Thought control of computers; the Irish angle

Listen below to piece broadcast (in edited form) on Drivetime RTE Radio 1 on 23rd August ’17

 

Scientists are working on brain computer interfaces which can enable devices to be control by thoughts alone (Credit: http://www.medium.com)

The power to read thoughts has long been a favourite topic of science fiction writers, but researchers in Ireland and around the world are now working on systems, called brain-computer interfaces, where human thoughts – in the form of electrical signals – can be read and understood by computers, and acted upon.

If this sounds far-fetched, then consider the fact that Facebook revealed in April that it has 60 engineers working on thought reading technology that scans a human brain 100 times per second to pick up the silent internal conversation in our head and translate it into text.

Or that superhero of the US scientific entrepreneurial community, Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla electric cars, the SpaceX rocket systems, and much else, in March, launched a new venture called neuralink, which aims to create devices that can be implanted in the human brain to allow for direct thought-based communication with computing devices.

Applications

The applications for BCIs have been, up to now, aimed at helping people that have are unable to communicate with the outside world such as those with ALS, or locked in syndrome, or someone that has had a severe stroke.

But, there is also another strand of research emerging, where BCIs are being developed to augment, or improve, human abilities. That might be to help a person with hearing difficulties better focus on whom they want to listen to in a crowded room, or to help elite athletes tune into their brain activity which reflects when they are performing best at their chosen event.

The BCIs are either wearable, where a user must wear a cap with many electrodes, or where a device is implanted into the person’s brain.

Headspace 

It’s clear that we are all going to have to get used to the idea that our private thoughts, or headspace, may not, in future be so private after all. Many of us will no doubt baulk at the idea of anyone getting access inside our heads.

Yet many others will welcome the ability to communicate, move and better perform various tasks that his powerful new technology can provide.

Contributors:

Alan Smeaton, Caoilainn Doyle, Dublin City University

Liam Kilmartin, NUI Galway

Tomas Ward, Maynooth University

 

 

Human space exploration: Is it worth it?

Listen to piece broadcast on Drivetime, RTE Radio 1 on 15th August 2017

Moon Village

An artist’s depiction of the European Space Agency’s planned Moon Village (Source: ESA)

Is human exploration of space worth the huge costs that go with it?

This piece has contributions from scientists involved in space, and based in Ireland:

Luke Drury, Professor of Cosmic Physics, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 

Paul Callanan, Professor of Physics, University College Cork 

Ilaria Cinelli, Phd candidate & biomedical engineer, NUI Galway

Danny Gleeson, Irish Space Industry Group 

 

 

 

 

CRISPR: Ireland’s role in the DNA splicing revolution

Broadcast on Drivetime on 4th August 2017

CRISPR is, some believe, as important to science as the invention of the microscope (Credit: natural.society.com)

A new gene-editing tool that can precisely ‘cut and paste’ DNA to remove segments that cause disease or insert pieces that promote health benefits is, some scientists believe, as important a scientific invention as the microscope.

Scientists in Ireland are part of the what’s being called the CRISPR revolution and many biological researchers are using this technology has the potential to change the world.

From the ground-shaking discovery of the double-helix of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 so much followed in the years, and decades since. We have learned how DNA passing  from one generation to the next, how it transmits signals to the cells, and the body, and how, when DNA building blocks get laid down in the wrong way, that it can cause sometimes deadly genetic diseases.

We are now at another historic moment in biological science, because scientists have in their hands a tool, which enables them to precisely manipulate DNA in a way that was never possible before. This tool is CRISPR and some scientists predict it could lead to the end of all genetic diseases, and perhaps even the eradication of all diseases, whether genetic or not.

Luke O’Neill is a professor of biochemistry at Trinity College, and one of the world’s leading immunologists. He is using CRISPR to study specific genes in the immune system, to change them, or modify them and see if they are important.

Breandan Kennedy, is a professor at the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science at UCD. He is using CRISPR to try and correct vision loss, blindness due to faulty genes and even non-inherited forms of cancer.

Dr Niall Barron is based at National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training, or NIBRT in Dublin. He is using CRISPR to make the manufacture of highly effective, but expensive biologically-based drugs such as Enbrel made  by Pfizer in Dublin and Humira, made by Abbvie in Sligo. Both are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Meanwhile, at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, Dr Terry Prendiville, a consultant paediatric cardiologist, is using CRISPR, along with colleagues based at NUI Galway, to try and repair inherited cardiac defects in children.

Dr Prendiville points out that it could be some years before CRISPR can be used to help repair the hearts of children with inherited defects.

