Science & Nature Activities

  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 1

  • By Mr Michael Grehan

    (1)  Feed the Birds – If you don’t already, what a great time to start! Even if you don’t have nut feeders you can put out a tray of seeds on a table or wall or wheelie bin.  For example  finches, robins, blue tits, great tits and sparrows love black sunflower seeds – among other varieties.

    (2)  Photo Competition –  Adapt for garden birds or garden biodiversity in general.

    If you have bird feeders – one or two family members could start a photographic exhibition – preferably zooming in for closer views. A few families or classmates can link up on the web – Judging panel could be parents or on-line grandparents. Prizes could include nice certificates like the ones Mr Stuart Wheeler created for  Science awards.  Prizewiners could also re-enter bigger Photo competitions in the future.

    (3) The Backyard Birdsong Beat – Especially while there is less traffic noise than usual!

    Use your phone. Start a voice recording and leave the phone on a wall for a minute or two.  Afterwards, trim the recording to say 30 seconds of the best content. Send your 30-second recording to an adjudicator (maybe whichever parent or grandparent knows a bit of ornithology – or music !).

    I’m told the BBC have done a similar competition – called  “TWEET the day”

    (4) Chromatography ( “Colour writing” from the Greek) – Not just a powerful  forensic science and pharmaceutical industry technique  –  Chromatography is also colourful  fun in the kitchen.

    You don’t need lab chromatography paper – First try different types of kitchen roll, coffee filters and other tissues – if toilet paper is not too precious.

    a) Find  a paper  which draws water up slowly when one edge is dipped in a saucer of water.
    b) Cut a dozen or so strips of your absorbant paper  about 10 or 12 cm long and narrow enough to hang in a jam-jar.
    c) Use water-soluble markers or food colouring  to place a match-head sized  spot of INK  at least 2 cm from the end of each strip.
    d) Hang each strip in turn, ink spot downwards, in a glass or jam-jar with a little water in the bottom, making sure your ink-spot is above the water.
    e) Enjoy observing this while the water rises and discover what happens to each of your samples of ink.  Black, brown and other dark inks may surprise you more.

  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 2

    by Mr Michael Grehan

    (1) Backyard satellite spotting

    Q: How far do you have to go to see the World’s most expensive Science Laboratory?
    A: Your own backyard!

    Most people’s favourite is the International Space Station (ISS) on a clear  night when it does a VISIBLE PASS that you can watch from Ireland. Also NASA have their own ISS Home page here – and you can get to know the current crew of three astronauts:


    All you need is a clear Irish sky and the right timetable.  Both free of charge.
    Oh – and the best optical instrument is the wonderful human eye, Mark 1.0

    Luckily the perfect timetable is available, free of charge, courtesy of Chris Peat, at   

    On the home page you can see a globe showing where on earth the ISS is NOW.
    (Why do you think it spends a lot of time over oceans – especially the pacific?)

    You need to tell the Heavens-above website where you are observing.
    Do this by using “Change observing location” near the top of the home page.
    • e.g. Type in:   Terenure, Dublin, Ireland

    Many people’s favourite satellite is the International Space Station, ISS, which is very bright, easy to see and always has at least three crew members on board.

    Currently, in March 2020, on Expedition 62  the ISS crew are : Jessica Meir, Andrew Morgan and Oleg Skripochka. 

    The ISS flies across the sky in about 4 minutes and you won’t need a telescope.

    On the left of the Heavens-above screen find “Satellites” then “10 day predictions for satellites of special interest ” and then click on  ISS.

    It looks like this:

    You are rewarded with a table of dates and times when the ISS is visible from your location if the sky is clear.  (Please send me an email if you need more information about each column in the table)

    The main thing is BRIGHTNESS and here the MINUS numbers are very bright: e.g. -3 is brighter than  -2  which is brighter than  -1  which is brighter than 0.

