocene structure at the other. (Ferrocene was first reported by Kealy and Pauson in 1951 and was the first of the ‘sandwich’ complexes to be synthesised, in which a metal atom, in this case iron, is sandwiched between two five-membered carbon ring structures). In between these two very interesting structures, there are porphyrin rings (similar to the one in the chlorophyll molecule) which can facilitate electron transfer. This molecule has the potential to trap solar energy and it has been found that 1.1 eV (electron volts) of energy can be stored in this molecule for a 0.38 fraction of a second. Obviously, it will take time to develop this process to the point where a steady electric current can be delivered, but it looks promising.

Solar furnace

Dr Archer also talked about physical, rather than chemical methods of harnessing solar energy. In Spain, a huge array of mirrors is used to focus the sun’s rays in a solar furnace, which can produce very high temperatures of a few thousand degrees Celsius. This could be used for such processes as cement production, or for metal smelting. Solar energy harnessed in this way can also be used to detoxify water supplies and for reforming of hydrocarbons.

Photovoltaic cells

The ability of the semiconductor silicon to generate a voltage on exposure to light was an effect discovered in the 1940s in Bell Laboratories in the US Silicon cells were first used in space and terrestrial applications have been slow to develop. Silicon cells are the first generation of photovoltaic cells. The next generation of such cells will most likely use an organic block co-polymer, but research is in the early stages as yet. The silicon cell has an energy efficiency of 15 to 20 per cent while the co-polymer cells that have been developed so far are only about 5 per cent efficient.

Hybrid motors

Hybrid cars have come on the market in recent years. They have a petrol engine, which is needed for acceleration and when driving at higher speeds, supplemented by a battery, which drives the wheels at low speeds and helps the engine when required. The energy efficiency of the design is due to the fact that the petrol engine also drives an electric motor, which re-charges the battery and in addition, when decelerating and braking, the energy is recovered and transferred via the electric motor to charge the battery. The battery itself is a nickel/metal hydride electrochemical device. This does not use solar energy, but these cars are very energy-efficient and of course have much lower carbon emissions than conventional petrol engines.


Dr Archer finally spoke about the contribution made by chemistry to health care. It is estimated that 40 per cent of the population would not be alive today if it were not for the availability of modern medicines, designed by chemists. Chemists not only continue to make a significant

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contribution, but some of their analytical techniques are now being used for medical diagnosis. One example is the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). In the chemistry laboratory, NMR uses the magnetic effect produced by the spin of protons in the nucleus of atoms to identify particular substances. In medicine, where the term ‘nuclear’ is not so popular, the technique is referred to as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or MRS (magnetic resonance scanning). Another technique is Positron Emission Tomography (PET). The patient is injected with a solution of glucose, which has been ‘labelled’ with an artificially produced radioisotope of fluorine. Unlike natural radioactivity, this does not emit harmful radiation, instead, it decays with the emission of a positron. A positron is the ‘antiparticle’ of an electron; it has the same mass, but carries a positive charge, whereas an electron is negatively charged. As soon as the positron is emitted, it immediately encounters an electron, resulting in mutual annihilation and the production of a pair of photons with the same massenergy as the electron-positron pair. The photons thus produced, form images on a computer screen, which result in bright spots where there is a high rate of glucose metabolism. Using this PET technique, we can actually observe activity in the brain, and Dr Archer gave a startling example, comparing brain activity in a normal person to that of a cocaine addict. Both were asked to think about something. The normal person’s brain literally lit up with many bright spots. The brain of the cocaine addict was dark almost everywhere. Dr Margaret Franklin lectures in chemistry at Athlone Institute of Technology.


President McAleese presents awards to young researchers

science foundation ireland fondúireacht eolaíochta éireann

Dr Stephen Rea Originally from Galway, and currently working at Embl in Germany, Dr Stephen Rea will be looking at how some genes, associated with cancer, can be switched on or off. Unlike cancer causing genetic mutations, switching is a reversable process, and this makes it an excellent target for treatment. At NUI Galway, Dr Rea will attempt to identify drugs that act on this switching process.