CRISPR is described by Luke O’Neill as being as important to science as the invention of the microscope, and it has the potential to eradicate many of the debilitating and deadly diseases that are today considered incurable.

Ireland ‘switches on’ to astronomy in historic event at Birr Castle

Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime, 27th July 2017

I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)

The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing  the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.

The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.

 

Extraterrestrial radio 

Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.

After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.

The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.

History 

It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.

It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.

This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.

The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.

 

 

 

Exciting 
Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.

Let the astronomical games begin!

Butterfly and bee species are disappearing from the Irish landscape

Click HERE to listen to report for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1

(Broadcast 5th June, 2017)

Peacock_on_Common_Knapweed800

The numbers and diversity of Ireland’s butterflies and bees is in steep decline. Pictured here is a Peacock butterfly on Common Knapweed (Credit: Jesmond Harding, Butterfly Conservation Ireland) Butterfly Conservation Ireland,

Butterflies, and bees provide a number of ecological services essential for any landscape – including pollination and   – and their numbers and diversity in an area are considered to be excellent indicators of how well insects generally are doing in a landscape.

To see how they are getting on in the Irish landscape I visited Ballyannan woods near Midleton in Cork. This is an area where cultivated fields with neat rows of potato plants lie next to Ballyannan woods, a mixed woodland, containing sycamore, beech and natural oak trees popular with local walkers.

The diversity of the landscape here makes it an ideal location for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to carry out weekly butterfly monitoring, along the same designated route, for seven months per year.

I met Dr Tomas Murray an ecologist with the Data Centre and members of a diverse butterfly monitoring and counting group, which included students, older people and people working with local community groups.

It was an  overcast day, and on days like these, it can be more difficult to catch butterflies, but after a little while we were in luck.

Chemicals 

I also spoke to Dr Dara Stanley, a lecturer in Plant Ecology in the Botany and Plant Science Dept at NUI Galway has investigated how human activities are impact on bees in particular, but also butterflies and other insects.

One of Dr Stanley’s research projects focused on the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are used as seed treatments on crops.

Dr Stanley explained to me that the use of chemicals, herbicides and pesticides of all types is killing bees, but also affecting their behaviour and reducing the food that is available to them.

Over the years, many rare species of bumblebee have been migrating westward across Ireland to those areas where hay making, and hay meadows, which are full of flowers, is still common practice.

Changes in agricultural practice too have reduced the places where pollinating insects can live, and reduced the amount of flowers they can eat. The cutting of gardens in suburban landscapes has a similar effect, Dr Stanley said.

Certainly, changes in the landscape over the last half century of so around Midleton and many other parts of Ireland have been dramatic. Much of the change has come about as a result of more intensive use of the land.

Decline

The decline of butterflies and bees in Ireland has been  dramatic, and the question is what can be done to stop or reverse the decline.

An All Ireland Pollinator Plan, a north-south initiative which began in 2015, set out some specific ways that farmers, gardeners and others can help halt or reverse the decline of our pollinators, butterflies and other insects.

The recommendations for farmers include allowing field margins to grow unmanaged encouraging wild grasses to grow, or to introduce wild flower strips.

For gardeners the message is don’t cut the grass too regularly, every six weeks is enough, and allow one small sunny spot to grow unimpeded.

For now, the decline in our biodiversity is reversible, scientists believe, but if ignore the red flags that nature is raising, we’re likely to pay a heavy price for our inaction.

Is the haunting curlew’s cry set to fade forever in the Irish landscape?

Report on the curlew for Drivetime on RTE Radio 1

Curlew

The native Irish curlew is down to about 120 breeding pairs. Picture [Birdwatch Ireland]

The haunting cry of the curlew, the wading bird with the long-curved bill which has been written about in song and verse and was once common across the Irish countryside.

Sadly, there are just 120 breeding pairs of curlew left in Ireland, a bird that has been written about in song and verse and was once so common across the Irish countryside. Thousands of curlew flock to our shores in winter to escape harsh scandinavian winters, native Irish curlew, are now on the verge of extinction.

I went in search of the curlew recently, and began by meeting Alan Lauder, an independent wildlife conservation consultant, and Chair of the Curlew Task Force, set up by the government last November, in a desperate attempt to prevent the disappearance of our native Curlews.

I met Alan in Broad Lough, an estuary of the Varty river, near Wicklow town. It’s one of the many places around the Irish coastline where thousands of  foreign-born curlews come to feed and take advantage of the mid Irish climate when they are not breeding. Many people in the conservation community had long suspected that all was not right with the curlew, but until recently nothing was done, Alan told me.

