Science That Slithers

This month, Midlands Science is running a series of workshops with our partners, the Reptile Zoo, in schools in Laois, as part of our free school outreach programme, which is supported by Rethink Ireland and partners such as SAP and Arup. These workshops allow students to experience the wonders of the natural world from their classroom and hopefully begin a lifetime of curiosity about the world around us and what we can do to preserve biodiversity.

The Reptile Zoo provides the opportunity to see snakes and other reptiles up close and personal! All while learning about their ecology, conservation and biodiversity. There are more than 3,000 species of snake in the world and almost all snakes are covered in scales. As reptiles, they are cold blooded and they need to regulate their temperature externally. Every month or so snakes shed their skin. This process is called ecdysis and it gets rid of parasites, as well as making room for growth.

Approximately 100 snake species are listed by the IUCN Red List as endangered and this is typically due to habitat loss. If you are slightly nervous reading this blog, you’re probably an ophidiophobe – someone who is afraid of snakes. You’re in good company, remember the infamous Indiana Jone scene where he shown his torch on a floor of snakes and yelled “why is it always snakes?” If you are afraid of snakes, it’s probably for a mixture of reasons – a negative experience, portrayal of snakes in the media, hearing about negative experiences of someone else.

It’s a very common phobia and if you want to overcome it, it is possible. Jackie who works with us, worked for a number of years in West Africa in development and on a camping trip one night, she woke up with a snake crawling up her body. She lay very still and it crawled away after about 10 long minutes. Two weeks later, she was driving along a dusty road and a cobra jumped up in front of her jeep from about 10 feet away. She stopped and it realised the jeep was too big to eat and continued on its journey. You’d think after all this, she’d be a confirmed ophidiophobe but not at all, she’s first up for a photo with the albino python from the Reptile Zoo whenever the opportunity arises !

You can learn all about the Reptile Zoo on https://www.nationalreptilezoo.ie/ and lots more about reptiles on https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles

Look Up For Science!!

This month and next, Midlands Science is running a series of workshops with our partners, the Exploration Dome, in schools in Laois and Longford, as part of our free school outreach programme, which is supported by Rethink Ireland and partners such as SAP and Arup. These workshops allow students to experience the wonders of the universe from their classroom and hopefully begin a lifetime of curiosity about our place in the universe.

Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences as early civilisations in history made very methodical observations of the night’s sky. These included the Chinese, Maya, Babylonians and many more including the Irish. You can check out our video exploring space as Gaeilge here.

Astronomy comes from a Greek word which means the science that studies the laws of the stars. Astronomy includes maths, physics and chemistry and it studies everything that originates beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Astronomy is one of the sciences in which amateurs play an active role, particularly with regards to the discovery and observation of transient events such as comets and asteroids. Astronomy clubs are located throughout the world and the Midlands has a very active Astronomy Club. You can find more details about them on Facebook.

One branch of amateur astronomy, astrophotography, involves the taking of photos of the night sky. Many amateurs like to specialize in the observation of particular objects, types of objects, or types of events that interest them. A famous Astro-photographer is Dr Brian May, better known as the amazing guitarist with Queen. He was working on his Phd on zodiacal dust when his music career took off and he went back to Imperial College, London to finish is Phd over 30 years and many hit records later!! As well as writing up the previous research work he had done, May had to review the work on zodiacal dust undertaken during the intervening 33 years, which included the discovery of the zodiacal dust bands by NASA. After a viva voce, the revised thesis (titled “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud”) was approved in September 2007, some 37 years after it had been commenced. His Instagram account regularly features his astronomy observations and photos taken using his very large telescope at his home in the UK.

Although, we know more now that we ever have about the universe, there’s still a lot of unsolved questions in astronomy and perhaps some budding Astro-physicists in the midlands may solve these questions in the future ! Answers to these may require the construction of new ground and space-based instruments, and possibly new developments in theoretical and experimental physics. What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? How did the first galaxies form? What really happens beyond the event horizon? Is there other life in the Universe?

Lots of interesting discoveries about astronomy have been made in the midlands at Birr Castle Demense, which today hosts a LOFAR telescope. You can learn more about Birr Castle’s heritage in astronomy on birrcastle.com. The gardens now include a solar trail which allows you to experience the size, distance and scale of the Solar System along the 2km route. The Demense is also home to I-Lofar, the Irish station of a European-wide network of state-of-the-art radio telescopes, used to observe the Universe at low frequencies.

Astronomy continues today to provide us with more and more information about the universe and our place in it. Innovation in space exploration has given us everything from foil blankets, scratch resistant glasses, memory form to fire-proof clothes. So look up and appreciate all astronomy has given us. As Stephen Hawking said “to confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

 

Shamrock Science for St Patrick’s Day

A little shamrock science for St Patrick’s Day. Shamrock usually refers to either the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover, Irish: seamair bhuí) or Trifolium repens (white clover, Irish: seamair bhán). However, other three-leaved plants—such as Medicago lupulina, Trifolium pratense, and Oxalis acetosella—are sometimes called shamrocks. The shamrock was traditionally used for its medicinal properties and was a popular motif in Victorian times.

