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ISSUE 24 September 07 €3 including VAT £2 NI and UK




Shattering the PC myth Ireland’s Grand Canyon The first Hibernians Sunspots

Talking to Frank Gannon

ISOF Irish Science Open Forum


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.

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



SPIN Compared to the size of the Earth, solar flares are massive, and they have an impact on us.



The first Hibernians

Anthony King introduces us to Ireland’s early settlers.

Discover sensors


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: Gerry Byrne, Fiona Dunlevy, Shane Leavy, Eileen O’Mahony, Anthony King, Robert Quinn, Andy Wheeler.

Transforming the Irish research landscape With €230 million going into PRTLI Eileen O’Mahony reports that there has never been a better time for Irish researchers.


Shattering the PC myth

Shane Leavy writes that hidden attitudes can come as a shock.


Highway code for apes


Gerry Byrne reports on why sunspots occur in cycles.

Not just steady as she goes

Seán Duke talks to Frank Gannon, Director of SFI


Petrified of needles


Fiona Dunlevy reports that soon there will be nothing to fear.

Ireland’s Grand Canyon Dr Andy Wheeler reports about new finds in deep water off Mizen Head.




Robert Quinn writes that apes have road sense.




An open, independent, forum for Irish scientists has been launched.


Coastal view


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. Geological Survey of Ireland Suirbhéireacht Gheolaíochia Éireann

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 1

Higher Education Authority An tÚdarás um Ard-Oideachas



WHEN electronic flashes were invented, photographers were able to freeze the sort of actions that to our eye are just a blur. Since then, freezing fast actions has become a useful way to understand what’s happening, but the techniques have progressed. Researchers in Italy, according to the American Institute of Physics, have produced an amazingly brief pulse of light, just 130 attoseconds.

Inspiring teachers An attosecond is one billionth of a billionth of a second. With such a short pulse, the workings of an atom can be revealed. The researchers, working at the National Laboratory for Ultrafast and Ultraintense Optical Science in Milan, report that even shorter pulses could be generated using the same technique of directing an intense laser beam at a jet of argon or neon gas. The beam causes electrons to release an extremely brief stream of high-energy photons.

Combined view THE Venus Express mission is getting a close up view of the planets atmosphere, but there is only so much the instruments can do. To back up, and add to the data, scientists working from thirteen different observatories on Earth have been making ground-based observations. According to the European Space Agency, those radio, submillimetre, infra-red and visible light observations will help verify and interpret the Venus Express results. In its approach the Venus Express began capturing details that had never been seen before, such as a cloud vortex over the South pole. In this composite image from the ESA, the left side is the South end of Venus by day, and to the right is the planet seen as infra-red (1.7 micron) showing the spiral cloud formation at about 55 km altitude. In this false colour image, the lighter areas correspond to thinner cloud cover.

WITH so much emphasis in the universities on applied research, educators often feel left out in the cold. In a welcome move to highlight the basic role of education, the Higher Education Authority has sponsored a scheme to recognise excellence in third level teaching. At TCD recently, three Provost’s Teaching Awards were presented to college staff. Dr Eric Finch from the School of Physics was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work, Mark Monahan from the School of Nursing and Midwifery was presented with an Early Career Award, and David Tombs from the Irish School of Ecumenics was chosen for his contribution in developing lifelong and self-directed learning in reconciliation studies.

Biodiversity A CONFERENCE on biodiversity, Cohab, is to take place in Galway on 25th and 26th February 2008. The conference takes a global view of biodiversity issues and sustainable resources. More details from the COHAB Conference Committee, PO Box 16, Tuam, Co Galway. www.

Research needs LIFE science researchers will get a chance to say what they want from the European infrastructure when they meet in Brussels next September. A conference to discuss this topic is being organised by the European Science Foundation. The conference will be in Brussels, on the 13th and 14th September 2007. Full details at:www.

Stem cell treatment IN Sweden a child has been treated for the brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, before birth. At the Karolinska Institute, mesenchmal stem cells were transplanted to the foetus in the 23rd week of pregnancy. The case was so severe that even at that age multiple fractures could be detected.

United universities The Institute, in reporting that the little girl is now three years old, cautiously states that: ”she is probably doing better than if the transplant had not been performed.” One of the significant aspects of the treatment is that there was no prior matching of tissues, and there was no rejection. A doctorial thesis on the case is on the Institute’s database, at:

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Queen’s, TCD and UCD have agreed to collaborate more closely on research. Most of the collaboration is to focus on ares such as biomedical sciences, medical informatics, and nanoscience. Collaboration on this scale is seen as an important step in building up a world-class research infrastructure in Ireland. Dr Hugh Brady, President of UCD, said: “the pooling of intellect across the universities presents us with a genuine opportunity to attain critical mass in areas where we can demonstrate centres of excellence in the international arena.” SPIN

UPFRONT Did you register your interest in the Irish Science Open Forum? Done’t be left out, do it NOW. Email

Milk curve

Party time in a geriatric ward at Aberbeeg, Wales. Better technology could give an ageing population something to celebrate. Photograph by Robin Weaver, Source Archive.

Grey future

BY 2020 one third of Europe’s population will be over 65. Enabling people to remain active and independent would reduce the problems facing health services in dealing with the demands of an ageing population. In addition, many people who would prefer to remain independent are often forced to go into care because the technology enabling them to stay at home is not available. The aim of the Technology Research for Independent Living, TRIL, is to develop the technical supports needed by the elderly who wish to remain active, but safe and secure in their home environment. Established by Intel and backed by the IDA, TRIL is working with several Irish universities, making this one of the leading initiatives of its type in the world. In one of the latest developments, six PhD students are to begin research with funding from the Irish Research Council, IRCSET. For details about these IRCSET scholarships visit index.html

Ice watch IN 2009 a satellite will be launched by the European Space Agency, ESA, to measure changes in ice thickness over the northern regions. Instrumentation on board the satellite will measure centimetre scale changes. Scientists have already set off to collect data from the ground in advance of the CryoSat 2 mission. Alain Hubert and Dixie Dansercoer, from Belgium, began their sledge trek to the North Pole last March, a journey that is taking them thousands

of kilometres across the ice. As Hubert and Dansercoer make their way by sledge, other scientists from Germany, Norway and the UK, have flown to Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago by helicopter to gather information there. The ESA reports that in spite of extremely harsh conditions, all the scientists are making good progress. Similar instruments to those being installed in the CryoSat2 satellite are being given a fly over test in a Dornier aircraft. This will give the scientists a chance to test out and verify instruments before they go into orbit.

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THE dairy industry is hampered by the cyclical nature of milk production, and at a recent conference at Moorepark, Prof Liam Donnelly, who heads Food Research at Teagasc, said there is a need to flatten the curve. ”This is now a most urgent issue facing the industry in planning for a post-quota environment,” he said. With a flatter production curve, plants could be used more efficiently. More efficient use would allow for an increase in milk output without investing in new plant. However, added Prof Donnelly, if we want to raise milk output, this is just a short term solution. “Ireland’s true milk production potential,” he said, “will quickly exceed the capacity of existing plant, and any medium-term strategy for the industry must provide for investment in new plant.” Prof Donnelly said that the focus is on cheese and milk powders, and to be efficient, plants will need to work for at least seven months of the year at full capacity. New plants, he said will have to have a minimum capacity of ten tonnes per hour, and a big part of the cost is for high performance driers. Existing plants date from the 1980s, and the more recent technologies, he said are a lot more efficient. Plant efficiency is just one part of the story, and the second biggest cost factor is in milk collection. The costs are directly proportional to the radius of the collection zone, so Prof Donnelly said that plants must be located in the areas where expansion in milk production is to take place.


Sketch of a swimming theropod dinosaur on the shores of the Cretaceous lake Cameros in Spain. Drawn by Guillaume Suan, University Lyon1, France.

Sets of scratch marks from the theropod swiming trackway. A-D are left-side claw prints; E-H are right-side claw prints. Note the delicate nature of the scratches and the marked asymmetry in response to a water current evidenced by flow ripple-marks; the dinosaur was probably strugling to maintain a straight path.

Making tracks LONG before the holidaymakers were taking a dip, dinosaurs were swimming off the coast of Spain. Geologists believe that a dozen consecutive prints, preserved in Cretaceous sandstone at La Virgen

del Campo, were made by a giant reptile as it paddled through shallow water. The geologists, led by Rubén Ezquerra from the Fundación Patrimonio Paleontológico de La Rioja, found six asymmetrical pairs of two or three scratch marks, averaging 50 cm in length and 15 cm wide. The space between the S-shaped marks

Irish Science Open Forum

Are you a researcher? Teaching s science? Managing scientific projects? If so, register your interest with ISOF, an open and independent forum for science in Ireland. The primary aim of ISOF is to create a big event for Irish science in 2008. Watch out for news on the Science Spin website or register your interest by emailing

Digging deep WHAT was the Earth like 2 billion years ago? Two geologists from the Geological Survey of Norway, Victor Melezhik, and Aivo Lepland, plan to find out by drilling down into some of the Earth’s most ancient rocks below the Russian Kola Peninsula. The rocks, consisting of lavas and sediments, are from a time of enormous change, when oxygen breathing organisms began to emerge. Previous to this time, the Earth was populated by anaerobic microorganisms, similar to those in our gut or around the deep oceanic volcanic vents. Why did the world develop an oxygen rich atmosphere? Scientists speculate that geological events may have triggered that change, and the sediments below the Kola Peninsula may hold some evidence to show what forces were at work. Victor Melezhik, originally from Russia,

said the project is like a geological dream come true. For some time he had wanted to drill down into Russia’s depths. The rise in oxygen is one of the great divides in the evolution of life on Earth. The changes have, literally, been fossilized. As oxygen breathing organisms proliferated, they in turn produced massive deposits, not just sedimentary rocks, but oil. The geologists believe that the first oil reservoirs could be a lot older than we had previously thought. The drilling is due to start this June, and continue until November. Fifteen holes, 100 to 500 metres deep are to be drilled at Pechenga and Imadra on the Kola Peninsula, and in Karelia, which likes further south. By the time Victor and Aivo come back to Norway, they will have 4,000 metres of core material. Analysing the contents will involve scientists from up to 15 different countries.

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suggests an underwater stride of about 250 cm. While we can be quite certain that many species of dinousaurs took to the water, such as those featured in Science Spin recently, the tracks from Spain are taken as removing any lingering doubts about the ability of some to swim.

Water in space If space travellers ever manage to go across 63 light years, they will be able to top up on their water supplies. A large planet was detected orbiting a star in the constellation Vulpecula. The exoplanet, known only as HD 189733b, was observed from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Giovanna Tinetti at the Institute d’Astronomy de Paris, and colleagues, looked at how light dimmed by three per cent as the planet passed in front of its parent star. By breaking down the dimming into wavelengths, the scientists found that there was significant dimming in the 3.6 and 5.8 micrometre bands. This, they said, is characteristic of water. However, this is not to suggest that the scientists have found a green and friendly world. The planet is massive, 1.15 times the size of Jupiter, and compared to Earth’s 150 million km distance from the Sun, this hot giant is just 4.5 million km away from its star. HD 189733b flies around its parent in just over two days, and the pull of gravity is so strong that it does not revolve; one side always faces the star, so conditions there are quite extreme, yet the 700°C or higher surface temperature does not exclude the presence of water, but only as vapour.


A fossilized pteridosperm, a seed bearing fern-like plant, once grew abundantly in the Carboniferous forest, but is now long extinct.

Underground rain forest Thanks to a major earthquake 300 million years ago a Carboniferous rainforest has been preserved vitually intact hundreds of metres below the surface of Illinois in the Us. Dr howard Falcon-Lang from the University of Bristol has described the journey down into the coal mine as an amazing experience. “We drove down the mine in an armoured vehicle, until

we were a hundred metres below the surface. The fossil forest was rooted on top of the coal seam, so where the coal had been mined away, the fossilized forest was visible in the ceiling of the mine. We walked miles and miles along pitch-black passages with the fossil forest just above our heads.” The forest is huge, covering 10,000 hectares, and it has been preserved

with a wealth of plant fossils. The find, said Dr Faldon-Lang, is a detailed snap-shot of what tropical rainforests were like 300 million years ago. he said nothing else like it is known, and before its discovery, little was understood about the ecological preferences and community structures of these ancient plants. “This spectacular discovery allows us to track how the species make-up of the forest changed across the landscape.” The fossils show that there was great diversity, with 40 metre high clubmosses towering over a sub-canopy of tree ferns, shrubs and enormous horsetails. The giant forest was preserved when the entire area dropped below sea level. Mud quickly covered the forest, preserving it until uncovered by recent coal mining.

Involved with science?

Register with ISOF, the open forum for Irish scientists.

Geo time A ONE per cent error in estimating time might not seem much in the human scale, but in geology this can equate to a difference of several million years. At a European Science Foundation workshop, held recently in Amsterdam, geologists reviewing the current state of geochronological timing concluded that we can look forward to greater accuracy from the latest generation of combined dating methods. Estimates on time have become of great importance to scientists in a number of fields. To understand mass extinctions, climatic changes, and evolutionary biology scientists must be in a good position to pin point when significant events occurred. An error of a few thousand years, for example, can make it extremely difficult to declare, with any degree of certainty, whether dinosaurs

were wiped out suddenly by an asteroid strike, or if they they declined afterwards during a period of intense volcanic activity. According to the workshop convenor, Klaudia Kuiper, errors in time estimates have to be reduced from one to 0.1 per cent, and even this would amount to 100,000 years over 100 million years. At present, dating depends mainly on three methods, argon-argon, uranium-lead, and astronomical observations. Argon-argon dating depends on measuring the decay of an isotope of potassium to argon. The relative proportion of the two isotopes gives an indication of how long the decay has taken. Uranium-lead dating is also based on measuring radioactive decay, but because two isotopes are involved, the accuracy is higher. Astronomical timing is based on relating sedimentary deposits to the long term cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit.