    The ISS moves quickly past the background stars getting brighter at first. Then, often about 3 minutes later it may quickly fade and disappear into the Earth’s shadow.

    When you go outside a few minutes before the start time you may first see the extremely bright planet VENUS high in the West. Venus is usually the second  brightest Night-Sky object with a brightness around  -4 ( A full Moon would be even brighter of course,  at  around  -12.) See DISTANCES note below about the Earth’s surface, the ISS, the MOON  and VENUS.

    The ISS usually rises in the WEST or South West –  but it may be well above the horizon when you spot it.  Have fun competing to see who is FIRST to see it moving, point  at it and say “There it is.”

    When the ISS fades you could run back indoors and watch the globe  on Heavens-above to see where it is NOW, crossing Western Europe in a few minutes and maybe over the Indian ocean in – guess how many minutes.

    Choose VISIBLE passes, not “all passes”. You won’t see it in the daytime!

    You can also use a cool simulated interactive view from above the ISS by clicking on: ISS Interactive 3D Visualization  
    Here you can “fly” above the ISS and change your viewpoint with your mouse left button and wheel.  Over land you see a simulation of the terrain – even if the real view would be cloudy.

    Another brilliant site for loads more information about the ISS is from NASA:   This wonderful  NASA site tells  you all about the Station, its current crew and even LIVE streaming . . . you may occasionally hear the astronauts communicating with an earth station – in English or Russian.

    Some other sites on satellites are :
    • And many thanks to Physicist and Presenter  Mark Langtry of  RTE Television and Explorium  distinction for the following link

    Distances Note: People often ask how far the Moon and Venus are compared with the ISS, whose height is only about 400 km.

    The Moon is more than 900 times further than the height of the ISS. (Average distance to the Moon is  approximately 9.5 times around the equator).  Venus, even at its very nearest to the Earth would be over 90,000 times further than the height of the ISS.  So you can see that the beginning of space is surprisingly near – and then it goes on a LONG way.

    All questions welcome.

    LOOK UP and Have fun. Clear skies!


  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 3

    by Mr Michael Grehan

    (1) For HUNDREDS OF PAGES OF SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS you have free access to four volumes of the booklets from the SCIENCE ON STAGE IRELAND team. Part of an EU project since 2001.  Just click on any of the four links you see below the book covers at this page: 

    Thanks to Paul Nugent (IOP and Santa Sabina) and Eilish Mc.Loughlin (DCU) and the whole team for these and for IOP  Ireland Physics Busking.

    (2)  The Belvedere ELEMENTS Science Buzz Edmodo group has been UNLOCKED again with code :329hy8
    ALL are welcome especially complete newcomers to Science Buzz.

    (3) ANY  Physics or General Science question is welcome at any time by mailing Whether it’s a Leaving Cert Physics question or just more instructions for Astronomy or a bit of fun kitchen or backyard chemistry or biology. Delighted to hear from you.

    (4) A couple of experiments from  “Science Sparks”  might be worth trying by younger scientists – under supervision of course!

    (5) A long,  but entertaining Chemistry lecture for Children from the Royal Institution. You can watch in shorter doses!  Enjoy the blazing experiments!

    (6) You have access to many many hours of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES at the wonderful Royal Institution (Michael Faraday started them in 1825.  He and Humphrey Davy changed the world with their historical discoveries in chemistry and electromagnetism.  It’s all available at:

    (7) Astronomy for Beginners: With thanks to Astronomy presenter John Flannery of eminence in Dunsink Observatory, the Irish Astronomical Society (1937) and The People’s College:
    a. See John’s astronomy tweets : @TheSkybyEye
    b. John in turn recommends Virtual Astronomy Club on Dave Eagle’s twitter account
    c. What’s in the sky tonight?  You have a free live Planetarium in your home by visiting:
    d. A monthly PDF of what you can see in the sky can be downloaded from 
    e. If you join they can send you FREE the The BBC Sky at Night Magazine every month – and MANY other periodicals
    f. John also tells me that Galwayman Shane Hastings has a list of free digital services now available for families (See: @ShaneHastingsIE). Shane’s list and more are also at:

