Friday Fun Fact: Irish seminarians were used as guinea pigs to test voltage

Another fun fact thanks to Sean Dukes book, How Irish Scientists Changed the World.

Fr Nicholas Callan use seminarians as a way to measure voltage

Fr Nicholas Callan

Fr Nicholas Callan

In 1836 Fr Nicholas Callan started developing the induction coil, a type of transformer which produces high voltages from a low DC supply. However, at the time there were no instruments which could test the coils range of voltages. Using what he had to hand, the resourceful Fr Callan got a number of seminarians to hold hands. Fr Callan would then assess the voltage by seeing how high the last two students jumped in the air. Famously, one of the student once was knocked unconscious, the future Archbishop of Dublin William Walsh.

After this happened, Fr Callan was forbidden to experiment on students so he used turkeys. Attaching electrodes to a turkeys head, Fr Callan would deem the step up in voltage good if the turkey was killed by electrocution.


Friday Fun Fact: The world’s first person known to be killed by a car was Irish

So this weeks fun fact comes from Sean Dukes book, How Irish Scientists Changed the World.

Mary Ward was the world’s first person known to be killed by a car

Mary Ward was an Anglo-Irish scientist during the 1800’s and she was one of only three women on the mailing list for the Royal Astronomical Society. However, despite her work in astronomy and microscopy, she is best known was the world first person to be killed by a car.

Mary Ward, Irish scientist and first person to be killed by a car

Mary Ward, Irish scientist and first person to be killed by a car

In late August 1869, Mary Ward, her husband Henry Ward, 5th Viscount Bangor were visiting her cousin William Paerson, the 3rd Earl of Rosse in present day Birr, County Offaly. William Parsons sons, Richard Clare Parsons (whom was 18 at the time), Charles Algernon Parson (whom was 15) had built a steam powered car which they would drive around the family estate. During her visit the Parson boys took Mary Ward for a drive, but she fell off and a wheel of the car ran over her braking her neck.

Friday Fun Fact: It is Possible for Mammals to Breathe Liquid

So this weeks fun fact comes from the pages of science fiction or it would seems that way. But great science fiction is based on great science.

It is Possible for Mammals to Breathe Liquid

Given some life experience, and adult human might say that breathing in liquid will soon get you a Darwin Award, and they would be somewhat right. Somewhat. Breathing in liquid is something that we all have done, in the bath tub or at the pool, and I think we can all agree that it is something that would rather avoid. But the liquid we have most experience breathing is water. Mammals can not breathe water but we can breathe some liquids.


Octadecafluoronaphthalene, or perfluorodecalin to its friends

Step in oxygen-rich liquid, perfluorocarbon (PFCs). Comprised of only carbon and fluorine atoms, this liquid can have large volumes of gases dissolved into it, making it the perfect liquid to breathe. But don’t take my word for it, take James Camerons. In his 1982 movie, The Abyssthere is a scene (with some questionable animal ethics)  in which a rat is submerged into a pinkish liquid and survives.

But what about adult humans? Well, as far as I can tell, there have been no experiments on human adults breathing PFCs, other than some talk of the US Navy Seals. But newborns on the other hand are a different story. Step in Professor Emeritus, Pediatrics, and Physiology at Temple University, Thomas Shaffer. During the 1990s, Shaffer and others found that using the liquid breathing system on children born before 28 weeks increased survival rates from 5% to 60%

Friday Fun Fact: Banana Plants “Walk” Up to 40 Centimetres in a Lifetime

There is quite a lot of things people think they know about the banana, but like a lot of things that are common knowledge, they are mistaken. But one of the more interesting aspects of banana biology is the basis of today’s fun fact.

Banana Plants “Walk” Up to 40 Centimetres in a Lifetime

A banana plant

Banana plant

The reason they walk comes down to how they are cultivated. Bananas for human consumption are all clones of a single plant selectively bred to produce the delicious yellow berry (bananas are considered type of berry). The plants are grown asexually from offshoots of the plant. Generally, there are two shoots at any one time, one that is used immediately and one that will yield bananas in 7 months time. As the shoots grow along the ground rather than downwards, the pseudostem that produces the bananas can move slightly over the years. Thus the “walking”.

Some other things about bananas you might like to know:

There is no such thing as a banana tree. The correct term is banana plant. This comes down to the fact that banana plants do not contain a woody stem. As such they can not be defined as trees. Rather, they are herbs.

The wild type banana is rather different from the banana that is made from human consumption. Wild type bananas are rounder and contain a number of large, hard seeds.

Wild Type banana

Wild Type banana, notice the large seeds inside

There is a rather large diversity of banana species, writing in The New YorkerMike Peed had the following to say about the diversity.

There are fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubblegum pink; green-and-white striped bananas with pulp the color of orange sherbet; bananas that, when cooked, taste like strawberries. The Double Mahoi plant can produce two bunches at once. The Chinese name of the aromatic Go San Heong banana means ‘You can smell it from the next mountain.’ The fingers on one banana plant grow fused; another produces bunches of a thousand fingers, each only an inch long.

Sources: QI

Problems with fluoride

The following was a letter to the Editor of the Irish Times dated July 4 2012

Sir, – My two spaniels (Mel and Lou) drink rainwater in preference to tap water containing fluoride.

Animal instinct is worth noting when even the dogs in the street are aware of something unnatural grouped with bromine, chlorine and iodine in our drinking water.

Their teeth, by the way, are in perfect condition! – Yours, etc,



To which I wrote the following letter which was published on the July 5 2012

A chara, – Dermot Carberry (July 4th) brings up the old “problem” of water fluoridation, calling us to take heed of his pet dogs who prefer rainwater to tap water. Stating that his dogs’ teeth are in perfect condition might be a good example of a common saying, “correlation does not imply causation”. Time and time again, metadata analysis of independent experiments have shown that fluoridation is beneficial in preventing tooth decay.