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Astronomical dating is regarded as highly accurate, but there is a drawback in that it can only be applied to a relatively mature Earth. Accurate up to 250 million years, this represents just five per cent of the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. Radiometric methods can be applied right back to the Earth’s beginning, but the margin of error is high. By combining these methods and cross referencing results, it is thought that accuracy can be improved. Following the workshop, Klaudia Kuiper said that enough progress could be made to usher in a new generation of time measurements. Improvements in time estimates, said Klaudia, have already enabled us to deepen our understanding of what happened during the Pleistocene, between two million and 11,000 years ago. With better accuracy, our understanding could be extended back into even more ancient events.

UPFRONT Health alerts

Amazingly detailed views are being sent back from the stereo camera on board the Mars Express. This one is of the Aeolis Mensae region, an area described as in a techtonic transition zone with many wind-eroded features. The area is between highlands and planes, the difference in elevation being about 3,000 metres. 2,500 metre deep valleys cut into the highlands, and while some scientists speculate that they may have been carved out, as on Earth, by glacial action, others maintain that they were created by wind erosion.

BETTER co-ordination of information about disease outbreaks, accidents and other health problems around the world is expected to help make local responses more effective. Health authorities in one area do not always know in advance that problems from elsewhere are on the way, and the aim of MediSys, a EC supported medical intelligence gathering system, is to overcome that difficulty. Health risks, and abnormal patterns, are reported in a variety of ways, including press reports, and the MediSys system operates by trawling through as many sources of information as possible. Relevant items are extracted and when necessary alerts are circulated to health officials throughout Europe. The public have access to the service via

Study in the US

EARLIER this year 26 Irish students and academics secured Fulbright scholarships enabling them to continue studies in the USA. Many distinguished academics have benefited from this scheme fostering cultural and educational exchange. Fulbright scholarships are open to all Irish post graduate students, professionals, and postdoctoral scholars, and applications may be submitted before the end of September. For details contact Colleen Dube at or visit the website:

An annual debate for schools on topics relating to biosciences is run by the stem cell research centre, REMEDI, and the National Centre for Biomedical Sciences, both of which are based at NUI Galway. This year’s winners, who received iPods and Galway Crystal trophies for their schools, are Ciara and John Gerard, pictured here with Professor Frank Barry, Scientific Director of REMEDI and chair of the judging panel; and Mary Flaherty, teacher, Coláiste Chroí Mhuire.

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Healthy profits On Electing Arthur J Higgins from Bayer Health Care as Chairman of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries, EFPIA, the association followed up the selfcongratulations with some significant figures. According to the association, the pharmaceutical industry employs 640,000 in Europe, 102,000 of whom are in r&D. In 2006 €22,500 million was invested in R&D. However, compared to other regions, Europe has not been doing so well. According to industry figures, r&D investment in the uS went up five times, but in Europe growth was considerably less, at 2.9 times between 1990 and 2006. the association states that, “the current tendency to close r&D sites in urope and open new sites in Asia will show dramatic effects in the next few years if nothing is done to maintain the pharmaceutical discovery expertise in the Eu.” Industry surveys indicate that 66 per cent of new medicines going on the market since 2002 were generated on the uS market against 22 per cent for Europe. the uS market represents 47.7 per cent of the global market, against 29.9 per cent for Europe. One of the big issues with the industry is what’s known as ‘parallel trade’. this refers to a practice where manufacturers in one country, where prices are lower, can sell into another state. In the netherlands, to take one case, 9.9 per cent of the medicines are parallel products. this hits company profits, so the pharmaceutical giants have been lobbying against parallel trade on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the European association, less profit means less money available to go into r&D.

Brown dwarfs Burnt out stars, known as brown dwarfs, are sometimes considered the cinders of the universe. Because they have a mass below that necessary to maintain fusion in their cores, they are cooler, and dimmer, than stars, such as the Sun, hence the brown dwarf name. they were first noticed in 1995, and have since turned out to be among the most common objects in the universe. they may be relatively dim, but, as a team of astronomers from nuI Galway, Armagh Observatory, working with colleagues in new Mexico and Arizona, have found, these stars can produce extremely powerful pulses, like those of pulsars, but on a smaller, slower scale. this makes it easier for scientists to investigate the nature of these emissions. According to the nuIG researchers, Greg Hallinan, Stephen Bourke, and Caoilfhionn Lane, the mechanisms for producing radio emissions in brown dwarfs is almost identical to a process that produce radio emissions from planets. Greg Hallinan, in presenting the findings to the royal Astronomical Society, said that the brown dwarfs are like the missing step between the radio emissions we detect from planets, such as Jupiter, and those from pulsars. the group is now planning to conduct a large survey of brown dwarfs in the solar neighhourhood to see how many are pulsing. Dr Aaron Golden, who supervised the nuIG group of PhD students, said that the university’s decision to establish a Centre for Astronomy, meant that they could now engage more actively in world class research of this type.

As the Thames breaks out and floods Oxford, fires sweep across southern Europe. With temperatures high, thousands of fires started in France, Italy, Greece, some driving holidaymakers into the sea. In this view from the ESA stellite, Envisat, plumes of smoke can be seen from fires in Abruzzo where thousands of hectares of nature reserves have been burnt.

Marine Institute

Foras na Mara Marine Institute Rinville Oranmore Co. Galway telephone 353 91 387 200 facsimile 353 91 387 201 email

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Foras na Mara

Starburst IN this glance back into the ancient past we are looking at what happens when galaxies collide. The group of galaxies, known to astronomers as NGC 4449, are almost 12.5 million light years away, in the Hunting Dog, Canes Venatici constellation.

The image, captured by Hubble last November, shows an intense starburst, thought to have been triggered by the interaction of neighbouring galaxies. Hundreds of thousands of stars are visible in the image, many of them in the process of being formed. According

Truth in the news? Politically correct hacks are not beyond making up the news. With climatic change guaranteed to make a headline, papers around the world, including the ‘quality broadsheets’ seized on a picture of two polar bears ‘stranded on ice’ as evidence of their ‘tragic plight’. Well, true, polar bears do have a hard time, but, as it turns out, the evidence was not just invented, but it was also hi-jacked. according to Rob lyons, writing in the off-beat and and well-worth visiting web publication, Spiked ( the photographer, amanda Byrd, was amazed to see her photograph splashed over the world’s press. Not only were the reports scientifically inaccurate, but the photograph was reproduced

Polar bear and cub. Photograph US Fisheries and Wildlife Service.

without her permission. as the old saying goes, never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, and in this case, amanda Byrd, a graduate student at the University of alaska Fairbanks, told Rob lyons at Spiked that the bears “were healthy, fat and seemed comfortable on their iceberg”. Not that she doubts the reality of climate change, but is just not too keen

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to astronomers, NGC 4449 has been forming stars for thousands of millions of years, but is currently going through a more intense phase of star creation. Such starbursts have usually only been observed in the centre of galaxies, but in NGC 4449 star formation is also occurring in streams at the outer edges. on the speculation. it is true that the ice in the arctic has been shrinking, and that the bears do have to swim further, but they did manage to survive warming in the past, and while some biologists have them marked down for extinction, no one is really certain about population size, or indeed, if there has actually been a decline. one biologist, Kassie Siegel from the US centre for Biological Diversity has declared that the bears could be extinct within 40 years, while Mitchell taylor, a canadian bear expert, is not so sure. according to taylor, 11 of the 13 polar bear populations in canadian territory are either stable or increasing. one of these populations, on the Davis Strait, may actually have become too big. Given the different views, its not that hard to guess which version is going to grab the headlines. the storage capacity of thousands of solid-state materials before settling on the lithium compound, Li4BN3H10, as suitable. Project coordinator, Prof Peter Edwards from the University of Oxford, said that ‘this could be the breakthrough that the fuel cell industry and the transport sector have been waiting for.” The group reported that the trapped hydrogen could be released as needed, and a compact tank would be enough to keep a car going for 300 miles. Using this approach, hydrogen powered cars would go into massproduction within the next ten years.

H power ONE of the biggest problems with the use of hydrogen as a transport fuel is storage. Heavy, high pressure tanks are not an attractive option, but researchers in the UK believe that trapping the gas into a lithium hydride compound could solve that problem. At ordinary pressure and temperature, a tank the size of a double-decker bus would be required to drive a car 200 miles on hydrogen. The research group, involving Birmingham and Oxford Universities, and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, investigated

The botox bug MAPPING the genes of Clostridium botulinum has helped to explain how this troublesome bacterium can survive so long in the soil. The genome was mapped under a project involving six research centres, including the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the UK Institute of Food Research. Professor Mike Peck, at the UK Institute of Food Research, explains that ”the genome sequence is peppered with genes that produce enzymes to digest proteins and other animal materials in the soil”. Among these are chitinases, with the ability to break through the extremely tough outer cover of insects. Clostridium botulinum also beats off the competition by producing its own antibiotic, killing competing bacteria. One of the researchers, Prof Nigel Minton from Nottingham University, said that C. botulinum is a good example of an organism using a very simple, but effective strategy to survive. While other organisms keep ahead of their host’s immune system by adapting, C. botulinum just sits tight, until the opportunity arises to attack. Although it has an unusually stable and conservative genome C. botulinum is equipped to lie in wait for a long time, but when it attacks, it kills quickly. One of the surprising findings was that other bacteria, believed to be variants, are not actually closely related. Almost half of the genes occurring in C. botulinum did not appear in the other toxin producing bacteria, so scientists may have to redraw the family tree.

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UPFRONT Silver bullets ONE of the disease controlling agents known since the Middle Ages is making a comeback in paint. Silver was one of the biocides used in medicine, and researchers at the Fraunhiofer Institute in Germany have found that nanoparticles of the precious metal can be worth including in anti-microbial colloids. Those colloids can be added to paints or lubricants. One of the products developed for commercial use is a paint that solves the widespread problem of fungal staining in buildings. According to Helmut Schmid from the Fraunhofer Institute of Chemical Technology at Oberhausen, ions, released from the nanoparticles, knock-out some of the enzymes involved in transport of nutrients, and they interfere with other essential cell processes. The nanoparticles are effective because they have such a high surface area relative to volume, so one gram of silver in ten litres of paint is enough to give protection without detracting from any other quality, such as colour. However, silver is expensive, and in Germany, where the argentiferous paint has gone on sale, it is double the usual price. Hospitals are likely to become the biggest customers, as the paint prevents lodging of undesirable pathogens, including trouble makers, like the antibiotic resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus.

Smart? AS our ability to compute continues to increase, are we getting any nearer the holy grail, artificial intelligence? Karl Popper, the philosopher, did not think so, and his comments, made years ago, remain valid. He was responding to a challenge made by Alun Turing, one of the pioneers of computing. Turing who believed firmly in artificial intelligence claimed that a computer could be made to do any given task. “Tell me what you think a computer cannot do, and I will make one which can do exactly that.” Turing, as Popper immediately saw, had made a big mistake. A really smart computer, he observed, would not have to be asked that question. “There is one thing that a computer certainly lacks, and that is initiative.”

UPFRONT Nanotechnology THE UK Institute of Nanotechnology has a programme of lectures and conferences lined up for the next few months and 2008. Included is a lecture by Prof Fraser Stoddard, said to be one of the most cited chemists in the world. There is to be a meeting about scale up and processing, medical nanotechnology, smart textiles, and alternatives to animal experimentation. All the lectures and seminars are being held in London. The full programme is given on the Institute’s website: www.nano.

David O’Connell from Douglas Community School and Jessica Perrot from Christ the King school with Dr Dan O’ Sullivan a Science Foundation Ireland’s Secondary Teacher Assistant Researcher from Coláiste Chrióst Rí.

Understanding cancer

A multi-media package explaining the genetics and molecular biology of cancer has been created for secondary students. At Douglas Community School in Cork, a course of ten lessons, backed up by a multi media programme, is being run this autumn. Teachers, Cian O’Mahony and Dr Dan O’Sullivan, worked with Prof Gerald O’Sullivan and others from the Cork Cancer Centre to develop the programme. Under the SFI STARS programme, teachers and researchers have been encouraged to collaborate, and this education programme is one of the benefits. Starting as a pilot, the programme is run initially in four Cork schools.

At Cloudcroft in the USA, this perfect parabola reflector was made by rotating a three metre wide pool of mercury at ten revolutions a minute.

Liquid mirror ROTATE a pool of mercury, and the liquid metal forms a perfect parabola. Rotating a liquid is not just a neat way to make a high performance reflecting telescope mirror, but it can also be cheaper than the glass equivalent. Liquid mirrors work well on Earth, but astronomers have a problem when it comes to getting them off the ground and into space. The idea of basing a liquid mirror telescope on the Moon is attractive. A wide aperture telescope could be directed out into space to reveal great detail, but the near vacuum conditions would cause the mercury to boil. Researchers at Queen’s in Belfast have been studying that problem, and they believe the solution lies in coating an ionic liquid with a thin layer of reflective metal. An ionic liquid could be described as a liquid salt, and they consist mainly of electrically charged ions. They would not freeze in the sub-zero temperature of the Moon, they do not boil, and they are a lot lighter than mercury. Working with scientists in the US, and Canada, the Belfast researchers found that a silver coated ionic fluid remains stable for several months. Chemistry professor, Ken Seddon, Director of the Ionic Liquids Laboratory at Queen’s, described this finding as a breakthrough, and it means that it would be possible to construct a lunar telescope. To remain liquid on the Moon, the ionic liquid will have to have a very low melting point. According to Prof Seddon, it is possible to create thousands of different ionic liquids, so he is aiming now to come up with one that has a melting point of about 100ºK.

