Five Fun Facts about Pigs

Five Fun Facts about Pigs

Pigs are a common topic in this house because they are my youngest’s FAVOURITE animal! So much so that we have had to rename bacon, ham and sausages when serving them for dinner! The swine related questions come in a constant stream. Here are just dome of the facts we have uncovered about these lovely animals.

Five Fun Facts about Pigs



If you would like to find out more about these fascinating animals, check out my latest column in the Irish Examiner and read all about whether pigs dream or not and other random facts. If you have a question you would like me to answer in the column, just send it to me at


In your Dreams – the science of why, how and when we dream

In your Dreams – the science of why, how and when we dream

Dreams, we all have them, some we remember, some we don’t! There are those who want to analyse every detail of their dreams, seeing them as portents to future events or windows into our souls. Some dismiss dreams as a nothing more than random images as a byproduct of brain activity.

Regardless of what camp of dream analysis you belong to, you may like to know a bit more about the why, how and when of dreams, to fill in the blanks and give a better understanding of what happens when we close our eyes at night.



Are there different types of dreams?

Dreams are a series of images, emotions, senses or events that we experience while we sleep. They are created in the brain, during different brain impulses and can last from a few seconds, to more than half an hour. There are a number of different types of dreams, the classifications vary depending on who you talk to, but in general we experience regular dreams, lucid dreams and nightmares.

The three basic types of dreams are…

  • Regular dreams usually occur when we are in a deep sleep phase, such as the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep.
  • Lucid dreams usually occur when we are in a lighter stage of sleep. We are at least partially aware that we are dreaming and we can consciously change the course of the dream if we so choose.
  • We are all familiar with nightmares and they are not just for children. They are dreams that evoke strong emotions and reactions within us, usually fear, terror, anger or anxiety.

What happens when we dream?

In order to talk about dreaming we must first look at what happens when we sleep and the different stages involved. There are five stages of sleep, stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage.

We pass from each stage of sleep sequentially, usually falling into a deeper sleep with each stage. Once we have completed a full cycle (stages 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM) we return to the first stage and the cycle repeats. A full cycle takes between 90 and 110 minutes.

Stage 1

This is a very light stage of sleep, our bodies relax, our muscle activity slows and we experience slow eye movement.

Stage 2

Our eye movements stop, our muscle movements reduce and our brain waves slow down; Our heart rates slow and our body temeratures drop a little. We also experience burst of rapid brain wave activity in this stage, these are called brain spindles. Adults spend about 50% of their sleep time in this stage, this reduces with age.

Stage 3

We enter deep sleep, with some periods of very slow brain waves recorded.

Stage 4

The periods of very slow brain waves extend.

REM Stage

Our eye movement becomes erratic and jerky, our heart rates rise, breathing becomes more rapid and our limbs become temporarily paralysed. We spend about 20-25% of our sleep time in this stage (infants can spend up to 50% of sleep in the REM stage).

The REM stage of the first cycle of sleep is fairly short (about ten minutes) but increases in duration with each cycle (up to an hour in the final cycle).

Stages 1 to 4 of sleep are collectively referred to as the non-REM stages (NREM).

We dream at all stages of sleep but most of our dreams are thought to occur during the REM stage. Studies show that we tend to have different types of dreams at different stages of sleep; In the early stages, we have very short dreams but they are more realistic and relatable. As we move into deeper sleep our dreams tend to become more fragmented. As the night progresses and we experience longer REM states our dreams become more obscure and disjointed.



Why do we dream?

There are a number of theories as to why we dream, but scientists are still not sure. Some say that dreaming is an asinine activity that serves no purpose, but most agree that this is not the case, although they may argue as to the true value of dreams.

Dreaming has no purpose at all

In 1977 psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and R.W. McCarley theorised that dreams don’t actually mean anything at all. They called their theory the ‘activation-synthesis hypothesis’ and stated that dreams are merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories.

Dreaming is an ancient biological defence mechanism

Evolutionary biologists studying dreams and their function have proposed the Threat Simulating Theory (TST) of dreaming.

The threat simulation theory of dreaming states that dream consciousness is essentially an ancient biological defence mechanism, evolutionary selected for its capacity to repeatedly simulate threatening events.

Basically, dreams are seen as a simulation, a way to prepare our bodies and hone our skills for the right response in potentially threatening situations. By experiences threats and events in our mind (like being chased by a wild animal!) we can train our bodies to respond correctly if or when the threat really does appear in real life. We can develop our neuro-cognitive mechanisms.

