Archive for September, 2010
An estimated 1.5 million children globally die each year from preventable diseases caused by drinking dirty water, according to UNICEF, the world’s leading children’s support agency. It is shameful that rich nations do not do more to prevent such deaths.
Great credit is due, therefore, to three young Lucan scientists, and volunteers with Self Help Africa, that are not happy to sit back and do nothing to help address this problem. Rachael O’Neill, Thomas Butler and Sarah Vu, of Lucan Community College investigated a simple-to-use test that would indicate whether water in a tank was safe to drink or not, for their 2010 BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibit.
The project goal was entitled: “To determine the levels of bacteria in rain water collected for drinking in Africa.” For it they won a Highly Commended prize in the Biological and Ecological Category, but the real prize would be to come up with a real test that could be used in Africa, that would potential save people’s lives.
The idea was to link up with Self Help Africa, a charity organisation that seeks to assess what people need on the ground, and to work with them on a grass roots level – rather than simply supplying various forms of aid. The Lucan students are all volunteers and linked their BT project with a Self Help project to provide clean water for Gilgil, a town of about 20,000 people located in the Kenyan Rift Valley Province.
Rachael O’Neill explained that Self Help had provided a 10,000 litre water tank for Gilgil, but people there still faced water problems in terms of contamination.
“It is very simple, the water hits off the roof and goes into the gutter and is fed by a pipe into the tank. The problem comes when the water is sitting there for months and months. There are two rainy seasons in Kenya, one around Easter and one in September. The water is collected and has to last six months.”
“The temperature will be an average of 26 or 27C. With that heat and the water sitting there for months there is an increase in bacteria – cholera, dysentery and typhoid. They are caused by faecal matter. It is kinda cruel, because these diseases – you know when you have them you can cure them almost by just drinking water – by hydrating yourself. But, if you have dirty water, you are just going to get sicker and sicker.”
The Lucan students wanted to help the people of Gilgil by trying to come up with a simple test to see whether the water in their tank is safe to drink, or not. They came up with a test using limestone, which was clever, as there is plenty of limestone in and around the town and it can be accessed very cheaply and easily. Limestone is a test for carbon dioxide (CO2 ) as the students learned from their science classes. A test for carbon dioxide is, in turn, a test for bacteria, as bacteria, like humans, emit CO2 during respiration. The more g CO2 given off the more bacteria are present. It’s that simple.
“There is no money,” Rachael said explaining the situation the Gilgil people are facing “and the nearest water system is 10 kilometres away”. Men travel to get the water, she explained, which is odd, as it is normally the woman’s job to get water. But, it is considered dangerous for a woman to travel that distance, so the men do it. Then even after travelling 10km to get water there is no guarantee that the clean water will be available. “We got a statistic,” said Rachael, “which said that at any one time 40 per cent of the water wells in Africa aren’t working.”
The students’ next move is to get in touch with researchers in Irish universities that can help them to come up with a test that is capable of providing a precise reading that will indicate when exactly the water supply has become unsafe for drinking.
First published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010
They are incredibly strong, are prepared to lay down their lives for others, make excellent parents, work tirelessly for the common good and are superb engineers.
Clearly, we can learn a lot from ants.
Killian Creaner and David Connellan, students at Belvedere College, in Dublin, thought so too, and decided to investigate more about what we humans can learn from ants and how they live for their 2010 BT Young Scientist & Technology project entitled: “A study on the associations between ant colonies and human societies.”
Killian and David began by purchasing ‘ant farms’ from Argos and Toymaster. These farms provide the basic housing in which the farms can live. The next step was to buy a queen ant that would be capable of reproduction and a colony. The students bought their queen Carpenter Ant and colony on the http://www.edusci.co.uk/
The queen arrived in a test tube with water in it, for moisture and a sticky substance for food. The students set about digging out tunnels from Styrofoam in the ant house, to try and replicate, as much as possible, the ant’s natural environment. The queen was assigned to a central or main chamber, and she went there and cornered herself off. That behaviour from the queen signalled that she was about to start laying eggs.
