Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, and the Fountain

There is a controversy over one of the important pieces (it’s considered foundational) of modern art, “Fountain.”

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. The entry tag is clearly visible. [downloaded from

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven the real artist behind the ‘Fountain’

According to Theo Paijmans in his June 2018 article (abstract) on See All This, the correct attribution is not Marcel Duchamp,

In 1917, when the United States was about to enter the First World War and women in the United Kingdom had just earned their right to vote, a different matter occupied the sentiments of the small, modernist art scene in New York. It had organised an exhibit where anyone could show his or her art against a small fee, but someone had sent in a urinal for display. This was against even the most avant-garde taste of the organisers of the exhibit. The urinal, sent in anonymously, without title and only signed with the enigmatic ‘R. Mutt’, quickly vanished from view. Only one photo of the urinal remains.

Theo Paijmans, June 2018

In 1935 famous surrealist artist André Breton attributed the urinal to Marcel Duchamp. Out of this grew the consensus that Duchamp was its creator. Over time Duchamp commissioned a number of replicas of the urinal that now had a name: Fountain – coined by a reviewer who briefly visited the exhibit in 1917. The original urinal had since long disappeared. In all probability it had been unceremoniously dumped on the trash heap, but ironically it was destined to become one of the most iconic works of modern art. In 2004, some five hundred artists and art experts heralded Fountain as the most influential piece of modern art, even leaving Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon behind. Once again it cemented the reputation of Duchamp as one of the towering geniuses in the history of modern art.

But then things took a turn

Portrait of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

In 1982 a letter written by Duchamp came to light. Dated 11 April 1917, it was written just a few days after that fateful exhibit. It contains one sentence that should have sent shockwaves through the world of modern art: it reveals the true creator behind Fountain – but it was not Duchamp. Instead he wrote that a female friend using a male alias had sent it in for the New York exhibition. Suddenly a few other things began to make sense. Over time Duchamp had told two different stories of how he had created Fountain, but both turned out to be untrue. An art historian who knew Duchamp admitted that he had never asked him about Fountain, he had published a standard-work on Fountain nevertheless. The place from where Fountain was sent raised more questions. That place was Philadelphia, but Duchamp had been living in New York.

Female friend

Who was living in Philadelphia? Who was this ‘female friend’ that had sent the urinal using a pseudonym that Duchamp mentions? That woman was, as Duchamp wrote, the future. Art history knows her as Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was a brilliant pioneering New York dada artist, and Duchamp knew her well. This glaring truth has been known for some time in the art world, but each time it has to be acknowledged, it is met with indifference and silence.

You have to pay to read the rest but See All This does include a video with the abstract for the article,

You may want to know one other thing, the magazine appears to be available only in Dutch. Taking that into account, here’s a link to the magazine along with some details about the experts who consulted with Paijmans,

This is an abstract from the Dutch article ‘Het urinoir is niet van Duchamp’ that is published in See All This art magazine’s summer issue. For his research, the author interviewed Irene Gammel (biographer of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and professor at the Ryerson University in Toronto), Glyn Thompson (art historian, curator and writer), Julian Spalding (art critic and former director of Glasgow museums and galleries), and John Higgs (cultural historian and journalist).

The [2018] summer issue of See All This magazine is dedicated to 99 genius women in the art world, to celebrate the voice of women and the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in the Netherlands in 2019. Buy this issue online.

It’s certainly a provocative thesis and it seems there’s a fair degree of evidence to support it. Although there is an alternative attribution, also female. From the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In a letter written by Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne dated April 11, 1917 he refers to his famous ready-made, Fountain (1917) and states: “One of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”[33] Some have claimed that the friend in question was the Baroness, but Francis Naumann, the New York-based critic and expert on Dada who put together a compilation of Duchamp’s letters and organized Making Mischief: Dada Invades New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, explains this “female friend” is Louise Norton who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton was living at 110 West 88th Street in New York City and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph of Fountain.[emphases mine]

Or is it Louise Norton?

The “Fountain” Wikipedia entry does not clarify matters (Note: Links have been removed),

Marcel Duchamp arrived in the United States less than two years prior to the creation of Fountain and had become involved with Dada, an anti-rational, anti-art cultural movement, in New York City. According to one version, the creation of Fountain began when, accompanied by artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, he purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. The artist brought the urinal to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, reoriented it to a position 90 degrees from its normal position of use, and wrote on it, “R. Mutt 1917”.[3][4]

According to another version, Duchamp did not create Fountain, but rather assisted in submitting the piece to the Society of Independent Artists for a female friend. In a letter dated 11 April 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister Suzanne telling her about the circumstances around Fountain’s submission: “Une de mes amies sous un pseudonyme masculin, Richard Mutt, avait envoyé une pissotière [urinal] en porcelaine comme sculpture” (“One of my female friends, who had adopted the male pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture.”)[5][6] Duchamp never identified his female friend, but two candidates have been proposed: the Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven[7][8] whose scatological aesthetic echoed that of Duchamp, or Louise Norton, who contributed an essay to The Blind Man discussing Fountain. Norton, who recently had separated from her husband, was living at the time in an apartment owned by her parents at 110 West 88th Street in New York City, and this address is partially discernible (along with “Richard Mutt”) on the paper entry ticket attached to the object, as seen in Stieglitz’s photograph.[9]

Rhonda Roland Shearer in the online journal Tout-Fait (2000) has concluded that the photograph is a composite of different photos, while other scholars such as William Camfield have never been able to match the urinal shown in the photo to any urinals found in the catalogues of the time period.[10] [emphases mine]

Attributing “Fountain” to a woman changes my understanding of the work. It seems to me. After all, it’s a woman submitting a urinal (plumbing designed specifically for the male anatomy) as a work of art.What was she (whichever she) is saying?