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As part of the Discover Sensors project, teachers from all over Ireland gathered in Killarney this August for a three day summer institute on using sensor technology to support the Junior Certificate Science Curriculum. The institute was run by Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) and their project partners: the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE), the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the Junior Science Support Service (JSSS) and the Education Centre network.

Raymond Tynan, Virginia Vocational School and Annmarie Madden, JSSS doing outdoor investigations at Millstreet Country Park Education Centre.

The opening day focused on co-operative learning and was led by Chris Baker, a renowned expert on its application in Science teaching. This session provided teachers with an overiew on how to use co-operative learning techniques and strategies with their students. Day Two started bright and early with a bus trip to Millstreet Country Park Education Centre where the teachers spent the day using a range of sensor technology to conduct science investigations in the open air. The group was led by Roger Frost and Anna Walsh and this practical hands-on session was the highlight of the three days for many of the participants.

Discover Sensors is a project run by Discover Science & Engineering, the national integrated science and engineering awareness programme. For more information please contact: Stephanie O’Neill at 01 607 3014.


After a vigorous off-site day in the hills, the group returned to Killarney for the institute dinner. Leo Enright, Chairperson of Discover Science and Engineering, addressed the gathering and stressed the importance of this event for DSE and its partners, as it is their first project at post-primary level. Our after dinner speaker, Dr. Michelle Selinger

from Cisco, outlined the challenges facing learners and teachers in the 21st century. In this new world learners have access to a range of technologies outside of the school that puts them in control of their own learning, yet many schools are struggling to control the use of these technologies. This dilemna is posing challenges and opportunities for educators in planning their use of techology in schools. Day three provided teachers with additional time to acquaint themselves with using sensors and in writing up their investigations from the previous day. Teachers, suppliers and project staff worked collaboratively to prepare their materials and to support one another. The general consensus from participants was that the institute was a huge success. One teacher commented that he had never learned so much in such a short space of time and needed now to go away and reflect. The Junior science teachers in attendance, along with the Junior Science Support Service, will now facilitate a series of similar one day workshops during September and October 2007 as the Discover Sensors project is expanded to one hundred and fifty schools. These workshops will introduce 300 junior science teachers, to using their existing sensor techology to support an investigative approach at Junior Certificate science level.

Transforming The irish research Landscape With the Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin, TD recent announcement that €230 million will be invested in Irish research under the government’s fourth cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), there has never been a more exciting time for research capacity and development within Ireland. Eileen O’Malley, reports on what this investment will mean for the country’s higher education institutions and how this will keep Ireland on course toward competing among the world’s most advanced knowledge economies.


ycle Four of PRTLI has been long anticipated, with a hiatus of five years since the announcement of the last round of funding. This cycle, while similarly in-line with the role the programme has played to date, has the prominent influence of the Government’s Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI). The prevailing goal of this is to propel Ireland toward establishing an international profile as a premier location for carrying out world-class research and development. Speaking at the recent launch, Chairman of the Higher Education Authority, Michael Kelly, stated that it should be a matter of national pride that the members of the panel were hugely impressed with the quality of the proposals that were submitted during this cycle, the obvious priority at Government level being to strengthen national research capability, showing their determination to get it right through the rigour of the evaluation process; a process that was scrutinised by 44 international experts and Peer Reviewers and recommended for funding by an international panel of 8 eminent experts. At the launch, Minister Hanafin noted that; “the research investment provided in

the NDP reflects a growing awareness of the fact that, in a global economy increasingly shaped by new advances in knowledge and technology, Ireland’s future success will depend on the strength of our R & D base.” Undoubtedly, with the advent of multinational companies that have affected the economic landscape of Ireland so much in recent years, investment in our research and development base will not only benefit the education sector of the country, but also improve our path toward becoming “an innovation society.” Such a society would see social development, economic stability and quality of life enhanced through innovation, evolving from the considerable achievement of the recent past where Ireland relied heavily on foreign direct investment and imported technology. An important aspect of this process has been the emphasis on institutional collaboration, with one of the overarching aims to strengthen overall national performance in specific areas, deepening collaborative links between institutions and industry partners. This is reflected in the fact that 71 per cent of the funding under Cycle Four, is going to national collaborative programmes. As Minister

Minister for Education and Science Mary Hanafin TD, Head of Research Programmes, HEA, Dr Eucharia Meehan and Chairman of the HEA Mr Michael Kelly at the launch of PRTLI Cycle 4.

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The prevailing goal is to propel Ireland toward establishing an international profile as a premier location for carrying out worldclass research and development. Hanafin pointed out, “each institution contributes something unique based on its own particular strengths, but by collaborating instead of competing with one another, a higher value output is achieved”. One such national collaboration that will be funded under Cycle Four is Food Ireland: National Food and Health Collaborative Research Programme a joint venture between UCC, UCD and UL, which will create national facilities for Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and Human Dietary Intervention Studies enabling research into functional foods and omega-3 rich oils and the role of foods in healthy aging. There is a total of eight national collaborative programmes that will be funded under Cycle Four — each closely aligned with national priorities. Due to the nature of research, it can often be difficult for those on the periphery of higher education circles to see the tangible day-to-day benefits of investing so significantly in institutional research. However, it is important to remember that research has the potential to produce important outcomes, from discovering the cure to deadly diseases, to informing government policymakers on social, cultural and societal transformation that will effect and shape our future. The Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research, UCD, for example, has been one of the largest recipients of PRTLI funding to date. With a strong focus on biological molecules and how they are disrupted by disease, the research programmes within the Institute have the potential to make important contributions to our understanding of the causes and consequences of diseases such as diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s as well as various cancers. Likewise, the Environmental Change Institute based in NUIG has, since its establishment, been dedicated to environmental science and environmental change research, housing advanced facilities for environmental research including a state-of-the-art, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) facility. Due to the unique geographical position of Ireland, the area of climate change research is one that Ireland has the potential to become a world leader in. These programmes established under PRLTI, as well as the additional 31 research centres that have been established thus far, underline

not only the innovative advances that investment in institutional research can create, but shows the benefits that all of society can reap from it. Investing in institutional research also has the substantial benefit of producing skilled post-graduates and post-doctoral students whose unique knowledge is a major asset to Ireland. The combined effect of the range of initiatives taken to date is that Ireland is now an attractive place to pursue a research career. This is illustrated not only by the number of returning Irish graduates, but also by the fact that some twenty per cent of the researchers recruited under PRTLI come from abroad. To date, some 850 researchers have been funded through the programme, 550 post-graduate researchers and 300 postdoctoral researchers. Under Cycle Four, 350 more researchers at post-graduate, post-doctoral and principal investigator level in campuses across the country will be supported. It is also important for those entering higher education this year to note that the future has never been as bright from an R&D perspective and that through programmes like PRTLI, the prospect of either pursuing a career within research or at least entering ‘ Fourth Level’ education has the potential to be a rewarding and exciting choice. Indeed, under this cycle, ten of the sixteen programmes funded will create Graduate Programmes. In particular, the Environment Graduate Programme and the Biomedical Science Graduate Training Programme, which will both receive support across the institutional partners involved. Also significant about this cycle is the considerable investment in the Institute of Technology sector. 17 per cent of allocated funding under this cycle of PRTLI will be provided to the Institutes of Technology, highlighting the strong focus amongst them toward strategic research. Cork Institute of Technology was particularly successful under this fourth cycle, leveraging a total of €17 million, a dramatic increase on previous years. One of the CIT programmes receiving funding is the Network Embedded Systems (NEMBES), involving the building of state-of-the-art facilities which aims to bring key national experts together in the field and make Ireland a recognised international centre of research, education and innovation in networked embedded systems research and applications. The importance of this programme is amplified when one considers that embedded systems have become a pervasive part of almost every aspect of working and living. Indeed 90 per cent of the world’s microprocessors are embedded — and almost every modern convenience, industry and business would grind to a halt without them. Waterford Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Tallaght

Under Cycle Four, 350 more researchers at post-graduate, post-doctoral and principal investigator level in campuses across the country will be supported. and DIT were also successful in their programme bids for funding under Cycle Four. As the research sector faces this next stage of development, it is important to reflect on what has already been achieved. Since its establishment in 1998, the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions has been central to the rapid development of research capacity and development in Ireland’s universities and other institutions of higher education. With the launch of Cycle Four, a total of €830 million will have been invested directly into Irish research by the government. It is important to remember that government funding in these areas is creating confidence in the research sector, upon which the private sector can build on. Programmes like PRTLI, North South initiatives and Irish Aid provide industry with a clear sign that there is a lot to be gained from investment in higher education, both economically and socially. On reflection, the phrase ‘a lot done, more to do’ may best sum up the current research

landscape in Ireland. Considerable work has been done and the country has come a long way since 1998, when Minister Hanafin recalled, at the recent launch, that her predecessor announced a £5 million investment in research, and now the Government were in a position to allocate €230 million. But there is more work to do if Ireland is to keep this momentum going, and the government has responded in the new National Development Plan published earlier this year which provides no less than a total of €3.5 billion for higher education research. This unprecedented funding, combined with the ambitious target of the Strategy for Science Technology and Innovation (SSTI), means that the exciting time currently being experienced by the nation’s institutional research sector, is due to get even more interesting. PRTLI Cycle 4 is included for ERDF cofinancing under the two new Regional Operational Programmes, 2007-13.

Some projects receiving funding under Cycle 4 of the PRTLI l A National Bio-photonics Imaging Platform that will lead to the translation of basic science concepts from the laboratory to sick people and to a better understanding of the role of particular molecules and cells in disease and treatment. (DCU, DIT, NUIG, NUIM, RCSI, UCC, UL) l A National Programme of Research on Knowledge, Innovation, Society and Space (KISS) will examine issues around the social, cultural and societal transformations shaping contemporary Ireland, acting as a key resource for Irish and European policymakers in the 21st century. (DCU, NUIG, NUIM, UCC, UL) l A National Graduate Enhancement Programme in (Bio)pharmaceuticals and Pharmacological Sciences will form a higher-education academic-led ‘bio pharmaceutics corridor’ from Belfast to Cork where in excess of 80% of Irelands (bio)pharmaceutical companies lie. (DCU, UCC, UCD, TCD) l A Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media (Grad CAM) lead by NCAD and DIT will be established to advance research training and development across creative arts and media, underpinned by a dynamic and interdisciplinary, realworld orientated practise-based framework. (DIT, NACD) l As part of €46.6 million invested in the humanities and social sciences, the Digital Humanities Observatory (DHO) will manage and co-ordinate the increasingly complex e-resources created in the arts and humanities. This major infrastructure is part of a wider Humanities Serving Irish Society (HSIS) programme which received approximately €28 million and represents a major change in the scope and capacity for humanities research. (DCU, NUIG, NUIM, UCC, RIA, NACD, UCD) l e-Inis, the Irish National Infrastructure programme will provide researchers with controlled, secure, seamless and economical access to shared science and engineering resources, enabled by the provision of a fully integrated advanced information and communication infrastructure. Such national e-infrastructure is a necessary step towards full participation in European e-Infrastructure projects which will be built as a federation of national e-Infrastructure initiatives.

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Shattering the PC myth

Irish people prefer Americans over Africans, young people over old people, while teachers prefer other teachers to their students. These are just some of the implicit beliefs laid bare by a new psychological test, called IRAP, reports Shane Leavy.


ost of us like to believe that we are tolerant, civilised people that do not hold prejudices or biases against others. But, how true are these assumptions? Not very, it seems, as new methods of analysing probing psychological tests are revealing that deep-down many of us are not as ‘politically correct’ as we might like to believe.

This author was shocked to discover that the dark unconscious of his mind was actually quite a bit wickeder than he had ever realised. Years of arguing that one should judge people as individuals rather than by sex, race, nationality, or age, had left me assuming that I was an openminded, unprejudiced person. How wrong I was. The reason for the author’s discomfort is to be found in the results of an Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The test informed him that subconsciously he has “a strong automatic preference for light skin compared to dark skin”. The test also found that he has a strong preference

for young faces over old, and, that he regards white people carrying guns as being less dangerous than black people carrying guns. The author was stunned to discover that he — deep down — is quite the fascist. Thankfully, the two main Dublin synagogues can take some consolation from the fact that the author didn’t respond to this self-image challenging news by slapping on a swastika and growing an Adolf moustache — his beliefs are so heavily buried in his unconscious that he wasn’t even aware of them. The psychological methods that revealed these deep-seated beliefs is

“Very commonly, the more sensitive the subject the more politically correct their explicit views, but unfortunately the more politically correct their implicit views” SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 14


the work of Dr Yvonne Barnes-Holmes and her husband Professor Dermot Barnes-Holmes, both NUI Maynooth. They have developed an Implicit Rational Assessment Procedure (IRAP), based on analysis of the answers to the IAT that this author agreed to take. “The tricky question is, to what extent does this implicit belief correlate with explicit behaviour?” questioned Yvonne. “So, we’re not saying that we can tell a racist from a non-racist, we’re just asking if people differ in their explicit and implicit responses and it certainly looks like they do.” The Barnes-Holmes team have been fine-tuning the IRAP for the last two years in an attempt to address some of the criticisms that were aimed at IAT’s methodology. So, first of all let’s take a look at the IAT, and where that emerged from.


