Thursday, November 17, 2016

Scintillating Science with Dara O'Briain

by Cian O'Regan

Hundreds of people from all over Ireland descended on Dublin's National Concert Hall on Monday for an evening of Scintillating Science hosted by Dara O'Briain.

The night began with O'Briain inviting physicist and professor of science education at UCD, Shane Bergin on stage to conduct a quick hearing test on the audience.

Using oscilloscopes, Bergin tested the crowd's ability to hear different pitches of sound waves - with all but one person(admitting to never have used earphones) being able to hear the highest frequency.

O'Briain and Bergin experimenting with liquid nitrogen
credit: Naoise Culhane
After the first of the evening's experiments, O'Briain was joined on stage by aspiring Irish space farers - STEAM artist and science communicator Niamh Shaw, and Ireland's very own aquanaut Marc O'Griofa.

O'Griofa is a physician, scientist, engineer and an expert diver by trade who works to train astronauts while testing procedures for future space flights.

Admitting that his Irish charm may have had something to do with getting a job at NASA, Marc recently returned from an eight-day mission this past July to conduct science and research for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO)-21 mission.

O'Griofa - who was responsible for flying the first Irish experiment to the International Space Station - conducted a multitude of groundbreaking scientific experiments during his time living on the ocean floor.

The NEEMO-21 crew, which included NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Megan Behnken and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, tested a DNA sequencing device, the operational performance of a HoloLens for human spaceflight cargo transfer, building a coral nursery as well as evaluating various techniques and equipment for a manned mission to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars.

"There's no way to simulate risk if there's no risk there!" O'Griofa replied when asked why NASA sends astronauts training for space station missions to an underwater habitat.

"If there's an emergency, we have to go through a 15-hour decompression to purge the nitrogen out of our system.. It's not as simple as being able to just go out the hatch and swim back up to the surface.."

O'Briain was quick to point out that he had a weightless experience of his own - filming a hysterical yet insightful segment for the popular BBC show 'Stargazing Live' in the Zero-G vomit comet.

From the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the Utah Desert, Niamh Shaw is getting ready to spend a month living and working in a space habitat to simulate a mission to Mars.

Irish aquanaut Marc O'Griofa talks about his NEEMO-21 mission to conduct science
 and research on the ocean floor. credit: Naoise Culhane
In February of next year, Shaw will be part of an international crew to simulate a mission to the red planet at the Mars Desert Research Station(MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah.

During her mission, Niamh will study how living in a confined space(a factor astronauts will have to deal with on a journey to Mars)affects humans both physically and mentally. The MDRS is a two-story cylindrical building eight meters in diameter that can house seven crew members at one time.

Equipped with an airlock to conduct spacewalks, Shaw and her team will have to contend with a sixteen minute delay to mimic real-time communications between astronauts on Mars and Mission Control back on Earth.

After a short break, the theme of the event turned from space to the science of winning, with O'Briain being joined on stage by psychologist Dr Ian Robertson to discuss the science of the brain.

Robertson educated those in attendance with fun facts about the brain. Did you know that the sole purpose of having bends and turns on the majority of our roads is not to avoid hills, mountains and rivers, but to keep the mind of the driver alert and ready to adapt to change?

Jessie Barr - the Irish Olympian who is currently working toward a PhD on the mental well-being in sport - admitted to using this to her advantage in running a 400 meter hurdles race.

"You run that race in about fifty seconds, and with ten hurdles in your way, you've got to be ready and alert all the time.."

Jessie's brother Thomas Barr admitted that he is at the peak of his motivational reasoning having just finished in fourth place in the men's 400m Olympic final in Rio.

Barr attributes this to setting small goals which develop into something big.

"If you asked me beforehand where I hoped to finish in the Olympics, I would have said the final, but sometimes reality goes way beyond your expectations."

Dara O'Briain quizzes Niamh Shaw on her upcoming mission to simulate a
mission to Mars early next year. credit: Naoise Culhane
Similarly Brian Cody, with fourteen All-Ireland medals under his belt as both a player and manager, focuses on achieving small goals before dreaming big.

Now in his nineteenth season at the helm of The Cats, Cody puts a big emphasis on making sure his players are in the right state of mind before setting foot on the pitch.

"You can tell them to be ready for September, but if you don't prepare enough physically and more importantly mentally, then you'll be ready - you just won't be there!"

Cody mentioned that when it comes down to All Ireland Final day - what dictates how well a player is going to perform isn't his fitness - but his state of mind.

O'Briain recalled how golfer Colin Montgomerie would be able to make one hundred four-foot putts in a row in practice, but when it came to making that same, deceptively simple four-footer going down the stretch of a major championship, there was no guarantee that he would sink the putt. But why does this happen?

Well, it all comes back to Marc O'Griofa's point - you can't simulate risk if it's not there!

To bring the evening to a close, Shane Bergin was invited back on stage to conduct the final experiment of the night.

Armed with a tank filled with liquid nitrogen, Bergin and O'Briain attempted to mark the beginning of Science Week with a bang! However, sometimes scientific experiments don't always go according to plan, as was the case when the duo were unsuccessful in their attempts to demonstrate the explosive power of the boiling liquid when sealed in a bottle.

After several minutes with their hands cupping their ears, the audience were happy to leave with their eardrums intact. It is still unclear at this time whether or not the bottle has exploded.

More to follow on this story shortly..