It’s tempting to read a commentary on patriarchy and art into the piece but von Freytag-Loringhoven (I’ll get to Norton next) may have had other issues in mind, from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

There has been substantial new research indicating that some artworks attributed to other artists of the period can now either be attributed to the Baroness, or raise the possibility that she may have created the works. One work, called God (1917) had for a number of years been attributed to the artist Morton Livingston Schamberg. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose collection includes God, now credits the Baroness as a co-artist of this piece. Amelia Jones idenitified that this artwork’s concept and title was created by the Baroness, however, it was constructed by both Shamberg and the Baroness.[30] This sculpture, God (1917), involved a cast iron pumbing trap and a wooden mitre box, assembled in a phallic-like manner. [31] Her concept behind the shape and choice of materials is indicative of her commentary on the worship and love that Americans have for plumbing that trumps all else; additionally, it is revealing of the Baroness’s rejection of technology. [emphases mine]

As for Norton, unfortunately I’m not familiar with her work and this is the only credible reference to her that I’ve been able to find (Note: The link is in an essay on Duchamp and the “Fountain” on the Phaidon website [scroll down to the ninth paragraph]),

Allen Norton was an American poet and literary editor of the 1910s and 20s. He and his wife Louise Norton [emphasis mine] edited the little magazine Rogue, published from March 1915 to December 1916.

There is another Louise Norton, an artist who has a Wikipedia entry but that suggests this is an entirely different ‘Louise’.

Of the two and for what it’s worth, I find von Freytag-Loringhoven to be the more credible candidate. Nell Frizzell in her Nov. 7, 2014 opinion piece for the Guardian has absolutely no doubts on the matter (Note: Links have been removed),

Men may fill them, but it takes a woman to take the piss out of a urinal. Or so Julian Spalding, the former director of Glasgow Museums, and the academic Glyn Thompson have claimed. The argument, which has been swooshing around the cistern of contemporary art criticism since the 1980s, is that Duchamp’s famous artwork Fountain – a pissoir laid on its side – was actually the creation of the poet, artist and wearer of tin cans, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

That Von Freytag-Loringhoven has been written out of the story is not only a great injustice, it is also a formidable loss to art history. This was a woman, after all, whose idea of getting gussied-up for a private view was to scatter her outfit liberally with flattened tin cans and stuffed parrots. A woman who danced on verandas in little more than a pair of stockings, some feathers and enough bangles to shake out the percussion track from Walk Like an Egyptian. A woman who draped her way through several open marriages, including one to Oscar Wilde’s translator Felix Paul Greve (who faked his own suicide to escape his creditors and flee with her to America)….

Mind you, there is a difference between theft and misattribution. While Valerie Solanas, the somewhat troubled feminist and writer of the Scum manifesto, openly accused Andy Warhol of stealing her script Up Your Ass and even attempted to murder him, other works exist in a more complicated, murky grey area. Matisse certainly directed the creation of his gouaches découpées – large collage works made by pasting torn-off pieces of gouache-painted paper – yet it is impossible to draw the line between where his creativity ends and that of his assistants intention begins. Similarly, while John Milton’s daughters ostensibly simply transcribed their father’s work, how can we say that in the act of writing they were not also editing, questioning, suggesting imagery and offering phrasing?

Art historians and academics have pointed out that in 1917 Duchamp wrote to his sister, recounting how “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. Duchamp revealed that this model of urinal wasn’t even in production at the factory where he claimed to have picked it up; and that this artwork bore a more than passing similarity to the Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven readymade sculpture called God, both in appearance and concept.

Here is “God,”

“God” By Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Morton Schamberg (1917)Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q1565911  Source/Photographer: TgGFztK3lZWxdg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum

The “Fountain” graced this blog previously in a March 8, 2016 posting about an exhibition titled: “Mashup: The Birth of Modern Culture” at the Vancouver Art Gallery where I did not have an inkling as to this controversy.  Given the zeitgeist surrounding women and their issues, it’s an interesting time to learn of it.

Algae outbreaks (dead zones) in wetlands and waterways

It’s been over seven years since I first started writing about Duke University’s  Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and mesocosms (miniature ecosystems) and the impact that nanoparticles may have on plants and water (see August 11, 2011 posting). Since then, their focus has shifted from silver nanoparticles and their impact on plants, fish, bacteria, etc. to a more general examination of metallic nanoparticles and water. A June 25, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily announces some of their latest work,

The last 10 years have seen a surge in the use of tiny substances called nanomaterials in agrochemicals like pesticides and fungicides. The idea is to provide more disease protection and better yields for crops, while decreasing the amount of toxins sprayed on agricultural fields.

But when combined with nutrient runoff from fertilized cropland and manure-filled pastures, these “nanopesticides” could also mean more toxic algae outbreaks for nearby streams, lakes and wetlands, a new study finds.

A June 25, 2018 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Robin A. Smith, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Too small to see with all but the most powerful microscopes, engineered nanomaterials are substances manufactured to be less than 100 nanometers in diameter, many times smaller than a hair’s breadth.

Their nano-scale gives them different chemical and physical properties from their bulk counterparts, including more surface area for reactions and interactions.

Those interactions could intensify harmful algal blooms in wetlands, according to experiments led by Marie Simonin, a postdoctoral associate with biology professor Emily Bernhardt at Duke University.

Carbon nanotubes and teeny tiny particles of silver, titanium dioxide and other metals are already added to hundreds of commercial products to make everything from faster, lighter electronics, self-cleaning fabrics, and smarter food packaging that can monitor food for spoilage. They are also used on farms for slow- or controlled-release plant fertilizers and pesticides and more targeted delivery, and because they are effective at lower doses than conventional products.

These and other applications have generated tremendous interest and investment in nanomaterials. However the potential risks to human health or the environment aren’t fully understood, Simonin said.

Most of the 260,000 to 309,000 metric tons of nanomaterials produced worldwide each year are eventually disposed in landfills, according to a previous study. But of the remainder, up to 80,400 metric tons per year are released into soils, and up to 29,200 metric tons end up in natural bodies of water.

“And these emerging contaminants don’t end up in water bodies alone,” Simonin said. “They probably co-occur with nutrient runoff. There are likely multiple stressors interacting.”

Algae outbreaks already plague polluted waters worldwide, said Steven Anderson, a research analyst in the Bernhardt Lab at Duke and one of the authors of the research.

Nitrogen and phosphorous pollution makes its way into wetlands and waterways in the form of agricultural runoff and untreated wastewater. The excessive nutrients cause algae to grow out of control, creating a thick mat of green scum or slime on the surface of the water that blocks sunlight from reaching other plants.

These nutrient-fueled “blooms” eventually reduce oxygen levels to the point where fish and other organisms can’t survive, creating dead zones in the water. Some algal blooms also release toxins that can make pets and people who swallow them sick.