Saying that “animal instinct is worth noting”, I can think of a few animal instincts that dogs have that humans might find less than palatable. – Is mise,



Every so often the issue of water fluoridation comes into the public forum and it is the same old story. Fluoride causes cancer/autism/insert some more scaremongering here, we shouldn’t have it in our water. As my letter stated a number of independent studies have shown that  fluoride is safe and does prevent tooth decay. How do I know this? Thanks to a little thing called the Cochrane Collaboration.

The Cochrane Collaboration (CC) “…aims to provide compiled scientific evidence to aid well-informed health care decisions. It conducts systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials of health care interventions and tries to disseminate the results and conclusions derived from them.” [Via wiki] Basically, the CC collects data from randomised controlled trials, the gold standard in scientific experimentation, puts it all together and sees if the data is positive, negative or insufficient to draw a conclusion. What makes this method powerful is it takes data from all studies that fit the criteria of the study, regardless of the conclusions of the individual studies. This means that any bias in a single study can be cancelled out by the other non-biased ones.

The anti-fluoride lobby really gets on my nerves for one major reason, for the most part they use scaremongering rather than discussing the real reason behind their fears, a common tactic. Often the real reason the anti-fluoride lobby is against fluoride in the water comes down to “mass medication”. That is to say objecting to having something put into a food stuffs without the consent of the person consuming it nor offering an alternative. On this issue, I feel that we should talk about this. We should take about with ethics behind such a system, but the anti-fluoride lobby are doing themselves no favours in using unfounded scientific claims to try to get their way in an underhanded manner.

Bottom-line, if you have a problem with something, say it as it is, don’t try to achieve your aim in am underhanded manner.

Friday Fun Fact: The Person that Coined the Term Electron was Irish

This weeks post is a fact which I only discovered myself this week and is yet another Irish contribution to the world of science.

The Person that Coined the Term Electron was Irish

 George Johnstone Stoney

George Johnstone Stoney b.1826 d.1911

George Johnstone Stoney was an Irish physicist who became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Queen’s College, Galway, which is NUI Galway today. During his life time he published 75 papers, mainly in the journals of the Royal Dublin Society. Carrying out much of his scientific work at the laboratory at the RDS, he was the first person to receive the RDS Boyle Medal in 1899.

While he worked on a whole host of areas, from cosmic physics, to the theory of gases, to the gearing for bicycles and tricycles, he is most well known for his work on the “atom of electricity”. Proposing the term “electron” for this atom of electricity in 1891, his work was the bases of the particles discovery in 1897 by JJ Thomson.  After Thomson’s discovery, an Irish Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, George FitzGerald, proposed calling them electrons and the name stuck. By sheer coincidence, FitzGerald was Stoney’s nephew.

Stoney died in London in 1911 but he is buried in St Nahi’s Church, Dundrum.

George Johnstone Stoney's grave in  St Nahi’s Church, Dundrum.

George Johnstone Stoney’s grave in St Nahi’s Church, Dundrum.

Friday Fun Fact: The flu vaccine is usually grown in fertilised chicken eggs

This is the first of what I hope to be a weekly post, under the heading of Friday Fun Fact. Over the years I have amassed a rather large number of, what I call fun facts, little bit of information which might surprise one. So keep an eye out for my posts! Anyway, onto this weeks Friday Fun Fact.

The Flu Vaccine is Usually Grown in Fertilised Chicken Eggs


Thanks to eggs, millions of people have been vaccinated against influenza


So, why eggs I hear you ask. Well, it all started with the Spanish flu, the world-wide pandemic of 1918. Physicians tried everything and anything to restrict Spanish flu, even resorting to bleeding patients. But there was only one method that showed signs of success, transfusing blood from people who had the flu and recovered into new patients. In the early 1930’s, Ernest William Goodpasture, a physician with an interest in pathology and infectious diseases, working with others at Vanderbilt University, invented a method for growing viruses in chicken embryos and fertilised chicken eggs.

Following on from Goodpasture’s methods, the US military developed the first approved inactivated form of influenza in the early 1940’s. For those who are unaware of how vaccines work, the general idea is that a person become “infected” with a damaged form of the virus they wish to be protected against. The person’s body is fooled into thinking that this inactive version is the real deal and as such creates antibodies that attack the virus, signing the body to basically, eat them!

The Future of Flu Vaccination

One of the major draw backs of using eggs is that the vaccinations produced from them can be somewhat troublesome for people with egg allergies. But there is hope as there is ongoing research into non-egg based methods of vaccination production. One such method is to use animal cells in large vats. This would bypass the need for eggs, but also it would be rather easy to scale up the production.

The other week while I was attending ESOF2012 (my posts about the event can be found here), I attended a talk by one of the rock stars of science, Dr Craig Venter (you can see Venter’s ESOF2012 talk at here) . During the talk he talked about he work in synthetic biology, he talked about how his institute, the J. Craig Venter Institute, is sequencing flu viruses from infected animals and humans, creating a database of known viral genomes. What’s more, they are creating a programme with will predict the rate of mutation that will occur in flu viruses. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Institute is creating synthetic segments of these every flu virus. What this means is that when a new virus appears, it is sequenced by World Health Organization and within 12 hours of getting the sequence data, the Institute has created a synthetic copy of the genome, which is sent off for large-scale production to create the vaccination.

But the most amazing part of all this is that they think they should be able to predict what the virus will be before it occurs each year and before WHO states what the vaccination should be for that year. Meaning that the J. Craig Venter Institute would have the vaccinations ready for scale up long before it is needed. The power of science eh?