Freezing frog breaks the ice for Famelab winner

Fergus McAuliffe, winner of FameLab 2013. Photograph:  Anna Lythgoe

Fergus McAuliffe, winner of FameLab 2013. Photograph: Anna Lythgoe


The heartwarming story of a freezing frog has earned an Irish researcher the top prize in an international science communication competition.

Fergus McAuliffe from University College Cork won Famelab at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week by spinning the yarn of the North American wood frog (Rana sylvatica), which cheats death in winter by making its own antifreeze to protect its cells as the temperatures plummet.

The creature can survive in its icy state until the warmth of spring, when it “defrosts” and gets on with the business of being a wood frog.

In April McAuliffe won the Irish Famelab competition, which was run by the British Council in conjunction with Newstalk and CPL recruitment, when he told the saga of the freezing frog in three minutes to an audience at the Science Gallery. And last week he repeated the performance at the international Famelab final.

Why the frog?

“My Dad saw it on a nature documentary years ago and when I needed a talk for the Irish final I remembered my Dad telling me about it,” says McAuliffe, whose own PhD has nothing to do with chilly amphibians – he is researching the use of willow trees in wastewater treatment.

“[The wood frog] is a fascinating animal, it blurs the line between life and death as part of its life cycle and uses freezing as a means of surviving the winter.

“While it is not my area of research, I decided to use it in the final as I reasoned that it was a powerful but simple talk, and that it would be easy to remember afterwards.”

McAuliffe says he was thrilled to win in Cheltenham, particularly because it was Ireland’s first time to enter. You can see his performance online here:

It’s not over until the X-ray sings
A segment of Luigi Cherubini’s 1797 opera Médée has long been something of a puzzle. The story goes that the composer blacked out the final lines of the aria “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore” ( or “The terrible disorder that consumes me”) on the manuscript when critics complained of it being too long.

The notes were obscured for more than two centuries. But now it seems the document has given up its secret. Researchers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University used a synchrotron light source and fired X-rays at the manuscript and so they were able to detect the presence of zinc and iron in the ink on the page. This meant they could build up an image of the musical score hiding behind the thick scribbles. You can hear the full piece here (

“We were absolutely thrilled as we were watching the X-ray scanning, when we started to realise that the covered notes were appearing on our computer screen one after the other,” says researcher Uwe Bergmann, interim director of the SLAC Linac Coherent Light Source.

“I spent most of my scientific research on trying to uncover secrets of nature, yet it can be no less exciting to bring to light the composition of a genius that had been lost for centuries.”

Bergmann and SLAC used a similar approach to see text in an early transcription of Archimedes’s mathematical theories, which had been obscured over the centuries.