Dr Karen Keeshan

The four award winners, with President McAleese, from left; Dr Silvia Giordani, Dr Claude Ederer, Dr Stephen Rea, and Dr Karen Keeshan.


our award winning researchers were greeted recently by President McAleese at a special ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin. The four young scientists had been conducting research in the US and Contenental Europe, and because of the award they will be able to expand on their work in Ireland. The President of Ireland Young Researcher Award, PIYRA, was launched four years ago to recognise exceptional excellence and leadership in scientists and engineers at the early stages of their career. The award, open to researchers in Ireland and abroad, is regarded by Science Foundation Ireland, as their most prestigious honour, and it is only given after a rigourous assessment involving interviews by a panel of leading experts. Interest in the competition is high, and a range of proposals were received by SFI for the PIYRA 2007 competition. After assessment by an advisory panel, fifteen young researchers were selected for peer-review by international experts. All of the four invited for interview were recommended for the PIYRA awards. Apart from the quality of research, one of the aims of the award is to give practical support to those who display promise as potential leaders in international research. The four winners received almost €1 million each to enable them to conduct research in Ireland over the next five years. President Mary McAleese said she was delighted to present these awards. “The awards,” she said, “highlight the critical role played by innovative young researchers in developing contemporary research and education.” All four of this year’s winners had been based abroad, and Mr Micheál Martin, TD, Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, commented that this is one of the major benefits from the awards. One of the SFI core objectives is to attract researchers from all parts of the world, and the awards are helping to bring in the best of them. Two of the award winners will be working in Trinity College Dublin, one will be at NUI Galway, and one will be conducting research at University College Cork. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 23 Page 34

From Cork, Dr Keeshan went to the University of Pennsylvania where she found that a gene causing acute myeloid leukemia in mice is associated with the disease in humans. At present there is no effective treatment for this form of leukemia, and further study of this Trib2 gene by Dr Keeshan at University College Cork, could help in developing treatments based on an understanding of how the disease develops.

Dr Claude Ederer Currently working at Columbia University in New York, Dr Claude Ederer will be investigating novel materials at Trinity College Dublin. Of particular interest are materials that perform more than one function, a subject of increasing interest in the realm of nanotechnology. These ‘functional’ materials enable engineers to design the next generation of smaller and smarter devices.

Dr Silvia Giordani Miniature devices cannot be made from conventional materials, and at the University of Trieste in Italy Dr Silvia Giordani has been using her knowledge of chemistry, nanotechnology, and material science to come up with more suitable alternatives. The PIYRA award will enable Dr Giordani to continue this research at Trinity College Dublin. There, Dr Giordani plans to create materials suitable for the construction of small scale bio-medical and life-science devices


Functional biodiversity

understanding how forest ecosystems work

he most important driver of change in biodiversity in most temperate regions is habitat change. Currently, afforestation is one of the main forms of land use change in Western Europe. This is of particular interest in Ireland where much of the afforestation has involved planting non-native species, such as Sitka spruce. However, this is changing gradually as greater emphasis is placed on the use of native tree species in afforestation programmes. Changes in biodiversity are often considered from aesthetic or ethical stand points. Reduction in the population sizes and distributional ranges of well-known and loved species raises public concern and are reported widely in the media. However, an aspect which is often not reported is that these organisms are integral parts of the ecosystems to which they belong. They serve functional roles in those systems and thus contribute to the sustainability of ecosystems and to the services which they deliver. It is with this awareness in mind that a new COFORD funded project to be carried out by teams from University College Dublin and the University of Limerick will examine functionally important components of biodiversity in a range of Irish forests, and