When US psychologist Dr Tony Greenwald first created the IAT in 1998, his test was based on a simple idea. Psychologists had discovered that when people were asked to quickly associate negative words with one group of people, and positive words with another, they tended to reply faster when they agreed with the particular positive or negative association, than when they disagreed with it. In an IAT test, the test subject is shown, for example, photographs with old faces and photographs with young faces. The subjects are then told to always hit the letter ‘e’ on the keyboard, whenever they see an old face, or a positive word flashing up on their computer screen, such as joy, laughter or love. The subjects are further told to hit the letter ‘i’ on the keyboard when they see a young face or a negative word on their computer screen, such as sad, death, or terrible. The subjects are asked to perform these tasks as fast as they can manage. After a few minutes of this, the test switches. The subjects are now told to hit the letter ‘e’ when they see photographs of old faces or flashes of negative terms on their computer screen. Similarly, the subjects are asked to hit ‘i’ when they see photographs of young faces or flashes of positive terms on screen. The results are fascinating. The vast majority of people asked to perform

“The vast majority of people asked to perform this test, including the author, were able to more quickly associate positive terms with young faces” this test, including the author, were able to more quickly associate positive terms with young faces, and negative terms with older faces, than the opposite situations. The conclusion must be that there is an inbuilt negative bias against older people, amongst many of us, and an inbuilt positive bias towards younger people. Dermot explained: “If you ask people to respond in a way that’s consistent with their implicit beliefs, (that is) their unconscious beliefs, then they seem to respond significantly faster.” However, though IAT was useful, it had a weakness. The problem was that it was working solely with words and pictures, and it did not clearly depict the actual relationship between them. For example, a person might closely associate the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ even though they are opposites. The Barnes-Holmes’ wanted to find out how these terms actually related to one another, and so, they devised the IRAP. This worked by not simply associating isolated words or images, but it also worked with full sentences, questions and statements. The results again proved to be eyeopening. Dermot said: “We compared Scottish, American and African people in questionnaires and also in an IRAP test. The idea was that we would find people saying “I hate Americans” in the explicit test, because of Iraq or something like that. The ‘politically correct’ answer is to say, “Oh, I prefer Africans; they’re the poor oppressed nations”. “But implicitly there’s a bias in the other direction, because we wear American jeans, watch American TV, and there’s a far closer cultural connection there. The explicit tests reported that Americans were the least popular, but when you look at the IRAP, they were faster saying they

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preferred Americans to Africans.” The IRAP cut through subjects’ (in this case Irish people) politically correct, socially acceptable responses and found out their genuine preference for Americans over Africans. But, the IRAP can do more than detect prejudices. The project is ambitious and the information it reveals might be disturbing to some people.


As the Barnes-Holmes were working on the IRAP project, a student, in training to become a clinical psychologist, approached them with a proposal — to apply an IRAP test to convicted paedophiles. Convicted child abusers are asked to complete ordinary explicit questionnaires regarding child sexuality, as part of their course of treatment. It is known that paedophiles tend to make children more sexual in these questionnaires than would ordinary people. Dermot explained: “One of the questions might be, for example, would an eight-year-old enjoy sexual innuendo? A child sex offender would be more likely to strongly agree that, yes, they would.” Child sex abusers were again given the explicit tests, after 100 weeks of extensive therapy, and they were found to have completely changed. Not only did they not distort children’s sexuality, but they actually showed less distortion than an ordinary sample of the population. This could be assumed to be a major sign of success in the treatment. However, when the clinical psychology student mentioned above, tested the convicted paedophiles with the IRAP, along with a control group of ordinary people, the results were shocking. Dermot again: “On the IRAP, the normal group are showing massive scores, which indicate that children are not sexual. A very, very strong result. But, the child sex offenders, who had undergone treatment, actually were showing no statistically significant difference from zero. They were confirming and disconfirming that children were sexual with equal likelihood – even though explicitly they were saying “absolutely not”. What does this result tell us? Does it suggest that convicted paedophiles are consciously lying on

the explicit questionnaires because after all that therapy they know what is expected of them? Or are they unaware that unconsciously they still sexualise children? Yvonne is quick to point out that ultimately it is the behaviour of people that matters, not the unconscious attitudes that they may hold. Just as this author, with an apparent implicit preference for lighter-skinned people, does not behave in an openly racist manner, a treated sex offender may well be in control of his behaviour — whatever his unconscious attitude may be — and, therefore is not a threat to society. Yvonne added: “I don’t think you could ever really get an accurate expression of the degree of manipulation that is going on. Sometimes we present people with a whole battery of explicit measures in order to see do they respond in a politically correct way. Very commonly, the more sensitive the subject the more politically correct their explicit views, but unfortunately the more politically correct their implicit views.” Sometimes the Barnes-Holmes are asked whether the implicit tests act like ‘lie detectors’, said Dermot. “The IRAP is not designed at present as a lie detector. The reason for that is

How real is the image you have of yourself? Photograph, John Gilbert/Source Archives.

that while some participants involved would be actually trying to conceal a fact, another might not.”


There are dangers associated with IRAP, as it intrudes on the unconscious mind. Could tyrant governments force populations to sit IRAP tests to find out whether they hold any implicit negativity towards the leadership? If so, would such unfortunates end up in ‘re-education camps’ or worse? It’s not just tyrants of course that want to know peoples’ real beliefs and feelings. Could IRAP be used to help advertising companies? For example, could ad executives, or survey people acting on their behalf, sit large numbers of test subjects in front of sample ads, and then run an IRAP to see exactly how effective that advertisement was, in affecting the audience on an unconscious level? Could IRAP be abused by politicians, or large corporations? For

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instance, if a person applies for a job in Fianna Fáil or a large US multinational, could the potential employers run an IRAP to make sure that the potentially employee harbours no hidden negative feelings towards the organisation? Where would it all stop?


One of the main potential uses for IRAP is in testing people with mental health problems, before and after treatment, so that the treatment can be seen more clearly to be working, or not working, as the case may be. The standard treatment as applied to paedophiles, as mentioned before, comes to mind here. There are many areas of human psychology that IRAP could help shed a light on, and some of the early results are astonishing. One of the Barnes-Holmes’ doctoral students, an experienced teacher, created an IRAP study into attitudes among teachers towards children. Amazingly, it was discovered that teachers had a very negative implicit attitude towards children, but a very positive implicit attitude towards other teachers. Yvonne explained: “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these

teachers. In fact, what she (the doctoral researcher) is going to say is that it’s okay to have negative attitudes. It’s not attitude policing, it’s just attitude checking. It’s absolutely okay to have these attitudes, but what are you going to do with your behaviour? “Perhaps if you have negative attitudes and you then think “Oh, I shouldn’t tell anybody that”, then you feel ashamed. Then the attitude is more likely to affect your behaviour. So, it’s not about changing the attitudes, it’s about being okay with them and changing the behaviour that follows.” Dermot commented: “Very often the folks who are responding like this are not aware of it, and that in itself can create problems psychologically. If somebody is working in a professional environment which is stressful — nursing, teaching or something — and they don’t even know that they’re stressed because they’re trying to be perfect, and trying not to have any negative feelings, there can be problems”. “There is evidence that when you have an intervention for professionals who work in those contexts, that allows them to discuss with colleagues

students ran ‘faking studies’ in which they got an audience to try and fool the test. But, to no avail — the IRAP held up well, and appears to be quite sturdy.

“Could tyrant governments force populations to sit IRAP tests to find out whether they hold any implicit negativity towards the leadership?” how they feel and discuss the negative aspects of the job, you reduce, very substantially, burnout, absenteeism and stress, and you create a better professional by allowing them to admit to the negative thoughts and feelings they might have.”


What if those people being tested by IRAP are aware of how IRAP works and try to cheat the system? The Barnes-Holmes have created numerous mathematical algorithms aimed at tackling the cheats, and they are aiming to continue to improve IRAP defences against possible cheaters. Last year, one of the couple’s


The initial tests have shown the IRAP to be as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, the IAT. The IRAP certainly raises some fascinating and disturbing possibilities, and offers the world a powerful, new psychological tool. It also put a dent in this author’s complacent politicallycorrect smugness. • Those brave individuals that are willing to bare their souls can take an online IAT test at https://implicit. Shane Leavy, a freelance writer, is a graduate of the DCU journalism programme. His final year project at DCU entitled Two Dragons Entering into the Sea won an RTÉ prize for outstanding undergraduate broadcast journalism.

Ireland’s Grand Canyon Corals and crinoids cling to the Whittard Canyon wall at 800m water depth. Image courtesy of ISIS JC10.

The ISIS-ROV equipped with camera, lights and two robotic arms safely on-board. The specially designed winch allows ISIS to be lowered off the side of the vessel near mid-ship for safe deployment and recovery. Image courtesy of Leighton Rolley.

A huge, underwater canyon - more than twice as deep as the US ‘Grand Canyon’ — lying in deep waters 400 km south of Mizen Head — is being studied by an international team of marine scientists, reports UCC-based team member Dr Andy Wheeler.


reland’s underwater seabed is vast, about nine times the island’s area, and contains many surprises. At its southern limit, near the border with the UK seabed territory, and about 400 km due south of Mizen Head, lies the Whittard Canyon. The canyon runs down the continental margin, connecting the shallower continental shelf edge (200 metres depth) to the deep sea Porcupine Abyssal Plain (4,300 metres depth). The canyon is just about deep enough to be able swallow up the Alpine giant, the Matterhorn, which stands 14,693 feet tall on the border of Italy and Switzerland. The first ever underwater survey of the Whittard Canyon, undertaken last summer, reveals a fascinating world, teeming with all kinds of sea-life, even thousands of metres down, at the ocean floor. This life is fed by nutrients which arrive with new water that is regularly flushed downwards from the seas above. Scientists believe a greater understanding of life here can help with our understanding of sea pollution, nutrient circulation, biological richness, carbon balance, and climate change.

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within Europe’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and is, therefore, of direct interest for the exploitation of biological, energy and mineral resources.”


At the start of July this year, the new British research vessel, the RRS James Cook, equipped with Europe’s leading robotic submersible, the ISIS remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), set out to explore the Whittard Canyon, a little understood submarine canyon on the southern limit of Ireland’s seabed. ISIS is a remarkable ROV, equipped with cameras, robotic arms, as well as sampling and surveying devices. Dr Andy Wheeler, based at the Department of Geology and the Environmental Research Institute, UCC, was the resident Irish-based scientist on board. The branching canyon is 200 km long and 4,000 km deep. That’s about half the length of the ‘Grand Canyon’, but two-and-a-half times as deep. It has been mapped by the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) using hightech echo sounders, but was never really explored. Dr Wheeler and the EU-HERMES project international team onboard the RRS James Cook, led by Professor Doug Mason of the (UK) National Oceanography Centre, set out to explore the canyon at a number of locations. Scientists want to understand just what the Whittard Canyon is like, how it functions, and what aspects of its behaviour are worth following up in subsequent surveys.

Biological hot-spots

Top: Brachiopods (shellfish) and an anemone clinging to exposed rock on a canyon wall taken during the early part of the cruise in Portuguese waters. Image courtesy of ISIS JC10. to eastern Mediterranean, through to the Black Sea. The margin extends from the shelf edge at about 200m depth until around 4000m depth where the abyssal plain or oceanic basins begin, and covers 3 million km2, an area about one third of that covered by Europe’s landmass. Most of this deep-ocean frontier lies

Submarine canyons cut into the continental margin connecting the shallow continental shelf areas with the deep-sea abyssal plain. The steep rocky sides of these canyons and their constrained tidal flows offer a wide range of habitats for a variety of organisms. For this reason such canyons have long been recognised as “biological hotspots”.

Submarine cables

Perhaps more importantly, canyons offer a direct and rapid connection from the shelf sea to the abyssal plains. Here, submarine slides and sediment avalanches are common, and this is a constant hazard for the many submarine cables that criss-cross the Atlantic from North America to Europe, and pass through Irish waters. In fact, it is these sediment avalanches, or ‘turbidity flows’ as marine scientists would call them, that can come tumbling down from the shelf to the deep sea and cut off the canyons.


Hermes project

This fits in with the goals of the EU-Hermes Project, which is defined as “an integrated project designed to gain new insights into the biodiversity, structure, function and dynamics of ecosystems along Europe’s deep-ocean margin”. The Hermes Project website further explains its reason to exist: “Europe’s deep-ocean margin stretches over a distance of 15,000 km along the Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic to the Iberian margin and from western

The “elevator” going to the surface. The elevator is a quick way to get equipment and experiments deployed on the seabed and recovered. The “elevator” is sent to the bottom (literally sunk) with a payload of equipment. The ISIS ROV then meets the “elevator” on the seabed where it can pick-up and place equipment or experiments at specific sites as required. When the experiments have finished (maybe after several days or weeks) the the ROV collects them up, and puts them back on the “elevator”. Pictured here is the “elevator” with its precious cargo rising back up to the surface after it has dropped its ballast. Image courtesy of ISIS JC10.

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There is also evidence that, at least periodically, canyons are the sites for “cold water cascading events”, where shelf water gets pumped directly into the deep sea in large volumes. This rapid transfer of surface water directly to the bottom of the ocean has implications for pollution levels at the ocean depths. Scientists now understand that the coast pollution which spreads to the shelf seas has, in turn, a rapid transfer route via submarine canyons to the deep sea, where the water may not have been at the surface for 4,000 years. This effect could be even more profound in other settings where canyons have a direct connection to

river systems. Such a scenario exists, for example, in the Setubal Canyon, which lies in Portuguese waters. This canyon was studied by the team onboard the RRS James Cook, before the vessel moved up into Irish waters last summer.

began, finally, to survey in Irish waters. This was the first chance humans ever had to see what it was really like deep down inside this huge canyon.