    (8) The National Geographic Society – has a website for children and young people. Here’s a link to the part which suggests about 18 easy home science experiments – junior material. The website has activities in other subjects too:

    (9) Worst or best Maths and Science jokes – Here’s one a mathematical cousin “Card Colm” got from his daughter: “ I challenged 1 to a fight. He brought 3, 5, 7, and 9 along with him. It was then that I knew the odds were against me.”   (I think however that 2 can play at that game and other responses are possible about getting even etc.).

    (10)  UCD Physicist Shane Bergin has been presenting a wealth of Maths Puzzles and Science Experiments on the Sean O’Rourke programme on Radio 1  – He described 14 suggestions on Tuesday, March 31 at about 11.45 a.m. if you’d like to find Shane in the Sean O’Rourke Programme on the Radio Player.

  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 4

    “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” -James Joyce, Ulysses

    Teacher of English and Classics, John Walsh is an inspiration and once told me of this stunning phrase from the Ithaca section of Ulysses.

    Even in the Dublin of Ulysses, complete with light pollution, you too can be inspired by the wonder of the night sky. Here’s an example for any clear night in May or June.

    Don’t read this if you go to bed before 10 p.m. . . . .  Ah, you’re all still here?

    Here’s the world’s easiest Astronomy challenge (probably) for May 2020. Identify the two brightest objects, after the Moon, in this month’s sky :

    Number 1:

    The planet VENUS is the first brilliant thing to break through the darkening blue in the high western sky these days.

    Venus looks even more brilliant  an hour of two after sunset . It is the brightest of the five naked-eye planets and MUCH brighter than any star in the night sky. The planet VENUS is even brighter than the brightest star SIRIUS. Because it so much nearer – though Venus being a planet  is only reflecting sunlight.

    Everybody has seen Venus but not everybody identifies it.

    Number 2:

    Make friends with ONE new star tonight if you don’t know it already: ARCTURUS.

    Meet ARCTURUS which is the brightest star very high in the EAST at 10 p.m. any evening this month. Also the fourth brightest star in the entire night sky and one our nearer neighbours at only about 36 light years away.

    Okay, the star Sirius if you could see it  would be even brighter than Arcturus  – but at 10 p.m. tonight  “you cannot be Sirius man”.

    Even if you were in any doubt here’s a sure way of finding ARCTURUS:  Look at the PLOUGH which is almost at the zenith (directly overhead) these nights. Look along the curved  “Pan handle”  of the Plough. Keep going in an ARC and that bright star is ARCTURUS.  

    Like Sean O’Casey and the Irish Trade Union movement you already know The PLOUGH and the stars.

    The Americans call our Plough the Big Dipper and to the  Romans it was part of URSA MAJOR the Great Bear – which is one of the 88 official constellations (patterns of stars) in the night sky.

    The origin of the word Arcturus has something to do with minding the bear. So may I suggest, Arcturus: Take care of the bear!


    Hard sums (optional – only if you want to win an astronomy book):

    There’s a book prize for the first person who can research and then work out how long it would take if you could fly, at the speed of a passenger jet, 900 km per hour,  to the Moon, to the planet Venus and to the red giant star Arcturus. Even the first person with the three answers between half and twice the three right answers will win!

    Tell you the answers next week.

    So make friends with ARCTURUS tonight if it’s clear.



    Subject to parent or guardian supervision, at least if you’re under 35.

    I am most grateful to our old friend PAUL NUGENT (Institute of Physics Ireland and Santa Sabina ) for  reminding me that OVER 80 “Do this at home” experiments are described in the Institute of Physics set of dog and cat cartoons: MARVIN and MILO

    All 85 cartoons can be found HERE. Many are similar to some of our Science Buzz Experiments and to  IOP  Ireland’s  Physics Busking experiments. Yesterday I sent the MARVIN  and MILO link to enthusiastic friends in Milan and they are working on them already. They love the cartoons.