To find out how the combined effects of nutrient runoff and nanoparticle contamination would affect this process, called eutrophication, the researchers set up 18 separate 250-liter tanks with sandy sloped bottoms to mimic small wetlands.

Each open-air tank was filled with water, soil and a variety of wetland plants and animals such as waterweed and mosquitofish.

Over the course of the nine-month experiment, some tanks got a weekly dose of algae-promoting nitrates and phosphates like those found in fertilizers, some tanks got nanoparticles — either copper or gold — and some tanks got both.

Along the way the researchers monitored water chemistry, plant and algae growth and metabolism, and nanoparticle accumulation in plant tissues.

“The results were surprising,” Simonin said. The nanoparticles had tiny effects individually, but when added together with nutrients, even low concentrations of gold and copper nanoparticles used in fungicides and other products turned the once-clear water a murky pea soup color, its surface covered with bright green smelly mats of floating algae.

Over the course of the experiment, big algal blooms were more than three times more frequent and more persistent in tanks where nanoparticles and nutrients were added together than where nutrients were added alone. The algae overgrowths also reduced dissolved oxygen in the water.

It’s not clear yet how nanoparticle exposure shifts the delicate balance between plants and algae as they compete for nutrients and other resources. But the results suggest that nanoparticles and other “metal-based synthetic chemicals may be playing an under-appreciated role in the global trends of increasing eutrophication,” the researchers said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Engineered nanoparticles interact with nutrients to intensify eutrophication in a wetland ecosystem experiment by Marie Simonin, Benjamin P. Colman, Steven M. Anderson, Ryan S. King, Matthew T. Ruis, Astrid Avellan, Christina M. Bergemann, Brittany G. Perrotta, Nicholas K. Geitner, Mengchi Ho, Belen de la Barrera, Jason M. Unrine, Gregory V. Lowry, Curtis J. Richardson, Mark R. Wiesner, Emily S. Bernhardt. Ecological Applications, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/eap.1742 First published: 25 June 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada’s Perimeter Institute, graphic novels, physics, and a public webcast

The full name is Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The abbreviation I’m most familiar with is PI but there’s also Perimeter or PITP according to the institute’s Wikipedia entry. It is the only such institute in the country (as far as I’m aware) and it is very active in science outreach such as their latest foray: Graphic Talk about the Universe: a Clifford V. Johnson public lecture webcast.

A January 16, 2019 posting on the Slice of PI blog (?) announces the webcast,

Physics lends itself to illustration

From da Vinci’s detailed drawings to schematics of a hypothetical zombie cat both alive and dead in a box, illustrations are invaluable tools for those not fluent in the language of equations

But while illustrated textbooks abound, only relatively recently have artists and writers begun exploring physics concepts through the growing genre of graphic novels

These artists (one of whom will deliver a live webcast from Perimeter on Feb. 6!) convey complex ideas not only through illustration, but also narrative creativity, dialogue, action, and humour.

Here are some of our recommendations. Did we miss your favourite? Let us know in the comments.

The Dialogues by Clifford Johnson (MIT Press) is available here.

Max the Demon vs Entropy of Doom by Assa Auerbach and Richard Codor (Loose Line Productions Inc.) is available here

I have two comments about the excerpt from the PI blog: (1) I love the reference to Maxwell’s demon thought experiment in the title for Auerbach’s and Codor’s graphic novel title and (2) Clifford Johnson and his graphic novel were mentioned here in an April 16, 2018 posting.

PI has created a trailer for Johnson’s upcoming webcast,

You can watch the live webcast on February 6, 2019 here (7 pm ET or, for those of us on the West Coast, 4 pm PT). There will be tickets available for anyone who can attend the live lecturre in Waterloo, Ontario. Tickets are available as of Monday, January 21, 2019 at 9 am ET or 6 am PT.

Scientometrics and science typologies

Caption: As of 2013, there were 7.8 million researchers globally, according to UNESCO. This means that 0.1 percent of the people in the world professionally do science. Their work is largely financed by governments, yet public officials are not themselves researchers. To help governments make sense of the scientific community, Russian mathematicians have devised a researcher typology. The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” Credit: Lion_on_helium/MIPT Press Office

A June 28, 2018 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT; Russia) press release (also on EurekAlert) announces some intriguing research,

Researchers in various fields, from psychology to economics, build models of human behavior and reasoning to categorize people. But it does not happen as often that scientists undertake an analysis to classify their own kind.

However, research evaluation, and therefore scientist stratification as well, remain highly relevant. Six years ago, the government outlined the objective that Russian scientists should have 50 percent more publications in Web of Science- and Scopus-indexed journals. As of 2011, papers by researchers from Russia accounted for 1.66 percent of publications globally. By 2015, this number was supposed to reach 2.44%. It did grow but this has also sparked a discussion in the scientific community about the criteria used for evaluating research work.

The most common way of gauging the impact of a researcher is in terms of his or her publications. Namely, whether they are in a prestigious journal and how many times they have been cited. As with any good idea, however, one runs the risk of overdoing it. In 2005, U.S. physicist Jorge Hirsch proposed his h-index, which takes into account the number of publications by a given researcher and the number of times they have been cited. Now, scientists are increasingly doubting the adequacy of using bibliometric data as the sole independent criterion for evaluating research work. One obvious example of a flaw of this metric is that a paper can be frequently cited to point out a mistake in it.

Scientists are increasingly under pressure to publish more often. Research that might have reasonably been published in one paper is being split up into stages for separate publication. This calls for new approaches to the evaluation of work done by research groups and individual authors. Similarly, attempts to systematize the existing methods in scientometrics and stratify scientists are becoming more relevant, too. This is arguably even more important for Russia, where the research reform has been stretching for years.

One of the challenges in scientometrics is identifying the prominent types of researchers in different fields. A typology of scientists has been proposed by Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Professor Pavel Chebotarev, who also heads the Laboratory of Mathematical Methods for Multiagent Systems Analysis at the Institute of Control Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Ilya Vasilyev, a master’s student at MIPT.

In their paper, the two authors determined distinct types of scientists based on an indirect analysis of the style of research work, how papers are received by colleagues, and what impact they make. A further question addressed by the authors is to what degree researcher typology is affected by the scientific discipline.

