As the amazing Young Scientist Show hits 50, Tony Scott recalls its humble origins

BTYSTE

Every January, the success of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition means that science – for one week at least – is guaranteed the nation’s attention. Photo Credit (BTYSTE)

This year the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition celebrates its 50th year. Dr Tony Scott, retired UCD Physicist, and co-founder, along with Fr Tom Burke (deceased) has many cherished memories of the show down the decades.

“The first one was held in January 1965,” recalled Tony. “We had about 220 projects – with Aer Lingus’s support we booked the round room of the Mansion House. Then based on the projects we picked judges and just told them to judge. The projects were divided into boys and girls and they were all individuals.”

It’s a long time ago. Some of the stories making news in January ’65 were the death of Winston Churchill; the first meeting (in 43 years) of an Irish Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, with a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill; and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson for a second term as the President of the US.

Beginnings

The idea for the Show followed a 1963 visit to New Mexico by Tony with Fr Burke – his mathematics teacher at Terenure College and by now his colleague in the UCD department of Physics. ‘Fr Tom’, as Tony called him, had gone out to the US first, and reported back to Tony on something interesting he saw there.

The two UCD researchers had been invited to visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology, based in Socorro, a small-ish town in the Rio Grande Valley, 74 miles south of Albuquerque. The Americans wanted the Irish to build a replica of something that was called ‘the Nolan Photoelectric Nucleus Counter’.

This device had been named after its inventor, Professor Patrick Nolan – the  Chair of the UCD Geophysics Department up until his 1964 retirement. It was, and is, the standard instrument used around the world to measure condensation nuclei – the tiny particles upon which vapour condenses during cloud formation.

Fr Tom went out to New Mexico first, Tony recalls jokingly, because “I had more exam papers to correct than he had”. Before long, Fr Tom was in touch with Tony about something that he had seen that engaged his keen interest. “He got back to me and said there is a young man out here who is building a rocket,” said Tony. “It will go up one mile and he wants to demonstrate it. The morning after I arrived we went to the schoolyard of the local primary school in Socorro.”

At the school, the Irish scientists met a young man called Gary, recalls Tony, who was setting up a rocket. They started chatting, and he said that he planned to enter his rocket project into a science fair that was being held in Albuquerque. Fr Tom stayed on to attend the fair. He arrived back at UCD in September 1963, talked to Tony and asked: “Could we do it here in Ireland?” It was agreed that, yes, it could be done, but that a sponsor was needed. Tony had a contact in Aer Lingus, and they presented the idea to the General Manager JF Dempsey. “He took to it immediately,” said Tony. Thus began a fruitful 32-year sponsorship.

“For the first 10 years or so until 1975 we never had group projects,” said Tony. “It was all individual. Fr Tom wanted individuals because I think that’s what he saw in Albuquerque.” Tony, however, put the case for group projects. “I said Tom, we are doing research together, we are publishing together, therefore, aren’t WE a group?” Tony’s point was taken and from 1976 onwards group projects were taken. One other big development in the 1970s came in 1973 when projects from Northern Ireland were first accepted. Up to, it was Republic only.

The Show was growing – slowly – but it was still felt that it needed the official ‘imprimatur’ of a big scientific name to back it. The biggest name of all in Irish science in the 1970s was Ernest Walton, TCD’s legendary atom splitter, and Nobel laureate. Walton, who was in the twilight of his career, supported the show by just being there. “He was an incredibly shy man,” recalls Tony. “He wouldn’t push himself forward as a Nobel Prize winner, he was a modest man. He would drift in, walk around and people would say – look, he split the atom!”

In the 1980s, the Show hit a milestone when it surpassed 400 entries, which at the time was the limit that the RDS could comfortably accommodate. This meant that, for the first time, it would be necessary to ‘screen’ entries for quality. Tony, along with Professor Sean Corish, Head of the Chemistry Department at TCD, acted as the first screening judges. The need for screening has increased over the years, as the number of entries has increased. These days, the RDS can manage to accommodate 550 projects, but, this year, there were some 2,000 entrants.

Success

The Show has become so successful that only about one-quarter of the entrants now make it into the hall. This is a double-edged sword, because on the one hand it means that all the projects on exhibition are of high quality, but those that don’t make it – an increasing number – are left disappointed. Of course, everyone could be accommodated in a larger venue, but, Tony believes, the Show gains a lot by its association with the RDS. “The venue is one of the best in the country, in terms of hotels and transport available,” said Tony. Furthermore, he said, BT are now offering E200 bursaries for exhibitors that live more than 75km from Dublin. This pays for the train up and down and for Bed and Breakfast.

