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ISSUE 36 Sept 09 €3 including VAT £2 NI and UK




es s s e r d d il a n are a em ditio d an ine e b e l w n e o h T is IVE h t L in

Climate Change Western waves • Fossil pit • nanopacking k LIVE LINK



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Stormy weather off County Louth. Tom Kennedy, Source Archives.

Publisher Duke Kennedy Sweetman Ltd 5 Serpentine Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. Email: Editors Tom Kennedy Seán Duke Business Development Manager Alan Doherty Design and Production Albertine Kennedy Publishing Cloonlara, Swinford, Co Mayo Proofing and web diary Marie-Claire Cleary Picture research Source Photographic Archive Printing Turner Group, Longford Contributors in this issue: MarieCatherine Mousseau, Anna Nolan.

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.



The Messel Pit

Western waves

Séan Duke reports that the west coast has been hit by gigantic waves.


Nanopackaged for improved delivery

Anna Nolan writes about the impact of nanotechnology on medical care.

Hen harriers


Tom Kennedy describes how a fossil filled crater almost became a dump.


25 28

No need to kill

Seán Duke reports on a better way to conduct toxicology tests.


Brown trout and a natural history

Big birds of prey are taking up residence in Ireland’s forests.


A look at some recent books.

Measuring quakes Seán Duke recalls the father of seismology .


Climate change, looking beyond skepticism

Marie-Catherine Mousseau looks at what might be in store for Ireland.


Geological Survey of Ireland Suirbhéireacht Gheolaíochia Éireann k LIVE LINK

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 1




Astro photos

ENtrIES are being invited for an Eye on the Sky astronomical photo competition. Open to all, the competition, organised by the DCU School of Physical Sciences and National Centre for Plasma Science, has an end of September deadline. As long as photographs have an astronomical theme they are eligible for entry, and some of the subjects being suggested are Jupiter, and falling stars which should be on view during the first half of August. All the details about prizes and how to enter are on the DCU web site:

Ready to depart, (left-right), NUI Galway President James J. Browne; Kieran Hanley, Barna, Co. Galway; Seán ó hIarnain, Inis Mór, Co. Galway; James Mannion, Tuam, Co. Galway; Siobhán Kennedy, Rahoon, Galway; and Prof Padraic O’Donoghue, Dean, College of Engineering and Informatics, NUI Galway. In front are Michael Jordan, Charlestown, Co. Mayo and Mark Gantly, Barna, Co. Galway. In July nine final year engineering students from NUI Galway set off for Ethiopia where they are now applying their skills and knowledge by working on housing and literacy projects. At Bahir Dar, in the north of Ethiopia, the students spend two months on an ongoing programme run by the Daughters of Charity to improve local conditions. NUIG President, Dr James J Browne, in praising the students, said that volunteering had become part of university life.

Looking into space

Launched in May, the Herschel space telescope was due to settle into its orbit 100 days later. The orbit carries the 3.5 metre diameter telescope around a virtual point 1.5 million km distant from Earth, and away from the Sun. One and a half times larger than Hubble, the telescope can gather in 20 times more light than previous infrared instruments, and it can detect across a wider range of wavelengths. For the next three years Herschel will be sending data from deep space back to Earth, but in year four, the helium required for the cryostat system will run out. Above, the telescope mirror being prepared for launch. Above right: the Spiral Galaxy M51 as viewed by Herschel in the far infrared. Right: the resolution with Herschel is a big improvement compared to the best possible until now.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 2


UPFRONT Old brain

The calcite filled braincase, above, enabled scientists to create a 3D reconstruction.

Gene switch

WE carry around a lot of genetic baggage, and it appears that some DNA is held back by being kept in reserve until needed. Dr Ian Woods, a researcher at the University of Leeds, said that the ability to turn genes on or off is likely to have had a big influence on evolution. Dr Woods is the lead researcher in a project to identify gene control processes, and in June his group announced that a protein, known as REST, plays a key role in determining what traits are expressed. A gene provides the instructions, but as the researchers found, REST controls

Research funds

DURING the first two years of the European Framework 7 programme, Irish researchers managed to secure €107 million in support for collaborative projects. Overall, the Framework 7 programme, which started in 2007

MOST of what we know about life long ago comes from the shells, bones and other hard parts that survived long enough to become fossilised. However, a team of French and US scientists has succeeded in modelling the fossilised remains of a 300 million year old brain. The researchers, working at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility had been examining the skull of an iniopterygian fish, which was unusual in that it had not been squashed. Most fossils of that age have been pressed flat or distorted, but this one had maintained its threedimensional shape. The fish, which had measured about 50 cm in length was related to sharks and ratfish, and it is thought to have lived in shallow muddy waters by the sea. and modifies how the instructions are implemented. “We’ve found that it works by binding to specific genetric sequences and repressing or enhancing the expression of genes associated with these sequences,” said Dr Wood. Working with colleagues in Singapore, the Leeds researchers examined how a a whole range of gene expressions in different species were modified by REST. The study confirmed some of the ideas that scientists, including Darwin, had about evolutionary change, but, until now, said Dr Wood, no one had been able to come up with the evidence on how gene expression was being modified. and runs until 2013, has a budget of €50 billion. According to Dr Imelda Lambkin, director of the Framework 7 Irish support network, the current level of success suggests that Ireland will have secured €600 million in supports for R&D by 2013. Of the funds secured to date, more than half have gone into educational institutions. The chart, above, gives a break down of where the funds are going.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 3

The braincase was filled with crystalline calcite, and the researchers decided to examine this material using X-ray holotomography. The results came as a surprise, for it appeared that the brain shape had been preserved. A 3D reconstruction revealed a cerebellum, optic lobes and other structures. According to the researchers, the only part they could not make out was the forebrain, perhaps because it had been too thin to become mineralised. One of the researchers, Alan Pradel, postulated that bacteria, covering the brain before decay, had induced mineralisation. The surface is higher in calcium carbonate, but deeper down into the brain, there is calcium phosphate, and Alan Pradel believes this would be due to lower oxygen and a higher concentration of fatty acids.

Life under ice

MICROBES, living more than three kilometres under ice, have been successfully brought to the surface and incubated in the lab. Dr Jennifer Loveland-Curtze and her colleagues from Pennsylvania State University, managed to ‘wake’ the micro-organism up and it has since reproduced into a purple-brown coloured colony. As featured in Science Spin 32, microbes from the depths are extremely slow to grow and replicate, so capturing and culturing them is quite a challenge. In this case, a bacterium, which the researchers have named, Herminilmonas glaciei, was first kept at 2°C for seven months, and then at 5ºC for another four and a half months. At that stage there was enough activity for a small colony to form. H glaciei is 10 to 50 times smaller than the more familiar E coli, and the researchers think that this helped it survive in such a hostile environment. In extremely cold conditions, said Dr Loveland-Curtze, cells could lie dormant for millions of years, enabling them to survive under high pressure with little oxygen, few nutrients, and temperatures as low as minus 56ºC. As Dr Loveland-Curtze remarked, these micro-microbes may provide an insight into what sort of life forms could survive elsewhere in the solar system.


TWO Dublin students, Patrick Crowley and Barry Hogan, are off to the Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley thanks to the Gogarty Scholarship. The Scholarship, sponsored by Dublin businessman, Martin Keane, and named after the larger-than-life physician and writer, Oliver St John Gogarty, was established in 2008 to enabe young Irish students to become involved in the International Space Univerity’s MSc programme. After working as an electrician for five years, Patrick Crowley went on to receive his Batchelor of Technology degree from DIT Kevin Street. Barry Hogan is an engineering PhD student at UCD and his special interest is in the physiological effects of low gravity, one of the great challenges facing space travellers.

Gene therapy

CUTTING out and pasting in genes may appear easy in theory, but in practice the techniques in current use pose some problems. The viral vectors used to deliver and insert genes can produce undesirable sideeffects, including inflammation and cancer. To make gene therapy more effective, a safer approach is needed, and researchers at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium working with colleagues at the Max Delbrück Centre in Berlin, believe that they have developed this. Viral vectors were used because viruses were well known for their ability to insert short lengths of invasive genetic material into the host’s DNA. However this is not the only way for genes to move around. Genes, in the form of what are known as transposons, can move from one position to another on a chromosome. The researchers focused on the transposon cut-and-paste mechanism, and recently they announced that they had succeeded in applying this to the transfer of genes to a specific target. One of the researchers, Marinee Chuah, said that “we show for the first time that it is now possible to efficiently deliver genes into stem cells, particularly those of the immune system, using non-viral delivery.”

Last supper

Florents Rivals, one of the researchers BY examining the teeth of animal explained, scrape marks on the teeth remains in caves, scientists have of these animals reveal what sort been able to determine that our Homo of vegetation they had been eating. heidelbergensis ancestors were in The hard silica in plants marks teeth, residence long enough for the seasons and according to the scientists, the to change. markings show distinct seasonal A team of scientists from differences. the Catalan Institute of Human If the cave dwellers had been Palaeoecology have been studying passing through, the markings on teeth the teeth of herbivors found in a cave would all be the same, but in fact, what at Arago in France. These animals, they found was a lot of variation. This including the wild horse and reindeer, suggests that the cave continued to be would have been captured and occupied over a long period of time. eaten by the cave inhabitants. As Above, the cave at Arago, ringed in red, and below, examining the scratches on teeth.