    Nearly all could be done in your garden or kitchen under supervision of a safety conscious parent or guardian!


    James Joyce:

    Finally, (and there’s no homework on this bit) what else did James Joyce have to say about SCIENCE and Bloom and Stephen in the Ithaca section of Ulysses? James Joyce (OB) writes:

    “What two temperaments did they individually represent? The scientific. The artistic.

    What proofs did Bloom adduce to prove that his tendency was towards applied, rather than towards pure, science?

    Certain possible inventions of which he had cogitated when reclining in a state of supine repletion to aid digestion, stimulated by his appreciation of the importance of inventions now common but once revolutionary for example, the aeronautic parachute, the reflecting telescope, the spiral corkscrew, the safety pin, the mineral water siphon, the canal lock with winch and sluice, the suction pump.

    Were these inventions principally intended for an improved scheme of kindergarten?

    Yes, rendering obsolete popguns, elastic airbladders, games of hazard, catapults. They comprised astronomical kaleidoscopes exhibiting the twelve constellations of the zodiac from Aries to Pisces, miniature mechanical orreries, arithmetical gelatine lozenges, geometrical to correspond with zoological biscuits, globemap playingballs, historically costumed dolls.”

    That’s James Joyce for you.

    See you next week?

    -Michael Grehan

  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 5

    (1) Look at this from near and then from far – OR check it with a ruler – OR zoom out to make it really small. What do you see changing?

    Image Credit:

    • Can you believe your eyes? Are the blue bands parallel or not?
    • Does you perceive it in your eyes or in your brain?
    • Do we even see the world “as it really is”?

    2.) There are many videos about perception and how our brain creates the way we see the world. I think the following  two are particularly good:

    Is your red the same as my red? from VSAUCE

    Optical illusions show how we see. From neuroscientist Beau Lotto, University College London.

    3.) Many thanks to John Flannery of the Irish Astronomical Society for giving us his latest online ASTRONOMY QUIZ for all the family:

    Click HERE to do the quiz.

    4.) John also writes on astronomy in various publications. Here’s his current  Irish Times article PACKED with information on what to see in the Night Sky at  this time of year:

    Click HERE to read the article.

    5.) Did anyone work out the solution to last week’s astronomy question?

    Q.  How long would it take to fly straight, at passenger jet crusing speed, to the three easiest objects to see in the night sky this month. 
    Full marks for any answers between half and twice the flight times in the table below:  Space is REALLY big.

    Celestial object Minimum distance from Earth Minimum flight time at 900 km per hour
    The Moon, our much loved neighbour 360 000 km
    during a “super moon”
    16 ½  days
    Venus, our nearest planet most of the time 40 000 000 km 5 years and a bit
    Arcturus, Red giant, one of our nearer stars and the brightest one overhead this month 340 000 000 000 000 km or 36 light years 43 million years and a bit

    If YOU got it right: Congratulations and BE THE FIRST  to send me an email at  so I can have a book prize ready for you next term.

    6.) SCIENCE VIDEO Challenge:

    If you can make a 2 minute VIDEO of any of the following home experiments, or future suggestions, it could be used:

    (A)  To be part of a new ONLINE SCIENCE BUZZ presenation for one of our partner Primary schools, and possibly (B) to win a prize as best 2 minute science video!

    Could YOU be the new VSAUCE  or VERITASSIUM ?

    Here’s one: FRICTION RULES OK.