The botanist Carl von Linné in his 1737 work Flora Lapponica identifies the shamrock as Trifolium pratense, mentioning it by name as Chambroch. However, results from various surveys show that there is no one “true” species of shamrock, but that Trifolium dubium (Lesser clover) is considered to be the shamrock by roughly half of Irish people, and Trifolium repens (White clover) by another third, with the remaining fifth split between Trifolium pratense, Medicago lupulina, Oxalis acetosella and various other species of Trifolium and Oxalis. None of the species in the survey are unique to Ireland, and all are common European species, so there is no botanical basis for the widespread belief that the shamrock is a unique species of plant that only grows in Ireland.

International Women’s Day 2022

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th and is an opportunity to talk about how we can all make a difference in the work we do with regards to gender equality, equity and inclusion. The theme this year is #breakthebias. It cuts across all areas in society and life and is of course relevant to science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM]. According to research, there are well over 100,000 jobs in STEM in Ireland. However, while women have made huge progress in some scientific fields, just 25% of those working in Ireland’s STEM industries are women. Recent research by Accenture Ireland has highlighted the continuing disparity between young women and young men when it came to their future careers. Only 29% of those surveyed felt that students are given enough information about potential future careers while they are in schools, but females are less likely to think so – 20% versus 39% males.

As an organisation committed to an equity informed approach to science outreach, Midlands Science has made a deliberate decision in its programming to target gender as an issue  in its programme curation and recent years have seen a 10% increase in female participation and role models are key to this approach. The voluntary board of trustees of Midlands Science is currently 57% female and the independent expert advisory group is 66% female. This includes Caroline Brazil, Accenture, Dr Aisling Twohill, DCU, Anne Scally, Pro-activ HR, Dr Helena Bonner, RSCI, Patricia Nunan, Hibernia College and Anne Naughton, TUS Midlands Midwest. These women who work in technology, education, science and recruitment all understand the need for greater female participation in STEM and the reasons are not just about diversity and inclusion. Science functions best when it considers a wide range of different perspectives and responds to the needs of everyone in society. When science excludes women, it excludes talented future scientists, as well as fresh perspectives that could be used to approach problems in a different way. In general, research has shown that diverse workplaces are happier and more productive, suggesting that STEM organizations and companies could do better for themselves by being more inclusive.

This has practical implications. For example, in 2017, a study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that men’s odds of survival were 23% higher than women when it came to resuscitation in public.  The study found receiving CPR in public in general is still rare, and there was no significant gender difference when it came to CPR in the home. But in public, researchers said the data could indicate that people are less comfortable delivering CPR to a woman they do not know because it requires touching the chest. A “Womanikin” was developed in respond to this research. This meant adding breasts to mannequins to  normalise giving CPR to a woman. While CPR training is now thankfully common, most people still learn on a male torso and that torso was probably designed by men, so the difference in outcomes a design might make wasn’t thought of sufficiently at design stage. It’s the same for car crash dummies. It is only recently that car manufacturers have used female car crash dummies in testing. Dummies for decades have been based on the average, 50th percentile male body. According to a 2011 University of Virginia Center for Applied Biomechanics study, that meant female drivers involved in crashes had a 47% greater chance of serious injury than their male counterparts, and a 71% higher chance of a moderate injury.

You can learn more about International Women’s Day on www.internationalwomensday.com and by searching the hashtag #breakthebias.

Getting ready for Engineers Week 2022

STEPS Engineers Week, run by the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme, promotes engineering to children in Ireland. STEPS Engineers Week 2022 takes place from Saturday, 5 – Friday, 11 March. During STEPS Engineers Week, engineering is celebrated across Ireland, with primary and secondary children the target audience. The main aim of the week is to promote engineering – and to show the importance of the profession – to children in Ireland.

The Engineers Ireland STEPS programme, which promotes engineering and the importance of the profession to children in Ireland, is funded by the Department of Education and Skills and industry leaders ARUP, EPA, ESB, Intel and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII).

Midlands Science promotes Engineers Week in the midlands through a range of school outreach activities for primary and secondary schools. This will of course include some workshops exploring the work of the most famous movie engineer Dr Tony Stark, as we explore the Ironman Engineering with Dr Barry Fitzgerald.

Everyone can think like an engineer and engineering thinking can be applied to everyday problems. Here’s an example with socks!

There are 20 different socks, of two types, in a drawer in a completely dark room. What is the minimum number of socks you should grab to ensure you have a matching pair?

This example of brainteasers for engineers is apparently used in interviews for software engineers.

The answer is 11. If you pick up three socks they could still be all of same type, even if the odds are 50%. Odds do not equal reality. So the only way to ‘ensure you have a matching pair’ is to pick up 11 of the 20 socks.