Healing wounds

TREATING wounds can be a lot more effective when the materials used are accepted by the body as natural. Synthetic polymers, in the form of hydrogels, have been found effective because they resemble human tissues. At Athlone Institute of Technology, graduate research student, Tommy Smith, has been looking at how hydrogel performance could be improved. As he found, single phase hydrogels are limited because they cannot adapt to changing demands, so his proposal is to make two-phase hydrogels. Each phase can have different properties. One of the significant advantages is that a temperature sensitive drug delivery system could be incorporated into one of these phases. In July, Tommy Smith’s presentation on this research won the AIT Poster Award. The research student has also published a number of papers on smart polymeric materials for biomedical applications.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 4

Hawthorn flowering on the Burren. Photo: Source Liberary


Restoring flow

THE tough outer coat of fungus spores survive long after all traces of their parents have disappeared. Botanists often reconstruct the past from pollen coats, which also survive intact for thousands of years, but less attention has been paid to fungal spores. Dr Ingo Feeser and Prof Michael O’Connell from NUI Galway have been collecting funal spores from the Burren, and from these they have been able to trace the history of upland sheep and cattle grazing in that area. The scientists focused on spores produced by fungi that grow on cattle and sheep dung. As Prof O’Connell explained: “spores from fungi that grow on dung of cattle and sheep are really useful for two reasons; they preserve well, and, since they are produced at ground level, they stay put. That means when we find them as fossils, we can be sure that grazers were present at the sampling site all those years ago. Together with fossil pollen, they help us distinguish between the impact of factors such as climate change and upland grazing on species composition and biodiversity.” By comparing their results to the plant pollen records, the scientists were able to picture how the present landscape changed. Pollen shows that pinewoods once grew extensively on the exposed north-western hills of the Burren. Then, about 500 BC an increase in Iron Age farming led to the loss of dominance of these trees. According to the scientists, the present Alpine Arctic flora, survived because favourable conditions persisted in the open, but diminished, pinewoods. “Present-day pinewoods on limestone soils in Scandinavia, with a ground flora that includes many typical Burren species, are the closest analogy to these former pinewoods,” said Prof O’Connell. Since the arrival of farmers about 6,000 years ago, there has been a dynamic relationship between humans and the landscape. As Prof O’Connell explained, hazel scrub in inland areas advanced back onto grassland in what has been described as the ‘Late Iron Age Lull’, when farming declined about 300 AD. Much later, in the eighteenth century, with rising population, the land came under pressure, and the Burren became so bare that people began to use the woody stems of Mountain Avens instead of wood. In more recent years, with farming in decline, the hazel is making a come-back, hiding the archaeological remains, and reducing the habitat available for the world famous Burren flora. The typical image of the Burren, as an open rocky landsape, said Prof O”Connell is not really true, and he points to evidence showing that that there once had been a covering of soil. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal in eroded soils recovered from deep fissures in the lunar landscape indicates that there has been a substantial loss of surface soil. This loss is thought to have been accelerated as the megalith tomb builders cleared the land, and according to the scientists, erosion continued to be a feature of the Burren until well into medieval times.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 5




Every year about a thousand people in Ireland have to have limbs amputated because their blood supply has become blocked. The build up of materials in blood vessels is a major medical problem, and apart from limb loss, thousands of people around the world end up on dialysis because the supply to the kidneys has become restricted. If blockages could be cleared, these problems would not arise, but when Dr Bruce Murphy who was working at the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science, NUI Galway, looked at the treatments currently available, he found that they were not satisfactory. The devices, inserted into blood vessels to clear blockages, were likely to cause damage, so he developed a safer alternative with retractable micro-blades. While this device is being inserted, the blades are concealed, and on reaching the blockage, a small balloon is inflated, causing the sharp cutting edges to be exposed.These blades cut through the plaque, composed of cholesterol, calcium and other materials, and when cleared, they are retracted. With a business partner, Tim McSweeney, Dr Murphy is setting up a manufacturing company in Galway to produce these devices for the world market. In June, Dr Murphy was presented with a ‘One to Watch’ award by Enterprise Ireland.



WHEN one of the trees in Trinity was cut down, our sharp-eyed observer spotted something peculiar about the rings. The outer seven were one shade, and the next twelve were another colour. The inner fourteeen rings were yet another colour, so what was going on? Counting back the rings brings us to 2002 and 1990, so what changed then?


Oddly enough, when the sycamore by the Nassau Street entrance was cut down a few weeks ago, all the rings seem to have been of a uniform colour. A look at another recently felled tree, a tall Leylandii cypress in Sandymount, revealed a fairly marked change between the inner and outer rings. Any explanations? Do let us know. Pictured here is the Leylandii from Sandymount.


Website: Email:

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 6

LASERS revolutionised our use of light, and scientists at the University of Nottingham suggest that a similar approach to amplification could do the same for sound. Working with colleagues in the Ukraine, the researchers have produced the sonic equivalent of the laser. The device, which they have named a Saser, sends sound waves though a tiny lattice made up from gallium arsenide and aluminium arsenide. Super-thin sheets of these materials are just a few atoms in thickness. As in a light laser, stimulation causes the sound waves to multiply. According to the researchers, who have been awarded a substantial grant to cover development over the next four years, the Saser can emit sound waves in the extremely intense terahertz range. A number of possible applications are being looked at, including scanning for nano scale defects and conversion into electromagnetic waves for medical imaging. Flying fox bat fitted with a transmitter. Photo: Dr Jonathan Epstein.

Big bats

THE flying fox, with a wingspan of almost 1.5 metres, is the largest of the world’s bats. The bat, Pteropus vampyrus, is a fruit eater, with a range extending over a vast area stretching from Burma to the Phillippines. However, in spite of its extensive range, scientists believe that the population in Peninsular Malaysia is under severe threat. According to Dr Jonathan Epstein, who works with the Wildlife Trust, fruit bats there could be hunted down into extinction. Flying bats are hunted for food and just for sport, and although this is officially regulated, many hunters, such as farmers who often regard them as pests, are not going to go to the bother of obtaining a licence.

Galaxy Zoo

THE Milky Way is just one among an enormous number of galaxies. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey alone has recorded over a quarter of a million galaxies, each consisting of a massive number of stars. These galaxies exist in a variety of forms, perhaps the best known being the spiral, first described in the 19th century by the Irish astronomer, William Parsons. In his day making out the spiral form was a major achievement, but telescopes now are able to probe much deeper into space, and with so many galaxies being recorded, astronomers have a hard time trying to classify

About 22,000 flying bats are killed legally, and as Dr Epstein and his group argue, this is already putting the population under strain. A study of roosting sites suggests that there are not more than 500,000 flying bats in Peninsular Malaysia, and, assuming that the kill figures are considerably higher than those taken under licence, the population could be pushed into a collapse. Without protection, said Dr Epstein, all the fruit bats in that region could be gone within the next six to 81 years. Apart from highlighting the threat, the group’s study cast new light on how the bats live. Bats were fitted with transmitters, and tracking revealed that they can travel up to 60 km a night in search of food. In moving from one roost to another they may go even further, sometimes hundreds of km across borders into Indonesia and Thailand, where they have some protection as hunting there is banned. One of the consequences is that population collapse would leave tropical trees without some of their most important pollinators. Fruit bats occupy a key position in maintaining tropical forests as seed dispersers and pollinators. them into types. As Kevin Schawinski from Oxford University, one of the astronomers involved in the study of galaxies, observed, recording can be automated, but humans are still better than computers in detecting differences in form. This inspired the scientists working with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to come up with the idea of recruiting help from the public in classifying the bewildering collection of galactic images. The “Galaxy Zoo’ project, launched two years ago, has since involved the participation of 230,000 volunteers, and more have been invited to join. Volunteers start off by going through a short tutorial in which they

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UPFRONT Schizophrenia

ALTHOUGH inheritance was recognised as one of the factors involved in schizophrenia, researchers have been surprised by a recent finding that relatively common genetic variations are associated with an increased risk of developing the disorder. According to Dr Aiden Corvin, head of the Psychosis Research Group at TCD, an understanding of the underlying biology remains elusive, but knowing that people with schizophrenia have a higher number of structural variations in a small segment of their genome means that possible mechanisms can be investigated. The study, revealing this finding, was undertaken by researchers from 11 different institutes. More than 3,300 individuals with schizophrenia and a greater number without the disorder, were screened. Of great significance was the finding that the same genetic variations were common to all those with schizophrenia no matter where they came from. Another significant, and unexpected finding, was that the same genetic variants occur in individuals with bipolar disorders. Until this finding, it was generally thought that the two disorders occur for different reasons. While this represents an advance in understanding how the diseases may develop, the researchers involved in the study point out that not enough is yet known about these genetic variants to make predictions on how they might, or might not translate into a disorder. are asked to describe the shape of different galaxy images. In describing features, observers can discover a lot more about these galaxies. For example, one group of volunteers noticed that some images were more compact than others, and had a distinctive green appearance. Two hundred and fifty of these were then identified, and it it turned out that these compact galaxies were producing new stars at an unusually rapid rate. Through open collaboration ten of these volunteers now share credit for making a significant discovery. To join up as a volounteer log onto




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Go on line for the Science Spin diary of events and science community notice board SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 8



Celebrating creativity and innovation

Tyndall National Institute’s Science Snaps photography competition for secondary school students launches in early September. The theme for the competition is the Science Week 2009 theme, Celebrating Creativity and Innovation. The competition challenges students to illustrate the science, engineering and technology around them in a creative way. Great prizes are up for grabs including laptops and digital cameras…not to mention the chance to have your photo published in the press and displayed on public buses during Science Week! For entry details see


email or call 021 4904181. Closing date for receipt of entries is Friday October 16th 2009.


SINGLE celled organisms, known as the Archaea, existed long before bacteria and other micro-organisms, and they evolved at a time when conditions on Earth were extremely hostile to life. The Archaea are still very much with us, employing their ancient biochemical tricks to thrive under extreme conditions. Many Archaeans have the ability to sustain themselves by combining carbon dioxide with hydrogen to make methane gas. Chemically, this is difficult to do, but the Archaeans manage the reduction using a catalyst, known as deazaflavin. Until now it was thought that deazaflavin only occurs in the Archaea, but recent research reveals that the catalyst was retained and redeployed in eukaryote micro-organisms that evolved much later. However, instead of serving as a co-factor in producing methane from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, the catalyst was given a new job.

A research group, headed by Prof Thomas Carell at the University of Munich, has found that deazaflavin occurs more widely in nature than had been assumed. In a way this should not come as too great a surprise, for nature has always been reluctant to disgard chemical pathways that may well have taken millions of years to evolve. In evolutionary terms the eukaryote cells are way ahead of the Archaea, but, as the researchers found, deazaflavin still plays an essential role. However, its function, helping to repair DNA damaged by exposure to UV light, is far removed from the original task in helping to make methane. Exposure to sunlight can cause a lot of damage to DNA, and without us being aware of it, repairs to prevent harmful mutations are being made all the time. Several enzymes are involved in this highly complex process, and they in turn need another cofactor, F0/ F420, which turns out to be none other than deazalflavin.