Lower reaches

“Firstly, we concentrated on the lower reaches of the canyon at Carbon and nutrients about 4,000 metres below the The pumping of water up and sea surface. An ISIS dive crossed down canyons has implications the main axis of the channel for regional nutrient circulation, and showed active sediment which affects biological richness. movement with sand dunes This pumping is a mechanism and ripples covering a boulderfor transferring carbon from choked channel. Obviously the surface waters rapidly to the Whittard Canyon has witnessed deep sea. This process usually some pretty strong sediment takes thousands of years so flows in the past. Some of the understanding the scale of boulders in the channels were this process in submarine rounded: typical of erosive canyons can help scientific sand-blasting from suspended understanding of the carbon sands in strong currents. The balance in the oceans, which, in sides of the channel were turn, is crucial to formulating a heavily eroded, with a vertical better understanding of climate 30 metre cliff section on steep change. flanks rising a few hundred metres. Exposed in the side The ISIS-ROV demonstrating the use of one of its robotic Survey begins of this cliff were a series of arm. The other arm is tucked away on the extreme right of the cross-beds, suggesting that we The disastrous summer weather instrument. Cameras and lights can be seen along the top of in late June meant heavy rain were seeing a channel that was the vehicle. Image courtesy of Leighton Rolley. and huge seas in the area around incised into basal (fan) deposits Whittard made life difficult. of the canyon.” planned at Whittard. Nonetheless, The team decided to stay longer “A 10.5 metre sediment core following a break in the bad weather, than they had anticipated studying retrieved from the terrace above the RRS James Cook, with the ISIS the canyon systems off Portugal, the channel at 3,800 metres depth ROV onboard, steamed north, and with a shorter stay than had been revealed a beautiful sequence of

Inside the ISIS-ROV control room on-board the RRS James Cook. It is from here that ISIS is piloted and the first views of the deep come back to the expectant scientists on-board. The ISIS pilots are on the left (in the dark) with the scientists on the right busy making notes. The four large monitors (top left) show views from the ISIS cameras with the lower monitors used for controlling and flying ISIS.

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Life in the deep; sea fans, anemones and a swat lobster at 4100m in the Whittard Canyon, Ireland. Image courtesy of ISIS JC10. layered turbidites (sediment avalanche deposits) that had spilled out of the channel. These were glacial in age, showing that the canyon was even more active thousands of years ago. At that time, it was fed by sediment laden glacial melt-waters from a coastline that was much nearer to the canyon heads (when sea-level was lower). “Despite the episodic hostile conditions in the lower canyon, life also thrived with numerous types of deepsea fish, sponges, sea fans and sea pens, sea urchins, starfish, octopus, as well as numerous Xenophyophores (singlecelled protozoans, the size of a fist).

Middle reaches

“For the next ISIS dive, we moved further up the canyon to its middle reaches, exploring a long transect 1,000 metres up the side of the canyon from the channel floor, at 3,360 metres water depth. The water was very turbid, suggesting active background sediment transport down the system. This impression was also supported by extensive areas of rippled sand covering the sediment drifts. “At the edge of the channel, the canyon walls were near vertical in places covered by large, red branching anemones. Sediment drapes

A sea-spider, one of the canyons more intriguing inhabitants. Image courtesy of ISIS JC10.

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sometimes covered the exposed rock, with erosion furrows suggesting small vertical sediment flows cascading into the canyon on a regular basis. The sediment drapes were highly bioturbated (full of burrows) despite the fact that they were at such a precipitous angle. Who made the burrows was not clear, but presumably they were free swimming and scared of our lights. As we moved further up the canyon wall the amount of biology decreased, as did the amount of ‘marine snow’ – caused by the constant fall of particulate material in the water mainly comprising plankton, larvae and dead organic matter. This was interesting as it suggested that the flanks were effectively starved of food in comparison with the canyon floor. Paradoxically, therefore, the flushing of the canyon floor, far from being a problem for marine life, was, in fact, providing a fresh and readily available supply of food.”

Higher reaches

“Concluding our explorations in the limited weather window, we completed a further ISIS dive higher up the canyon system, starting in the channel again, but this time at 2,500 metres water depth and continuing up the side of the canyon to the top at 460 metres water depth. The base of the canyon was again turbid with a layer of silt covering boulders and rippled sands deposited during previous more violent canyon activity. Life was evident especially underneath protected overhangs with anemones, sea lilies and fish present. Moving up the sides of the canyon we again saw sediment drapes covering some of the exposed and eroded rock sides. This time we also saw small metre-deep channels cut into the sediment running vertically down — a small turbidity flow (sediment avalanche) running down on the channels, something rarely captured on film. “Once out of the channel zone, signs of life again became sparse corresponding to an increase in water clarity. This situation continued upslope, until we reached about 1,000 metres water depth where life again became more abundant. This water depth corresponds to the base of the ‘Mediterranean Outflow Water’, which, as the name suggests, is a water mass that has exited the Straits of Gibraltar and flowed north.

“Being more saline than the Atlantic surface water, but warmer than the Atlantic deep water, it finds an appropriate depth usually between 1,000 and 600 metres water depth. Life here consists of tulip-shaped sponges, sea fans and sea pens, brittle stars and starfish, sea urchins, crabs, sea lilies, numerous fish species and a white octopus who found ISIS rather intriguing. “We also found the remains of a cold-water coral reef, now badly eroded. Similar reefs have been found by towing a video camera near the seabed in an adjacent canyon. This was undertaken in May 2007 as part of a joint Irish Marine Institute and UK JNCC cruise, and as part of the habitat mapping project. Whether the coral reef’s fate was due to natural causes or because of fishing activity is not clear. Numerous trawl-marks caused by the

dragging of fishing nets across the seabed, were identified on the seabed near by. The coral reef did support some live coral, with the reef edge, although now mainly composed of dead coral, still clearly defined. Above 600 metres water depth we went from a zone dominated by sea fans to one dominated by crabs, possibly related to a change in water mass from Mediterranean Outflow Water to Northeast Atlantic Surface Water. “At the end of the dive we found further evidence of sediment avalanching into the canyon with a 10 metre wide shelly gravel rise, or avalanche chute, running straight down the slope. We followed this raised deposit for several hundred metres up-slope where it petered out at a general area of erosion at the base of cliff. With more bad weather coming it was time to take some

quick sediment cores, as we had done throughout the dives, and bring the ISIS safely back onboard. Until next time.” Dr Andy Wheeler is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geology and the Environmental Research Institute, UCC.


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Highway code for chimps

Photo: Kimberley Hocking

Robert Quinn reports that chimps have acquired road sense. The next time you encourage your little one to ‘STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN’, at a road crossing, spare a thought for our primate cousins, the chimps, who may, at that very moment, be engaging in a similar activity in Africa. This phenomenon was recently described in the journal Current Biology by Kimberley Hockings, a psychologist studying for her PhD at the University of Stirling, and her colleagues. Kimberley spent a year living in close proximity to a group of chimps while on field research in the Central African nation of Guinea, an experience she describes as amazing. She goes on to say, “I often found it quite humbling to observe their every movement and to see how we share so many similarities with them”. Kimberley’s team recorded the behaviour of a small band of chimpanzees as they crossed two roads bisecting their forest territory. While one of the roads was a seldom-used track mainly travelled by pedestrians, the other was a much busier highway, regularly used by lorries and cars. The band of chimps has reportedly used the same specific crossing points for decades so it was at these ‘zebra crossings’ that the researchers holed up, waiting for the chimps to appear. The scientists hypothesised that the chimps would be able to assess the degree of risk as they came upon either road and they wanted to learn more about how they might respond to the varying level of risk encountered.

The data gathered are intriguing. As the first member in the line of chimps came upon the road it was observed to stop and scan the road for traffic. Perhaps unsurprisingly the scientists recorded that the time spent scanning was proportionate to the size of the road and the perceived level of danger. The chimps spent on average eight times longer assessing the risk on the larger road than on the smaller one (180 seconds versus 24 seconds). The presence of both people and vehicles increased the time the chimps spent scanning before crossing the highway but interestingly, on the smaller road the brazen chimps paid no heed to the presence of human traffic, moving across when they saw fit, regardless of any remonstrations from their tall and clothed primate brethren. This remarkable harmony between the local Manon people and the chimps is founded on a long history of peaceful co-existence. Indeed it would seem that the Manon people could have taught biology a few lessons about evolution long before Darwin set his pen to paper, as Kimberley explains, “The local Manon people believe that the chimpanzees are their ancestors and many families hold the chimpanzees as their totems”. The chimps cross in an orderly single file with the more dominant members of the group taking up the front and rear and the younger chimps in the middle, reminiscent of a scout troop out hiking along the road, with the leaders walking to the aft and fore and the young scouts in the middle.

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On the larger road, one of the males was sometimes observed to remain behind, continuing to scan the road while his comrades crossed, only joining them after they had all started the crossing. The positioning of dominant members to the front during group movement is a mechanism commonly used by primates as they move through dangerous areas. For example, in monkey troupes, the dominant males will often take a lead role as the group moves toward dangerous areas such as waterholes. The researchers believe that the chimps have adapted this type of behaviour to respond to the recent appearance of man-made roads and their associated dangers. Fortunately, there have been no recorded traffic accidents involving the chimps but perhaps it is time that our road safety signs took into account the needs of our closest primate cousins. These chimps could even make the case for a renaming of one of our most iconic road safety markings, the zebra crossing. Based on the evidence presented here it seems that they might very well have the right of way to do so. Reference:

Hockings, K.J., Anderson, J.R., and T. Matsuzawa, ”Road crossing in chimpanzees: a risky business”. Curr Biol, 2006. 16(17): p. 668-70. Following graduating in science at UCD Robert Quinn went on to a four year Wellcome Trust PhD at Manchester.


The first Hibernians

Ireland’s earliest settlers lived in wooden huts along the river Bann in Co Antrim and spent their days hunting in a rich landscape populated by such exotic creatures as lynx, bears and wolves. Anthony King describes what scientists have learned about these settlers and their environment.

8,000 BC

It’s 8,000 BC, and dawn flickers along an estuary in Antrim. Upstream, hunters emerge from wooden huts on a bluff above the river. Armed with flint-tipped spears, they gaze across the green canopy that runs beyond their settlement. They move out of their forest clearing to spend the day spearing salmon, trapping hare and netting waterfowl.

Top: from All About Wolves; drawing of European wild boar from Centre for Wildlife Management; and wild hare from Dyrevern Alliansen.

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Although leaving few traces, the Lynx was among the early arrivals in Ireland. These spitting Canadian Lynx kittens and an adult on the prowl were photographed by Erwin and Peggy Bauer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

These are the first Hibernians. Their lifestyle, gathering and hunting for food, persisted until the arrival of farming 3,000 years later. Scientists and archaeologists have put together the first reels of human activity in Ireland, a story set in vast woodlands and wetlands, inhabited by lynx, bears and wolves.

First settlers

Cut to a field along the River Bann in 1974. A routine excavation has just located the earliest Stone Age settlement in Ireland. Professor Peter Woodman and his team unearth flint axes, spear tips, evidence of wooden huts and an assortment of animal bones from Mount Sandel. Last year, radiocarbon dating of hazelnuts from this site showed it to be around 10,000 years old. Peter Woodman, Professor of Archaeology at UCC, believes we have frequently underestimated these Mesolithic people. “One thing that has come out of recent research is that these people were successful and had a significant presence in many parts of the island,” he said. The people along the River Bann chose the site with care, he told Science Spin. They had access to salmon and eel runs and shellfish and seabirds along the coast. Professor Woodman’s excavations uncovered the charred bones of hare, wild pig, and a mix of birds including wood grouse, divers, mallards, teal, goshawk and woodcock. Stores of hazelnuts and water lily seeds were also found.

Forests and wetlands

Fifteen hundred years before man’s arrival, Ireland’s climate had experienced a rapid rise in temperature. “Ireland had gone from an Arctic climate to a climate similar to today within a decade,” said Dr Fraser Mitchell, a botanist in Trinity College Dublin. The first trees to arrive into Ireland after the Ice Age were juniper

Bear bones

For thousands of years, a walk in the woods could have brought you nose-to-nose with an Irish bear. Recent radiocarbon dating of bear bones from the Sligo-Leitrim area has shown bears survived in Ireland until 3,000 years ago. Loss of forest to agriculture pushed the bears to their last stronghold in the west, said Nigel Monaghan. Hunting may then have reduced their numbers to unsustainable levels. Apart from carbon for dating, bones also yield DNA. Dr Ceiridwen Edwards of TCD, an expert in ancient DNA, is interested in where the bears came from. Last year, she isolated DNA from bear bones from all over Ireland. Edwards hopes the DNA will show the origins of Irish bears and indicate how they are related to their living and extinct brethren in Europe.