The edusci website had provided 10 foods for the colony – the queen doesn’t feed while she is pregnant. The students found that the ants loved to eat dead insects, honey or any kind of sweet foods. They hated cinnamon, pepper and mint. They began to observe the ants closely and got in touch with a renowned German ant scientist called Bert Hölldobler to find out more about how ants communicate.
The scientist said that ants communicate with each other by spraying hormones, called pheromones. This enables one individual ant to follow a scent towards a food source that has been located by another individual ant, for example. It is thought that ants follow the scent of ants from their own colony as they navigate the environment.
The importance of scent to ant communication was shown when Bert Hölldobler investigated what happen if the line of scent was broken, said Killian. “He found that it really confused them. They need to have a line of pheromone scent to guide them.” Furthermore, if an unfortunate ant from another colony wandered in to the colony, the ants would pick up the alien scent with their antennae and attack and kill the intruder.
Ants are part of a group of insects, known as the ‘social insects’. This group includes wasps, bees and termites. It is thought that ants evolved from wasps that gave up flying about 40 million years ago, so the links are close. One key unifying feature for the group is that they all have a ‘Queen’ that is solely responsible for reproduction.
The students decided to look at ants under a number of headings, and to see what we can learn from them. Under ‘childcare’ they noted that the ants look after their young when they are injured, even when they are not their own young, as long as they are from the same colony. So there is a shared role in childcare spread among society.
There is a definite hierarchy in ant society, with everyone assigned a task, and prepared to carry out that task for the wider good. There is no-one languishing ‘on the dole’ and everyone has a job to do. Unlike the Ireland of today, no-one is out of work.
In terms of ‘education’ ants show other ants where they have found food, and they help each other to navigate through the environment. Under the heading ‘security’ it is clear that ants are prepared to put their own lives before the life of the colony, and will attack much larger creatures, such as beetles if they invade colony territory. Once they attack they will fight to the death, and there is no question of ‘taking prisoners’.
Ants are brilliant engineers and architects, and indeed there is a ‘school of thought’ that wishes to use some of their methods in the construction of human buildings. They have vents in the colony which allows air to flow through, cooling when necessary. The ants also have measures in place in terms of ‘flood control’ and sanitation.
Perhaps most impressive of all, is the awesome strength of individual ants. “Ants are extremely strong for their size,” said Killian. “Most ants can lift 20 times their body weight and can drag something 1,700 times their bodyweight, which is equivalent to a human dragging a ship.” Any creature that can do that is certainly worth of study.
First published in Science Spin, issue 42, September-October 2010
Published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010
How do you describe someone who checks his computer first thing every morning to see what the weather is like – not in Malaga, the Canaries or Tenerife – but, the Sun. Strange? Weird? Odd? No, not really. This is just part of the daily work routine for Ireland’s leading academic ‘Sun Worshipper’, TCD astrophysicist, Peter Gallagher.
Today, Peter Gallagher is head of the Solar Physics Group at TCD, working with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the space industry. He is Ireland’s foremost scientific authority on the Sun, and his group is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. By any measure of success, Peter has been very successful in his career.
So, how did he first get interested in science? Well, like many leading scientists, he didn’t have a single defining moment that made him realise that he wanted to be a scientist. Rather, he remembers always being interested in how things work, from very early in his childhood. Peter’s Dad, was a service engineer with Ingersoll Rand, and father and son often working together, taking apart machines in the back garden.
“I was always fascinated by the way things worked,” recalled Peter. “I used to take things apart an awful lot – TVs and radios things like that – and I would work how they worked. I did that when I was in primary school, 10 or so. I was taking things apart around the house and driving my parents mad.”
The young Peter learned quickly, and though he didn’t excel, in an academic sense, while in primary school, he showed glimpses of what he was capable of. “I remember the teacher asked the class how a four-stroke engine worked. I stood up and told the teacher about the four strokes of the engine, intake, compression, fire and exhaust. .
