January 17, 2011
What is the link between Friday night snogs at a disco, grandfathers talking about cold pigs in winter to grandsons, immigrant children coming up with their own IT ideas, iPods and teenagers standing too close to the speakers at a Green Day concert?
Why, the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, of course! These everyday events prompted young Irish people – all still in school – to come up with their own inventions, which were on display at the RDS last Friday.
The sense of optimism and the ‘can-do’ attitude on display here among our young generation was in huge contrast to the guff about who runs Fianna FÃ¡il.
Frankly, who cares at this stage?
The teenagers’ sense of purpose and enthusiasm for the possibility of science and technology make me confident about the future.
On display at the RDS last Friday morning was the greatest resource that we have in Ireland – our people, with all our ambitions, idiosyncrasies and spirit.
Consider the story of 16-year-old Shane McCarthy from Blackwater Community School, Co Waterford.
He was talking to his grandad, a farmer from Lismore, about pigs getting cold in the winter.
His granddad didn’t have the money to heat the piggery during the winter, but his father had come up with an ingenious plan to keep the pigs warm.
The old man would find bottles of stout in the local bar and bring them home.
He then buried them in the ground where the pigs slept, and covered them with a thick casing of muck.
The body heat of the pigs descended into the muck, heating up the bottles.
Then, because glass retains heat, the bottles remained hot, keeping the pigs warm in the long winter nights. McCarthy listened to his grandfather at the kitchen table last year explaining the pigs’ central heating.
Aware of the current drive to preserve energy in houses, he wondered if this idea could be applied to buildings.
After a chat with local lads in the building industry, he realised that it could. You could build houses with a layer of bottles between the house and the foundations, insulated by cardboard, and the same effect would manifest itself in huge cost savings on the average house heating bill.
The only constraint, he said, laughing, was the availability of bottles, which is why he and his friends planned to go around their older brothers and sisters’ 18th birthday parties collecting empties.
McCarthy and his fellow students have calculated how much such a measure saves.
A layer of bottles under the average new house produces, on average, 4.77 degrees more heat than a house without the bottles, saving 2.3373 tons of CO2 per year and cutting heating bills by â‚¬477.
Innovation is born of such things.
A little knowledge passed on from father to son to grandson and then modified. And innovation makes economies tick. Throughout the ages, the more innovative the economy, the more productive it is – and the innovative mind will eventually come up with something that can change the world.
So it was that a 40-year-old glass-blower in Pisa in 1306 noticed that, when seen through convex glass, blurry things on the floor of his workshop seemed much clearer.
Thus, the first eyeglasses were born. What this incidental discovery allowed was revolutionary, prolonging the working life of a skilled Italian artisan.
Because the crystalline lens hardens at about 40 and we can no longer see properly, we become long-sighted. So, without glasses, we can’t work with small things, nor can we read words on a page.
Italian artisans with these new convex glasses could work for at least 20 years longer than their contemporaries elsewhere. For two centuries, the Italians guarded their secret and, by the middle of the 15th century, Florence and Venice were making thousands of such glasses, increasing the productivity of Italian cities and extending their advantage over everyone else, creating the wealth that allowed the Renaissance to happen. Such are the enormous historical and cultural implications of innovation.
Beside McCarthy at the Young Scientist Exhibition sat two brothers, Artyom and Kyril Zorin, teenage sons of Russian immigrants.
The boys, who attend St Conleth’s College in Dublin, have developed an amazing open-source operating system called ZorinOS (www.zorin-os.webs.com).
ZorinOS is an extraordinary achievement. The boys have taken the open source operating system Linux and modified it to make it much more user friendly.
It looks and feels like Windows but is much more sophisticated, much less likely to be infected with viruses and much less likely to crash – and the boys are trying to commercialise it.
Why doesn’t one of the state departments – Ireland, for example – buy it from them and use it?
Enterprise Ireland is, after all, supposed to be encouraging local innovation. So why spend millions on Windows operating systems, when we could be supporting the innovation of our own school kids? What have we got to lose?
This go-for-it attitude is encapsulated by Eimear O’Carroll, of www.restoredhearing.com, who told me that the Young Scientist Week was the best week of her school life because she could meet people like herself.
When you are good at maths and science in school, she said, you are in a minority. But at the exhibition, you met people like you, boys who are into ‘‘sums and stuff’’. She met her boyfriend at the disco, as did her classmate, Rhona Togher. But that is not all.
Both girls, one-time students of the Ursuline Convent in Sligo, and both music fans, noticed that after a particularly loud Green Day concert, they kept hearing a ringing in their ears. This condition is known as tinnitus. Togher, now a physics student at UCD, explained that it is caused by a flattening of the minuscule hairs deep inside the ear in the cochlea.
These hairs vibrate to sound: the louder the sound, the more they vibrate until they actually bend over and can’t right themselves, like trees falling in the wind.
The girls realised that if sound, like wind, blew the hairs down, another sound might straighten them.
After comprehensive testing, they developed a product called Somtus to do just this. They have patented the product and it now sells well online at the above website. The innovation won the BT Young Scientist of the Year prize a few years back. These are only a couple of the stories and a small example of the brilliant creative activity the BT Young Scientist encourages. It is a wonderful event and an uplifting experience.
We can only take our hats off and applaud all the teachers who foster and encourage these children and young adults.
After the political week we’ve had, it was a most uplifting way to spend Friday and should give us all confidence that, despite the greed of a few and the financial stupidity of many mandarins and members of the political classes, there is still plenty of genius in Ireland.
The innovative genie, the traditional motor of all economics, only has to be let out of the bottle.