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UV to zap disease

FITTING ultra violet lamps into hospital wards and waiting rooms could cut down on the spread of disease. This relatively low-cost approach has been suggested as a means of controlling tuberculosis by Dr Rod Escombe, an expert in tropical diseases with the Wellcome Trust Centre. Opening windows, he said, is a good preventative measure, but where people are confined, one cough can cause infection to spread. Hanging a shielded UV light from the ceiling, he said, with a fan to keep the air moving, would reduce the risk of transmission. Although Dr Escombe was mainly concerned about finding a low cost means of controlling the spread of TB in developing countries, this is an approach that could be of benefit wherever people at risk congregate. According to a report in PLoS Medicine, tests at a hospital in Lima, Peru, gave excellent preventative results, and plans are being made to install UV lights in the chest clinic of St Mary’s in London.


The female receptacle

The 1.8 mm long freshwater crustacean, Eucypris virens. Photo: R Matzke-Karasz.

Giant sperm

IN humans those tiny little swimming sperms complete with waving tails are just 50 micons long. Tiny sperm is the norm across the animal kingdom, but among the micro-crustaceans there are some exceptions. Mussle shrimp Ostracods are small aquatic crustaceans, and they can produce one cm long sperm, ten times the length of the parent. No one knows why these animals produce giant sperm, but studies of the fossil record show that ostracods have been doing this for the past 100 million years. Renate Matzke-Karasz from the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, has been leading a study of fossils in Londonâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Natural History Museum, and he observed that producing giant sperm must have had some advantage, but whatever it was, it came at a high price for both

genders. A lot of energy went into producing sperm, and the females had to be equipped to provide the accomodation. The study was made possible by remarkable preservation of soft body parts in Cretaceous fossils from the Setanta formation in Brazil. Through collaboration with scientists at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility at Grenoble, non-invasive imaging techniques were used to reveal the inner parts of the Harbinia micropapillosa fossils. Paul Tafforeau, a palaeontologist with the Grenoble facility, explained that this technique is a bit like the computer tomography, CT, scans used in medicine, but because the synchrotron generated x-rays are much more powerful, the sensitivity is a thousand times higher. By using this technique it is possible to record interior details in three dimensions at a microscopic scale.

Synchrotron holotomography image showing longitgudinal section through a 100 million year old fossil. Left arrow shows inner oesophagus, and right is receptacle for storing sperm.

Cretaceous fossil viewed by electron microscope. Natural History Museum. One of the remarkable finds was the discovery of inflated receptacles in two of the fossils, showing that the female had recently mated. â&#x20AC;&#x153;Results achieved so far show that this technique will surely lead to many important discoveries from fossils,â&#x20AC;? he remarked. An examination of the images revealed that the reproductive apparatus of these fossil ostracods has remained much the same over millions of years. Why the crustaceans persisted in this apparent waste of energy for such a long period is, as yet, a question that no one can answer. A bundle of giant sperm from Eucypris virens. Scanning microscope image: R Matzke-Karasz.

Powerful waves crashing against Duvillaun More Island off Belmullet. Tom Kennedy, Source Archive.



alway Bay is known the world over for its tranquil sunsets and natural beauty. But, there is a darker side to its nature. This is also a place that has been shaped by repeated storms, some deadly, ice movements, and the occasional tsunami wave into what they are today. Such natural powers have carved the coastline, and occasionally, taken human life. The forces that crash onto Ireland’s western coastline are formidable, and sometimes frightening. For example, in 1755, the Great Lisbon Earthquake triggered a tsunami that rushed northward and slammed into Galway Bay. Reports indicate that the wave swept up the bay, entered the city, damaged the Spanish Arch, and drowned many citizens. The west coast also was hit hard in 1839, when one of the biggest storms Europe has ever known came in off the sea and slammed into the coastline.


Along the coastal cliffs of Co Clare and the Aran Islands deposits of pebbles and boulders lie perched 50 metres above sealevel. What natural power would be capable of lifting such deposits 164 feet or so above sea level, and does it threaten people living on the west coast? Geologists are seeking answers to these questions, reports Seán Duke.

This storm was referred to at the time as ‘the night of the big wind’ – a description that greatly understated the event. The Aran Islands exists “in a marine environment, which is totally unprotected from the most extreme sea states encountered in the North Atlantic,” according to Professor Mike Williams, Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at NUI Galway. “Spectacular ‘megaclast’ accumulations are found along the tops of vertical cliffs on these islands.”

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The most amazing thing, according to Professor Williams, is that clasts (a clast is a rock composed of broken pieces of older rocks) as heavy as 2.9 tonnes have been found on the Aran Islands, at 50 metres, or 164 feet, above sea level. If we are to draw a rough analogy in terms of the weight and heights involved here it means that some force of nature was powerful enough to lift a herd of African Bull elephants up onto the roof of Croke Park. The orientation of the clasts on Aran is consistent with the prevailing storm wind direction for the area. That means whatever did this lifting came in from the Atlantic. The clasts are constantly being eroded due to the cliff erosion on Aran. This means that the clasts visible today were probably deposited in the last few centuries. For if they were deposited, say 1,000 years ago, it is likely they would have been eroded away by now.

Survey models reveal the hidden depths, where sediments at the bottom of Galway Bay are less than 10,000 years old. Earthquakes, tsunamis, great storms and climate change have given the Bay the shape it has today.


There is no record of a tsunami hitting the west coast of Ireland in the past few centuries, with the exception of the wave that hit in 1755. This implies, Prof Williams has stated, that these deposits are due to extreme wave conditions, and act as a record of these conditions going back about a century and a half. These are not the same as tsunamis. The megaclasts on Aran, said Prof Williams, act as a perfect natural laboratory in which to study the origins of deposits left way above sealevel, and whether these were left there as a result of repeated major storms, or tsunamis. The study of these deposits can help determine the frequency of storm and tsunami events that hit the west coast in the past, and could also help to determine the rates of coastal erosion that have been occurring. The NUI Galway geologist has pointed out that wave heights in the North Atlantic can reach a phenomenal height of 20 metres (65 feet) or even more. This figure is remarkable given that scientists estimate that the 2004 tsunami reached heights of 15 to 30 metres. Clearly, the storm waves in the North Atlantic can be very powerful and deadly indeed.

“It means that some force of nature was powerful enough to lift a herd of African Bull elephants up onto the roof of Croke Park”

Evidence of a tsumani on by the Aran cliffs. The large non-tsunami waves occur more frequently than the tsunamis and Prof Williams thus believes that they are more likely to have caused clast uplift along the west coast.


The Irish research vessel, the Celtic Explorer, has, in recent years, been helping to shed light on some extreme weather conditions along the west coast in the past.

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The vessel has taken 5-metre ‘cores’ through sediments that lie at the bottom of Galway Bay. These samples, when retrieved and analysed, were shown to contain the shells of creatures that were known to have evolved only in the last 10,000 years. That meant that the deposits were less than 10,000 years old, and were laid down after the last Ice Age. The cores contained sediments that are very fine grained, but then there are also layers of coarse shell material and pebbles. Prof Williams believes that the coarse shells and pebbles were deposited during very strong storms, or even perhaps tsunamis, such as the one that hit Galway in 1755. There may have been other tsunamis to hit Ireland since then. For example, in 1854 the historical record describes a big wave hitting into Kilmore Quay harbour, Co Wexford. An eyewitness to that event reported that before the wave hit, all the water around the harbour rushed out to sea. This is the classic ‘fingerprint’ of a tsunami.


Ireland could be hit again by a tsunami in the future, and there have been moves to put a tsunami early warning

system in place following the 2004 Tsunami in Asia. These large waves can travel great distances from where an earthquake occurred, and the tsunamis that emanated from the epicenter in Sumatra in 2004 even reached Australia. The greatest risk to Ireland stems from the collision of two pieces of the Earth’s crust in the Atlantic waters off the west coast of Portugal. Here geologists believe that the African plate is moving underneath the Iberian Peninsula landmass, and sinking into the Earth’s mantle. This movement causes a buildup of pressure, which when occasionally released, causes earthquakes. Scientists believe that a repeat of the Great Portugal Quake of 1755 is possible, and this has potentially serious implications for us here in Ireland. It is estimated that – with a proper early warning system in place – Ireland would have about 3 ½ to 4 hours warning, should a major earthquake occur again off Portugal. This should give the authorities time to evacuate Galway, and ensure

On the Aran Islands enormous rocks have been tossed up to lie along the edge of cliff tops. The relative lack of erosion indicates that they are geologically recent arrivals.

its inhabitants went to safe ground inland, providing an emergency plan is in place, and is carried out. However, time would be even tighter should a volcanic eruption happen on the Canary Islands, which could also trigger a tsunami, and

Ireland could be hit again, and following the disaster in Asia, moves have been made to put a tsumani early warning system in place.

which is also a geological possibility. It is estimated that we would have 2 ½ hours to react, should the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma spring suddenly into life and erupt, causing a tsunami. SPIN

FACTFILE Historical records indicate that major storm waves or tsunamis have hit Ireland in 1640, 1755, 1839, 1852, 1854, 1941 and 1953. The evidence suggests that the events of 1755 and 1854 were tsunamis, and the 1852 event might have been a tsunami. Eyewitnesses reported of the 1839 event that “cod and conger were left squirming on the tops of sand dunes”. During the 1852 storm/tsunami, 15 fishermen were swept off a cliff on Inishmore. The 1953 event killed 1,800 people in Holland, and 120 people died in the Irish Sea when a ferry sank. The Atlantic is prone to ‘freak waves’ which can reach up to 30 metres. These are more frequent than previously thought and are due to merging of waves during storms.