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and birch. Unsuited to growing in shade, these early colonists were replaced by a succession of other trees. By the time man arrived, the forests were dominated by pine, oak, elm and hazel. Dr Mitchell has studied the migration of these trees into Ireland. He said Irish trees most likely originated from Iberia, a refuge for temperate trees during the last Ice Age. When conditions improved, they migrated up the Atlantic coast of France and across the Celtic Sea. Recent genetic studies of oak bolster this continental origin for Irish trees. By the time of the Bann people, Ireland was a wooded island with large lakes in the midlands. It was an Ireland without bogs; in their place were lakes, shallow fens and marshes. Coastal wetlands were also far more extensive. Studies of ancient pollen indicate that the forests varied according to factors such as soil, local climate, and altitude. Elm woods with an ‘under-story’ of hazel blanketed the fertile limestone soils of the midlands, while oak and pine thrived on more acid soils in the west and east and in upland areas. It would be wrong to picture a homogenous wooded landscape, however. “There would have been lesser trees that added great beauty like hawthorn, wild apples and holly, as well as some clear areas with grasses and flowering plants,” said Professor Valerie Hall, a botanist at Queen’s University Belfast. She said that there were plenty of plants to

Bones of hibernating bears are often found in caves. Photograph: US National Parks Service. provide food for early settlers. “There were 120 flowering plants in Ireland you could eat.”

Prey gap

The animal life of Ireland 10,000 years ago was very different from Britain. Predators there could feast on red deer, roe deer, wild cattle and elk; Ireland had none of these species. Despite missing out on large herbivores, fierce meat eaters prowled the Irish countryside, including bears, lynx, stoats and wolves. What were these animals eating? It’s a question that intrigues ecologist Dr Paddy Sleeman of UCC: “I’m interested in what fills this prey gap.” The main mammal prey of the River Bann people was pig. “If you take the pigs out, if they were introduced by man, you have an ecosystem that doesn’t function properly.” Dr Sleeman has suggested

migratory species may have sustained the meat eaters. Nigel Monaghan, keeper at the Natural History Museum, agrees that ground birds were probably a major source of summer food for the predators. He compared Ireland at this time to today’s Arctic, where birds migrate during summer to breed in relative safety. Monaghan is an authority on extinct Irish mammals and has studied the bones of brown bear and lynx. Evidence for such animals comes from excavations of caves and accidental finds brought to the museum over the last 200 years. The bone collection offers an incomplete picture: “We probably know a lot fewer animals than actually lived in the landscape at that time,” said Monaghan. Chance events colour what we can learn of prehistory. Bear bones are common because they hibernated and Left, birds of prey, such as this raven, would have been early arrivals, and wolves made themselves at home, surviving until driven into local extinction. Tom Kennedy, Source Archive, and All About Wolves.

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frequently died in caves. Monaghan believes lynx were reasonably abundant in the Irish countryside, probably preying on Irish hares. But there is just a single record of this cat. “We wouldn’t know about lynx except for one cave in Waterford where people took the trouble to excavate every bone and came up with an oddity that turned out to be a lynx,” said Monaghan. There are lynx bones from Roman times in Britain, yet no written records mention them. It’s difficult to say how long this animal dined on Irish hares. Recent radiocarbon dating of bear bones proved they lived in Ireland 3,000 years ago, far later than had been assumed.

Natives and colonists Many textbooks will tell you Ireland remained linked to Britain or Europe long after the ice melted, but this is an outmoded view. Geologists now say Ireland has been an island since at least 13,000 years ago. If Ireland was isolated before it was warm enough for postglacial mammals and plants to live here, how did animals reach this island? The experts increasingly believe most didn’t arrive under their own steam, and the canon of true natives is shrinking. Rabbit, hedgehog, and fallow deer were brought in by the Anglo-Normans. Grey squirrel, bank vole and mink were subsequent introductions or escapees. Now, genetic evidence has added wood mouse and pygmy shrew to the non-native list. Red deer are also being relegated to “blow-in” status; a “bread-and-butter species” for early

European hunters, their remains are not found in Ireland until 3,000 BC. It has even been suggested that bears and wolves might have been brought to Ireland by man. These animals are unlikely to sit at the end of a dugout canoe waiting for a trip, but their cubs make for cute, manageable bundles. Does it matter what is native or non-native? Monaghan believes these are emotive terms, suggesting some animals belong while others do not. “It’s far more instructive to look at whether an animal is in balance in its landscape.” An animal like the grey squirrel is a concern because it is expanding rapidly and causing ecological upset, he said. Moreover, almost nothing is native if you go back to the peak of the last Ice Age; go back further and wild horses, spotted hyena and reindeer were native Irish mammals.

A unique ecosystem

Dr Sleeman warned against comparing our wildlife with our nearest neighbour. “It is a mistake to look at the British fauna and think it’s typical and see our own fauna as impoverished.” Better, he said, to view it as a unique postglacial island fauna. Ireland differs from Britain, which only became an island 7,000 years ago, not just in terms of animals. Certain trees never made it to Ireland. “Beech grows well in Ireland, but is not native,” said Dr Mitchell. It got as far as the Welsh coast 1,000 years ago. Lime reached the Welsh coast

Pollen and Insects

The main evidence for prehistoric woodlands comes from pollen. Pollen is made from one of the most indestructible organic materials and lasts millions of years in permanently wet or permanently dry places. Researchers obtain records of ancient pollen by using a hollow borer to extract a core from a lake or peat bog. An expert then counts and identifies the pollen to work out the vegetation of that time. Wind-pollinated trees produce huge quantities of pollen, whereas insect-pollinated trees and herbaceous plants produce much

The wetlands hosted cranes, bitterns and perhaps storks, along with birds of prey like the marsh harrier, osprey and white-tailed eagle.

Human impact

Birch rapidly established itself when the ice finally retreated, and it is still one of our most widespread species. over 7,000 years ago, but never crossed the Irish Sea. Mitchell said this is a real example of the Irish Sea acting as a barrier because lime grows quiet happily here. One group of animals that did cross the sea were the birds. Ireland 10,000 years ago must have had a rich and diverse avifauna. Gordon D’Arcy, author of Ireland’s Lost Birds, said Ireland now has six birds of prey, but should probably have twelve. It is impossible to say for sure which birds were here, however. The Natural History Museum has bird bones in its collection, but they are yet to be fully described and dated. We can make a good guess from the birds that live in similar habitats in Europe and from written records from historical times. D’Arcy envisions the large game bird capercaille dining on pine shoots and cones in the primeval woods while woodpeckers drum out insects from bark. Goshawks likely hunted grouse and songbirds, while they themselves watched for eagle owls. smaller amounts. These and other factors must be taken into account when interpreting the pollen record. And these interpretations have led to vigorous debates. Some experts say pollen overemphasises the forests; they

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Early settlers had little direct impact on these birds or the landscape in general. Due to the absence of large game animals, experts say people had little reason to create clearings for hunting, as occurred in Britain. They may have altered the nascent ecosystem, however, by bringing wildlife with them, whether by accident or design. Also, they could have had dramatic local impacts, such as wiping out colonies of flightless great auk by eating adults and collecting eggs. It wasn’t until the arrival of farming that the landscape was radically altered. The hunters of Mount Sandel would have great difficulty recognising modern Ireland. The landscape, animals and even sea level of today bear little resemblance to the early postglacial Ireland that they knew. Reconstructing their environment means knitting together details from botany, archaeology, geology, zoology and genetics. Researchers have used ancient pollen and insects, cave remains, and DNA from living and dead animals to add to the picture. The rerunning of past episodes of ecological change should offer better insight into Ireland’s past and present environment. Anthony King has a science degree from TCD and a masters in communications from DCU.


suggest primeval Europe looked more like pasture woodland or even parkland. One way of solving this mystery is to look at beetles. The remains of these insects preserve well and are extremely useful because specific groups of beetles live in specific micro-habitats. Dr Nicki Whitehouse of Queen’s University Belfast recently used fossil beetles to study forest history in Ireland. According to Dr Whitehouse, the dispersal and decline of these insects can tell us about the nature and role of human activities in shaping the European landscape over the past 10,000 years.

One of the hardy survivors, the Irish Hare. Genetic studies at Queen’s show that the hare is one of the few animal species to survive the last Ice Age. Photographs by Dr Neil Reid.

Management for biodiversity in Ireland’s contemporary forests Dr Sandra Irwin reports that a better understanding of existing biota will help foster greater diversity in Irish forests.


oday less than one tenth of Ireland’s total geographical area is covered in forest, the lowest proportion of all EU member states. Clearance of Ireland’s native forest resulted in a reduction from 80 per cent forest cover at the end of the last ice age to less than 1 per cent at the beginning of the 20th century. Because of the biologically diverse nature of our native forests, their felling brought with it the loss of associated flora and fauna. Although little native woodland remains in Ireland today, the total forest cover has once again increased through afforestation programmes supported by the Irish government, whose strategic plan aims to increase forest cover to 17 per cent by 2030. These new plantations are managed principally for timber production, Above, Orange Tip Butterfly, and dominated by non-native trees, Anthocharis cardamines, (Photo: particularly North American conifers Oisin Sweeney). such as Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) Right: UCC Post-doc, Mark Wilson, and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) on fieldwork. (Photo: Oisin Sweeney). although in recent years there has Plantforbio researchers, Linda Coote been an increase in planting of and Karen Moore at Kilmacreea, Co broadleaved species such as oak Wicklow (Photo: Frazer Mitchell) (Quercus spp) and ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Despite a recent surge in the establishment of privatelyowned plantations the majority remain in public ownership. Careful management of Ireland’s forests is essential to ensure that the biodiversity they support is not threatened. While this goal is achievable, in order to promote forest biodiversity and fully practice sustainable forest management, it is necessary that we first have a comprehensive understanding of the biota The results of the project were encouraging associated with our forest plantations. and it concluded that the promotion To this end COFORD, together with of biodiversity in forestry requires the the EPA (Environmental Protection support of good policies and practices. Agency), funded the BIOFOREST research Recommendations arising from the project project aimed at gathering much-needed, addressed many aspects of forestry from basic information on biodiversity in strategic planning to localised planning Irish plantation forests. This project ran and practice. from 2001 to 2006 and brought together Following on from the success of the researchers from UCC, TCD and Coillte BIOFOREST project, COFORD has recently Teoranta in a multi-disciplinary study of pledged over €3 million to support the six biodiversity in Irish plantations forests year PLANFORBIO research programme. during their first rotation. The focus of This will focus on plantation forests in that research was to illustrate the effects their second rotation which represent of different aspects of management on the future of much of the state’s forest biodiversity within forests, from the estate now that the first crop from many planning stage through to the mature forest. such forests is being harvested and the

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replanting of sites has commenced. The programme will also include comparisons with native semi-natural woodland and will assess the diversity of birds, invertebrates and plants both on the ground and in the forest canopy to capture the three dimensional aspect of forest biodiversity. The team that successfully worked together on the BIOFOREST project has once again come together to conduct this research and is joined now by experts from WIT. The team comprises full time academic staff, post-doctoral and post-graduate researchers and a number of research assistants. Through an array of integrated research investigations this work will build on BIOFOREST and will ultimately lead to recommendations on ways to manage different forest types for biodiversity conservation and enhancement. The new PLANFORBIO research programme also includes individual studies of two species of conservation interest. Rhododendron is a nonnative shrub which is invasive in several Annex 1 habitats in Ireland listed under the EU Habitats Directive. Although Rhododendron thickets provide cover for birds and other animals the overall impact on diversity in affected habitats is strongly negative as the deep litter and dense canopy enable Rhododendron to shade out ground vegetation and prevent regeneration of trees in native forests. Quantification of risk and development of improved control measures for Rhododendron are therefore required and form the core of the work in this project. The second species-specific project focuses on conservation of the Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus) in Ireland in relation to land use and land use change. The Hen Harrier is listed in Annex 1 of the European Union Birds Directive, and Ireland is obliged to designate Special Protection Areas for the species, and to specify appropriate land use and management within the SPAs. Dedicated research under the PLANFORBIO programme aims to inform these decisions and increase our knowledge of Hen Harrier habitat usage and breeding biology at landscape level. For further information contact Dr. Sandra Irwin, PLANFORBIO programme manager, Department of Zoology, Ecology & Plant Science, University College Cork, Phone +353 21 4904594, Email:, or see


Sunspots Gerry Byrne reports that solar astronomers are making in progress in understanding why sunspots occur in cycles.


funny thing happened on the Sun recently. Two sunspots appeared. That is remarkable in itself, as the Sun, between sunspot cycles, is in a quiet mode. But what was even more interesting was their magnetic signature or polarity. Sunspots usually appear in pairs and, for the previous decade or so the northernmost or leading one in the Sun’s southern hemisphere always had a north magnetic signature. The new ones, seen in late July and mid-August, had the opposite magnetic signature. To solar astronomers that can mean that the old solar cycle, number 23, is formally ended and a new one, number 24, is beginning. If this is true, over the next five years or more the numbers of sunspots will increase, then, over another five and a half years or so, will wane as the Sun goes quiet again.