Aer Lingus ended its sponsorship of the Show in 1997 because they wanted to put their money into something that better reflected the global reach of the airline. For the first time in decades, Tony and Fr Tom had to go looking for a new sponsor. Aer Lingus had been brilliant, said Tony, and they provided flights home from Rome for Fr Tom, when needed, and cabin crew to ‘work the floor’.

In 1998, Esat Telecom came in as a new sponsor; in 1999 it was Esat Fusion, and then in 2000 BT  came onboard. “BT bring 150 staff, out of 800 in Ireland, so it’s not just the money – it’s the money and the infrastructure of the people that’s crucial. The BT ‘red coats’ are there to help the students and public during the day, and the young people at nighttime when they have discos. The Show is one of biggest that BT’s is involved with – impressive considering BT was the official communications partner at the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Judging

The way that projects are judged has changed over the years. In the beginning the judging process was far less organized, but the overall winners were still outstanding. These days the judges mark projects under specific headings including originality, scientific content, and communication ability. These days some projects are so sophisticated that outside experts are called in to judge.

However, Tony, despite the growing complexity of some projects, said he always uses the same basic approach when judging projects. “I sit down with them, – that’s very important – I’m not towering over them,” said Tony. “I always ask the same three questions: What did you set out to do? How did you do it? What did you find? I may interrupt you from time to time – tell me your stories!”

The quality of the winners has remained consistently very high. This can be judged by the success of winners of the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) at equivalent European and international young scientist competitions. “If you take the last 24 years, we have got a first in Europe on 15 occasions,” said Tony. That’s impressive even given that there are three winners in Europe each year, in different categories. Ireland also does well, said Tony, at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) each year, which involves entrants from all the US states, and 49 countries, including the giants – Russia and China.

This success of BTYSTE has attracted international attention, and the UK has imitated it with a similar – though not identical – show called ‘The Big Bang – UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair’. In an interesting recent development there is now a Tanzania version of the Show, and, if that works, there is the possibility that it could be expanded into other African nations, said Tony.

The Tanzania connection grew out of the work of the Combat Disease of Poverty Consortium based at NUI Maynooth. This led representatives of the Tanzanian government came to have a look at the Show and they liked what they saw. They came to the Board of the BTYSTE and asked for help setting something similar up. The Board gave the Africans everything, materials, forms, judging materials, and the Irish government, through Irish Aid, also came in behind the venture.

The first YS Tanzania show was held in October 2012 and the winners were three girls, Monica Shirima, Nengai Moses and Aisha Nduka from Kibosho Girls Secondary School, situated in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. The girls and their teacher visited the 2013 BTYSTE in Dublin. They got a warm welcome – and that helped them adjust from temperatures in the 30s Celsius to below 10C values.

The January 2014 show – the 50th – will be visited by the vast majority of previous winners stretching back to the first winner John Monaghan, the biotech entrepreneur now living in California, and several will this year act as judges. Some past winners remain prominent on the Irish scientific landscape. Professor Luke Drury (1969) is the Director of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies; Professor Ronan McNulty (1985), is a leading particle physicist based at UCD; and Patrick Collison (2005) who became a millionaire, aged 19, when, along with his brother he sold his software company, Auctomatic for E3 million.

As the show reaches its half century milestone Tony is glad that it is doing so well, with an excellent sponsor in BT and numbers of project applications growing each year. It has been a remarkable success story, and that success has meant that Irish science, for one week at least, always gets the nation’s attention.

Tony’s one regret is that Fr Tom is not around to celebrate the 50th. However, in Fr Tom’s memory, a special prize, the Fr Tom Bursary, has been established to recognise the best communicator in an individual project. This is in recognition of the fact that Fr Tom always judged individual students, rather than groups.

As for the future of the Show? Tony says that another exciting development that has proved successful is the addition in recent years of primary school projects. This has grown and grown and last year 120 schools took part. Meanwhile, he believes that despite all the success and the growth that not too much should be done to alter the special chemistry that makes the show at the RDS so popular.