The TST also suggests that people under threat in their everyday lives will dream more, as a way to exercise and prepare for the dangers they may experience each day. There is some evidence to suggest this is the case.

Scientists in favour of this theory also quote the fact that a convincing 70% of our dreams are made up of such threatening scenarios.

Dreams help us solve problems

It is possible that dreams help us unravel and review all the complexities we have experienced during our waking hours. Without the restrains of our conscious, logical thinking we can view things from a completely different angle. Some people can wake after a night of sleep with their eureka moment, solving a niggling problem, literally while they catch some z’s. Perhaps the most famous case is that of the chemist August Kekule, who supposedly discovered the benzene ring structure after dreaming of atoms linking together in a chain and then twisting, like a snake biting his own tail, into a ring structure.

The famous American writer, John Steinbeck called this the ‘committee of sleep‘…

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it

How does all this free thinking work? Daytime events and often recorded in fragmented forms in different regions of the brain. The ‘memory’ is held together by interaction of those brain parts with the hippocampus. During certain stages of sleep these connections are lost, but brain activity in each of these regions may continue. This ‘untethered’ brain activity can provide the freedom of thought and creativity that is constrained in the waking hours.

We dream to fulfil our desires

This brings us back to Freud who believed that our dreams were a manifestation of our basic, unconscious desires and urges. He believed that to better understand our own psychological makeup, and issues, we needed to record and analyse the content of our dreams.

We dream to help us process our emotions

Do we dream to help us process emotional events in a safe way? When we sleep the levels of certain stress hormones  in our bodies are reduced, therefore we can reflect on a stressful situation or event, in a safe place, where the stress response has been toned down.

Studies have observed high activity in the amygdala during the REM stage of sleep. This is the area of the brain associated with emotions. This suggests that, while sleeping, our brains access emotional events and memories while the stress neurochemicals (norepinephrine) are suppressed, allowing us to process and resolve any emotions or traumas. We wake feeling better about an event that may have caused us stress the day before.

Dreaming is an important part of our memory storing process

The process of dreaming may help us strengthen, connect and store memories. In order to full consolidate our memories we need to strengthen links between different areas of the brain that have recorded information from the memory, and to integrate the information with previously stored knowledge.

The most basic function of dreaming consists of connecting new material with old material in memory systems; reorganising the memory systems, guided by emotion. (Hartmann, 2011).

Sleep creates an optimal  environment to allow memory links to be repeatedly activated without the interference of external stimuli. This reactivation strengthens the neurological pathways that link the various parts of the memory as well as creating links with older memories and learning.

MRI studies have shown that brain areas associated with short and long term memory consolidation (hippocampus and amygdala) are activated while we dream.

Different types of memories may be consolidated at different stages of sleep; the episodic memories are best processed during NREM stages, while more sensory, procedural and emotional events are likely integrated during REM stages.


How long do dreams last?

Dream length varies, but on average our dreams start off short and get longer as the night progresses. Although some dreams may only last for seconds, our first dream of the night is usually about five minute long, our last dream can be as long as 45 minutes. As most of our dreaming occurring during the REM stage of sleep, as this stage gets longer, so too do our dreams.

Most people have at least two to three dreams per night, with the average being six to seven. We spend about two hours a night dreaming, which can add up to a whopping six years of dreaming in a lifetime!


These theories and insights are fascinating but there is still much to learn. Scientists will continue to research, study and debate the importance of the dreaming process, but, looking at how much of our lives we spend dreaming it is certainly a worthwhile study. 





STEM questions and answers with Dr. How’s Science Wows

STEM questions and answers with Dr. How’s Science Wows

We love questions here at the Science Wows HQ; We generate a lot on a daily basis, and we answer many too. I was delighted to try out the new Facebook live tool for a Q & A session and got to answer lots of question sent in on all the STEM topics (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Many of these questions were sent in by children, and, from the quality of the questions, and the inquisitive minds behind them, I am sure these are the STEM experts of the future.

If you sent in your question – thanks so much! If you want to send one in for another time then leave your question in the comments below or drop me a line.

Here is the video, if you missed it, or want to rewatch, I hope you enjoy and maybe pick up some new facts.

Here are all the questions asked; If you want to find the specific answer to that question in the video I have included how many minutes into the video it was answered. Under each question below is an additional fact, not included in the video… for some extra WOW!

