Dissected

 

What's been going on this month

TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOB

AOIFE McLYSAGHT, MOLECULAR EVOLUTION LAB, TCD (AND BANG CONTRIBUTOR)

At parties, what do you say you do?I say I’m a scientist and then watch the funny expression on their face as they say “Oh, I’ve never met one of those!” If they’re lucky I might explain to them how their sandwich is part human, or why we can’t agree on which red Santa hat to pick.

My sandwich is part human? Get out of here!There are genes shared by wheat and humans that are almost identical, so it’s not a complete stretch to say that wheat (and thus bread) contains human genes.

What attracted you to it?The pleasure of finding things out. When you make a scientific discovery you are the first person in the world to know something. It’s thrilling. My favourite taunt is, “I know something about your genome that you don’t know”.

What’s the most amazing fact you know?There are so many fascinating facts it’s hard to pick just one but perhaps my favourite is that there is a physical chain of contact between the DNA in all the cells of all human beings, and indeed in all life. I’ve known that little fact for years but it still blows my mind.

What big breakthrough would you love to see?Effective gene therapies for Cystic Fibrosis.

Will we ever have our own clones?The only people who have clones are identical twins. That’s as it should be.

MAKE A ROCKET

Thanks to Gráinne Ni Shuilleabháin and Barry O’Driscoll of Scoil Phádraig Naofa, Dunmanway, Co Cork, who sent us pictures of an experiment done by fifth class there. How did they make their bottle rockets? They were good enough to explain.

“We used an Alka-Seltzer tablet and quarter filled the ‘little bang’ bottles (Benecol bottles) with water. After popping the tablet into the Benecol bottle we sealed it with its own lid and placed it upside down. The bottle took off and the lid remained on the ground. In the ‘Big Bang’ (right) we quarter-filled a two litre 7UP bottle with water and sealed it with a wine cork (there was a hole in the wine cork to insert a football pump valve) and we pumped the bottle with air until the pressure was such that it took off (leaving the cork after it). Barry had made a little stand to hold it in place.”

ANCIENT XMAS TREES

Scientists thought the Wollemi pine, an ancient conifer that looks like a Christmas tree, had become extinct about two million years ago.

But in 1994 a hiker in Australia discovered a group of about 100 Wollemi pines growing in a remote gorge. Now there is a project to protect the species, which was nicknamed a “pinosaur” because Wollemi pines are thought to have been around in the Jurassic period 200 million years ago.

Scientists discovered the Wollemi pines growing in the wild were genetically similar, which meant that they needed protection more than ever as they might all be susceptible to the same diseases.

The site was kept a secret to stop people trampling in to have a look, and samples of the trees were carefully grown and sent to botanic gardens around the world – including Dublin. Then people could buy them for their own gardens so they could help keep the species safe.

Claire O’Connell

YODA BAT TOPS THE CHARTS

National Geographichas a great gallery of the weirdest new animals discovered in 2010.

Among them are giant leeches, a ninja slug (seriously) and a lizard that clones itself so it doesn’t need males at all (it was found on a Vietnamese restaurant menu. Again, we’re not joking).

But the big star of the year was Yoda Bat – so called because of its similarity to everyone’s favourite small green Jedi.

Also on the list was a sneezing, snub-nosed monkey that was killed by hunters before researchers saw it and was eaten soon afterwards. In all, 200 new plants and animal species were discovered in 2010. For the National Geographic gallery of 10 strangest, check out url.ie/8fwe

2+2 = WAYNE ROONEY

You think that you just need to give a ball a good whack to get it moving? Not so, according to the physicist Michio Kaku, who tells us that sports teams are turning to scientists to find out how to throw and hit a ball better. For more see bigthink.com/ideas/24903

PIMP YOUR SCARECROW

We don’t know what kind of killer birds they have in Germany but they’ve come up with a great way of rigging up a scarecrow that springs to life, lights up and shouts “Achtung, achtung” at any passing blackbirds. Check out the short video on YouTube url.ie/8fww

HOW DO WE KNOW EVERY SNOWFLAKE IS DIFFERENT?

When the snow was coming down outside BANG’s window recently, someone asked the very obvious question: how do we really know every snowflake is different?

The best answer we could come up with was that we don’t know absolutely but, based on scientific observation so far, in which no two identical snowflakes have been seen, it seems probable that no two are alike. But that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that two may be.

Thankfully, New Scientistposted a video on its website of a lab that grows its own snowflakes.

So why are no two snowflakes the same? Because of tiny variations in temperature and humidity. Learn more here: url.ie/8fxe

LOCUSTS FOR DINNER? DELICIOUS

BANG is a big fan of the talks on Ted.com. They are about a vast amount of subjects, from swimming at the North Pole to how easily we fall for magic tricks, but are never more than 18 minutes long.

The one we loved most this month asks the question, “Why shouldn’t we eat insects?” They’re good for you, can be tasty and there are masses of them out there. And, of course, some countries already do it.

That’s our Christmas dinner sorted. Will cranberry sauce go with caterpillar? To see this in action go to YouTube and search “Why Not Eat Insects”

TRON IS ON TONIGHT

You can read about the science of Tron on page 11 but it, and other films, are the subject of an event in Dublin’s Science Gallery at 5.45pm tonight. See sciencegallery.ie