There are 550 entrants each year, which is the optimum number, considering the space constraints and the time demands on the judges (which are all voluntary). If the show got any bigger, or was to be held at a venue outside of the RDS, it might “suffer” said Tony. “It works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2014 edition of Science Spin

The Gene Hunter: Dr Aoife McLysaght, TCD

TEDx Dublin 2012

Aoife McLysaght speakingat the TEDx event in Dublin in 2012 [Credit: Science Gallery]

In World War 11 the RAF hired a statistician called Abraham Wald to analyse planes returning from air combat. Metal was scarce, and the idea was to only re-inforce the most vulnerable parts of the planes. The parts of returning aircraft that made it home full of bullets must be the toughest parts, Wald reasoned, and so a decision was made not to re-inforce these areas, but to use the scarce metal to strenghten the other parts of the aircraft.

Dr Aoife McLysaght, geneticist at TCD, understands Wald’s logic and applies it to her own gene hunting efforts. Dr McLysaght  is identifying genes that are most sensitive to being hit with ‘bullets’ – which in genetic terms means being hit with random gene mutations. This is important because it is known that in certain sensitive genes – right across all living species – having too many copies of a particular gene, or too few, can result in a disease.

School

Dubliner, Aoife, attended her local national school before attending St Andrew’s College, on Booterstown Avenue. She recalled that she although there wasn’t too much science taught in primary school, she was very interested and engaged by such science as was on offer. In particular, Aoife remembers presenting a science project with her best friend in sixth class, which involved explaining aspects of the weather to other pupils and teachers.

I had fun little demonstrations, to do with the power of wind and air,” Aoife recalled. “We had a plastic bag with a book on top of it. We got the opening of the bag and blew into it and showed that it would lift the book. We also had a glass milk bottle, with a baloon on top that was not inflated. We placed the bottle into a jug of really hot water, and the air would expand and inflate the baloon. I remember have loads of fun doing that,” she said.

Her interest in science was strongly established by the time she attended St Andrews. She remembers that she was always engaged with science, and actively listened to the teachers, so that information went in, making life much easier when it came to passing the exams. When the leaving certificate rolled around Aoife chose to do Biology and Chemistry, but not Physics. She believes that was a mistake in hindsight as she always enjoyed physics.

Instead she chose to study geography, because it was regarded as a science subject by the universities. This was a mistake, she says now, because while she enjoyed physical geography – such as explanations of why earthquakes occur – she did not at all like social geography, which for her involved too much memorising of lots of very dull information. Her experience has told her in the years since, that people will succeed at what they enjoy. That was proven when her geography result proved her worst leaving certificate result.

At St. Andrews, she was inspired by the efforts of a great teacher, Dr Nick Frewin, a PhD holder, who taught her science and biology. “He was just really good,” recalled Aoife. “He spent a lot of time clearly explaining things, had well planned lessons, and there was a lot in it beyond the course. He was well liked enough for people to write him letters when he was retiring. When I did genetics, there was a class of 12 people, and three of those have been his [Dr Frewin] students, and [in] the year behind me we had another one,” said Aoife.

The role of the teacher is crucial, says Aoife, and she cited the example of the many people that say they can’t do maths. “The number of people who think they can’t do maths is too high – there are a lot of people that have been put off maths. They stop trying because they think they can’t do maths. The students underestimate their own abilities. Students should allowed have a bit of fun with maths. Games and puzzles for example,” said Aoife.

Recently, Aoife recieved a prestigious European Research Council grant – which are only given to the top tier of scientists in Europe – to try and identify disease causing genes. The aim she said is identify those genes that are vulnerable to changes in quantity. This might involve a reduction in the copies of genes, or too many copies. There is a certain amount of variation in the number of copies of genes between people, and it’s common. However, in some people in certain genes variations in gene quantities increase disease vulnerability.

This is an evolutionary approach to genetics, explained Aoife. The goal is to see which genes have tolerated changes in amount – high or low – over evolutionary time and which have not. The identification of those genes that have proven intolerant to change over evolution can provide a key to which genes are linked to disease today, the reasoning goes. “There is variation in [[gene] copies, because mutations happen,” explained Aoife. “DNA is a chemical that copies itself in cell division, and this is an easy mistake that happens a lot.”

Once the sensitive genes that have been linked to disease have been clearly identified, then it becomes possible to develop better and more precise ways to diagnose disease. Following on from that, if there are improved methods to diagnose disease at an earlier stage, then it should become possible for scientists to develop better disease treatments and therapies.