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for better drug delivery 1. Ultrasound imaging technology is already used to image what is going on inside a patient. Scientists at Philips Research are developing a localised drug delivery system based on the use of ultrasound and microbubbles that are partially filled with drugs. 2. The microbubbles are tiny gasfilled spheres of biodegradable material no bigger than red blood cells. These are to be injected into the patientâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s bloodstream and carried by it to the part of the body to be treated. The arrival of the microbubbles to the site can be monitored using ultrasound imaging. 3. Upon arrival of the microbubbles at the correct location, they can be ruptured with a focused ultrasound pulse to release the drugs from the microbubbles.

4. As the drugs are only released at the site to be treated, the patientâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s total body exposure to them can be limited.

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Nanotechnology has the potential to improve patient care in a variety of ways. Anna Nolan reports on a new project aimed at improving the delivery of drugs to patients with cancer or cardiac problems ancer and cardiovascular diseases in all their various forms are among the leading causes of death in the developed world, and could well become more so as we live longer and defeat other diseases. Medical research is continually coming up with new treatments for both diseases, and a great deal of this research looks to improve the delivery of drug therapy to patients. Currently, powerful drugs to treat these diseases are administered intravenously or orally. These methods allow only limited control over how the drug is distributed in the body. The drug can therefore circulate in the patientâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s bloodstream and interact with different tissues and organs, not just the diseased one being treated but with healthy organs too. Now a new image-guided method of delivery may become available in a few years time, if a major European project called SonoDrugs is successful. SonoDrugs is aimed at developing drug delivery vehicles that can be tracked using ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), with ultrasound used to release the drugs at the desired location. An important element of this project is the use of tiny bubbles (microcapsules) to carry the drugs. These are so small that they can be produced only by nanotechnology. So, in tandem with the imaging techniques, nanotechnology is offering the hope of significant improvement to treatment outcomes and to the comfort of the patient undergoing the therapy. Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of materials down to the atomic and molecular level. Sizes are expressed in nanometres (nm). A nanometre is one thousand-millionth of a metre. These new materials can behave quite differently to conventional ones, and, therefore offer exciting possibilities for innovation. The other side of the coin is that this very novelty means that safety in use has to be ensured.



Nanotechnology has already produced new cosmetics and industrial materials that are available for the general public to buy. With scientists eagerly examining other applications, we can expect many new developments over the coming years, notably in medicine and healthcare. The SonoDrugs project is a good example.

Delivery where needed

Using an innovative combination of ultrasound and tiny capsules of drugs, SonoDrugs researchers are aiming to provide doctors with a method of delivering treatment at the point in the body where it is needed, rather than having the drug dispersed around much or all of the entire body. This fine-tuning offers obvious possible advantages: perhaps a lower dose can be used to provide the same level of efficacy as a larger dose delivered by other means; perhaps the therapy may be much more effective at the same dose delivered conventionally; or even in some cases, maybe both advantages will apply. It is hoped that such treatments will mean a lowering of the mortality rate from cancer and cardiovascular ailments, and also mean that fewer days are taken off work by patients being treated. So apart from the improved quality of the patient’s life, the overall benefit to economies could be substantial, not least because of fewer days lost from work by patients recovering from treatments. The European Union has given an impetus to this kind of research by providing €10.9 million over four years under the 7th Framework Programme to the SonoDrugs project, roughly two-thirds of its total €15.9 million total cost. The project began last November (2008), with industrial partners from The Netherlands, France, Finland and Germany. Medical centres in The Netherlands and Germany are also involved, as are university researchers in Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Ireland is not a partner, but doubtless any effective and improved drugdelivery techniques developed under SonoDrugs will eventually benefit some Irish patients. Dutch multinational Philips is leading the project, and Hans Hofstraat, Vice-President of Philips

Research, talked to journalists about it at the EuroNanoForum in Prague this summer.

Tiny capsules

“The key is the combination of imaging techniques with nanotechnology,” said Dr Hofstraat. Once the tiny capsules containing the drug or drugs have been dispersed though the blood stream, they are activated at the point in the body where they are needed by bursts of ultrasound, frequencies higher than can be heard by the human ear. “The big advantage of ultrasound is that it can be used for treating the whole body,” he said. “Light cannot reach inside the human body, but ultrasound can be focused on any part. It does not go through bones easily, but ultrasound equipment can be moved around, so that is not a problem.” Dr Hofstraat explained that the drug delivery technology being developed in the SonoDrugs project will utilise drug-loaded particles, typically between 100 nm and 2000 nm in diameter, that are designed to carry drugs along the bloodstream to the site to be treated. At these very small diameters the particles are easily transported by normal blood flow through even the finest capillaries in the vascular system, and they can penetrate deep into diseased tissues.


First of all the capsules have to be manoeuvred into position, and realtime guidance is essential. It is envisaged that the medical staff will be able to use either ultrasound or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), whichever is better suited to the particular procedure, to watch for the arrival of the nanoparticles at the part of the body to be treated. Once in place, melting or rupturing of the tiny capsules releases the drug. Whether the nanoparticles melt or rupture depends on what they are made of. Under the SonoDrugs project, two types of carrier are to be made.

The first of these will have a shell made of a material that melts or becomes porous at a temperature that is just a few degrees above normal human body temperature. The heat required to melt or increase the porosity of the shell in order to release the contained drug will be provided by the local heating effect of the focused ultrasound. The second type of nanoparticles will be larger in diameter than the first. It will have a shell made of a material that ruptures because of pressure-induced stresses generated by the focused ultrasound pulses. Often called microbubbles, gas-filled particles of this type are already used as a contrast agent for ultrasound imaging. One question asked of Dr Hofstraat was what happened to the melted or ruptured nanoparticles after they had done their job of delivering the drug to the correct spot. “The outer shell is biocompatible and will be removed by the liver, kidneys and other organs without doing any harm,” said Dr Hofstraat. “We still have to do the toxicology tests, though, and we expect it will take about ten years for the technology to become available [for use in hospitals].” All EU projects have to undergo a risk assessment, and nanotoxicology is a young science. The question of the safe use of nanotechnology was a theme running though the Prague EuroNanoForum. Paul Reip of Intrinsiq Materials Ltd UK, who spoke about detailed work on how to measure safety of nanomaterials, pointed out that Nature already produces nanomaterials. “There are a lot of nanoparticles out there already that we happily live with,” he said. “The question is, what about engineered nanoparticles?” Anna Nolan is a science and technology journalist with a BSc in Physics and Mathematics and an MSc in Science & Society/Science Communication. She attended EuroNanoForum as a guest of the European Commission.

EuroNanoForum 2009 was organised by the Technology Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic with the support of the European Commission. There were seven hundred participants from 28 countries. Themes included nanotechnology for a sustainable economy, nanotechnology and the environment, nanotechnology for sustainable industrial development, nanotechnology and safety, Czech nano research, and nanotechnology for sustainable healthcare.

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Technology supports ecological investigations of

Hen Harrier habitat use H

istorical evidence suggests that in Ireland, an island once extensively covered in natural woodland, the near complete forest destruction was a process of slow attrition as a result of human activity from Neolithic times onwards. Although the need for afforestation was identified as early as the sixteenth century, rates of increase in forest cover remained relatively low until recent times. Since 1950 Ireland has gained about 568,000 hectares of forest cover, and about 10 per cent of Ireland is forested at present. Of this cover less than 15 per cent is semi-natural woodland, with the vast majority made up of commercial production plantations. These forests can be managed for nature conservation and recreational use as well as for timber production. In fact, Ireland is committed under various international agreements to conserve and enhance biodiversity in our forests, and the protection of rare species and habitats are important considerations in the management of forests in Ireland today. The Hen Harrier is a good example of a species that can be protected through appropriate forest management. This species is vulnerable in Ireland and throughout Europe, is one of our rarest birds of

prey as well as being a species of European Conservation Concern. During the summer months they breed in the upland forests in the south and the west of Ireland, but they are distributed more widely throughout our lowlands during the winter months. Once widespread in Ireland, recent population surveys estimated that as few as 150 breeding pairs remain today. These birds nest mainly in young conifer plantations and forage in the surrounding landscape. In order to adequately provide for the conservation of this bird in our forest management plans we need a detailed understanding of its biology and how it interacts with the landscape. This information was traditionally gathered by direct observation in time-consuming and difficult manual surveys. Recent advances in appropriate technologies lend themselves to the acquisition of necessary ecological information in a more efficient manner. A team of researchers, based at University College Cork, are currently using technologies such as remote nest cameras and GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking to gain an insight into the relationship between Hen Harriers and the landscape. GPS technology has been used in wildlife

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 17

remote tracking for over 10 years but is still relatively new, and GPS tags are among the most expensive remote tracking tags currently available. GPS tags receive signals from an array of satellites which are used to determine the position of the tag at regular intervals. Retrieving this information, which is archived on the tag, poses a difficulty with birds such as the Hen Harrier, as recapture of individuals for the purpose of tag retrieval is unlikely. In this case, the tags are attached to the birds using a harness and are designed to be retrieved with the aid of miniaturised VHF transmitters. Each of the harnesses to which GPS/VHF tags are attached incorporates a weak link, developed at UCC and designed to break within 1-2 weeks of fitting. Once the tag falls off, scientists will be able to home in on the VHF signal to relocate and retrieve the tag, and the data archived on it. The most important factor constraining the use of GPS on Hen Harriers at present is the weight of the tags, which must be lightweight to avoid interfering with the birdâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s ability to fly. As a general rule, tags should not exceed 5 per cent of an animalâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s body weight. The tags being used on the Hen Harrier project are comprised of three major functional components:

Adult female Hen Harrier returns to the nest with food for the chicks. Photograph courtesy of Richard Mills.

the GPS unit itself, the battery and the VHF tag required for retrieval. Through collaboration with Italian tag manufacturers TechnoSmart, the team at UCC have developed a tag for use in the 2009 breeding season that weighs just 10 g. These units will be deployed on a number of adult male harriers, ranging in size from 300 g to 400 g, in the south of Ireland to collect detailed data on the use of habitats by hunting Harriers. To ensure that these data are collected when the hunting by the male is most crucial to the success of the nest, the tags will be deployed after the eggs in the nest have hatched. GPS tagging will give an insight into the foraging range, habitat use and movements of Hen Harriers. It will be carried out in tandem with deployment of cameras at nests so that researchers can tell where Hen Harriers are foraging and match this with information on provisioning

GPS tag (above) with VHF transmitter (below) being used to track adult male Hen Harriers as they forage for food for young in the nest. Top right: Adult female Hen Harrier provisioning her chicks. Image captured by a nest camera in 2009. rate and timing of breeding from each area. Nest cameras have been used by researchers at UCC at Hen Harrier nests since 2008 where they provide information on timing of hatching, fledging and failure, as well as some detailed behavioural information that could not be collected manually. The use of these technologies in this study will provide researchers with

Adult male Hen Harrier in flight. Photograph courtesy of Richard Mills.