“Each science has its own style of work. Publication strategies and citation practices vary, and leaders are distinguished in different ways,” says Chebotarev. “Even within a given discipline, things may be very different. This means that it is, unfortunately, not possible to have a universal system that would apply to anyone from a biologist to a philologist.”

“All of the reasonable systems that already exist are adjusted to particular disciplines,” he goes on. “They take into account the criteria used by the researchers themselves to judge who is who in their field. For example, scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences are divided into five groups based on what research they do, and they see a direct comparison of members of different groups as inadequate.”

The study was based on the citation data from the Google Scholar bibliographic database. To identify researcher types, the authors analyzed citation statistics for a large number of scientists, isolating and interpreting clusters of similar researchers.

Chebotarev and Vasilyev looked at the citation statistics for four groups of researchers returned by a Google Scholar search using the tags “Mathematics,” “Physics,” and “Psychology.” The first 515 and 556 search hits were considered in the case of physicists and psychologists, respectively. The authors studied two sets of mathematicians: the top 500 hits and hit Nos. 199-742. The four sets thus included frequently cited scientists from three disciplines indicating their general field of research in their profiles. Citation dynamics over each scientist’s career were examined using a range of indexes.

The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” The leaders are experienced scientists widely recognized in their fields for research that has secured an annual citation count increase for them. The successors are young scientists who have more citations than toilers. The latter earn their high citation metrics owing to yearslong work, but they lack the illustrious scientific achievements.

Among the top 500 researchers indicating mathematics as their field of interest, 52 percent accounted for toilers, with successors and leaders making up 25.8 and 22.2 percent, respectively.

For physicists, the distribution was slightly different, with 48.5 percent of the set classified as toilers, 31.7 percent as successors, and 19.8 percent as leaders. That is, there were more successful young scientists, at the expense of leaders and toilers. This may be seen as a confirmation of the solitary nature of mathematical research, as compared with physics.

Finally, in the case of psychologists, toilers made up 47.7 percent of the set, with successors and leaders accounting for 18.3 and 34 percent. Comparing the distributions for the three disciplines investigated in the study, the authors conclude that there are more young achievers among those doing mathematical research.

A closer look enabled the authors to determine a more fine-grained cluster structure, which turned out to be remarkably similar for mathematicians and physicists. In particular, they identified a cluster of the youngest and most successful researchers, dubbed “precocious,” making up 4 percent of the mathematicians and 4.3 percent of the physicists in the set, along with the “youth” — successful researchers whose debuts were somewhat less dramatic: 29 and 31.7 percent of scientists doing math and physics research, respectively. Two further clusters were interpreted as recognized scientific authorities, or “luminaries,” and experienced researchers who have not seen an appreciable growth in the number of citations recently. Luminaries and the so-called inertia accounted for 52 and 15 percent of mathematicians and 50 and 14 percent of physicists, respectively.

There is an alternative way of clustering physicists, which recognizes a segment of researchers, who “caught the wave.” The authors suggest this might happen after joining major international research groups.

Among psychologists, 18.3 percent have been classified as precocious, though not as young as the physicists and mathematicians in the corresponding group. The most experienced and respected psychology researchers account for 22.5 percent, but there is no subdivision into luminaries and inertia, because those actively cited generally continue to be. Relatively young psychologists make up 59.2 percent of the set. The borders between clusters are relatively blurred in the case of psychology, which might be a feature of the humanities, according to the authors.

“Our pilot study showed even more similarity than we’d expected in how mathematicians and physicists are clustered,” says Chebotarev. “Whereas with psychology, things are noticeably different, yet the breakdown is slightly closer to math than physics. Perhaps, there is a certain connection between psychology and math after all, as some people say.”

“The next stage of this research features more disciplines. Hopefully, we will be ready to present the new results soon,” he concludes.

I think that they are attempting to create a new way of measuring scientific progress (scientometrics) by establishing a more representative means of measuring individual contributions based on the analysis they provide of the ways in which these ‘typologies’ are expressed across various disciplines.

For anyone who wants to investigate further, you will need to be able to read Russian. You can download the paper from here on,.

Here’s my best attempt at a citation for the paper,

Making a typology of scientists on the basis of bibliometric data by I. Vasilyev, P. Yu. Chebotarev. Large-scale System Control (UBS), 2018, Issue 72, Pages 138–195 (Mi ubs948)

I’m glad to see this as there is a fair degree of dissatisfaction about the current measures for scientific progress used in any number of reports on the topic. As far as I can tell, this dissatisfaction is felt internationally.

Art. Science. Optics. A Collider Café event in Vancouver (Canada) on January 23, 2019

The Curiosity Collider folks have decided to ring in the new year with an event focused on optics. Here’s more from their January 15, 2019 announcement (received via email),


you curious? Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Optics.” to
explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

When: 8:00pm on Wednesday, January 23, 2019 Doors open at 7:30pm.
Where: Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).
Cost: $5-10 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events.

With speakers:

Annie Briard, Contemporary Artist : What our eyes perceive but we do not see
Catherine Stewart, Visual Artist: The Museum as Muse: natural history collections as a resource for artistic exploration
Vicky Earle, Medical and Scientific Illustrator: The Art of Science & Medical Illustration
Ramey Newell, Photographer/Film Maker/Artist: Manifest Obscura: Reimagining/reimaging landscape through microbial collaboration
Julius T. Csotonyi, Paleoart, Natural History and Science Illustrator: A Mutualism of Endeavors

Head to the Facebook event page – let us know you are coming and share this event with others! Follow updates on instagram via @curiositycollider or #ColliderCafe. 

The announcement also includes other art/science events currently happening in Vancouver,

Looking for more Art+Science in Vancouver?

The work by one of our Collider Cafe speaker Catherine Stewart is on exhibition at the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum! “Skin & Bones” until August 13, 2019.

Another exhibition at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum: The Wild Creative by Asher Jay until April 28, 2019. “Examine biodiversity loss during the Anthropocene – the Age of Man – through compelling artworks and thought-provoking narratives.”

Our friends at the Story Collider will host their next Vancouver event “Kinship” on January 22. Learn more about the eventget tickets on Eventbrite.