compare the diversity associated with native and non-native tree species, and in conifer and broadleaf forests. Growth and decay, the primary functions of all ecosystems, are entirely due to the presence of organisms, and without them ecosystems would not exist. Plants account for all of the primary growth within ecosystems, while microorganisms and soil animals are the main drivers of decomposition. The sustainable growth of the plants is affected by organisms which feed on them or affect the population sizes of herbivores and by the availability of nutrients for growth. This project will concentrate on animals and fungi which carry out these roles. Soil arthropods play a major role in decomposition and nutrient cycling within forests and are also believed to help innoculate roots with mutualist fungi, called mycorrhizae. The associations between the roots and the fungi are important because they Top left: trees benefit from their association with mychorrizal fungi. Below: one of the species previously unreported from Ireland, Malaconothrus egregius, a mite inhabiting the crowns of Sitka spruce.


assist in the assimilation of nutrients. Within the forest system, there is far greater biodiversity below ground than above ground, for example, there are approximately 1,000 species of soil invertebrates in a single metre square in a German beech forest. Apart from soil fauna and fungi, some above-ground arthropods which serve important functions will also be studied. These include bugs, aphids and parasitoid wasps. Ecological theory suggests that communities with more complex food web structures and high numbers of predatory and parasitic species have greater inherent population stability and are less prone to pest outbreak. Parasitoid wasps, which display great feeding specificity, are among the most species rich and biologically diverse groups and are particularly important natural enemies making them effective agents of biological control. The Hemiptera contain a mixture of herbivorous and carnivorous species. They include the aphids, many of which are important pests, such as the spruce aphid, and important predators such as the anthocorids. They are an abundant group of insects in forests and therefore will be an important component of the diet of other arthropods such as spiders and parasitic Hymenoptera as well as larger carnivores such as insectivorous birds. Both the Hemiptera and the mites, which are to be studied in this project, are relatively poorly known in Ireland and recent small scale work by members of the research team has resulted in the discovery of a large number of species previously unrecorded in Ireland. Contact : Professor Thomas Bolger UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science University College Dublin Belfield Dublin 4 01 -7152330 Email:

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Giving something back

Marie-Catherine Mousseau reports on how healthcare is being delivered to those who need it most regardless of race, creed or political beliefs.


avid Curtis is a registered nurse, and he is also the head of the new Irish office opened by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), the internationallyrenowned medical aid agency. Since its opening in Dublin in April 2006, MSF has already recruited eight doctors from Ireland and sent three of them to work in the developing world. David Curtis, who enrolled in 1997, has just come back from a field visit to South Sudan, where he was sent following recent outbreaks of cholera and meningitis. While most people (about 60 per cent), stay one to two years in MSF, and some may stay five years, very few stay ten years like him. One of the main reasons he chose MSF is that it is politically independent. “It is the private funding which is most important to us as this is what allows us to act independently,” said Fiona O’Neill, PR and Communications

The MSF team at St Francis Clinic in Liberia. Team members often go to places where no other doctors will go, yet basic treatments often mean the difference between life and death. Officer in the MSF office in Dublin. Indeed, private donations play a much more important role than State support, accounting for 80 per cent of their funding.


MSF was founded in 1971 by a group of French doctors in the afterglow of the idealism of Paris in 1960s. Like Concern, it was born out of the Biafran crisis, and since then, it has acquired a reputation for intervening in some of the most difficult situations. MSF now works in over 75 countries and sends about 3,000 people overseas each year. David Curtis insisted that it is not all about dealing with emergencies as is often believed. “We have basic healthcare projects such as immunisation or feeding projects

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going on in places where there are repetitions of several emergency outbreaks,” he said. The fact remains that MSF often goes where no one else wants to go. This was the case during the Liberia war, where MSF was on the ground before any other NGOs. Dr Aileen Kitching, a medical doctor who graduated from UCD, has spent nine months with MSF-Holland in Liberia following the war. Her motivations in choosing MSF were similar to those of David. “I chose to work with MSF because of their mandate to deliver quality healthcare to those in need regardless of race, religion, political beliefs etc,” said Aileen. Submitting project proposals and waiting for donors to approve funding takes time. “Because MSF is funded by private individuals like you or me, it is much freer to respond to the needs on the ground immediately,” she explained. What’s more, everybody is paid (around €800 a month for newcomers) and everybody participates in decision making — with 30 per cent of

newcomers each year, this guarantees constant questioning that challenges the old guard and protects against conservatism. But Aileen also had a vocation. “Doing aid work was something I always wanted to do — even while in school and before I started medicine,” she said. When she was in medical school, she went to Botswana for a summer; “that confirmed for me that I wanted to work overseas again,” she said, “and I fell in love with Africa!” she added.