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information that can be used to ensure that conservation of the Hen Harrier is incorporated in future forest management protects nest sites and provides for the habitat requirements of adult birds. Further information on this, and other forest biodiversity projects, is available at For more information, contact: Dr Sandra Irwin Project Manager PLANFORBIO Programme Dept. of Zoology, Ecology & Plant Science, Distillery Fields, North Mall, University College Cork, Cork Email:



A photographic record was made of damage caused by the Great Neopolitan Earthquake of 1857.

Measuring quakes We measure the impact of earthquakes by detecting how the shock waves travel through the earth. As Séan Duke reports, the father of seismology was a true Dub. he science of seismology, which studies the power and energy unleashed by earthquakes, began life on a south Dublin beach in 1849 with an ingenious experiment carried out by one of Ireland’s greatest scientists. That scientist was Robert Mallett - a Dubliner widely recognized as the ‘father of seismology’. Widely recognized that is, outside Ireland, and today he remains somewhat of a stranger in his own land. But, plans are afoot to raise his profile next year, when celebrations around the bicentenary of his birth will take place.


foundry’s success can still be seen today, on the iron railings around Trinity College, which are inscribed with the name R&J Mallett. From an incredibly early age, Robert was interested in science, and in particular chemistry. From the age of perhaps two, or three, he had his own small laboratory set up in the family house, where he played with chemicals. Such was Robert’s enthusiasm for spending time in the lab, the story goes, that his parents used to lock him out of the lab in order to punish him for some misdeed. Later, in his teenage years, he went down the road to TCD to study Recreating Mallet’s experiment at Killiney for the BBC television programme. Photo: DIAS


A true blue Dub you might say, Robert was born on Capel Street, on the banks of the Liffey, on the 3rd June 1810. His father owned a successful iron foundry business. The legacy of this

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science, which, at that time – the early part of the 19th century – was more like what we would recognise as engineering today. After his studies were complete he went back to work in the family business. He continued to have a fascination with all things science, and began to conduct experiments on how sound or energy moved through sand and rock.


In October 1849, aged 39, Robert, and his son John, who was a geology student at TCD, decided to carry out a remarkable experiment on Killiney Beach. They wanted to prove that energy moved through sand and rock in waves that could be measured, and they designed a ‘controlled’ experiment to prove this was so. The two Malletts buried a keg of gunpowder in the ground, and detonated it. They measured the energy wave that traveled through the sand at a distance of half a mile away, with a seismoscope.


Robert Mallett. Photo: DIAS

SEISMIC SCIENTISTS In 132 AD, in China, a man called Zhang Heng, invented the world’s first seismometer – an instrument capable of measuring ground movements due to earthquakes. The machine Zhang invented enabled him to determine the direction and occurrence of the epicenter of an earthquake. For example, his device could pinpoint an earthquake occurring at a location 400 miles away, long before horse-bound messengers could bring the Emperor the bad news. This enabled the Emperor to quickly dispatch help to the afflicted area. The west was far behind China in seismic studies. As late as 1755, more than 1,600 years after China had invented the first seismometer, people believed that the Great Lisbon Earthquake of that year, which killed 70,000 with an accompanying tsunami, was God’s punishment for the sins of mankind. Not everyone in the west believed in the ‘God’ explanation for earthquakes in the 18th century. One of those was John Mitchell, a clergyman, and academic at Cambridge University. Mitchell proposed that earthquakes caused by energy waves originating below ground. At the time, his theory was largely ignored. In 1795, Ascanio Filomarino devised a seismograph similar to the one Zhang had invented centuries before. It had a part that would stay stationary while the rest of the instrument would shake when an earthquake was occurring, and ring bells and set off a clock. Poor Ascanio was murdered on Mt Vesuvius by an angry mob that didn’t like his work. They also burned his workshop and destroyed his seismograph. Another early ‘seismograph’ was developed by Luigi Palmieri, in 1855. Palmieri was the director of an observatory near Vesuvius. An instrument, designed by Palmieri, could measure small tremblings in the ground around Vesuvius, and recorded such movements on a paper strip – like later seismographs. The big contribution of Mallett to this emerging field came in 1857 when he examined the damage caused by the earthquake in Italy of that year. He generated isoseismal maps, which displayed contours of damage intensity. He also published a world map that revealed the clustering of earthquake incidences in specific locations around the planet. Thus, Mallett, was the first to see the ‘big picture’ with regard to earthquakes.

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The experiment worked, and a seismic reading was generated that showed clearly, energy moved through sand in waves. Robert also worked closely with William Rowan Hamilton, another great Irish scientist and mathematician. William had suggested to Robert that he might apply the laws of physics, as they apply to light, in order to describe how the energy generated by the explosion would pass through sand and rock (for the rock measurements he set up a seismoscope on nearby rocky Dalkey Island, rather than the sandy beach). Robert took William’s advice and Robert’s report on his experiment became the foundation of modern seismology.


Robert is not well known in Ireland, except amongst the small community of geologist and earth scientists that would appreciate his importance in the advancement of our understanding of earthquakes. However, in southern Italy Robert is well known, due to his role in studying the after affects of the ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857’. This earthquake – which was the third biggest in recorded history at the time – struck in deadly fashion on the 16th December, and killed in the region of 20,000 people. Robert reacted quickly and wanted to go to the earthquake zone and record the devastation, using the new technology of photography. Two powerful friends, Charles Lyle, a

famous English geologist, and Charles Darwin, helped Robert to get a grant from the Royal Society to travel to Italy and carry out this work. Robert arrived in Italy and worked right through Christmas and into the New Year, diligently recording the devastation along with a French photographer. This was the first time ever that photography had been used to take images of the after affects of an earthquake. It was a revolutionary approach at the time. Robert’s report entitled ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology’ was published by the Royal Society in 1862. It remains as ‘seminal research’ into seismic hazard and seismic risk, said Tom Blake, experimental officer in the geophysics section of the DIAS. The bicentenary of the birth of Robert Mallett is next year and the DIAS and the Royal Dublin Society are planning to unveil a memorial to Robert on south County Dublin’s Vico Road – a beautiful, scenic road, popular with walkers that overlooks where he did his research on Killiney Beach and Dalkey Island. This is being done, said Tom Blake, “so that, at least, once and for all, Irish people will understand, and know, that the father of controlled-source seismology is an Irishman – Robert Mallett.

BBC and MALLETT The experiments of Robert Mallett conducted on Killiney Beach in October 1849 were recreated as part of a BBC Coast episode. The geophysics section of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) were brought in to provide technical support for the recreation. The Cork to Dublin BBC Coast programme, which was broadcast on the 4th August 2009, included a recording of the detonation of a small charge on the beach, and its resulting shock wave was recorded by a DIAS recorder. This replicated the first ‘controlled source’ seismological experiment to be performed in Ireland, or anywhere in the world.

Robert Mallett’s interests went beyond seismology, and one of the devices he invented was a giant 43 ton mortar, capable of shooting explosive shells over a distance of 2.4 km. The mortar, developed too late for use in the Crimean War, never saw action, and it is now on display at Fort Nelson, near Southampton.

St Vincent’s Hospital, Fairview

An illustrated history by Aidan Collins detailing how the hospital, started with money handed over to an informer, provided a safe haven for the mentally ill over the course of 150 years, while shaping the way nurses are trained. The hospital, small by modern standards, looms large in the development of Fairview, and among the well known figures associated with it are James Joyce, and the antiquarian Francis Grose. The original Grose home, Richmond House still stands in good order, and is just one of the architectural features described by Aidan Collins in this unusual book. Available in large format softback and de-luxe hardback. Softback €20. Hardback €35. (144pp) Order direct from Science Spin and post is included in the price.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 21

Stormy weather by the County Louth coast. Tom Kennedy, Source Archive.

Climate change looking at an Irish view

uffering from global warming fatigue? Considering the 30 percent drop in attendance at the Irish Skeptics talk on climate change in April, some might. Understandably so. Not only because of this feeling of having heard it all before, but also, living in Ireland, even if you’re one of the most environmentally concerned citizens, you might still find it hard to be really upset about the temperatures getting warmer. Rightly so? Well, this was actually the question addressed by Professor John Sweeney from the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth in his talk “Climate change in Ireland: The need to move beyond skepticism.” Prof Sweeney was invited by the Irish Skeptics as a member of the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to tell us about the likely consequences that climate change will have for Ireland. It will maybe surprise some Irish people to hear that Ireland has played a significant part in the global warming story. Not in causing it though — we’re a bit too small for that. But Ireland was there at the very beginning, when the


Marie-Catherine Mousseau reports on how we will have to keep living with change. climate change story all started. We have to go back to the year 1976, when the World Meteorological Organisation sent four people to Geneva and locked them in a hotel room for the weekend. There they were assigned two key questions: was the climate changing, and if so, should we be concerned? According to Prof Sweeney, these were pretty radical questions – at the beginning of the 1970s climate change was not an issue at all. As it happened, one of the participants was an influential Irish figure, senator James Dooge, described by Prof Sweeney as “perhaps one of the most important, prolific and distinguished scientists of the past generation.” Nobody knows what was said in this room at the time, but the four emerged with their final conclusion: yes, the climate was changing, and yes, we should be worried. So that’s how it all started, with a significant Irish contribution, after which the story we all know began

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to unfold. A decade or so later, in 1988, the IPCC was formed, a first report was published in 1990 and the consensus emerged. Another two decades or so later, all the people involved, including Prof Sweeney, got the Nobel Prize for Peace (2007) for the critical role they played in warning us about our planet’s frightening future. At this stage we don’t need the IPCC experts to notice that the climate is changing. Changing landscapes, melting ice caps, shrinking lakes, it is pretty obvious that the Earth is warming up. In Ireland however, it is not so obvious. Or is it? Prof Sweeney tells us that changes are noticeable in Ireland too, and does his best to convince us that we should be concerned.