Oran and Oscar wanted to know…

“Why is it blurry when you look underwater with goggles?” (1 min 20 secs)

Did you know that… if you get a really good pair of goggles or a scuba mask, then that extra air between the glass and your eyes will correct for the blurry vision problem and the light entering your eye will be bent correctly, allowing for a nice clear image?  In fact, you may even see things clearer and larger – the mask can make things appear up to 33% larger and 25% closer


“Why do crickets make that noise and where do they go during the day?” (5 mins)

Did you know that… crickets need warm weather to chirp, as they are cold blooded creatures. If the weather gets too cold they will not be able to generate enough energy for their normal chirps and their sounds will actually slow down or stop!

Elissa, Nia and Matthew asked …

“What are mosquitos for?” (12 mins)

Did you know that … the annoying buzzing sound we hear when a mosquito is near is the sound of their wings flapping at an amazing speed of 300 to 600 beats a second? That still doesn’t make the sound any more pleasant though, does it? 


Photo credit: James Gathany (CDC)

Dermot is obviously an environmental thinker as he wanted to know …

“How do you convert wind power into electricity?” (11 mins)

Did you know that… humans have been harnessing the power of the wind for a very long time? The first windmills date back to 200B.C.

Ruairí had lots of questions, like …

“Why does your skin go brown after the Sun?” (17 mins 40 secs)

“Did you know that… the more sun exposure we get, the more the melanin producing cells move closer to the surface of the skin. We look like we are getting a darker tan but, more importantly, the melanin absorbed the harmful UV rays from the Sun, protecting our skin from damage.” 

“What’s in the centre of the Earth?” (23 mins 30 secs)

Did you know that… scientists estimate that the temerpature of the Earth’s core is 6,000 Celcius? That is about the same temperature as the surface of the Sun.

“What’s inside a leaf?” (27 mins 30 secs)

Did you know that the colour changes we see in leaves in Autumn are due to different pigments inside the leaves? The colour we see depends on which pigments are present. Some pigments are more dominant than other so if they are present in the leaf they dictate what colour the leaf is. Some pigments we find in leaves are choropyl (green), Carotene (orange/yellow), tannin (brown) and anthocyanin (red/purple). 

“What is inside a bird that helps it to fly?” (20 mins 30 secs)

Did you know that… some birds, such as ostriches, penguins and Emus are too heavy to fly? These birds (called ratites) are thought to have started out as flighted birds but have evolved flatter breastbones, shorter wings, weaker pectoral muscles and heavier bodies.


“Why is fruit good for us?” (7 mins 30 secs)

Did you know that… tomatoes are actually considered fruit and that raspberries and strawberries are not true berries, but bananas are? 

Emily asked…

“Why does your skin go wrinkly in the bath?” (4 mins)

Did you know… it takes five minutes of constant exposure to fresh water for the wrinkles to appear on our fingers, palms, toes and soles of our feet? It takes even longer when in sea water.

Amanda, from Spider Working, is a real lover of cats and she wanted to know…

“Why do cats have whiskers?” (24 mins)

Did you know that… cats are longsighted so their super sensitive whiskers allow them work out everything in their close environment with greater detail? This is particularly important when deciding when to pounce on their prey.

		Cats whiskers
photo credit: Let's Play via photopin (license)

With a child in this house with an allergy to dust mites, I had particular interest in a question sent in from Jack, asking…

“Where does dust come from?” (9 mins)

Did you know that… the Sahara desert is the largest source of dust in the world? It can produce more than 60,000 kg of dust per year.

Harry would fit in well in this house, with all his questions, such as…

“How do aeroplanes fly in the sky?” (19 mins 30 secs)

Did you know that… the first powered aerplane was made in 1903 by the Right brothers? 

“Why do people have hearts?” (21 mins 50 secs)

Did you know that the heart pumps more than five litres of blood around the body in one minute?


“Why is there no dinosaurs?” (15 mins 40 secs)

Did you know that… birds are considered to be modern day descendants of dinosaurs? 

I loved this question in from Meabh…

“Why do monkeys like bananas?” (26 mins 25 secs)

Did you know that… although monkeys like the sweet taste of bananas, they do not actually eat many in each day? Monkeys kept in captivity usually get no more than one banana a day, their diet is balanced with lots of other fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts.