    A 2 minute experiment for this week. Can you find the centre of mass ( or the “centre of gravity” or the “balance point”) of a sweeping brush in 1 minute with your eyes closed ? To find out:

    • Hold your hands out in front of you like you are showing the length of that 1 metre fish you once caught ! Index fingers on top.
    • Have and accomplice rest the brush on your two index fingers. Very very slowly move your hands closer together so the brush handle slides over your fingers.
    • What did you discover? Which hand slides  first? Then what changes ? When your hands come together is the brush balanced on them ? How did they “know” when to slide and when to stop? Can anyone do it? Is there any skill required or do your hands end up under the centre of mass of the brush “automatically”?
    • Repeat with a walking stick or any long stick – Works every time? Why? Can you explain it?  Find out next week – or in Fifth Year if you do physics.

    7.) Next week : If you have at least two similar wine glasses and a paper clip you can do an experiment on RESONANCE. 

    Can you move a paper clip using only sound waves in the air? With eight wine glasses you could even play a tune.

    Resonance experiment based on an IOP idea – Thanks again to Paul Nugent.

    8.) No wine glasses? 

    OK Can you pass a piece of wire through a block of ice –without heating it and without the ice breaking in two?  You’ll need a plastic lunch box to fill with water and leave in a freezer for a day or so.

    (9) COMING SOON : Did you know that IDENTIFYING WILD FLOWERS can now be done using Artificial Intelligence –  Message arriving  from Gonzaga College!

    10.) And Find and measure the tallest tree on your daily walks. No flying required.


    See you next week? Michael Grehan

  • A Spot Of Science & Nature Anyone? – Part 6

    (1) Don’t worry bee happy

    The buzz in your garden is great these days if you are lucky enough to have one of the bees’ favourite pollinators  like COTONEASTER.

    My first suggestion this week is GO WILD.

    That’s the simple message I took from BIODIVERSITY WEEK  last week.

    The easiest way to promote biodiversity in your garden may be to put away the shears and let nature have its lunch. I’ll just use mine for auto-haircutting now.

    Good buzz man!

    These guests were on my cotoneaster today.

    Zoom in on the left picture – Just LOOK at the almost microscopic patterns on that delicate wing. Does Gerald Manley Hopkins : Glory be to God for dappled things come to mind.

    Take a risk – let stuff grow wild – and enjoy watching, photographing and listening to the great buzz in your garden.

    The Yorkshire Post adds: Cotoneaster is the buzz word for a noisy summer.   July is  the noisiest month of the year when all the little buzzers of the insect world feed themselves silly on the free banquet offered by  cotoneaster.  It’s not free, of course, because the plant has an ulterior motive – to get the insects to pollinate its flowers. The result of this frantic feeding frenzy is revealed later in the year when the bush starts to sprout a measle-like rash of small red berries which are irresistible to birds. Come late autumn, they descend on cotoneasters and stuff themselves to build up their strength for the coming winter.

    More on the value of supporting your bird population from a Journal of Ecology:

    “Cities need to attract a lot more insects if they want to support more birds, a study published in Journal of Animal Ecology has found.

    Researchers looked at Great Tits as a barometer of insect-eating bird numbers and found that urban insect populations would need to increase by a factor of at least 2.5 in order for city and town-dwelling Great Tits to prosper as well in such environments as they do in forests.”

    For any flowers you spot on your travels: Did you know that IDENTIFYING WILD FLOWERS can now be done using artificial Intelligence –  Have a look at the Apps HERE.

    (2)  Many thanks to Dr. Shane Bergin of UCD who put together an excellent list of science at home/ citizen science projects. You may have some of Shane’s Science broadcasts and challenges on RTE Radio. 

    Some of these involve significant cooperation with professional scientists across the world.

    Full list HERE.

    (3)  Here’s more Astronomy and Space news from the Irish Times: 

    Click HERE to download the article.

    The ISS however has not visible passes in Irish Skies for a while after May 29th. There are  many ISS passes from July 2 onwards. However at that time there is of course NO full darkness  in Irish skies and visible passes will be mostly in the early hours of the morning.

    Again please don’t hesitate to mail with ANY SCIENCE or climate related problem. If I don’t know the answer I’ll really enjoy learning by trying to find it for you.

    Michael Grehan

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