What’s happening in Ireland has mirrored what’s happening globally, he says. The country has just been lagging a decade or two behind (probably due to its surrounding seas acting as a buffer). He points out that globally the warming rate was 0.74ºC over

the past century, and in the past 50 years it accelerated reaching 0.128ºC per decade. These figures may not sound that impressive, but Prof Sweeney tells us Ireland is now warming up three times quicker than the global average — as if the country was trying to catch up. You might not have noticed Irish summers getting warmer. This is because, so far, summer temperatures have mainly increased at night, by one degree or so. While that does not appear to be such bad news, Prof Sweeney warns us that warmer weather, especially during the summer, might have some unwanted health effects. “Food-born disease and water-born disease may become more of a problem as temperature rises,” he says, though “we won’t have malaria and we won’t have tropical diseases for a long long time in Ireland,” he reassures us. He also reminds us of the 2003 heat wave in France, which caused 30,000 deaths. He agrees that in this country we’re not there yet. However, believe it or not, this sort of thing can happen in Ireland. The warmest day of the decade, probably of the century, was the 13th of July 1983, when Kilkenny saw temperatures up to 32ºC. That day was associated with an increase in mortality. And apparently, we do get more warm days than we used to. Prof Sweeney points out that in the past 50 years the number of warm days has doubled. Note that the definition of warm days for this calculation was a mere 18 degrees. And anyway, it is pretty clear that Irish people dying from high temperature is probably not the biggest concern in relation to global warming. If anything, we should be more concerned about people dying during the Irish winter. According to Prof Sweeney, Ireland has higher winter mortality rates than Scandinavia – most likely due to bad insulation and poor fuel usage. Luckily, this may be about to change as well, as temperatures have also been increasing during the winter – Irish winters are projected to be 2 to 2.5ºC warmer by the middle of the century. Prof

Not much chance of buying a three course lunch for 68 pence these days, but just as we expect prices to rise we can be fairly sure that rain will continue to fall. Sweeney is actually talking about ‘Cork like’ winters for the whole of Ireland, or at least the midlands, which again may not be such bad news, he agrees. “According to our management model, a 2.5ºC increase would decrease cold-related mortality by 2 to 3 per cent.” In any case we could certainly do with one or two more degrees during the winter, couldn’t we? So it is rather welcome news also that, as explained by Prof Sweeney, while the number of warm days has doubled in the past half century, the number of very cold days has been halved.


However, Prof John Sweeney does not want to leave us on this happy note. He stresses that raised temperature is not the key issue as far as global warming is concerned — we should actually call it global change. In fact, the main concern is rainfall. And here he is not only talking about Ireland; he’s talking globally. Rainfall is definitely changing, getting more

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abundant in some areas of the planet – the continental temperate parts that could actually do with less rain and rarer in others – the ones which could do with more, such as some tropical areas or already too dry developing countries. Ireland does not seem to escape the rule. Prof Sweeney goes on to say that “rainfall is actually the single most important element that we should worry about in Ireland in relation to climate change.” Already, current observations are telling us that there is considerably more rainfall during the winter in the Irish midwest region. “We noticed a huge increase in rainfall in North Donegal,” Prof Sweeney points out. And it’s unlikely we have got our measurements wrong. According to him, the country has among the best coverage in the world, with up to 500 rainfall stations. What’s more, the observed trend confirms the model predictions, which describe an 11 per cent increase in rainfall by mid-century. This means that the frequency of flood events will have to be recalculated. A one in a 50 year event could well become by 2050 a one in a five year event, and the Boyne river could end up overflowing every few years instead of every 25 years. Infrastructure will have to be built to cope with this. While increased rainfall is a concern in the NW of Ireland, in the SW and E the trend seems to be the opposite. Rainfall is decreasing. So summers in the east of Ireland are going to be drier, Prof Sweeney says – or rather less wet – by 25 to 40 per cent. You would think this, along with the warmer winters, is positive; but according to him it is not – at least not for everybody. It’s not good news for potatoes, which unlike most of us love wet summer days, especially in August when they need water to swell the tubers. No wonder potatoes are so happy in Ireland. I know there is an intimate relationship between the Irish and potatoes, but personally I would not mind swapping a few potatoes for a few more sunny summer days.

Another victim of ‘drier’ summers would be cattle. “There is a significant risk that from the middle to the end of this century, farmers will have to keep the cattle indoors during the dry summer days,” says Prof Sweeney, “something completely unheard of in Ireland.” That’s because the grass is not going to grow so easily in the Emerald Isle, which sadly may become a bit less ‘emerald’ than before.

Sea levels

A final concern in relation to climate change is the much discussed rise in sea levels. In countries such as Bangladesh one metre of sea level rise would engulf 100km of coastline. We don’t want to imagine how a similar event would affect Ireland. It is true that a rise in sea levels may not be such a worry when looking at the tough rocky western coastlines such as the Cliff of Mohers — there is a bit of leeway there. However, soft sandy coastlines in the East are obviously more of a concern, as increased erosion and land loss would need to be coped with. Somebody in the audience argued that he’d been living by Merrion Gates at Sandymount, Dublin, since he had been a child and has never noticed any change in the tide levels. This is a fair comment – why then can’t we see any major change happening? According to Prof Sweeney, this is because the land has also been rising since the

disappearance of the ice cap, more or less compensating for the rise in the sea level. In the North of Ireland (above Galway-Dublin line) land is actually rising more dramatically, making it look as if sea levels are actually falling! This becomes all a bit confusing, doesn’t it? Anyway the point is, whether we like it or not, the climate is changing rapidly and in some parts of the world very worryingly. Even though Ireland may not be the worst, we had better do something about it, especially as we’re ‘pretty sure’ we (humans) are causing the change – as

Degrees of certainty Note that we’re not ‘completely’ sure about the human responsibility. Prof Sweeney explained that ‘pretty sure’ in the IPPC experts’ understanding means that they are sure at ’90 per cent’. Mind you, this does not mean that 90 per cent of them think it is human contribution and 10 per cent think it’s just some natural process. Prof Sweeney was there when they decided on this 90 per cent figure. Apparently there was an argument whether they should put down 90 per cent or 95 per cent, and they finally opted for 90 per cent for ‘political reasons’. In statistics you need a 5 per cent chance or less to decide that some hypothesis is unlikely to be true, which means that a 10 per cent chance is not that unlikely after all, but as Prof John Sweeney put it, uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. “Would you fly an airplane that is 90 per cent certain to land?” he says.

clearly stated it in the IPCC report. We might (or might not) manage to attenuate this trend. The oil shortage should help – if nothing else, running out of oil will definitely motivate us to find alternative energy sources and cut down on CO2 emissions. But in any case we will have to cope with the changes and adapt. It is most likely we will and humanity will survive. We have the technology, and we’ve certainly survived worse in the past two hundred thousand years of human existence. Prof Sweeney hopes that our children in 50 years time will look back and say ”thank God in 2009 they pulled themselves back together and began to address the problems in a realistic way.” But you could also imagine our Irish descendants, sunbathing under the palm trees of Dublin bay, and thinking: Gosh, those Irish people who lived here before us, how on earth could they have coped with the awful weather they had. And they would find it very hard to explain why we were so worried about it getting warmer. That would also be a fair comment, after all. Marie-Catherine Mousseau has a PhD in neuroscience and an MSc in science communications. SPIN

Sandymount Strand could be on the rise. Following the Ice Age, the land, relieved of the weight, may have rebounded. Tom Kennedy. Source Archive.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page24x

Masillamys, an early rodent, one of the many mammals preserved in great detail.

The Messel Pit From local dump to world heritage site Tom Kennedy reports that the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany has unveiled the latest finds from their annual dig in the world celebrated Messel Pit near Frankfurt. bout 47 million years ago a volcanic crater filled with water and became a lake surrounded by dense forests. The climate was warm, an annual average of 25ÂşC, and while the ancestors of todayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s birds flew over the lake, the air was alive with insects, and reptiles basked in the sunshine. At that time, the lake, now known as Messel in Germany, was situated far to the south, where Sicily lies now. In time the lake disappeared, but not without trace. The Messel Pit, Grube Messel, southeast of Frankfurt is so rich in fossil remains that in 1995 it was declared a World Heritage site. Although geologists had been aware of these fossil treasures since the beginning of the 20th century, the area with its abandoned coal and oil shale workings, came to be regarded as a wasteland. In the 1970s, just twenty years before that declaration, local planners had been thinking of turning the site into a dump, and collectors scrambled over the Pit in a bid to recover fossils before they were covered up by rubbish. Many of the collectors were amateurs, and later, when the importance of the Pit was recognised internationally, an amnesty was declared, so that important fossils could go back into the public domain and become available for scientific study.


The Messel Pit is about 60 metres below the surrounding area, and the fossil-rich oil shale was formed as an accumulation of mud and dead vegetation became compressed into a deposit over 100 metres in depth. This build up of material was quite slow, estimated to have been just 0.1mm a year, and with little oxygen or disturbance, the probability of anything that fell to the bottom of the lake being preserved was high.

Sometimes nature gave some assistance, and given that the Earth was more active then, volcanic events are likely to have been frequent. Geologists believe that the sudden release of gases, such as carbon dioxide or sulphur dioxide, would have overwhelmed many animals, so birds and bats, for example, would have fallen into the lake, sinking down to be preserved in the mud. Scientists also think that the richness and diversity of fossils preserved in the Messel Pit is due to the frequency of volcanic venting of gases.