Cathal sent in a question while on holidays; he wanted to know…

“Why do you always feel cold when you get out of the pool, even though it is hot out?” (30 mins 10 secs)

Did you know that… the water that stays on our skin after the pool, or a shower, eventually evapourates into gas? To do this it need some heat energy, and some of this heat energy is taken from out bodies, making us feel extra chilly. 

And finally, A question in from four brothers… Brendan, Liam, Iarla and Conor; these boys rescued a dying bumble bee by feeding it a sugar solution. They wanted to know…

“If the sugar thing really worked and why was the bee so shaky afterwards?” (28 mins 35 secs)

Did you know… to make a sugar solution to revive a tired bee, mix about two tablespoons of white, granulated sugar, with one tablespoon of water.

A big thank you to The Busy Mama’s, Awfully Chipper, Office Mum, Wonderful Wagon, Dairy Free Kids, Bumbles of Rice, Learner Mama, Simply Homemade Blog and Get Crafty for sending in some of these questions!

I really hope you enjoyed this, I’d love to do it again so please do share your questions for the next round and let me know what you think! Just pop your questions or feedback in the comments below.

Fifteen fantastic facts about frogs

Fifteen fantastic facts about frogs

We are used to seeing them at some stage of their life cycle, most of us remember watching them grow as tadpoles in our classrooms, and they are a common part of our ecosystem; but how much do you really know about these diverse and amazing creatures? Here are fifteen of our favourite frog facts … Read more

Viewing Jupiter

Viewing Jupiter

Have you spotted Jupiter in our lovely clear skies this week? It is very bright and visible to the naked eye. We got the kids out of bed at nine O’ clock last night just to have a look (they may have been more interested in running around in the dark than in actually looking up at the sky!).

This was our view from our front door, a lovely full moon and Jupiter up above it (I obviously don’t have the steadiest hand as Jupiter looks more like a squiggle line than a round object, but you get the idea)…

Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in our night skies (after the Moon and Venus), and is particularly bright at the moment as the (almost full) moon swings near it.

Easy to see with the naked eye, some of its moons are also visible when viewed through a binoculars. We couldn’t view them this way (more shaky hands) but, luckily Mr. Science Wows had the telescope all set up and ready and then we got a real treat.


We were able to see three of Jupiter’s moons, as well as the striped appearance of this giant planet. Quite a spectacle.


Here are some more facts about this amazing planet…

  1. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, it could fit more than 1,300 Earths inside it!
  2. It is the fifth planet from the Sun.
  3. Jupiter is thought to have 67 moons (50 confirmed moons and 17 yet to be confirmed), three that are visible at the moment are part of the Galilean moons, so called after the man who first discovered them, in 1610. There are four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter, in total, and these are the largest of Jupiter’s satellites; Ganymede, the largest of these moons is larger than the planet Mercury, and is the only moon known to have its own magnetic field. Europa, another Galilean moon orbiting Jupiter, is of great interest as it contains water, up to twice as much water on Earth in fact, making it a possible habitable zone.
  4. Jupiter has three, faint, outer rings.
  5. Jupiter is a gaseous planet. At its outer point temperatures are thought to be about -145 degrees celsius. Deeper within the planet, hydrogen and helium becomes the dominant gas and temperatures rise. Deeper still and the hydrogen gas turns to liquid and it is thought that, at its core, temperatures of up to 35,000 degrees celsius result in metallic hydrogen that generates electricity, creating a magnetic field.
  6. Jupiter’s surface appears to be covered in stripes and swirls, these are raging storms. One of them, the Great Red Spot, is larger than Earth and has been raging for hundreds of years.
  7. The first visits to Jupiter was made by the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, as it flew by in 1973. Since then there have been eight more missions, the latest by the Juno spacecraft which is on course to arrive at the giant planet on July 4th 2016.


Volcanoes – a bit of science, facts and an experiment to try

Volcanoes – a bit of science, facts and an experiment to try

Who doesn’t love the volcano experiment? We will get to that in a minute, but before you go running for the vinegar and bread soda do you want to learn a little about them?

Firstly, what is a Volcano?

It is basically just a hole in the Earth’s crust. The word Volcano comes from Vulcan, the Roman God of Fire. Most volcanoes occur at weak spots in the Earth’s crust.

Scientists that study volcanoes are called Vulcanologists!

Scientists use a scale to measure the strength of volcanic eruption – it is called the Volcanic Explosive Index (VEI).