Communicator

Aoife is also one of the best scientist-communicators in Ireland, and is regularly invited to speak in schools and at public lectures about her work and its implications for society. She believes that it is important that some scientists communicate with the public, but she also acknowledges that although she enjoys this activity, not every scientist will feel the same.

It is important that some of us do it, and there is support for that. I mean that it is recognised as a valid part of the job. A valid activity, that it is respected. Sometimes people might think it is a trivial activity. I don’t think that. I see science as part of our culture, we should all have access to that. A lot of people love music, but don’t have the intention of being a musician. It’s the same with science – people should have access to it,” she said.

For Aoife, science is about the ability to learn, to deduce, to understand something, even when it is not visible to the naked eye. It involves being able to think long-term, beyond our own lives. Science is exciting, interesting, dynamic, but it is a big mistake to try and push it onto people. It is also a mistake, she believes, for the Irish government, or any government to get too closely involved in deciding how funding for science should be spent. It would be better to fund the best people than to fund certain areas, she said.

She has some advice for young people that might be considering science as a career. “When I was young, I didn’t know you could be a scientist, I didn’t know any scientists. I didn’t know what I would end up being, if I studied science. My mum said to me, do what you enjoy the the job will follow. It’s very optimistic, but I kind of subscribe to that,” she said.

This article was first published in Science Spin, May-June 2013 issue.

Ireland’s earthquake watchers

This article was first published in Science Spin, in March 2010.

Ireland might not experience strong earthquakes, like many other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean there is no interest here in earthquakes. The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) is part of a Europe-wide network of earthquake monitoring stations, which means it gets scientific information on significant earthquake events, no matter where they occur around the globe, within minutes of them occuring. DIAS also has established a very popular seismology in schools programme, where students and their teachers do their own earthquake monitoring, whether that involves a small local event, or a massive event like recently in Haiti.

The faultline responsible for the Haitian earthquake can be seen in this image on the right,  starting in the foreground, and cutting through the mountains in a NW to SE orientation. This faultline, called the Enriquillo Plantium Garden Fault, was captured by a NASA satellite image. Geologists had been warning for more than 20 years that a major earthquake could occur along this faultline. [Credit: NASA] 

The earthquake that hit Haiti on the 12th January happened at 21:53. By 10:10 Tom Blake, the man in charge of earthquake monitoring and the seismology in schools programme at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) had received an automatic SMS message to his phone, from the European seismic network, informing him that it had occurred and its strength.Though the earthquake had occurred some 5,000 miles away, Tom had received details about the event less than 20 minutes later in Dublin to his mobile phone.

The earthquake was ‘shallow’ meaning it had occurred close to the surface, its epicentre was close to the capital city Port Au Prince, and there was a tsunami warning. The likelihood was that buildings were not earthquake-proof in this very poor country, and there was potential for very large loss of life in densely populated Port Au Prince. DIAS is part a Europe-wide network of seismic, or earthquake monitoring stations organised by Potsdam University.

There is a mobile phone alert system in place so that when an earthquake greater than 6 on the Richter scale occurs anywhere in the world then members of the network are alerted by SMS message. “At that time the advised magnitude was 7.2, so I knew immediately that this was going to be a serious event,” said Tom of the Haitian earthquake. ” I checked our own monitoring station in the Dublin mountains and saw that the ‘P wave’ took just nine minutes to arrive from Haiti, and there was quite a strong surface wave element to it. So, I knew there would be serious casualties.”

WAVES

The nature of the seismic waves associated with an earthquake, the so-called P and S waves, is vital, as along with the overall power of the earthquake, as determined by the Richter scale measurement, these are what will determine the extent of the damage done to buildings and the likely loss of life.

The bulk energy created by an earthquake is contained in the P wave, and this travels out from the epicentre of the earthquake – the location where rocks moved and pressure and energy was released – at a speed of about 10km per second. The S waves, or surface waves, are slower. They travel at about 60 per cent of the speed of the P waves, over the surface of the earth, but they are deadly. It is the S waves that can cause the Earth to ripple and buckle and cause buildings to collapse in a heap.