A view over the Messel Pit. Photo: Fritz Geller-Grimm

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Hidden details can be revealed by x-rays, and it is even possible to create images of teeth with computerised CT scanning. Images: Senckenberg Research Institute. Among the fossils more than 10,000 fishes of various species have been catalogued, and thousands of insects, some with colours, have been found. Among the mammals are pigmy horses, giant mice, and eight different types of bats. About 60 near complete horses have been recovered, but compared to their descendants, they were tiny. On average they were just 20 cm high. Crocodiles, frogs, turtles, and salamanders are also abundant, and over 30 plant species have been identified. Every year when scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute carry out a dig in the Messel Pit, they recover about 3,000 fossils. Researchers come from the world to see the results, and among them this year was Dr Krister Smith from the US. His particular interest is in the beaded lizards and gila monsters that occur now in the southwest of the US and Canada. One of the recent finds at the Messel Pit is an 80 centrimetre long reptile, an early representative of that family, and like the descendants, it appears to have been venomous. Teeth in the fossilised skull had what appear to be venom carrying canals. Another recent find was a metallically gleaming jewel beetle, and Dr Sonja Wedmann, a specialist in insects, commented how amazing it is that the colouration, created by refraction of light within the chitin, still shows after 47 million years.

Kopidodon macrognahtus, a mammal with a furry tail. The traces left by soft tissues and fur add value to these remarkable fossils.

The Jewel Beetle, Psiloptera, still showing off its colours after millions of years.

One of the most remarkable fossils is that of a rat-like mammal, Masillamys. Not only do we see the animal from nose to tip of its tail, but the outline of the skin can be seen, and darkening around the gut area are the remains of the animalâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s last meal. SPIN

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Propalaeotherium parvalum, one of the numerous horses, few of which were more than 20 cm high.

PRESERVATION Although the fossils are abundant and of exceptional quality, even preserving traces of colour and the detail in insect wings, they are extremely delicate, and as soon as they are exposed they begin to deteriorate because the shale in which they are embedded starts to dry out and crack. on drying out, the oil bearing shale which can consist of 40 per cent water just crumbles into dust. to solve that problem, geologists in the 1970s developed a special ‘transfer’ technique. At first the specimen is kept damp, and the fossil is cleaned up. then with the help of a blow-drier, the fossil is dried off, and as soon as this begins to happen, a water-based lacquer is applied. Because the lacquer only penetrates the fossil, and not the rock, separation of the two parts can begin. the fossil is further strengthened by the application of epoxy, and finally the specimen is turned over so that the shale backing can be carefully scraped and brushed away.

Darwinius masillae, fossil preserved by use of the transfer technique


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SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 27

This is an all Ireland listing, and Science Spin will be updating it at least one a week and possibly more often.

Inclusion in the free listing is at the discretion of the editors, and is normally confined to noncommercial or scientific events.

SCIENCE SPIN Sony Walkman NWZ-W202

What is it? A clever low-cost application that allows users to identify features of the Universe simply by pointing at them with an iPod. What does it do? The application, developed by Irish programmer, John T Kennedy, holds lots of information about the planets and the solar system. It can also pick out 10,000 different stars and shows all the constellations in outline. The wow factor? Instant response linked dynamically to time and location. An amazingly easy way to explore the Universe. Cost? Just a cent less than three euro. More information


For people that run, but find it tedious and need to spice up the exercise with some music, this Walkman is ideal. Certainly, Sony Walkman’s have come a long way since 80s. This striking feature of this product is its design. There are two small units, one on each ear, one acting as the control, and they are connected by a lead. It runs on battery power. That’s it! Nothing else required. A person jogging, or doing any other exercise can, in fact, start to forget they are even wearing it, as if the world is wired up for 3D sound. The device is charged up by simply plugging it into a running computer, and music files are easily transferred from the computer onto the portable Walkman. When worn, the product looks like two Bluetooth devices – similar to the ones taxi drivers wear – but on both

Mobile magic

Did you know that you can dial the international emergency number 112, even when your keypad is locked? Car locked? Keys lost, or worse, still in the car! Don’t panic. If you have a spare set, call home, and get someone to press the unlock button while holding the keys close to the phone. At the same time, hold your own phone close to the car door. It should open.

ears. You may get an inquisitive look, or one questioning your sanity from passers by that wonder why it is necessary to wear two Bluetooth devices. The cord connecting the two earpieces is tough, and the earpieces are designed so that they won’t fall out easily, and there is no extra lead coming out of the earpieces. So all you joggers, walkers, and hill climbers out there, take note, this Walkman is ideal for use during strenuous activity, and the controls are simple and straightforward. The drivers amongst us might worry, that here is another ingenious device that will turn city pedestrians, joggers and cyclists into people that have lost their hearing. If anyone has experienced someone wearing headphones, or headsets suddenly walking out in front of them, blissfully unaware of the danger, they will know what I mean. Seán Duke

Stop thief!!! Not so easy to catch someone in the act, but at least you can get the satisfaction of knowing that the phone has been rendered useless. While you still have a phone, key in *#06# This should bring up the phone’s unique 15 digit code. Take a note of the number, and now wait for the thief. Before the nasty thief gets the benefit, find another phone and call your service provider. Tell them the number, and once they block the code, the stolen phone becomes useless.

Want to get your Gizmo featured on this page? Email tom@sciencespin. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 28

No Need to kill Seán Duke reports that there is a way to achieve faster, cheaper, more ethical toxicity testing

he current methods of testing for toxicity in the environment are quite crude, slow, and expensive, involving counting dead animals exposed to toxins over time. What about introducing a new approach that is faster, cheaper, more sensitive, and – something that is becoming increasingly important – does not involve killing animals? This is what has been achieved by Dimitri Papkovsky, UCC researcher, who has developed toxicity tests by adapting and applying some existing testing technology. The context for this work is the EC REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical Substances) Directive which became law on 1 June ’07. Under REACH a long list of chemicals including heavy metals, organic solvents, pesticides and aromatic hydrocarbons, must be closely monitored and controlled. At the moment, toxicity testing involves a number of tests that make use of animal ‘models’ including fish, and mice. There is a drive in the EU now, however, to phase out these type of animal tests and move to something more ethical and humane. As well as involving the killing of animals, the current tests, said Dimitri, are not very fast, and do not allow a high throughput of samples – something that’s required more and more these days. Also, they are also based on subjective assessments that can be inaccurate, such as determining an animal is dead when it might simply be immobile.


Sensitive tests can be carried out on cell cultures or on tiny organisms such as the water flea, above, and best of all, there is no scientific need to kill them.

The samples are sealed off from the outside inside the microplate. This is important because oxygen levels are being measured and contamination from air is a threat. “People, for example, maintain “The microplate serves as a small cultures of fish, like trout or zebra fish, container where we can expose the in large tanks and then they receive organism to the toxicant,” said Dimitri. (toxic water) samples,” explained “Clinical tests are (already) done in Dimitri. “They put fish in these these type of microplates. So, we don’t samples, they incubate for 24, 48 and need to develop a new instrument, we 72 hours. Basically they are counting don’t need to develop the number of dead, these plates, we’re just and the number of alive adopting our assays and animals to determine the system to what is already level of toxicity.” available.” In contrast, Dimitri Under REACH there uses cells and small is a list of in the region organisms – such as of 30 ‘priority’ industrial Daphnia ‘the water flea’ chemicals, said Dimitri, – to develop his toxicity which now need to be tests. This is ethically monitored and assessed more desirable than for their toxicity. To doing toxicity testing on achieve this Ireland higher animals like mice. will require a national Furthermore, the strategy monitoring system, is set up to test ‘suband he said that his lethal’ effects of toxicity, technology would be well so organisms and cells suited to be applied to are not killed in any case. Prof Dimitri Papkovsky that system by providing The approach is to look a range of simple tests. at respiration and oxygen There is a follow-on project, said consumption as a measure of toxicity. Dimitri, where a specific group of “We don’t need to kill the animals,” chemicals, as defined by REACH, said Dimitri, “we just need to detect are being targeted. Furthermore he changes in respirations, so potentially is working closely with the EPA, as this approach is more sensitive. It is well as an industrial partner, Luxcel more humane and it can be automated Biosciences – a company working in and miniaturised. We do it on a standard environmental monitoring, to bring micro-plate, with 100 samples analysed this testing technology into more simultaneously over a period of one widespread use. hour. Then you have your toxicity data pretty much straight away.”

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 29


Close up on brown trout THIS superbly illustrated book by leading fisheries scientist, Dr Martin O’Grady, will appeal to anyone with even a remote interest in Irish Brown Trout. The book has a distinct charm, and, aside from the informative text, the aerial photographs, other images, and excellent illustrations – provided by Myles Kelly - makes for an enjoyable read. The graphic work too by Shane O’Reilly is of a high order. General readers, fishermen, and scientists are all accommodated here. This is a publication that provides useful general information, and specific details, without alienating any potential group of readers - not an easy task. No assumptions are made about the reader’s level of knowledge, and this is clearly shown by the title of the opening chapter – Brown Trout, What are they? Even for those that have some knowledge of the species, there is lot to learn in this book, which essentially compiles all we know about Brown Trout in Ireland. For anglers, both part-time and serious, there is much useful information in here. For example, the author describes where the largest fish is likely to be located in a pond of water, what Brown Trout like to dine on at various times of the year, and which Irish lakes are likely to hold the biggest specimens, assuming that is what an angler is after. Incidentally, the biggest ‘angling caught’ Brown Trout in Ireland was a 26 lb monster landed by a Wm. Mears in 1894 in Lough Ennell – almost the same weight as my 19-month old son. The author explains that there is a huge difference in the size and longevity of fish in certain parts of Ireland. For example, Wicklow river trout have tended to be half-starved, and small, and don’t live longer than 4 years. In contrast, relatively rare ‘Ferox’ trout, live for 10 years or more, and grow very large. These are located in a small number of lakes, including Corrib, Erne, and Mask. For those interested in the biology, rather than angling, there is information about how trout spawn, where they spawn, and the

way they can vary their pigmentation depending on the body of water that they are residing in. The many predators on trout are detailed, whether that is at the egg, larvae, or adult stage of the life cycle. Interestingly, the way that scientists determine the age of trout is described, and it is akin to counting tree rings, as the scales of the trout have growth rings too. The age is calculated by looking at these ‘rings’ under the microscope, and charting fish length too. For those interested in starting up a fish hatchery or improving an existing hatchery there is also much to be learned here. The factors that are required to realise a successful hatchery are described, and plenty of supporting data provided. In terms of the value of hatchery trout to fishery management in Ireland, the author concludes (and I’m simplifying somewhat) that hatcheries are useful in areas where there are few, if any, wild trout, but that they are of questionable value where there is an existing, successful wild population.