The VEI scale ranges from 0 to 8; volcanic eruptions of 8 are called super volcanoes.

photo credit: image49374 via photopin (license)
photo credit: image49374 via photopin (license)


How about a bit of history?

Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, Italy erupted in 79 AD killing all the inhabitants of the city. Everything was covered in a thick layer of ash preserving the scene as a snapshot in time.

The last super volcano to erupt was Toba on Summatra in Indonesia, 74,000 years ago. It spewed so much volcanic ash into the air that it blotted out the Sun, causing a volcanic winter that lasted nearly six years.

Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted in 1883 spewing hot ash more than 50km into the air. The force of the explosion was heard as far away as Australia and caused a tsunami.

Ever wonder what comes out of an erupting volcano?

When a volcano erupts it spews out hot liquid rock, dust, ash, rocks and poisonous gases. Magma is hot liquid rock contained under the Earth’s surface. When magma escapes from a volcano it is called lava.

Volcanic bombs are hot lumps of molten rock shot out of a volcano when it erupts. As they shoot into the air they
cool and fall to Earth as solid rock.

Did you know… the largest volcanic bombs recorded were from the eruption of Mount Asama in Japan and were
up to six metres in diameter?

How are volcanoes classifying?

Volcanoes can be classed as…

  • active (erupt regularly)
  • dormant (have erupted within recorded history but not of late)
  • extinct (have not erupted within recorded history)

They can also be defined by their shape:

  • shield volcanoes are dome shaped
  • cinder cone volcanoes have erupted from  one single vent
  • strato or compsite volcanoes are tall with layers of magma and rock

What is Pumice?

Pumice is a type of volcanic rock, formed when frothy lava cools quickly? It is a very light rock that can float on water!

photo credit: Airfall pumice (~1065 A.D. eruption of Medicine Lake Volcano's Glass Mountain eruptive center, northern California, USA) via photopin (license)
Pumice; photo credit: Airfall pumice (~1065 A.D. eruption of Medicine Lake Volcano’s Glass Mountain eruptive center, northern California, USA) via photopin (license)

And the largest volcano is…?

The largest volcano on Earth is thought to be Tamu Massiff off the coast of Japan, and is completely contained under the Pacific Ocean.

The largest volcano in our solar system is Olympus Mons on Mars. It is slightly narrower than Tamu Massiff but has a larger overall mass.

Olympus Mons - image source NASA
Olympus Mons – image source NASA

Finally to the experiment – how to make your own volcano:

You will need: an empty jar, vinegar, bread soda, water, washing up liquid, food colouring and modelling clay

What to do: 

You will use the jar as the volcano. If you want to make it look more realistic you can cover it in modelling clay, shaping it like a volcano and let this dry overnight.

To make the volcano erupt, first add some water into the jar (about one third full). Add a big squirt of washing up liquid and a few drops of red food colouring.

Add one large tablespoon of bread soda and stir well. Place the volcano in a clear plastic basin or deep tray.

Finally add vinegar, filling to near the top of the jar. Stand back and watch the fun!

To get the volcano going again just add more vinegar and bread soda!

What is happening?

The vinegar and bread soda react to form carbon dioxide gas. This gas gets trapped in bubbles formed by the washing up liquid making the lava appear thick and foamy.

The Science of Soil

The Science of Soil

What is Soil?

Soil is the outermost part of the Earth’s surface, where plants grow. Without it we could not survive! Soil is made up of rock material of various sizes (from powdered rock to sand, pebbles and stones). Soil also contains minerals, rotting plants and animals and living organisms. It contains all the nutrients required for plants to grow and survive!

Why is soil so important?

Plants need soil to grow, not just for the nutrients that the soil provides but also as an anchor, a stable place where the plant can place its roots and support its growing structure.

The soil has many other important functions too…

  • Soil acts as a natural water filter, cleaning water as it passes through it
  • The soil provides billions of organisms with a place to live
  • The soil is very important in the cycling of nutrients – especially carbon and nitrogen

How is soil made?

There are a lot of factors that influence how soil is made. The first of these is what type of material the soil is being made from… the type of rock that the soil is made from is called the parent material.

Other factos that influence how soil is made are…

  • the weather,
  • the topography of the land,
  • what living organisms are around and….
  • time!

Did you know… it can take up to 1,000 years for just one inch of soil to form?


Soil is made when the parent material (rock) is broken down by the weather (wind, rain, sun, snow) eventually forming fine powder, sand and small rocks. The decomposition of organic matter and the activity of a variety of organisms help to improve the soils nutritional quality.