Image of the Sun taken by the Solar and Heliospherical Observatory, or SOHO. The spacecraft that is home to SOHO was launched in December 1995, and the mission is a co-operative effort between ESA and NASA. A Sun with lots of sunspots is a stormy one which can hurl billion ton clouds of charged particles at us. These eruptions, called coronal mass ejections, have the power to disrupt radio communications on earth. Communications satellites are regular victims and astronauts in the Space Station must scurry to a specially shielded part of their orbiter if one is detected. They have even been known to knock out the electricity supply to major cities. On a brighter note, they also generate beautiful displays of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis,

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similar to the fantastic displays of November 2003 which lit up the skies over Ireland. The engine which drives the sunspot cycle has been a mystery for decades. Theories have been promoted, then discredited as new discoveries update knowledge of our nearest star. It’s now generally accepted that sunspots are the visible ends of tubes of highly magnetic plasma, or flux which break through the Sun’s surface in the forms of loops. But where does the magnetism come from? And why does it change polarity with each cycle? Even the Sun’s north and south poles flip over in this process. Mausumi Dikpati, from the High Altitude Observatory at the National Council for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, thinks she has all the answers. Not only does her theory SPIN

explain how the sunspot cycle works, she claims it can also be used to predict the sun’s behaviour up to twenty years in advance. Many of the components of her Flux Transport Dynamo Theory have been outlined before by other researchers but Dikpati is the one of the first people to convincingly put it all together in a unified fashion. One of the cornerstones of this theory is the fact that the interior of the sun rotates at a different speed to the outer convective layer. The shear layer where these two rotating shells meet is called the techocline and for some time scientists have theorised that this is the location of the Sun’s dynamo and not its turbulent outer layers as had been previously thought. Another keystone of the theory is the discovery that the Sun has currents, somewhat analagous to the Earth’s Gulf Stream. For her model Dikpati seized upon what astrophysicists call the meridional flow, a 20 metres per second leisurely migration of surface plasma from the Sun’s equator north and south to its poles. A convenient time at which to simplistically examine how this theory works is to take the Sun’s northern hemisphere at the peak of the Sunspot cycle. Dozens of sunspots have blossomed and faded on the surface. As they decay their magnetic residue is carried northwards by the meridional flow. As the magnetic flux passes through the area of the Sun’s north pole, it cancels out the polar charge

Sunspots recorded by Institute of Solar Physics, Swedish Academy of Sciences. of the previous cycle giving it the signature previously held by the south pole. (A mirror image of this process is also occurring in the southern hemisphere). Just as major ocean currents form conveyor belts linking the surface with the seabed, so does the meridional flow link the surface with the tachocline, the junction between the core and the convective layer which move at different speeds. But here the Sun is upwards of a million times denser and the meridional flow barely inches along. It will take up to twenty years before they reach the latitudes where sunspots normally erupt. Just as a child makes a snake out of a blob of plastecine by rolling it under its hand on the table, the tachocline winds up the magnetic fields into long snaking coiled flux tubes. The more they are coiled, the more their magnetic charge is amplified until, by the time they reach the sunspot latitudes, the charge has become so great it makes the tubes bouyant and they float upwards through thousands of miles of the convective layer. When they reach the surface a loop of flux tube protrudes but all we see are the two holes representing the bases of the loop. These are new sunspots some two cycles on from where we first took up the story. As they decay their magnetism is again transported northwards by the meridional flow and the cycle repeats itself.

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Dikpati visualises the process as a sort of magnetic memory tape looping through the sun, a tape which effectively programs future sunspot cycles. Each cycle is generated by the magnetic residue of an earlier cycle, a residue which provides each cycle with it’s unique magnetic signature, or polarity, but can also influence its strength. Of course there are variables to be taken into account, variables such the strength and speed of the meridional flow, a factor which does vary from cycle to cycle. Not only does her model explain the engine by which sunspots are created, it explains how the cycle occurs and how both the polarity of the Sun’s poles, and individual sunspots, are altered with each cycle. It also goes some way towards explaining how the Sun manages to conserve its magnetic material, despite blowing billions of tons of it into space every year. Earlier this year she put her head on the block and said her sunspot model forecasts a very energetic forthcoming Cycle 24 which could be between 30 and 50% stronger than Cycle 23 just ended. To do this forecast she reached back to earlier cycles. Other forecasters, who use what are often called precurser methods, look at elements of the cycle just gone. One such forecast was made by Miruna Popescu, a researcher at Armagh Observatory. She looked at the energy given off by coronal mass ejections towards the end of Cycle 23

just gone. She theorised that if they are very energetic, then there will be less magnetic material available for the next cycle. Indeed the last two years of Cycle of 23 were noteworthy for a series of large coronal mass ejections on the Sun which hurled multi-billion ton clouds of magnetic material into space. Some of them were the largest CMEs ever recorded. She suggests that this reduces the amount of magnetism available for the upcoming Cycle 24. Other forecasters have even suggested that the Sun may be entering into a long quiet period, similar to the famous Maunder Minimum of the 17th Century when no sunspots whatever were recorded for many years. Popescu is not yet laying bets that she’s right. “Mine is an emperical method and one can never be really sure,” she explained. For the moment she’s quite lukewarm about Dikpati’s theory although she is impressed about the breadth of her model. For example, while most other theories simply look at what goes on on the surface, Dikpati

is probing deep into the Sun’s interior. “She’s using some very good data sets. If it works it will be quite a breakthrough,” she said. However, if the recent sunspots really do signal the start of Cycle Number 24, Dikpati’s predictions are already wrong, says Popescu. “She predicted the new cycle would start in late 2007 or early 2008,” Popescu points out. Hot plasma rising from a sunspot has been shaped by powerful magnetic fields. The plasma follows lines of force, in much the same way as iron filings around a magnet. The outer edges bend back as plasma strives to reconnect with megnetic fields of opposite polarity. The image was captured by a solar optical telescope on board the Hinode spacecraft, launched in September 2006. Director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division said that it was not possible before Hinode to see dynamic structures, such as granules of hot gas in such detail. Image: Hinode, JAXA/NASA

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 32

But Dikpati says she has confidence in her forecasts because none of the previous models were complete dynamo based schemes. “They all considered the least active portion, or minima, of the previous cycle past minima because in a minima polar field becomes strongest so they considered the polar field of the past minima and then they tried to predict the next cycle’s maxima but there is no strong physical grounds for that. “My scheme says features of the last minima cannot be the determining factor because you need two cycles,” she said recently. “To predict cycle 24 I need the polar field pattern of cycle 22 more than 23 or 21. There is a memory effect. The polar field of the previous minima is strongest just 5.5 years laier; but the sun’s memory effect is 17 to 21 years.” SPIN Gerry Byrne is a freelance science journalist.

The tiny image of the Earth imposed over a solar flare observed in July 2002 shows how big these events can be. Image: SOHO-EIT Consortium, ESA, NASA.

Below: Intense activity recorded by the optical camera on board the Hinode space craft.

INtErvIEw Frank Gannon, Director SFI

Not just

steady as she goes Professor Frank Gannon formerly took up the post of Director of SFI in July. He is currently reviewing all SFI activities, with a view to setting up structures to take Irish science on to the next level, while, at all costs seeking to avoid the complacency that can follow a period of spectacular success. Seán Duke reports.


is now into its seventh year, and its existence has coincided with a period where unprecedented levels of funding have poured into Irish science. The first Director, William Harris, has returned to his native USA, and now an Irishman, Professor Frank Gannon, formerly director of the National Diagnostic Research Centre, in Galway and executive director of EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organisation) has stepped into his shoes. Prof Gannon describes here his vision for the future role of SFI.


Professor Frank Gannon, though a respected research scientist, has made his career through managing science. His first major management role in Ireland was as Director of the National Diagnostics Centre at NUI Galway. In Galway, his successes include starting the MSc in Biotechnology in 1981, very early days for biotech in Ireland. From NUI Galway he went on to become the prestigious Executive Director of EMBO, a large Europe-wide research body, and for 13 years he was based in Hiedelberg, Germany. At EMBO he started a number of well respected initiatives including a programme to help internationalise

“The basic science of today is the applied of tomorrow, and there is no applied without basic.”

research in Europe by lowering the barriers for scientists to come here. He also got involved in the women in science issue, namely the lack of women in science, and started a science and society programme at EMBO in 1996 and 1997. In terms of his research career, Professor Gannon’s main research interest is in the expression and functional regulation of the estrogen receptor which is thought to play a major role in breast cancer and osteoporosis. His researches have helped to provide ‘leads’ towards novel treatments or therapeutic approaches to these and other cancers. After many successful years at EMBO, Prof Gannon began to think of new horizons, and an opportunity arose to come home and make his mark on a transformed Irish scene, from the one he left “with impeccable timing” in the bad old days of 1994. That opportunity was to take over as Director of SFI. “I always felt that I should make a last move, and I am extremely hooked into Ireland, some people visit it, but I would live it, and get the paper on a daily basis from the web, and listen to RTE News every morning on satellite,” said Prof Gannon. “I’d be at an extreme level of hooked from a distance for 13 or 14 years. The inevitability of bringing what I can do, into an Irish context was particularly attractive to me.”

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 34


The need to underpin what Ireland has achieved, as well as drive Irish science onto the next level, made the job of Director of SFI a very attractive one to Prof Gannon. “It makes me a little bit edgy that people get complacent, because there is a generation of scientists in Ireland who believe that it was always like this and that it can only get better. You forget the famines very quickly, quite rightly so too.” “I would see an even greater responsibility on the scientific community because a huge trust has been placed in them. They are told you are going to be absolutely important for the future of Ireland’s knowledge economy, you are no longer peripheral. What are you doing people. You are key.” “If you don’t deliver then Ireland’s got a problem, and because of that it puts the job in a context which for me is ‘meaty’ it is something that is really worthwhile doing, and doing well such that Ireland does get the best out of its investment”.


Support for excellence in research is a theme that Prof Gannon highlights time and again. The best people must be supported, in whatever area of science they work in. It is not up to SFI to ‘prescribe’ what areas, such people should be working in, he said.

“I think that our job (at SFI) is to judge the potential of the individual to deliver on what they say,” said Prof Gannon. “If they are doing to do something that is mediocre, boring, done already, then it’s not excellent.” The old classifications of ICT and biotechnology are breaking down, added Prof Gannon, with scientists working across the old disciplines now on a regular basis, in areas such as nanotechnology and biosensors, for example. “My philosophy is focus on the individuals, individuals will grow and expand and attract. Areas will then emerge from that, and having got those emerged, they will attract students in, and students will do their job.”


Prof Gannon is keen not to prescribe what the best people are doing, but he does point out that part of SFI’s portfolio is to support applied research. In this situation SFI does indeed prescribe what kind of research they want to support. For instance, Prof Gannon said, under SFI’s CSET (Centres for Science Engineering and Technology) programme, there are a number of areas prescribed as being important, and where industry and universities form partnerships. The CSET areas include systems biology, nanotechnology, protein work and gastrointestinal studies. However, these applied areas cannot exist without encouraging basic science, Prof Gannon said. Without providing support for basic science, he said, there is no seed crop for the future, people are not trained to do the ‘hard things’ and that is essential for people to then apply this training to the applied side. “The basic science of today is the applied of tomorrow, and there is no applied without basic,” commented Prof Gannon.


It is important how SFI, and the Irish research scene are perceived on the international stage, especially if Ireland is to attract in the best researchers. Prof Gannon believes that SFI is viewed very positively by the international scientific experts that have been brought in to judge on various SFI funding applications. “They are really are top class people who do this. That is just a fact, and people are surprised at how good the people are who come to do the judging,” said Prof Gannon.

These days it is not unusual to meet young researchers from the United States, for example, working in Ireland, something that was very rare not so long ago. These Americans are willing to come to Ireland, said Prof Gannon, because there is government support for science committed up to 2013, it is a nice place to live, there are good quality students here, and it is not hard to get the equipment that is required. Ireland is starting to attract in good overseas talent, and the pointers are good in this respect, but there is still not enough of these kinds of people here, Prof Gannon said. “We are still on the earlier part of the curve, and it’s looking as if it is going in the right direction, that’s true, but in order to achieve what is really needed we have to have more people, and more years of good funding.”

Parallel skills Prof Gannon said that one of the initiatives he is planning is to ‘humanise’ scientists, by providing more ‘human interest’ stories from the scientists that are funded by SFI. This is part of a wider effort to improve the ability of scientists to communicate. There are already scientists that do this very well, said Prof Gannon, but, it’s certainly true that Irish scientists don’t have a great tradition of communicating with non-scientists, or recognising what it is that they do that might be of interest to the public. Prof Gannon said that the SFI annual reports are being read internally by administrative managers, not scientists, to try and identify areas of public interest. This is the first step in what will be greater efforts to explain more about who SFI scientists are, as human beings, and what they do, and how they do it. There is also a bigger agenda on the way regarding science communication in Ireland. At the moment Prof Gannon, and his managers at SFI are looking at how science communication can be introduced as a parallel skill for postdoctoral researchers. The question under consideration right now is whether the science communication training for post-docs should be provided directly by SFI, or by the universities. “We have to broaden the individual such that they are able to handle the mixed life that they will have,” said Prof Gannon.

Aside from communication, there will be other parallel skills provided at post-doc level, including business, patents, ethics, lab management.


In terms of his vision of the role of SFI, Prof Gannon said that it should not just be a ‘funder’ but a body that helps to create an environment in which things happen. Ireland has made huge strides, but there is a long way to go to reaching our goals. “You won’t build the house of Irish knowledge economy if you don’t have a good foundation of knowledge, which means that very often when the payoff comes SFI will have become invisible underneath it. I think that’s why SFI was established. Otherwise Enterprise Ireland, and IDA can do the other things, and it’s essential that they are done and we are a component in that.” “One thing that we have to be fairly clear about is that we are on a curve, and we are early enough on the curve. We have to get more and more people doing excellent science, such that there is a collective impact, so that from the outside they will say that Ireland is a research-intense location, at the moment it’s not a research-intense location”. Prof Gannon highlighted the Netherlands and Switzerland as two countries, of not-too-different size to Ireland, that are research intense and have been for many years. This is due to the fact that they have been at a high level of funding for a long time. Ireland today, though it aims to move to a knowledge economy, supported by research, is below the European average, in terms of the percentage of GDP spent on research, at 1.6 per cent, against the European average of 3 per cent. Ireland is behind in Europe, and even more worryingly, Europe is way behind the USA, so where doest that leave us in global terms? “There was an analysis carried out to see where is Europe today, looking at its metrics, so much money spent, so many PhDs per head of population, so many publications, where is it today relative to the States? The outcome is that we are 23 years behind it.” This is why Prof Gannon says Ireland has no room for complacency and its people have to maintain the highest possible level of ambition to make progress. But, he believes that, though there is much work to be done, this can be achieved in time.