Urgent 

In November of last year, a meeting took place in Mullingar where experts and interested bodies gathered to discuss the plight of the native Irish curlew. The meeting decided that urgent action was required to save the bird, Alan told me.

The following day, still having not seen or heard a curlew, I travelled north in hope, to the village of Carrickroe, Co Monaghan, to meet Anita Donaghy and Joe Shannon of Birdwatch Ireland. Anita who is a project field officer for Birdwatch, gave me the background to the Curlew’s gradual, sad decline.

Joe, who is the local field officer for Birdwatch, travels around the north Monaghan countryside listening for the alarm call of the adult curlew, which indicates that curlew chicks are in the area.

He reassured me that earlier this morning he had found a breeding pair, with chick or chicks, in a newly cut field, in Drumlin country, a couple of miles north of Carrickroe village.

We had finally found a pair of native Irish breeding curlews, with one adult, probably the male, circling constantly, protecting at least one chick on the ground.

The curlew chicks are vulnerable to predators such as the fox, as they are exposed out in the centre of a cut field. The eggs are laid on the ground for one month, and then it takes a further five weeks for the chicks to gain the ability to fly, or fledge. In days gone by, sheer numbers of curlew meant the population remained stable, despite the vulnerability in early life.

Today, however, Birdwatch Ireland estimate that – just for the native curlew population to remain stable – requires each breeding pair to produce one chick, but surveys indicate curlews are only producing one chick for every five pairs.

The suspicion is that curlews are continuing to decline at perhaps a rate of 10 per cent per year, so unless something big is done, the cry of the native curlew will be lost to Ireland forever in a few short years.

The odds appear to be against the survival of the native curlew, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service is not giving up and has introduced  measures to reduce the threat from predators,

If the curlew is to survive it will also require farmers to co-operate with conservation efforts in the areas where the curlew remains, and for the public to row in behind with active support through donations or volunteering their help.

Can we save Ireland’s native Atlantic Salmon?

Piece for Drivetime, RTE Radio 1

(broadcast, 6th July, 2017)

details_salmon

Irleand’s native Atlantic salmon returns from its feeding grounds off the Faroe Islands or western Greenland to spawn in the river of its birth. Photo [RTE]

The Atlantic Salmon is one of Ireland’s iconic species, celebrated on our stamps, coins and in the stories that we read to our children.

Yet the numbers of this powerful, tenacious migratory fish have declined by 60 per cent over the last 40 years and there are real fears that the conservation measures underway may not save the salmon from extinction in the long term.

Dr Niall O’ Maoleidigh,  fisheries scientist with the Marine Institute, and was my host for recent visit to the Marine Institute Salmon Research Centre just outside of Newport Co Mayo. Niall told me that records are available that show how bad things have become  for the native Atlantic salmon.

Location

The Research Centre at Newport has been a base for research on the salmon since 1955. It lies lies just north of Clew Bay, and at the base of the Nephin Beg Mountain Range in an area of stunning natural beauty.

The site is located at the juncture of two connected lakes, a saltwater lake called Lough Furnace that connects to Clew Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and a freshwater lake, Lough Feeagh that provides access to the upriver salmon spawning grounds in the Nephin Beg Range.

This means that all fish movements upstream and downstream from sea to river, and river to sea can be precisely counted using salmon traps.

The adult salmon start to arrive back from their feeding grounds in the Faroe Islands or of western Greenland in the month of June. Some adult salmon may have migrated more than 4,000 miles across open ocean to get home to arrive back at the Burrishoole river.

I went for a walk with Ger Rogan, a researcher at the Marine Institute, who is in charge of the fish census, or counting, programme. Ger showed me the salmon trapping facility and explained how it works.

On the edge 

The scientists at Newport know that there are some 600 adult fish associated with the Burrishoole river. That indicates a population living on the edge, as 600 is also the so-called conservation number for this river, meaning the number of adult fish needed to replenish the population.

The Burrishoole river is an index river for the other 144 Irish salmon rivers. This means that the trends affecting this river are seen as indicative for native salmon generally. This suggests salmon across Ireland are living on the edge too.

Pat Hughes, is the rod fishery manager of the Burrishoole fishery and a local man, and he is concerned about the fall in salmon numbers since he began as the fishery manager in Newport in the late 1980s.

 I spoke to angler Brian Lovering from Bristol who has been coming for 20 years, despite the steady fall off in salmon numbers. He said he was attracted to the west of Ireland’s unique charm and the friendliness of its people.

Saving the salmon, will require adherence to the  strict conservation plans for each of our salmon rivers, added to strong international cooperation to identify and deal with the problems this magnificent fish faces while feeding out at sea.

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