The soil is like a big recycling plant

Soil is not just for growing plants. It contains billions of other living organisms too… some can be very small like bacteria, fungi and algae and some can be very large like insects and even mammals.

All of these inhabitants help to break down dead plants and animals so that all the nutrients contained within them are returned to the soil.

Did you know… that in a tablespoon of good soil there are as many as 50 billion bacteria?


The earthworm plays a vital role is maintaining healthy soil and is often called “nature’s plough”.

Did you know… there are approximately 3000 species of earthworm in the world?


Learn more at home… make a wormery

You will need…

A large see-through container, sand, soil, worms, leaves and other vegetation, card or paper.

What to do…

  • Fill a large, see-through container with alternative layers of soil and sand.
  • Put a layer of leaves on the top.
  • Add enough water to keep the soil damp.
  • Collect some earthworms from your garden and add them to the wormery.
  • Cover the outside of your container with a large piece of card or paper to block out the light.
  • Put the wormery in a safe place and check on it every day- remember to keep adding water to keep the soil moist.
  • You should soon notice that the different layers of soil and sand are getting mixed together.

What is happening?

The earthworms mix the layers of sand and soil as they move through the wormery. This helps to distribute nutrients throughout the soil, making it more fertile.

Remember to return the worms safely back into the garden once you have finished.

Or you can watch the “how to” video…



A version of this article originally appeared in Science Spin, Issue 63, March/April 2014

Mystery Creature Revealed – The Thorny Devil

Mystery Creature Revealed – The Thorny Devil

Did you guess last week’s Mystery Creature? It was the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) or Thorny Dragon. This formidable looking lizard is native to Australia. But it he as dangerous as he looks? Here are some interesting facts about the Thorny Devil.


photo credit: Bill & Mark Bell via photopin cc
photo credit: Bill & Mark Bell via photopin cc

The name Thorny Devil or Thorny Dragon is quite an intimidating monocle but even more so is the scientific name for these lizards… Moloch horridus; Inspired by the poem Paradise Lost (by Milton) in which the god Moloch is described as “a horrid king besmeared with blood of human sacrifice”!

In reality the Thorny Devil does not live up to it’s name as it is small in stature (no more than 20 cm), slow moving and eats only ants (thousands per day)

As well as ants, the lizard needs water to survive the arid scrub lands and deserts of it’s Central Australian habitat. It has a very interesting way of “harvesting” water. It walks slowly through the scrub letting dew drops fall on it’s thorny body. Between the thorns are tiny channels that carry the water right to the Thorny Devil’s mouth.



The  entire surface of the Thorny Devil is covered in  spiky scales but to defend rather than to harm! photo credit: ccdoh1 via photopin cc
photo credit: ccdoh1 via photopin cc


Another interesting feature of this animal is it’s defense mechanisms. Although in reality it does not have any real weaponry of defense it’s thorny exterior acts as a deterrent to potential predators (mainly wild birds). If this is not enough he bends his head, revealing a false head with big horns above his neck.


So although the entire surface of the Thorny Devil is covered in spiky scales these are to defend rather than to harm!


I don’t really think he deserves the name, but it might just add to his street cred and keep the predators at bay!


What do you think… cute or ugly, or just misunderstood?

Fun Friday – the Tornado

Fun Friday – the Tornado

(Apologies I am posting the Fun Friday blog a day late due to broadband difficulties yesterday )

We all thought we had been visited by a small tornado here in Galway yesterday, a photo of a waterspout just off Salthill was the talk of the town.  Turns out it was just a hoax, but for any junior scientists that may be disappointed I thought I would share a great experiment with you explaining how to make your very own tornado in a bottle!  There are plenty of fun and interesting tornado facts too.

What is a Tornado?

photo credit: Niccolò Ubalducci Photographer via photopin cc


A tornado is a rapid swirling column of air that stretches from a cloud (usually a thunder cloud) to the earth below.

A tornado that forms over water is often referred to as a waterspout.

If the column of air does not touch the earth it is referred to as a funnel cloud.

How do Tornadoes form?

The formation of a tornado requires a combination of a number of specific weather features but usually tornadoes form when an area of warm, wet air meets and area of cool, dry air and alter the atmospheric conditions.  When this causes the warm wet air to rise and cool rapidly thunder clouds are formed.  Under the correct conditions of wind strength and speed the rising air starts to tilt and rotate and the tornado begins to form.