Museum of Vancouver and Nature Vancouver are hosting Wild Things: The Power of Nature in Our Lives, an exhibition that delves into the life stories of local animals and plants. Interactive sessions every weekend. Until March 1, 2020.

For more Vancouver art+science events, visit the Curiosity Collider events calendar.

That last event (Wild Things at the Museum of Vancouver) is going to be available for viewing with a $5 Winter Wander ticket on February 2, 2019. A January 14, 2019 posting on the Miss604 blog has more,

Experience unique waterfront attractions showcasing art, history, crafts, science and performances during Winter Wander at Vanier Park on February 2, 2019. Enjoy local food vendors, enter to win great prizes, and get to know your local museum, space centre, archives, and more during this affordable, family-friendly event

Winter Wander at Vanier Park

When: Saturday, February 2, 2019 10:00am to 5:00pm
Venues include

Museum of Vancouver
The Museum of Vancouver inspires deeper understanding of the city through stories, objects and shared experiences. Check out their latest exhibits and their permanent collections and exhibition halls.

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre
The Space Centre is BC’s top space science attraction, inspiring visitors with shows, exhibits and some of Vancouver’s most unique special events

Vancouver Maritime Museum
Make some maritime-themed origami 10:00am to 4:30pm, visit with Parks Canada interpreters 10:00am to 4:30pm, climb on-board the St. Roch and celebrate 90 years of adventure, enjoy music from a string quartet onboard the St. Roch, and more

City of Vancouver Archives
The City Archives houses over 4 km of documents about the history of Vancouver, containing both government and public collections

Vancouver Academy of Music
Vancouver Academy of Music (“VAM”) is the city’s premiere centre of music education, serving aspiring musicians from early childhood to collegiate levels

Bonus: Bard on the Beach performances!

An undated posting at Vancouver’s Best Places gives you a sense of what to expect along with some handy tips,

At Winter Wander, expect lots of people, fair-sized lineups, and an event schedule with a list of entertainment and special activities throughout the day.

Live entertainment doesn’t happen all over the place. There is a set schedule and different things happen at specific times. The museums are open constantly all day. If you want to be entertained by the Bard on the Beach crew, however, you’ll need to check the schedule and be at a certain place at a certain time.

Although crowded, Winter Wander isn’t insanely busy. The venues are indeed crowded, but, surprisingly, not as bad as one might expect, or at least they weren’t when we’ve been. There is a pretty big lineup to get in before the doors even open in the morning, true, and you do need to wait your turn to get photos of your child in the model astronaut suit at the Planetarium, or to board the St. Roch police boat at the Maritime Museum.

Tips and Advic

Below are some tips and advice to help you make the most out of your experience at the Vanier Park museums on Winter Wander day

TIP #1: Go expecting the museums to be insanely crowded, and then hope to be pleasantly surprised. Go expecting small lineups and not too many people, however, and you’ll likely be disappointed

TIP #2: If you haven’t been to the museums at Vanier Park for a long time, you don’t mind crowds and you have children or guests from out of town, then definitely check out Winter Wander. For just $5, it’s a fabulous deal

TIP #3: Some venues and museum exhibit areas will be more popular and consequently more crowded than others. If a lineup for something is too long, simply move along to something else. There’s lots to see, so don’t fret if you don’t get to see everything

TIP #4: The best thing about the HR MacMillan Space Centre is the Planetarium and its shows about the stars and space. Chances are they’ll be busy, so don’t be disappointed if it’s not worth the wait. If you can get in to see a show though, do

TIP #5: Entertainment at Winter Wander happens at specific times and at certain places over the course of the day. When you arrive, check the schedule and decide what you want to see (including possible shows at the Planetarium). Then, plan your visit accordingly

TIP #6: Expect to spend between about an hour and all day at the event, but likely all morning or all afternoon. The length of your stay will depend on your level of interest in museums, model ships, history and space, but also on the crowds and the interest level and tolerance of crowds of the people you’re with

TIP #7: While at Vanier Park, go for a walk and explore. There is a beautiful walking trail all along the waterfront with views of the city. Especially if the museums are crowded, a break for some fresh air can be nice.

There you have it.

Cellulose and natural nanofibres

Specifically, the researchers are describing these as cellulose nanofibrils. On the left of the image, the seed look mores like an egg waiting to be fried for breakfast but the image on the right is definitely fibrous-looking,

Through contact with water, the seed of Neopallasia pectinata from the family of composite plants forms a slimy sheath. The white cellulose fibres anchor it to the seed surface. Courtesy: Kiel University (CAU)

A December 18, 2018 news item on Nanowerk describes the research into seeds and cellulose,

The seeds of some plants such as basil, watercress or plantain form a mucous envelope as soon as they come into contact with water. This cover consists of cellulose in particular, which is an important structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants, and swelling pectins, plant polysaccharides.

In order to be able to investigate its physical properties, a research team from the Zoological Institute at Kiel University (CAU) used a special drying method, which gently removes the water from the cellulosic mucous sheath. The team discovered that this method can produce extremely strong nanofibres from natural cellulose. In future, they could be especially interesting for applications in biomedicine.

A December 18, 2018 Kiel University press release, which originated the news item, offers further details about the work,

Thanks to their slippery mucous sheath, seeds can slide through the digestive tract of birds undigested. They are excreted unharmed, and can be dispersed in this way. It is presumed that the mucous layer provides protection. “In order to find out more about the function of the mucilage, we first wanted to study the structure and the physical properties of this seed envelope material,” said Zoology Professor Stanislav N. Gorb, head of the “Functional Morphology and Biomechanics” working group at the CAU. In doing so they discovered that its properties depend on the alignment of the fibres that anchor them to the seed surface

Diverse properties: From slippery to sticky

The pectins in the shell of the seeds can absorb a large quantity of water, and thus form a gel-like capsule around the seed in a few minutes. It is anchored firmly to the surface of the seed by fine cellulose fibres with a diameter of just up to 100 nanometres, similar to the microscopic adhesive elements on the surface of highly-adhesive gecko feet. So in a sense, the fibres form the stabilising backbone of the mucous sheath.

The properties of the mucous change, depending on the water concentration. “The mucous actually makes the seeds very slippery. However, if we reduce the water content, it becomes sticky and begins to stick,” said Stanislav Gorb, summarising a result from previous studies together with Dr Agnieszka Kreitschitz. The adhesive strength is also increased by the forces acting between the individual vertically-arranged nanofibres of the seed and the adhesive surface.