However, not everyone can follow their dreams. MSF work is tough and, as emphasized by David, it is not for everybody. They need a wide range of health professionals (including doctors and nurses, but also midwives, nutritionists, epidemiologists, lab technicians, mental health professionals) as well as logistical support staff/technical experts such as water and sanitation engineers, and construction engineers. But qualifications are not everything. According to David, only 40 to 50 per cent of applicants are successful. Firstly, they don’t take people straight

MSF in Liberia Mission: sent by MSF Holland to Liberia after the war — Oct 05 to Aug 06 Responsibility: seven Clinics (out patients) — four in Grand Bassa and three in River Cess and one hospital (St Francis) in River Cess. Aileen is the only doctor in River Cess.

The team

Expatriate team of six people – • Aileen, from Ireland: medical doctor • Chuma, from Zambia: nurse responsible for management of the clinics in GB • Bonno, from Holland: nurse responsible for management of the clinics in RC • Chantal, from Holland: midwife • Brian, from Canada: logistician • Elamma, from India: Project Coordinator National staff – medical team of nine people (no doctors).

out of medical school; they recruit doctors that have a minimum of two years professional experience or are registrars, or consultants. In addition, they will preferably have a diploma in Tropical Medicine, or overseas work experience. “It is necessary that volunteers have at least three months experience either working or travelling in a developing country,” said Fiona. Aileen’s curriculum vitae is indeed quite impressive. Initially, she worked two and a half years in hospital medicine in Dublin (as a Senior House Officer (SHO) in the Mater hospital The team worked in collaboration with the Ministry of Health staff in the clinics and hospitals. The catchment population for the team was 191,000 people.


MSF had several programmes in Liberia. It started with a feeding programme where they gave specially made Ready To Use Food (RTUF). This was a biscuit form, and a nut-based mixture called Plumpy Nut with a particular balance of protein, vitamins, minerals, adapted to the physical needs of malnourished children — food as medicine. The team diagnosed a lot of children with TB, and reintroduced a TB programme that had stopped in 2003. Aileen and her MSF team trained local staff referred to as ‘medical officers’ (including physician assistants, pharmacists and trained nurses) how to diagnose and treat TB and other diseases. There was no doctor, so they had to be trained to diagnose and treat as if they were doctors. Aileen explained how these medical officers were paid “incentives”

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Photo: Sergio Cecchini and as a Registrar in St. James’s hospital). Then she went to Australia where she worked as a Registrar in Emergency Medicine in Queensland for one year. After that she did some paediatrics and psychiatry before doing GP training for one year in Scotland. “I was working as a GP doing locums before going away with MSF in October 2005,” she explained. “I had also done a Diploma in Tropical Medicine (DTM&H) and a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (DHA) at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, with a view to doing aid work.” by MSF (not called ‘salaries’ as they were all on the Ministry of Health payroll, but the Ministry had no money to pay them). Their training included formal sessions, bringing together national staff from all clinics, but Aileen also did teaching on the wardrounds, discussing cases etc. “Sometimes 10-12 people would follow me in my wardrounds,” Aileen said. Additionally, Aileen set up a programme to respond to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that had started during but went on after the war. This included one six-day workshop where medical officers were trained to examine and treat victims of sexual violence while traditional midwives were trained as counsellors and a local women’s group in SGBV awareness. Aileen was also involved in setting up a Taskforce in order to get the local police trained by the UN police to deal with rape as a crime. As Aileen put it, “the response of local police to rape cases was often inadequate or dismissive.”