HAITI

The reason that powerful earthquakes occur in Haiti has to do with the fact that two massive tectonic plates, or pieces of the earth’s crust, come together there. These plates are called the Caribbean Plate and the North Atlantic Plate. They are moving, albeit very slowly past each other, but sometimes at the edges the plates can lock, preventing movement and leading to a build up of pressure. When that happens the only possible outcome is the pressure builds until the plates move rapidly in relation to one another, causing huge pressure to be released – this is an earthquake.

Earthquakes of the power of the 12th January event are rare in Haiti and the last one of this size to occur there was two centuries ago.

The margins of these giant tectonic plates occur in the northern and southern part of Haiti, and there is a big fault running right through the island, which is visible from space, along which the plates can move. It was movement along this fault that caused the recent earthquake. Thankfully, for the beleaguered people of Haiti the fault associated with the earthquake was a strike-slip fault, which means plates glide past each other, rather than a thrust fault, where one plate moves over another.

The importance of the difference, in human terms, is huge, because movement on thrust faults, when offshore, as this earthquake was, can result in the displacement of large amounts of water, which in turn can trigger a tsunami. At least the Haitian people avoided a killer tsunami.

There were some clues that Haiti was due for a big earthquake, had anyone been looking. Haiti, in seismic terms had been relatively quiet for some time compared to its neighbour on the same island the Dominican Republic. The movement along the Haitian fault had stopped. This led to a big build up of strain, as the two huge plates struggled to continue their movement past each other. The build up inevitably led to a massive rupture as the two big plates rapidly moved to relieve the pressure.

Unlike Haiti, San Francisco has a sophisticated earthquake monitoring system, and when there is a lack of movement across the San Andreas fault, scientists take note, and people start to worry. The reason is that if there is movement along the fault, pressure is being dissipated. If there is no movement, there is a build up of stress, and no-one has much idea of how, when or where that stress is going to be released, or whether the release will trigger a major earthquake event or not.

The lack of monitoring was a problem for Haiti, as was their poor building standards, and also, the bad luck that the earthquake occurred at a time of the evening when people were mostly inside relaxing in their homes, or apartments. But, these are small mercies, as earthquake proof buildings, such as are seen in San Francisco or Tokyo are too expensive for Haitian people to construct. Such building are designed to withstand an earthquake of 7 on the Richter Scale – about the size of the Haitian earthquake. So, in those cities, a similar earthquake would not cause such huge damage.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, many survivors of the Haitian earthquake refused to go inside buildings again, even when they were still standing, and preferred to sleep outside. This, in fact, was an entirely sensible thing to do, as the threat from strong aftershocks was significant. Geologists understand that strong aftershocks can occur up to 15 days after major earthquakes and that is what happened in Haiti with one aftershock recording 6.1 on the Richter Scale.

DONEGAL

Ireland does experience earthquakes, albeit very small ones compared to Haiti, and the two regions that are most prone to the shakes, are Donegal and Wexford. On the 7th January 2010 Donegal had an earthquake of 1.5, and shortly after that, another one, this time measuring 1.7. The reason why Donegal gets more earthquake activity than most of the rest of the country is that it is part of the major structural fault system that extends right down from Scotland. There is movement of rocks along the fault, which can result in release of pressure and energy and cause minor tremors.

“A lot of people felt it, and the schools have a recording of it,” said Tom Blake of DIAS. “St Egneys a primary school had the recordings. People in Donegal are very clued in to earthquakes. They are alerted by the sound of rumbling and the erratic behaviour of animals, dogs or cats, that go berserk almost. The erratic behaviour of animals has been reported around the world as the precursor to earthquakes.”

If people are interested in finding out more about the Irish monitoring network they should clickhere.

To see a record of all the earthquakes that have been recorded in Ireland throughout historical time. The DIAS would also encourage people that felt the Donegal tremors to fill out an earthquake questionnaire on the site.

1984

The year of ‘Big Brother’ is also the year when the largest earthquake ever reported in Ireland occurred off the coast of Anglesea, measuring 5.4 on the Richter Scale. “That was felt by a lot of people along the east coast and it caused structural damage along the east coast,” recalled Tom. “I remember feeling the earthquake at home, and I said my God there has been an earthquake. My wife thought I was mad. Then when I got into DIAS the phones were hopping. It happened in the morning. There was a blue sky, absolutely no wind, sunny morning in Dublin, deadly calm. So, when I heard the rumbling I felt what else could it be? And our doors fell off.”