Specially dried

In order to be able to investigate the mucous sheath under a scanning electron microscope, the Kiel research team used a particularly gentle method, so-called critical-point drying (CPD). They dehydrated the mucous sheath of various seeds step-by-step with liquid carbon dioxide – instead of the normal method using ethanol. The advantage of this method is that evaporation of liquid carbon dioxide can be controlled under certain pressure and temperature conditions, without surface tension developing within the sheath. As a result, the research team was able to precisely remove water from the mucous, without drying out the surface of the sheath and thereby destroying the original cell structure. Through the highly-precise drying, the structural arrangement of the individual cellulose fibres remained intact.

Almost as strongly-adhesive as carbon nanotubes

The research team tested the dried cellulose fibres regarding their friction and adhesion properties, and compared them with those of synthetically-produced carbon nanotubes. Due to their outstanding properties, such as their tensile strength, electrical conductivity or their friction, these microscopic structures are interesting for numerous industrial applications of the future.

“Our tests showed that the frictional and adhesive forces of the cellulose fibres are almost as strong as with vertically-arranged carbon nanotubes,” said Dr Clemens Schaber, first author of the study. The structural dimensions of the cellulose nanofibers are similar to the vertically aligned carbon nanotubes. Through the special drying method, they can also vary the adhesive strength in a targeted manner. In Gorb’s working group, the zoologist and biomechanic examines the functioning of biological nanofibres, and the potential to imitate them with technical means. “As a natural raw material, cellulose fibres have distinct advantages over carbon nanotubes, whose health effects have not yet been fully investigated,” continued Schaber. Nanocellulose is primarily found in biodegradable polymer composites, which are used in biomedicine, cosmetics or the food industry.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Friction-Active Surfaces Based on Free-Standing Anchored Cellulose Nanofibrils by Clemens F. Schaber, Agnieszka Kreitschitz, and Stanislav N. Gorb. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2018, 10 (43), pp 37566–37574 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b05972 Publication Date (Web): September 19, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Why not monetize your DNA for 2019?

I’m not a big fan of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) companies that promise to tell you about your ancestors and, depending on the kit, predisposition to certain health issues as per their reports about your genetic code. (I regularly pray no one in my family has decided to pay one of these companies to analyze their spit.)

During Christmas season 2018, the DNA companies (23andMe and Ancestry) advertised special prices so you could gift someone in your family with a kit. All this corporate largesse may not be wholly in service of the Christmas spirit. After all, there’s money to be made once they’ve gotten your sample.

Monetizing your DNA in 2016

I don’t know when 23andMe started selling DNA information or if any similar company predated their efforts but this June 21, 2016 article by Antonio Regalado for MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Review offers the earliest information I found,

“Welcome to You.” So says the genetic test kit that 23andMe will send to your home. Pay $199, spit in a tube, and several weeks later you’ll get a peek into your DNA. Have you got the gene for blond hair? Which of 36 disease risks could you pass to a child?

Run by entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, the ex-wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, and until last year housed alongside the Googleplex, the company created a test that has been attacked by regulators and embraced by a curious public. It remains, nine years after its introduction, the only one of its kind sold directly to consumers. 23andMe has managed to amass a collection of DNA information about 1.2 million people, which last year began to prove its value when the company revealed it had sold access to the data to more than 13 drug companies. One, Genentech, anted up $10 million for a look at the genes of people with Parkinson’s disease.

That means 23andMe is monetizing DNA rather the way Facebook makes money from our “likes.” What’s more, it gets its customers to pay for the privilege. That idea so appeals to investors that they have valued the still-unprofitable company at over $1 billion. “Money follows data,” says Barbara Evans, a legal scholar at the University of Houston, who studies personal genetics. “It takes a lot of labor and capital to get that information in a form that is useful.”

Monetizing your DNA in 2018 and privacy concerns

Starting with Adele Peters’ December 13, 2018 article for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

When 23andMe made a $300 million deal with GlaxoSmithKline [GSK] in July[2018]–so the pharmaceutical giant could access a vast store of genetic data as it works on new drugs–the consumers who actually provided that data didn’t get a cut of the proceeds. A new health platform is taking a different approach: If you choose to share your own DNA data or other health records, you’ll get company shares that will later pay you dividends if that data is sold.

Before getting to the start-up that would allow you rather than a company to profit or at least somewhat monetize your DNA, I’m including a general overview of the July 2018 GSK/23andMe deal in Jamie Ducharme’s July 26, 2018 article for TIME (Note: Links have been removed),

Consumer genetic testing company 23andMe announced on Wednesday [July 25, 2018] that GlaxoSmithKline purchased a $300 million stake in the company, allowing the pharmaceutical giant to use 23andMe’s trove of genetic data to develop new drugs — and raising new privacy concerns for consumers

The “collaboration” is a way to make “novel treatments and cures a reality,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said in a company blog post. But, though it isn’t 23andMe’s first foray into drug discovery, the deal doesn’t seem quite so simple to some medical experts — or some of the roughly 5 million 23andMe customers who have sent off tubes of their spit in exchange for ancestry and health insights

Perhaps the most obvious issue is privacy, says Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a non-partisan non-profit that aims to promote patient-centered health care.

“If people are concerned about their social security numbers being stolen, they should be concerned about their genetic information being misused,” Pitts says. “This information is never 100% safe. The risk is magnified when one organization shares it with a second organization. When information moves from one place to another, there’s always a chance for it to be intercepted by unintended third parties.

That risk is real, agrees Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. Caplan says that any genetic privacy concerns also extend to your blood relatives, who likely did not consent to having their DNA tested — echoing some of the questions that arose after law enforcement officials used a genealogy website to find and arrest the suspected Golden State Killer in April [2018].

“A lot of people paid money to 23andMe to get their ancestry determined — fun, recreational stuff,” Caplan says. “Even though they may have signed a thing saying, ‘I’m okay if you use this information for medical research,’ I’m not sure they understood what that really meant. I’m not sure they understood that it meant, ‘Yes, we’ll go to Glaxo, and that’s where we’re really going to make a lot of money off of you.’”