How fast is a tornado?

Most tornadoes have a wind speed of less that 160 km and hour (100 miles an hour), however, some extreme tornadoes can reach much greater speeds, up to 300 km an hour!

Did you know… the fastest recorded tornado was the Tri-State Tornado (Illinois, Missouri and Indiana) of 1925 had a forward speed of 117 km per hour (73 miles and hour)?

How are Tornadoes measure?

Tornadoes are detected using weather spotting and doppler radar.  Tornado warnings may be issues for certain areas by observing the formation of developing weather patterns while radar can be used for more accurate forecasting once thunderclouds have developed.

Image credit: Wiki Commons; a category F5 tornado in Manitoba, Canada, 2007.

It is not easy to determine Tornado strength and wind speed for two main reasons..

  1. as the exact location of a tornado is hard to predict it is very hard to have the required equipment in the right place at the right time;
  2. the force and strength of a tornado can destroy the equipment used for such analysis.

One of the devises used to measure wind speed within a tornado is called an anemometer. Doppler radar can also be used for this purpose.  When these measurements are successful, wind speed will be expressed against the Beaufort wind scale, ranging from 0 -12 in wind speed.

In 1971 Dr. Tetsuya Fijita developed a scale to rank Tornadoes, this scale ranges from 0 to 5 and is expressed as F0, F1, F2, F3, F4 and F5.  This ranking is retrospective, estimating wind speed and strength by examining the damage resulting from the Tornado.  This scale has been further refined in the US leading to the Enhanced Fijita Scale.

Do we get tornadoes in Ireland?

There are certain places around the world that are “tornado hot spots” such as many central states in the US, South Africa, Canada and Bangladesh.  However tornadoes can form almost anywhere and there are genuine cases of tornadoes in Ireland.  If we do get visited by a tornado it is usually small and brief.

Did you know…the earliest recorded tornadoes in Europe occurred in Rosdalla, near Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, on April 30th 1054?  

The only continent where tornadoes have not been recorded is the Antartic.

Did you know that the UK has the largest number of tornadoes per land mass?  Usually these tornadoes are small.

An experiment to try at home

Make a tornado in a bottle

You will need… two empty 2 Litre plastic bottles, an O-ring, strong duct tape, food colouring, glitter (optional). Alternatively use a tornado tube to replace the O-ring and duct tape.

What to do… Fill one 2 Litre bottle 2/3 full with water, add a few drops of food colouring and about a teaspoon of glitter, if using.  Place the O-ring on top of the bottle and tape into place with the duct tape, ensuring that you do not cover the whole.

Place the second (empty) bottle upside-down on top of the first one and tape securely into place.

If using the Tonrado tube you just twist the tube onto the first bottle 2/3 full with water and then upturn the second bottle and twist it securely into place into the other end of the tornado tube!

Once you are confident that the bottle is taped well enough to prevent any leakage you can turn the bottles upside-down so the one containing the coloured water is on top.  Turn the upper bottle in a circular motion about five times and then hold the bottles steady and see what happens.  You should a mini tornado forming in the bottle as the water drains.  if this does not work for you first time don’t worry, it make take a few attempts to get the knack of turning the bottle correctly.

So what is happening?… When we turn the bottle we get the water moving in a vertical, circular motion, just like the air in a tornado.  Once we stop turning the bottle and hold it steady the momentum created causes the water to keep turning and form into a “twister” inside the bottle.  The food colouring and glitter or only present to make the tornado more visible.


You can change this around a little by adding different things to the water in the bottle and compare how the tornado looks;  Some suggestions include adding grains of pepper, small pieces of coloured paper or a squeeze of washing up liquid.  You can also try the experiment by adding some coloured oil to the water.

Challenge your friends and family:

You can change this into a fun challenge for your friends and family and help them learn about air pressure while too.  Give your friend the bottles all set up and ask them how long they think it will take them to get the water from the top bottle to the lower bottle, without squeezing the bottle.  Let them have a go and time it.  You can then ask if anyone else thinks they can beat that time and give them a go.  Everyone should get about the same time.

Now it is your turn, upturn the bottle and start the tornado and time how long the bottle takes to empty now!  They should be impressed to find out you have beaten their time!

So what is happening?
The hole in the O-ring allows air to pass into the bottle, producing a funnel of air within the column of twisting water.  The movement of air from one bottle to the other equalizes air pressure and allows the water escape into the lower bottle much more quickly.