Irish scientists don’t have a great tradition of communicating with non-scientists, or recognising what it is that they do that might be of interest to the public. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 35


Petrified of Needles? Cheer up - there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

Fiona Dunlevy reports that a quick flash would be a lot easier to live with than a jab.


he moment arrives. You’re with your GP and you have a nagging feeling he’s going to mention the N word. And sure enough, as he says, “I think we’ll run some blood tests” with the nonchalance of those who don’t dread the Needle, you begin to think you’d rather live with whatever disease is causing your symptoms, nasty as they may be. If you’re a fully paid up member of the needle-phobic club, then kick back and imagine a future of blood tests minus the needles. And while you’re at it, imagine the same technique being sent to Mars to analyse rock composition or to probe the secrets of the Mona Lisa. Finding it hard to imagine all this? Allow me to introduce the Raman effect, a quirk of light that’s responsible for making all of the above a reality. Raman spectroscopy uses the “bouncing” properties of light when it’s shone onto a substance. Light occurs in different wavelengths — we see these as colours — or colours and usually they occur as a mix. Light of a single wavelength is called monochromatic light and can be produced in very high intensity by a laser. When photons of monochromatic light are shone onto a substance, most of the photons bounce off and are reflected in the exact same wavelength as the light from the laser; this is called Rayleigh scattering and for every 10 million photons of light shone onto your substance this will happen 9,999,999 times. Of course it’s Murphy’s law that the really interesting part — the Raman scattering — and this happens only once every 10 million times. These errant photons interact and exchange energy with the test substance and are reflected in a different wavelength than the light from the laser. Capture and analyse these photons making up the Raman scattering and you get

a spectrum unique to that particular substance — the chemical equivalent of a fingerprint. Unfortunately for beleaguered scientists everywhere, life (and science) is never that easy. Imagine being on a gameshow; to win the jackpot you have to find the one green jellybean hidden in a box of 9,999,999 red jellybeans and if that wasn’t hard enough you’re working against the clock with a grand total of 10-14 seconds to find it before all the jellybeans disappear along with your jackpot. This was the challenge facing Sir C V Raman in 1930 when he won the Nobel prize for his observations of Raman scattering. Until the last two decades, widespread application of Raman spectroscopy was limited by the instrumentation available but technology has finally caught up and has allowed researchers to start exploiting Raman spectroscopy for a truly phenomenal range of tasks. One application of Raman spectroscopy is blood testing without the needle — something that Ireland’s 200,000 diabetes sufferers will be glad to hear, given that they need to check their blood glucose levels several times a day. Imagine you’re back in the doctor’s surgery, and this time when

he suggests blood tests, you don’t break out in a cold sweat because all he’s only going to shine a light on your finger. This technology is still in the early stages and there are many problems to overcome, not least the fact that human skin and blood are composed of literally thousands of substances that all produce Raman spectra of their own, masking the one spectrum you’re looking for. It would be like a thousand people all signing on the dotted line and then trying to distinguish your own signature from all the others. The way around this is to compile a database of spectra from substances that you would expect to find in the skin and blood. Powerful software can then recognise and subtract these spectra until the jumble has been cleared up. and the spectrum of interest is the only one left. Scientists in MIT, Cambridge have successfully used Raman spectroscopy to measure glucose in the blood by shining light on the skin and their results correlated with standard glucose testing made via the more traditional needle. Eventually this technique could be used to measure any number of blood analytes, including cholesterol. Unfortunately needles are unlikely to be completely banished from the clinic but Raman spectroscopy gives a glimmer of hope that routine blood analysis could soon be performed without scaring the pants off a significant proportion of the population! SPIN

When light from a laser is shone onto a sample, most of the light is reflected in exactly the same wavelength as the light from the laser (blue arrows). This is called Raleigh scattering. Some of the photons interact with the sample and are reflected at a different wavelength (red arrows). This is called Raman scattering and only happens once in every 10 million photons of light shone onto the sample.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 36

Other applicatiOns Of raman spectrOscOpy

cancer detection and diagnosis

Raman spectrum for normal (blue) and cancerous (red) tissue sections. Courtesy of Dr Nicholas Magee.

Several groups are trying to develop Raman spectroscopy as a diagnostic tool for cancer. Dr Nicholas Magee is part of the Clinical Centre for Raman spectroscopy in Queen’s University Belfast and is using Raman to diagnose lung cancer. He uses tissue slices from patients undergoing lung surgery and can already differentiate between normal and cancerous tissue. “We have also shown that Raman microscopy can predict cancer recurrence within 1 year of surgery with an accuracy of 74 per cent,” explained Magee, and, “we are currently testing a Raman miniprobe (a fibreoptic cable with an outer diameter of 2mm) that could be inserted into the patient’s lungs to obtain Raman spectra from tumours within the airways. This could potentially lead to diagnostic and prognostic information instantaneously without the need for a biopsy.”

forensics and chemistry

Raman spectra of three common illicit narcotics. These take only a couple of seconds to acquire and can be matched against databases of spectra for almost instant identification.

Dr. Alan G. Ryder, a senior lecturer in Chemistry at NUI Galway, uses Raman for the identification and quantification of a wide range of materials from narcotics and explosives, to pharmaceutical drugs, and industrial processes. “Currently it can take several hours (or more) to identify an illegal drug and measure the amount present in a seizure using standard laboratory methods. Raman spectroscopy can tell the difference in seconds because the drugs have completely different spectra.” Raman is not currently used by the Gardai for forensic analysis, but small compact portable systems are now becoming available which can be used for the identification of hazardous, illegal, or dangerous substances in the near future. The team in Galway has also developed new software (Analyze-IQ) which will automate and improve the identification process using advanced machine learning methods (the software learns to recognise samples). Although Raman can be used for analysis of blood analytes through the skin, Ryder explained that blood levels of narcotics are too low to be detected reliably by Raman.

Fiona Dunlevy is a PhD student at Queen’s in Belfast, where she is part of the Respiratory Research Group.


Involved in science?

Register your interest with the Irish Science Open Forum, an independent, inclusive body. ISOF is run by a Council representing the Irish science community. ISOF is working on a programme for a big science event next year, and by registering you can be kept up to date with developments. To register, simply email, including ISOF register in your message. ISOF has an Executive Council, a Council, and a Register of people with an active interest in science. The Irish Science Open Forum will be officially launched on the 15th October 2007 at the RDS. Executive Council

Catriona Boyle, Teagasc — Shiela Donegan, CALMAST —Margaret Franklin, Athlone Institute of Technology Arvil Kennan, TCD Contract Researchers Association — Tom Kennedy, editor Science Spin — Dr Peadar McArdle, Director GSI Jenny Melia, Framework 7 National Contact — Paul Nugent, Institute of Physics — Aoife O’Mahony, STEPS Dr Claire Mulhall, Science Executive RDS — Prof Ciaran Regan Vice Principal, Research and Innovation UCD. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 37

ISOF Irish Science Open Forum


Irish Science Open Forum, ISOF, is an independent body open to all who work in or have a strong interest in science. ISOF is an inclusive, rather than exclusive body, and instead of competing or displacing any other organisations, its aim is to strengthen the position of all. While there are many excellent initiatives in promoting awareness of science, and bodies fostering research, every organisation has its own specific agenda and focus. The narrow focus can be effective, but it means that science in Ireland is fragmented. ISOF, as an independent body is a platform for the entire scientific community.


ISOF is working on a programme for a big science event at a high profile venue in November 2008. A series of presentations representing the best in Irish science will be backed by an industry R&D exhibition, and a number of ISOF events will be held throughout the country.


The ISOF big science event will draw attention to the high quality of research now being conducted in Ireland across a number of fields. Some of Ireland’s leading scientists will be presenting their work to the public for the first time ever at the ISOF event. The programme will be attractive both to working professionals and the general public, and the event will be big enough to attract strong media attention from home and abroad.


There has been a significant rise in the number of people engaged in research, big investments have been made in resources, and one of the aims of ISOF is to celebrate this scientific renaissance.


By celebrating science at home, ISOF will help Irish researchers to make a greater impact abroad. ISOF is to establish links to organisations with similar aims both within the European Research Zone and further afield. ISOF is also going to help Irish researchers to network across borders and disciplines.


The Irish Science Open Forum is an independent body run by an Executive Council representing a variety of institutions and interests. A Council is being formed to support the work of the Executive, and membership of this is open to all scientists, researchers, and educators who want to become involved in ISOF.


Apart from the Executive and the Council, a register has been started for all those who have an interest in science. Registration is open to all, simply email a message to with the words ISOF register. All those on the register will receive an occasional email alert about ISOF activities.


News and a downloadable pdf newsletter will be posted on the Science Spin website — www. — and there are plans to launch a dedicated ISOF website. This will be a content rich resource incorporating a directory to Irish research.

LAUNCH 15th Oct 07

The Irish Science Open Forum is being officially launched at the RDS on Monday 15th October 2007. At this meeting the programme for 2008 will be presented, and there will be an open discussion with the Council. Admission to the launch at 7pm will be by invitation only, and places may be limited.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 38



An open independent forum

Executive Council Dr Peadar McArdle, Director of GSI


Paul Nugent, Institute of Physics Margaret Franklin, Athlone Institute of Technology.


Aoife O’Mahony, STEPS Avril Kennan, TCD Contract Researchers Association Shiela Donegan, CALMAST

Bridging gaps


Adding value to existing events

Prof Ciaran Regan, Vice Principal, Research & Innovation UCD


Catriona Boyle, Teagasc

Opening the door to industry

Jenny Melia, Framework 7 National Contact


Dr Claire Mulhall, Science Executive, RDS Tom Kennedy, Science Spin

Fostering networking within the scientific community

Showing that Ireland takes science seriously


Winning public confidence in science

ISOF ISOF CONTACT Tom Kennedy Science Spin 5 Serpentine Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.

Gaining media attention


Links to Irish researchers abroad


Controlled by scientists

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 39




ome years ago I was asked to focus my lens on the various items washed up on the shore. Seashells, rounded stones, and little fishes darting around in little pools waiting for the tide to return. I don’t think anybody is ever likely to give me a commission like that again, at least, not unless my brief is to watch out for the rubbish. Bringing the kids to dig in the sand is not quite the same as it was, and as Richard Girling reports in his book, Sea Change, plastic now makes up more than half the litter on beaches. Quoting Marine Conservation Society figures, Girling tells us to expect 117 pieces of plastic for every 100 metres of UK shoreline. As the author comments, the Conservation Society has been so meticulous in classifying this rubbish that “you’d think it was cataloguing a Saxon hoard.” Cigarette lighters come in at 0.4 per cent, fast-food containers are in there at 1 per cent, cotton bud sticks make up 5.6 per cent, and, yes, the list does contain the sort of things that you would rather not step on, even in shoes.

Richard Girling writes about the British coast, but even so, compared to an average of 2,256 items per km in England, Northern Ireland is strewn with 1,877 bits and pieces of junk for every kilometre of coast. The rest of Ireland is not much different, and rubbish floats. No one lives on the Saltee Islands, but the gannets there build part plastic nests, often with fatal results as their feet become completely entangled. Richard Girling, is a feature writer with the Sunday Times, and while he covers a range of pessimistic topics and gloomy issues relating to coastal management, it is a book for British, rather than British Isles readers. Ireland is not covered at all, but many of the subjects that Girling deals with do have some relevance to Ireland. For example, we learn that the demand for sand and gravel is now so high that huge dredgers are operating offshore creating furrows in the seabed. Powerful suction pumps can extract 5,000 tonnes of sand and gravel in three hours, and as Girling observes, when holes are made, common sense suggests that they must fill in again.


Tom Kennedy Sea Change, Britain’s coastal catastrophe, Richard Girling, Eden Project Books, London. Hardback, hardback £16.99.

St Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview

Margaret Franklin and Tom Kennedy explain why we live in a colourful world. The chemistry, the physics, and colour in art. Why did so many artists get it wrong about primary colours, and why were the Irish banned from wearing yellow? All the answers are in this beautifully illustrated book, which includes a set of charts to test your sight. Paperback €15. (112pp) ISBN 0 90600210 9


Where does the fill come from? Girling, pointing to coastal erosion, writes that no one wants to answer that question because the short term profits from extraction are so high. In 2002 the 40 to 60 pence a tonne Crown tax on sand and gravel landed in Norfolk amounted to £5.2 million. However, compared to the cost of coastal erosion, this is just a drop in the bucket. For Irish readers, Richard Girling’s alarmist accounts of what’s going on in places such as Southend and Weybourne might seem foreign, yet familiar in that they could almost be about Wexford or Drogheda. Problems in managing the coastline are not exclusive to the UK. Ireland, after all, has a long, indented coast, and a much larger marine territory. As Ireland continues to go through a phase of unusually rapid development that coastline is coming under increasing pressure, and, as a read through this book should remind us, there is no need for us to continue the old tradition of repeating British mistakes.

In a facsimile reprinting of the original 1980 edition, Hugh Oram describes how the tea and coffee importing family firm developed into a national institution. At Bewley’s where everyone was welcomed as equals, the sticky cakes were a treat and the company was always enjoyable. Paperback €12. (112pp) ISBN 0 90600209 5

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) Hardback: ISBN 0 906002 11 7

Order direct from the publisher and price includes free mailing. Albertine Kennedy Publishing, 5 Serpentine Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 SCIENCE SPIN Issue 24 Page 40





Spin 24  

Science, Irish science, sunspots