Peter, from Dublin, went to O’Connell’s School on the northside. While at secondary school he became interested in maths, and though he found it was the hardest subject, he liked it the most, and liked the challenge it presented. Surprisingly, the school didn’t have an option to study physics, so Peter chose to do chemistry and technical drawing with an eye on doing chemistry or chemical engineering later on in college.
Peter applied for science in UCD, and was accepted choosing Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Biology in 1st year, and thinking that chemistry would be his main subject.
“I was fascinated by atoms and molecules, but realised in college that physics told you more about atoms and that I could use my maths. In chemistry, I found it too abstract. The chemicals in the bottles didn’t help me understand how atoms worked.”
That first year in college, as for many people, was a momentous one for Peter. He met the two loves of his life – Physics, and his talented scientist wife Dr Emma Teeling. The love-life is a story for elsewhere, but in terms of physics, Peter realised as soon as he did physics in first year that he wanted to be a physicist. The exam results, and reading the ‘Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawkins, lit his fire even further.
He read Hawkins, but that wasn’t enough. He devoured books relating to Physics. “I launched into astronomy and astrophysics,” he said. “I took books out even during the summer, and worked through them. I loved physics, I couldn’t put them down.” That kind of passion and commitment would lead him to do great things in coming years.
Peter chose to do a post-grad in opto-electronics at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB) after graduation. This was a hot area at the time, back in 1996, and he learned about fibre optics, lasers, CCD cameras and the like. It was also a stimulating time to be in Belfast, and he was there for the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He came first in his class, and was offered a PhD at QUB. The clincher was that the PhD would involve travel and interaction with NASA’s Goodard Flight Centre.
The PhD was in Solar Physics, and involved using NASA’s SOHO spacecraft to make measurements of the Sun’s atmosphere. He worked closely with engineers and scientists based at the SOHO control centre. Then, following the completion of his PhD he was offered a job by NASA at Goddard. A career in NASA beckoned.
However, after three years working as a senior scientist with NASA he decided he wanted to come home. Why would he leave what many would consider a dream job and come back to Ireland? “How the hell knows,” he answered (laughing). But, the decision was taken for very clear reasons, and he believes it was best for his career. At NASA, he would have gone up the ladder in a big organisation, and could have ended up managing a spacecraft, for example. But there were few opportunities for research.
“It was a dream job at Goddard, but there was a barrier to me scientifically to be honest. I wanted to set up a research group that answer questions like, how the Sun produces explosions and solar flares? How do they affect the Earth when they go off?” He returned to Ireland in 2006, and first lectured at UCD. Then came the chance to set up a group at TCD, he took it and now he is doing exactly what he wants to do.
“I am constantly changed and have the opportunity to pursue my own interests. If you are driven by a question, then as an academic scientist you have the luxury to pursue that question. The travel is the fluff. I travel to Hawaii for meetings, but the stuff that keeps you awake at night, the science paper beside the bed because you don’t understand something – that’s the joy of the discovery of new things.”
The advice Peter would give to students considering science is that, aside from the academic life, there are many career options, and many of them are rewarding. A recent astrophysics graduate of his, he said, is now working in a financial trading firm. There is the IT sector, or teaching, or jobs in Ireland growing space industry.
He finishes on an optimistic note, from a person that describes himself as ‘an unrelenting optimist”. “I am very optimistic about the future for Ireland. I think we are going to explore new markets, new science and that ultimately that will bring growth and employment back to Ireland. I am very positive about the next five years.”
The Vikings first began their raiding into Ireland in 795, before deciding to ‘overwinter’ here in two locations in 841, according to the Annals of Ulster, an account of medieval Ireland written in the 15th century.
One of the overwinter locations famously became Dúbh Linn, or Dublin, while the other Linn Duachaill, was lost in time. That is until now, as a team of delighted archaeologists, led by Dr Mark Clinton believe they have found the lost site.
To read this story published in ScienceNOW on 22nd September, 2010, click here