Dr O’Grady sounds a cautionary note in terms of the threat to Brown Trout populations from the release of phosphorous in waste water, which still continues. This leads to artificial ageing, or eutrophication, of lakes, and a ‘crash’ of fish numbers he says. For that reason, the author urges that the EC Water Framework Directive be fully implemented, so that such discharges are punished by law. The author also urges caution about the introduction of new species that could damage Brown Trout. In general, he states, introduction of exotic species tends to reduce overall biodiversity, so any new ‘introductions’ should be looked at very closely. Brown Trout in Ireland Author: Dr Martin O’Grady Publisher: Central Fisheries Board ISSN: 1649-265X Reviewed by Seán Duke

The natural history of Ireland AS WE are always being told, the winner gets to write the history, and lies, if repeated often enough become established as fact. Rewriting of history is as old as history itself, and back in the 12th century Giraldus Cambrensis in penning his Topographia Hiberniae had no wish to present the recently defeated Irish in a favourable light. Over the following centuries Giraldus was followed by a number of other revisionists, all anxious to convince readers that it had been necessary to put manners on the ignorant bog Irish. Naturally, this steady corruption of history infuriated the former lords and chiefs who, when forced to flee abroad, took with them their own glowing memories of what Ireland had been like for them at the height of the Gaelic order.

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One of these individuals, who set sail for Spain as a boy in 1602, was Philip O’Sullivan Beare. His family had taken the name Beare from the Beare Peninsula in Cork after they had settled there when dispossessed of their lands in south Tipperary almost four hundred years before by the Normans. Memories were long, but continued defiance eventually led to exile. With the defeat of the Irish at Kinsale, adopting a superior air and holding out was just not on. In the same year that Philip fled, his less fortunate tutor, Donagh O’Croinin, was hanged and eviscerated in Cork. Like many of his kind, Philip was received well in Spain, and on finishing his education under the protection of the Governor of Galicia, he joined the Spanish navy, where, no doubt his SPIN

Catholic piety and his dislike of the English were encouraged. He produced a Historiae Catholicae Hiberniae Compendium in 1621, in which he commented that division among the Irish had been their downfall. He also worked on a lengthy rebuttal of the views expressed by Giraldus Cambrensis, Stanihurst and others. Whenever one of these writers made a disparaging remark, Philip countered this with glowing accounts, many of which, although just as strange, give us a glimpse of how the Irish saw themselves. The distinctive old Gaelic magic is in there, such as his account, in among the list of birds, of how they would not fly over the Skellig rock because it was so sacred that they had to land and walk across. In among his wonderful isles is one in which no one could die. However, the pain of living was so severe that no one choose to prolong their agony. Philip listed all the plants, animals, mountains and other features that he knew, or had heard about, and interestingly, like many Gaelic scholars

who had received a classical education, he relied heavily for his natural history on Pliny the Elder. Philip seems to have worked on this project for some time, for the original manuscript, written in Latin, has lots of amendments and marginal notes, often suggesting the inclusion of additional material. It was a remarkable work, but although it has a title, Zoilomastix, alluding to Zoilos, who made disparaging comments about Homer, the 718 page manuscript was never published. As Keith Sidwell, Professor of Latin and Greek at University College Cork, comments in his foreword, more than 300 Irish writers produced more than 1,000 printed works in Latin, and many more remain as unpublished manuscripts. Zoilomastix disappeared, only to turn up unexpectedly three centuries later at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. In the 1960s, the Irish Manuscripts Commission, published a selection of abstracts, but as the classics scholar and medical doctor, Denis C O’Sullivan, realised, not many people can still read Latin,

Moon atlas


Moon watcher, John Moore, has published a detailed atlas with 20 maps giving names to thousands of features visible to observers on our satellite’s nearside. The wire bound atlas shows the Moon in great detail, and there are also several pages of background infomation together with an index. The Moon, being such a close neighbour, is relatively easy to observe, and for anybody who wants to know what they are looking at, this is an excellent guide. The book is accompanied by a CD with high resolution files that can be printed out to create a globe. The CD is available on its own or it comes free with the Atlas. John, who has written a number of features on astronomy in Science Spin, has a big interest in the Moon, and his website, , is a great lunar resource for anybody who wants to go on a virtual tour. The Moon Atlas can be ordered direct from the website for €39 including post and packing.

SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 31

and besides, as part of Ireland’s lost literature, Zoilomastix deserves to be better known. Since his school days in Listowel, Denis had always harboured an ambition to study classics, and by fortunate coincidence, he had just completed his honours degree in Greek and Latin at UCC when he came across the Zoilomastix. For this translation, Denis choose the first part of the manuscript, which has now been pubished as The Natural History of Ireland. Apart from the translation, the introduction provides us with some background on what is known about this young Irish exile, and there are useful summaries of all the authors referred to by Philip. For the text itself, Denis presents us with Latin on one side, and an excellent translation into English on the facing page where we can delve into how an Irish gentleman recalled the abundance of life in what must have seemed to him a paradise lost. The natural history of Ireland Philip O’Sullivan Beare Translation by Denis C O’Sullivan. Cork University Press €39 hardback, 269 pages. Reviewed by Tom Kennedy


Speaking SCIENCE Scientists in Ireland have long been wary of the ‘media’ and its potential for harm. There has been little appreciation of the benefits that come from media coverage. The fear some scientists have of being misunderstood or misquoted is very strong. There is an understandable dread of a reporter getting the facts wrong, or trying to overstate the importance of the research. This could be damaging or embarrassing.

The basic thinking is that if the research is not being explained to the public, and its importance outlined, then government might not be inclined to continue funding it. The pressure is there, and researchers who don’t communicate will suffer accordingly. There are various ways to do it, but perhaps the most powerful way is via the media. That said, scientists have every right to be afraid of the press. There is no media training provided for scientists based in Ireland, to help them get over this fear.

This mindset is unfortunate, as there are major advantages to be gained from interaction with the press, and, if things are handled correctly there is no reason at all to worry.

The researcher is often left entirely to their own devices when they receive a phone call out of the blue from a journalist. In such cases, misunderstandings can happen.

However, the reality of the situation today is that scientists really are not in a position to decide whether to communicate with the public or not. They are compelled to do it.

The misunderstandings often arise from situations where the scientist and the journalist do not fully understand where the other person is ‘coming from’.

Certainly, funding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland, and the Higher Education Authority, are very keen that scientists communicate with the public.

The journalist wants the scientist to say something definitive, certain - while the scientist is trained to be cautious, to understate, and say more research is needed.

They want very much for the public to know about the quality of research happening here, and how that can impact on all our lives. They believe this is absolutely vital.

The best relationship between journalist and scientist comes when each understands the other, and their needs. If this is achieved, then long-term connections are made.

Speaking Science: Communication Training Workshop for Scientists Scientists today must be adept at making the case for funding, for without funding, nothing can be achieved. DKS, the publisher of Science Spin, is offering the Speaking Science Communication Training Workshop to help scientists improve their communication skills. The primary focus of the workshop, which is designed and presented by Seán Duke, Joint Editor of Science Spin, is to help scientists reach a number of key audiences. These audiences include:

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The representatives of the funding agencies.

People in industry that might want to collaborate on research projects.


Venture capitalists considering investment in a good research idea.


The general public, who ultimately fund much of current research.


The media, in all its forms, TV, radio, print, and the scientific press. The groups that can gain from this service include:


Full-time members of staff working at third-level institutions in Ireland.


Researchers working in industry (the emphasis here is on communicating with third-level researchers and the public).


Doctoral or post-doctoral students interested in gaining a useful skill for their future careers. If you are interested in attending a workshop, or require information on group bookings please contact Alan Doherty, Business Manager, Science Spin, E:, T: 01 2842909.

SCIENCE ON SCREEN Seán Duke talks about science and research on TV3 Ireland AM. Broadcasting Tuesday mornings every two weeks. SCIENCE SPIN Issue 36 Page 32


Du Noyer

Geological Photography Competition 2009 Entries are invited for the 11th Du Noyer Geological Photography Competition, which this year promises to be bigger and better than previous years. k LIVE LINKS

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.

Prizes will be awarded in two categories, Irish and Foreign, and a prize fund of €800 applies. All photographs entered must be accompanied by a note giving the name and address of the photographer and a short description of the geological content. Up to four photographs may be submitted as prints or good quality scans. Submitted material will not be returned and GSI reserves the right to reproduce entries in its publications and promotional activity with due acknowledgement. The competition will be judged by a panel including representatives of the Irish Geological Association, the Geological Survey of Ireland 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. The photographs will be evaluated on the basis of creativity, technical skill, and geological content. Entries should be posted in an envelope marked “Du Noyer Competition” to: Cartography Unit, Geological Survey of Ireland, Beggars Bush, Haddington Rd, Dublin 4 or emailed to

Closing date for entries: Friday 9th October 2009.

Top: The landscape of Joyce’s Country in the Maamturks photographed by Darren McLoughlin. The Maamturks or Maumturcs are formed from Pre-Cambrian quartzite which suffered heavy erosion during the Pleistocene when the many valleys seen in this image were created out of the softer schist and slate. Above: Alan Boland’s photograph of sedimentary layers in the cliff face on Dollar Bay on the Hook Peninsula, Wexford

Science Week Ireland will run this year from 8 - 15 November 2009 Log on to: k LIVE LINK for regular information and updates on events and activities near you. Science Week Ireland offers people of all ages the chance to explore, discover, experiment or invent their way to a better understanding of science.

Science Spin 36  

Ireland’s science, nature and discovery magazine