Aileen’s typical day “It is difficult to say what a typical day was. There was no typical day or week for me really, as I had to move around a lot. But, usually, I would start with getting up at 6am. We could not leave base before seven am for security reasons, but by seven the Land Rover would all be packed up, with national staff on board, ready to leave for the clinics that were scheduled for that day. The journey to the clinics took from between two to five hours depending on what clinic it was, and if it was in the rainy season or not. For the more remote clinics we would stay the night there, sleeping in the clinic. When we would get to the clinic, there would be lots of people waiting to be seen. I would try to plan my schedule to inform the clinics when I was coming; thus if they had particular cases they wanted me to see, it could be arranged. After seeing patients in the clinics, we would have some food there, usually prepared by a woman in the village. We had to be back at base by six pm at the very No wonder some skills are difficult to find! “We need more surgeons and anaesthetists,” said David. In Ireland, one of the problems is that there is resistance within the medical professions to taking breaks in the course of the training cycle for overseas work. “Doing aid work is not something that was encouraged in medicine when I was training, particularly in hospital medicine,” Aileen commented. Unlike EU countries like France, the Republic does not have specific schemes actively encouraging doctors and nurses who wish to take short-term leave to provide much-needed assistance to aid agencies. “I feel that overseas work experience is something that should be encouraged more for doctors in Ireland,” Aileen said, “as it is in the UK, where time spent in the developing world can be counted towards specialist training in Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Public Health,” she added. However, the situation here is improving. As David pointed out, MSF is building links with the medical community in order to secure accreditation with medical bodies; even though he agreed that this is only at an initial stage.

latest (security reasons), so we had to plan our departure according to that. Often the Land Rover would be very full travelling back, with staff and patients on board. Some days, we might not make it to the clinic, if we met someone ill on the road, e.g. a woman in obstructed labour who needed to get to hospital urgently. Other days I stayed at base — for meetings with e.g. the TB programme manager in Grand Bassa county, or with other NGOs or to do some teaching, or run workshops. But, anything could happen. One day, the police came, saying they needed a doctor to examine a “possible homicide”. So we ended up travelling miles to a rural village, having a meeting in the centre of the village with the whole village present — elders, possible suspects, family of the bereaved, children, UN and local police — and then examining the body in a little hut nearby. We also did some outreach visits to villages where we seemed to be getting a lot of TB cases from. There was always something to be done.


Recruitment is only one of the many obstacles facing the MSF mission. The challenges are also political and economic, and MSF staff set out to tackle most sensitive issues — drug production, pricing and delivery, targeting diseases in places that have been completely forgotten, places where people and governments have no money at all to spend on healthcare (see panel next page on drug access). The MSF response to those critical issues is to raise awareness — i.e. raising awareness of the need to use generic drugs and research for new drugs for developing countries. “Many otherwise unreported stories get out there thanks to MSF,” said David. “Real stories, where we speak on behalf of the patients.” But, at the end of the day, the main MSF challenge lies with the individual staff members on the ground. The extent of the aid which is needed is enormous. Aileen tried to explain some of the challenges she had to tackle: “there were many difficulties working in Liberia. It was a country coming out of 14 years of a brutal civil war, where more than 200,000 people were killed.”