A 23andMe spokesperson told TIME that data privacy is a “top priority” for the company, emphasizing that customer data isn’t used in research without consent, and that GlaxoSmithKline will only receive “summary statistics from analyses 23andMe conducts so that no single individual can be identified.”

Yes the data is supposed to be stripped of identifying information but given how many times similar claims about geolocation data have been disproved, I am skeptical. DJ Pangburn’s September 26, 2017 article (Even This Data Guru Is Creeped Out By What Anonymous Location Data Reveals About Us) for Fast Company illustrate the fragility of ‘anonymized data’,

… as a number of studies have shown, even when it’s “anonymous,” stripped of so-called personally identifiable information, geographic data can help create a detailed portrait of a person and, with enough ancillary data, identify them by name

Curious to see this kind of data mining in action, I emailed Gilad Lotan, now vice president of BuzzFeed’s data science team. He agreed to look at a month’s worth of two different users’ anonymized location data, and to come up with individual profiles that were as accurate as possible

The results, produced in just a few days’ time, range from the expected to the surprisingly revealing, and demonstrate just how “anonymous” data can identify individuals.

Last fall Lotan taught a class at New York University on surveillance that kicked off with an assignment like the one I’d given him: link anonymous location data with other data sets–from LinkedIn, Facebook, home registration and mortgage records, and other online data.
“It’s not hard to figure out who this [unnamed] person is,” says Lotan. In class, students found that tracking location data around holidays proved to be the easiest way to determine who, exactly, the data belonged to. “Basically,” he says, “visits to private homes that are owned and publicly registered.”

In 2013, researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium published a paper reporting on 15 months of study of human mobility data for over 1.5 million individuals. What they found is that only four spatio-temporal points are required to “uniquely identify 95% of the individuals.” The researchers concluded that there was very little privacy even in raw location data. Four years later, their calls for policies rectifying concerns about location tracking have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Getting back to DNA, there was also some concern at Fox News,

Other than warnings, I haven’t seen much about any possible legislation regarding DNA and privacy in either Canada or the US.

Now, let’s get to how you can monetize your self.

Me making money off me

I’ve found two possibilities for an individual who wants to consider monetizing their own DNA.

Health shares

Adele Peters’ December 13, 2018 article describes a start-up company and the model they’re proposing to allow you profit from your own DNA (Note: Links have been removed),

“You can’t say data is valuable and then take that data away from everybody,” says Dawn Barry, president and cofounder of LunaPBC, the public benefit corporation that manages the community-owned platform, called LunaDNA, which recently got SEC approval to recognize health data as currency. “What we’re finding is that [our early adopters are] very excited about the transparency of this model–that when we all come together and create value, that value flows down to the individuals who shared their data.

The platform shares some anonymized data with nonprofits, such as foundations that study rare diseases. In that case, money wouldn’t initially change hands, but “there could be intellectual property that at some point in time is monetized, and the community would share in that,” says Bob Kain, CEO and cofounder of LunaPBC. “When we have enough data in the near future, then we’ll work with pharmaceutical companies, for instance, to drive discovery for those companies. And they will pay market rates.

The company doesn’t offer DNA analysis itself, but chose to focus on data management. If you’ve sent a tube of spit to 23andMe, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, or FamilyTree DNA, you can contribute that data to LunaDNA and get shares. (If you’d rather not let the original testing company keep your data, you can also separately take the steps to delete it.

“We looked at a number of different models to enable people to have ownership, including cryptocurrency, which is a proxy for ownership, too,” says Kain. “Cryptocurrency is hard to understand for most people, and right now, the regulatory landscape is blurry. So we thought, to move forward, we’d go with something much more traditional and easy to understand, and that is stock shares, basically.

For sharing targeted genes, you get 10 shares. For sharing your whole genome, you get 300 shares. At the moment, that’s not worth very much–the valuation takes into account the risk that the data might not be monetized, and the fact that the startup isn’t the exclusive owner of your data. The SEC filing says that the estimated fair market value of a whole genome is only $21. Some other health information is worth far less; 20 days of data from a fitness tracker garners two shares, valued at 14¢. But as more people contribute data, the research value of the whole database (and dividends) will increase. If the shareholders ever decided to sell the company itself, they would also make money that way.

Luna’s is a very interesting approach and I encourage you to read the December 13, 2018 article in its entirety.

Blockchain and crypto me

At least one effort to introduce blockchain/cryptocurrency technology to the process for monetizing your DNA garnered a lot of attention in February 2018.

A February 8, 2018 article by Eric Rosenbaum for CNBC (a US cable tv channel) explores an effort by George Church (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s probably wise to be skeptical of anyone who says they have a new idea for a blockchain-based company, or worse still, a company changing its business model to focus on the crypto world. That ice tea company that shifted its model to the blockchain, or Kodak saying its road back to riches was managing photo rights using a blockchain system. Raise eyebrow, or move directly onto outright shake of head

However, when a world renown Harvard geneticist announces he’s launching a blockchain-based start-up, it merits some attention. And it’s not the crypto-angle itself that might make you do a double-take, but the assets that will be managed, and exchanged, using digital currency: your DNA

Harvard University genetics guru George Church — one of the scientists at the forefront of the CRISPR genetic engineering revolution — announced on Wednesday a start-up, Nebula Genomics, that will use the blockchain to not only allow individuals to share their personal genome for research purposes, but retain ownership and monetize their DNA through trading of a custom digital currency.

The genomics revolution has been exponentially advanced by drastic reductions in cost. As Nebula noted in a white paper explaining its business model, the first human genome was sequenced in 2001 at a cost of $3 billion. Today, human genome sequencing costs less than $1,000, and in a few years the price will drop below $100

In fact, some big Silicon Valley start-ups, led by 23andMe, have capitalized on this rapid advance and already offer personal DNA testing kits for around $100 (sometimes with discounts even less)

Nebula took direct aim at 23andMe in its white paper, and one reason why it can offer genetic testing for less

“Today, 23andMe ( and Ancestry ( are the two leading personal genomics companies. Both use DNA microarray-based genotyping for their genetic tests. It is an outdated and significantly less powerful alternative to DNA sequencing. Instead of sequencing continuous stretches of DNA, genotyping identifies single letters spaced at approximately regular intervals across the genome. …

Outdated genetic tests? Interesting, eh? Zoë Corbyn provides more information about Church’s plans in her February 18, 2018 article for the Guardian,

“Under the current system, personal genomics companies effectively own your personal genomics data, and you don’t see any benefit at all,” says Grishin [Dennis Grishin, Nebula co-founder]. “We want to eliminate the middleman.