MÉDECINS SANS FRONTIÉRES

One of the first organisations to go into action following the quake was Médecins Sans Frontiéres, an organisation delivering medical care to areas devastated by war, poverty or natural disasters, such as this one. Some of the MSF staff who were already in Haiti since 1991 are among the dead and missing, and according to doctors working in improvised conditions under canvas, they have never had to deal with so many serious injuries. MSF has managed to send in additional medical staff, and one of their tasks is to set up mobile clinics to replace those that have been destroyed.
To find out more about MSF in Ireland click here

Ireland emerges as marine surveying ‘superpower’

We live on a tiny island, situated off the west coast of Europe with a landmass of just 70,273 square km (Republic). That’s a bit smaller than the US state of South Carolina, and a bit larger than the state of West Virginia.

Ours is not a nation blessed with rich deposits of coal, oil, or diamonds, for example. We all know we lack natural resources. But, wait. Is that a flawed perception? Recently, the 10th anniversary of the start of large scale marine surveying in Ireland was celebrated at the Seabed 10 Conference in Dublin.

Listening to the presentations of the various researchers involved during a remarkable decade of survey work, it is clear that Ireland does have significant natural resources – at least offshore ones – and that our hitherto mysterious offshore is finally revealing its treasures.

For more click here to read a feature on this subject published in the January 2010 edition of Science Spin.

‘What lies beneath’ becomes clearer

It has always been necessary for archaeologists to ‘dig’ for information. The problem with this is that digging destroys the site. But, a relatively new science, geophysics, can provide ways of ‘looking underground’ without the need to dig.

The big contribution of geophysics to world might be that it ends altogether the need to dig for information, and not just in archaeology. Geophysics can also help Gardai find bodies buried in a large suspected area, or illegal dump sites.

Geophysics 008Click here to read my article on the development of geophysics in Ireland published in the November issue of Science Spin.

Toxicity testing – without killing

A researcher based in UCC has come up with a new approach to testing for toxins in the environment.

It is faster,cheaper and more sensitive than existing methods, and – something that is increasingly important on many levels – it doesn’t involve killing animals.

Professor Dimitri Papkovsky has developed new methods for conducting toxicity tests, simply by adapting and applying some existing testing technology.

Click here to read the article (published in Science Spin, Issue 36, September ’09)

Celebrating Ireland’s ‘father of seismology’

Robert MallettAs a working science journalist in Ireland, it always amazes me how little we celebrate – and I include myself in this group – or even know anything about, some of our most famous, and accomplished scientists.

I came across yet another example of this recently, when it was brought to my attention by Tom Blake, experimental officer in the geophysics section of the Dublin Institute for Advance Studies that next year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Robert Mallet, a Dubliner, recognised around the world as ‘the father’ of the science of seismology.

Robert performed an ingenious experiment on Killiney Beach, where he exploded gunpowder, and measured how the resulting shock wave travelling through rock and sediments down along the beach. This helped to prove his theory that earthquakes were caused by shock waves moving out from an area where rocks had suddently shifted underground.

To read more about Robert click here for article (published in Science Spin, Issue 36, September ’09)

Threatening western waves

Aran RocksThe west coast of Ireland, in places such as the coastline of Co Clare and the Aran Islands, have been repeatedly hit by major storms, and even tsunamis in the past couple of hundred years.

Professor Mike Williams, NUIG, has found evidence, in the form of large ‘megaclast’ rocks, that storms are so powerful that they can lift rocks weighing two tonnes, or more,  up a height of 50 metres (that’s 164 feet)

To read more on this subject, click here for the article (published in the September ’09 issue of Science Spin)

Bugs could stop plastic going to waste

Plastics – particularly those made from petrochemicals, called PET plastics – are very useful for all kinds of purposes. They are, however, also a major contributor to waste landfills.

That is why the research of Dr Kevin O’Connor, UCD is so exciting. He has found three bacteria that can convert used PET into a more valuable form of plastic.

Click here to view full article (published, July ’09 issue, Science Spin)

Landslides, Ireland’s greatest natural hazard

Ireland does not suffer from major earthquakes, nor volcanic eruptions, or major hurricanes. We have few natural hazards, but chief among them is probably landslides, which can occur without warning throughout the country.

The Geological Survey of Ireland has set up a special study group on landslides in an effort to find out more about why landslides occur, and to draw up ‘landslide susceptibility maps’ to help builders and planners plan for the risks.

To find out more, click here to read piece (published, July ’09, Science Spin)