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“We were based in Buchanan, the second biggest ‘city’ in Liberia, in Grand Bassa county,” she continued. “We supported four clinics in the interior of Grand Bassa, and three clinics and a small hospital in River Cess county.” She then explained how MSF were the only healthcare NGO in River Cess, and as there were no Ministry of Health doctors, effectively she was the only doctor available to this county. Between their seven clinics and the St. Francis hospital, with a team including just one doctor, they had a catchment population of 191,000 people. Their task was made even more difficult as they had to face basic problems in Liberia — no running water, no electricity (apart from power provided by private generators), and roads that were in a very bad state (or no road access at all). “Because people had no refrigeration, as there was no electricity, salt was used a lot to preserve food and in cooking, and we saw many people with high blood pressure and subsequent heart disease as a result.” There was also a lot of tuberculosis (TB). “This was a big public health problem as one person with infectious TB can infect 10-15 others per year if left untreated,” Aileen said. “This means treating TB was crucial for prevention.” But the main medical problems Aileen and her team encountered were malaria, diarrhoeal illnesses, or chest infections and pneumonia. “Many deaths were from these diseases — all easily treatable, and/or preventable if people had access to clean water, and simple antibiotics,” she commented. “We saw many children with malnutrition,” she added. “It was very difficult seeing children die from what are preventable diseases, particularly the vaccine-preventable diseases such as seeing newborn babies dying a painful death with the spasms of neonatal tetanus because their mothers had not been vaccinated due to problems in getting the vaccine.” In response, MSF in Liberia have set up several programmes including a feeding programme for malnourished children and a TB programme. Aileen also started a programme to tackle sexual violence, a serious problem which appeared during the war, but which also persisted afterwards. “Rape was a particular characteristic of the war there, and some UN figures estimate that more than 70 per cent of

Drug access

Often no drugs are developed for diseases that only affect developing countries. “Out of 13,000 new drug patents each year, only 20 are targeting tropical diseases,” David Curtis, head of MSF Ireland, pointed out. In one of those neglected disease, sleeping sickness, “there was only one drug available, then the production stopped and the only product left containing the active ingredient was a skin care product.” Fortunately, the World Health Organisation (WHO) managed to stimulate production again. In many tropical diseases (such as malaria and TB), single drugs are no longer effective and multiple treatments are needed. This brings a crucial player into the equation: price. Along with drug availability, high price is the main obstacle to proper access to treatment for many countries. The most critical case is of course HIV. In countries where HIV has been there for many years, resistance has developed, and newer second or third line drugs are needed; the trouble is that these newer drugs are still under patent — which means that they are ten times more expensive, bringing treatment cost to astronomical levels.


MSF started a campaign to raise awareness and help protect access to affordable medicines (http://www., and things are improving slowly. “There are political issues, but awareness is gradually raising up,” said David. In 2001, the World Trade Organization ruled, allowing for the production of generics of patented drugs for countries where they are badly needed; more generics are being used following recent agreements and prices continue to fall in some places. As result, “a treatment cost of $50,000 per patient per year went down to $150.” David said. Besides, there is more interest now in diseases such as malaria and TB. This is due to the increasing number of travellers, but also as a result of climate change — due to global warming tropical diseases such as malaria are now moving North, reaching Southern Europe.

women in Liberia were raped in the war,” said Aileen. Another feature of the Liberian war was child soldiers. “In many instances children were the perpetrators as well as being the victims of many atrocities,” Aileen said. One of their drivers said to her that ‘the children made the war ugly’; they couldn’t be reasoned with, many were high on drugs, and they often killed indiscriminately. MSF felt they could respond to the needs on the ground — which is how their TB and SGBV programmes developed. Aileen trained local staff how to diagnose and treat diseases. And she pointed out that it is MSF policy that no patient pays. “In clinics run by the ministry, often patients have to pay for care,” Aileen said. And even though money is not always used (chickens can be used as currency), often they cannot pay. This means some patients would walk six to seven hours to go to a MSF clinic, while some others would be carried by their family in a hammock. Aileen also saw a man who walked six hours to the clinic and six hours back each week with his child to get her treatment.