Although the aim isn’t to provide a get-rich-quick scheme, the company believes there is potential for substantial returns. Though speculative, its modelling suggests that someone in the US could earn up to 50 times the cost of sequencing their genome – about $50,000 at current rates – taking into account both what could be made from a lifetime of renting out their genetic data, and reductions in medical bills if the results throw up a potentially preventable disease

The startup also thinks it can solve the problem of the dearth of genetic data researchers have to draw on, due to individuals – put off by cost or privacy concerns – not getting sequenced.

Payouts when you grant access to your genome would come in the form of Nebula tokens, the company’s cryptocurrency, and companies would need to buy tokens from the startup to pay people whose data they wanted to access. Though the value of a token is yet to be set and the number of tokens defined, it might, for example, take one Nebula token to get your genome sequenced. An individual new to the system could begin to earn fractions of a token by taking part in surveys about their heath posted by prospective data buyers. When someone had earned enough, they could get sequenced and begin renting out their data and amassing tokens. Alternatively, if an individual wasn’t yet sequenced they may find data buyers willing to pay for or subsidise their genome sequencing in exchange for access to it. “Potentially you wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for the sequencing of your genome,” says Grishin.

In all cases, stress Grishin and Obbad [Kamal Obbad, Nebula co-founder], the sequence would belong to the individual, so they could rent it out over and over, including to multiple companies simultaneously. And the data buyer would never take ownership or possession of it – rather, it would be stored by the individual (for example in their computer or on their Dropbox account) with Nebula then providing a secure computation platform on which the data buyer could compute on the data. “You stay in control of your data and you can share it securely with who you want to,” explains Obbad. Nebula makes money not by taking any transaction fee but by being a participant providing computing and storage services. The cryptocurrency would be able to be cashed out for real money via existing cryptocurrency exchanges.

Hopefully, Luna and Nebula, as well as, any competitors in this race to allow individuals to monetize their own DNA will have excellent security.

For the curious, you can find Luna here and Nebula here.Note: I am not endorsing either company or any others mentioned here. This posting is strictly informational.

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,


Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at:

There you have it.

Terahertz imagers at your fingertips

It seems to me that I stumbled across quite a few carbon nanotube (CNT) stories in 2018. This one comes courtesy of Japan (from a June 28, 2018 news item on Nanowerk),

Researchers at Tokyo Tech have developed flexible terahertz imagers based on chemically “tunable” carbon nanotube materials. The findings expand the scope of terahertz applications to include wrap-around, wearable technologies as well as large-area photonic devices.

Here’s a peek at an imager,

Figure 1. The CNT-based flexible THz imager (a) Resting on a fingertip, the CNT THz imager can easily wrap around curved surfaces. (b) Just by inserting and rotating a flexible THz imager attached to the fingertip, damage to a pipe was clearly detected. Courtesy Tokyo Tech

A June 28, 2018 Tokyo Tech Institute press release (also on Eurekalert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are beginning to take the electronics world by storm, and now their use in terahertz (THz) technologies has taken a big step forward.

Due to their excellent conductivity and unique physical properties, CNTs are an attractive option for next-generation electronic devices. One of the most promising developments is their application in THz devices. Increasingly, THz imagers are emerging as a safe and viable alternative to conventional imaging systems across a wide range of applications, from airport security, food inspection and art authentication to medical and environmental sensing technologies.

The demand for THz detectors that can deliver real-time imaging for a broad range of industrial applications has spurred research into low-cost, flexible THz imaging systems. Yukio Kawano of the Laboratory for Future Interdisciplinary Research of Science and Technology, Tokyo Tech, is a world-renowned expert in this field. In 2016, for example, he announced the development of wearable terahertz technologies based on multiarrayed carbon nanotubes.

Kawano and his team have since been investigating THz detection performance for various types of CNT materials, in recognition of the fact that there is plenty of room for improvement to meet the needs of industrial-scale applications.

Now, they report the development of flexible THz imagers for CNT films that can be fine-tuned to maximize THz detector performance.

Publishing their findings in ACS Applied Nano Materials, the new THz imagers are based on chemically adjustable semiconducting CNT films.

By making use of a technology known as ionic liquid gating1, the researchers demonstrated that they could obtain a high degree of control over key factors related to THz detector performance for a CNT film with a thickness of 30 micrometers. This level of thickness was important to ensure that the imagers would maintain their free-standing shape and flexibility, as shown in Figure 1 [see above].

“Additionally,” the team says, “we developed gate-free Fermi-level2 tuning based on variable-concentration dopant solutions and fabricated a Fermi-level-tuned p-n junction3 CNT THz imager.” In experiments using this new type of imager, the researchers achieved successful visualization of a metal paper clip inside a standard envelope (see Figure 2.)

Non-contact, non-destructive visualization

Figure 2. Non-contact, non-destructive visualization

The CNT THz imager enabled clear, non-destructive visualization of a metal paper clip inside an envelope.

The bendability of the new THz imager and the possibility of even further fine-tuning will expand the range of CNT-based devices that could be developed in the near future.

Moreover, low-cost fabrication methods such as inkjet coating could make large-area THz imaging devices more readily available.

1 Ionic liquid gating

A technique used to modulate a material’s charge carrier properties.

2 Fermi level

A measure of the electrochemical potential for electrons, which is important for determining the electrical and thermal properties of solids. The term is named after the Italian–American physicist Enrico Fermi.

3 p-n junction

Refers to the interface between positive (p-type) and negative (n-type) semiconducting materials. These junctions form the basis of semiconductor electronic devices.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Fermi-Level-Controlled Semiconducting-Separated Carbon Nanotube Films for Flexible Terahertz Imagers by Daichi Suzuki, Yuki Ochiai, Yota Nakagawa, Yuki Kuwahara, Takeshi Saito, and Yukio Kawano. ACS Appl. Nano Mater., 2018, 1 (6), pp 2469–2475 DOI: 10.1021/acsanm.8b00421 Publication Date (Web): June 6, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.