However, the benefits drawn from the adventure may well be worth all the hardship. “I loved the work; it was challenging, but hugely satisfying and rewarding. We had a great team and we all got on very well — we had great fun together,” said Aileen. “This is a huge broadening of your horizon,” said David, “it is also a management experience; you learn to listen, to be patient, to adapt.” Photo: Juan Carlow Tomasa

Aileen, who is now doing a Masters degree in Public Health in UCD, confirms that she draws on her experience in Liberia a lot. “I feel I learnt more in that nine months than I did in years of clinical practice at home,” she said. The benefits were both personal and professional, as she developed an enormous range of skills. “Because of the lack of available tests, as a doctor you develop your clinical skills more; but you also have to learn to prioritise, make resource allocation decisions, manage staff and teams more so than you would at home,” Aileen said. “I had to manage huge time and workload pressures, teach large groups of people, organise and run workshops etc.” She added: “I was in many meetings with Ministry of Health staff, the National TB programme co-ordinator, UN personnel etc — something which would just not happen in Ireland!” When I asked if she’d think of going back, she replied: “Yes, I would definitely like to work overseas again. It was a fantastic experience, and I have no regrets at all about it.” She added on a more philosophical note: “Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of MSF said “Mankind’s suffering belongs to all men.” Some of us have been a lot more fortunate than others, and going to work overseas is a way of giving something back.

Website: DIARY DATE Information meeting — Wednesday 25 July, Carmichael Centre, North Brunswick Street, (Smithfield Luas Stop), Dublin 7, at 7.30 pm


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Science Foundation Ireland Scholarship 2007 School leavers Deadline for applications is June 29th 2007


Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) with support from Dell

is awarding research driven scholarships to encourage more young high-achieving women into engineering. Up to 10 scholarships will be awarded in 2007 to women entering designated engineering degree programmes in Ireland. The Dell notebook computer comes complete with a backpack and the security of three years next business day

Scholars will receive an annual award of â‚Ź2,000; a Dell notebook computer; the support of an active researcher as a mentor throughout their undergraduate career; and at least one summer researchinternship in an academic research laboratory or an industry R&D laboratory during their degree.

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Full details of the objectives and eligibility requirements, including how to apply for the scholarship can be obtained on the SFI website: or by e-mailing: Completed applications should be sent to the address below for delivery on or before 5pm on Friday June 29th, 2007.

SFI Scholarship - Young Women in Engineering Science Foundation Ireland Wilton Park House

Wilton Place

Dublin 2, Ireland

tel +353 1 607 3200 fax +353 1 607 3201 email

The National Foundation for Excellence in Scientific Research

Register your school!

SESE science Gain support for the delivery of the Over 2,400 curriculum, and register your school! r Primary Science schools have registered with Discove over the past three years. each taken by dedicated phone calls to Registration for 2007-2008 will be t assis to r orde In nd. Irela in ary schools of the remaining unregistered prim s and locations date day ction indu with hure in the registration process, a broc ion and ols. Choose a preferred date, locat will be sent to all unregistered scho each school from her teac one just r, mbe reme nominate a teacher to attend her has ol has 10 or more classes. If a teac is eligible to attend, unless your scho already. tered regis is ol scho your , past the attended a training day in

Resources and Support Registered schools can avail of: A hands on induction day with substitute cover provided. A pack of over 30 easy to follow prescribed science activities, aimed primarily at 8-12 years, but adaptable to younger years. All activities can be used to develop primary science lessons. Activity packs are available in English and Irish. Guidelines and clear instructions for each activity. Easy to source equipment lists. Helpful hints for teacher and explanations of the science background for each activity. Explanations of how activities link to the curriculum. A network of DPS Discover Centres who offer exciting programmes to visiting Discover Primary Science schools. A dedicated award winning website,, which profiles schools, introduces new activities, and provides a registered teachers only section (best education website, eGovernment Awards 2007!). Regular electronic and posted newsletter which will provide information pertinent to science in primary schools and promote relevant science events.

Recognition Certificates and badges will be available to all students that participate in Discover Primary Science when the teacher completes and returns an evaluation form which will be sent out towards the end of the school year. A certificate of participation will be provided for each school on receipt of the teacher evaluation form. Schools will have the opportunity to apply for an Award of Science Excellence. The Awards will be presented to representatives of those schools which excel in their levels of participation in the Discover Primary Science. Criteria will be outlined for schools to be eligible to apply.

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