The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

Read the full poem

Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

Read the full poem

William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

Read the full poem

For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

Read the full poem

Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Cosmetics breakthrough for Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST)?

Cosmetics would not have been my first thought on reading the title for the paper (“Rates of cavity filling by liquids”) produced  by scientists from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST).

A September 17, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the research,

A research team, affiliated with Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) has examined the rates of liquid penetration on rough or patterned surfaces, especially those with pores or cavities. Their findings provide important insights into the development of everyday products, including cosmetics, paints, as well as industrial applications, like enhanced oil recovery.

This study has been jointly led by Professor Dong Woog Lee and his research team in the School of Energy and Chemical Engineering at UNIST and a research team in the University of California, Santa Barbara. Published online in the July 19th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Rates of cavity filling by liquids”), the study identifies five variables that control the cavity-filling (wetting transition) rates, required for liquids to penetrate into the cavities.

A July 26, 2018 UNIST press release (also on EurekAlert but published on September 17, 2018), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

In the study, Professor Lee fabricated silicon wafers with cylindrical cavities of different geometries. After immersing them in bulk water, they observed the details of, and the rates associated with, water penetration into the cavities from the bulk, using bright-field and confocal fluorescence microscopy. Cylindrical cavities are like skin pores with narrow entrance and specious interior. The cavity filling generally progresses when bulk water is spread above a hydrophilic, reentrant cavity. As described in “Wetting Transition from the Cassie–Baxter State to Wenzel State”, the liquid droplet that sits on top of the textured surface with trapped air underneath will be completely absorbed by the rough surface cavities.

Their findings revealed that the cavity-filling rates are affected by the following variables: (i) the intrinsic contact angle, (ii) the concentration of dissolved air in the bulk water phase, (iii) the liquid volatility that determines the rate of capillary condensation inside the cavities, (iv) the types of surfactants, and (v) the cavity geometry.

“Our results can used in the manufacture of special-purpose cosmetic products,” says Professor Lee. “For instance, pore minimizing face primers and facial cleansers that remove sebum need to reduce the amount of dissolved air, so that they can penetrate into the pores quickly.”

On the other hand, beauty products, like sunscreens should be designed to protect the skin from harmful sun, while preventing pores clogging. Because, clogged pores hinder the skin’s function of breathing or exchange of carbon dioxide and then cause further irritation, pimples, and blemished areas on your skin. In this case, it is better to reduce volatility and increase the amount of dissolved air in the cosmetic products, as opposed to facial cleansers.

“This knowledge of how cavities under bulk water are filled and what variables control the rate of filling can provide insights into the engineering of temporarily or permanently superhydrophobic surfaces, and the designing and manufacturing of various products that are applied to rough, textured, or patterned surfaces,” says Professor Lee. “Many of the fundamental insights gained can also be applied to other liquids (e.g., oils), contact angles, and cavities or pores of different dimensions or geometries.”

This study has been supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) grant, funded by the Ministry of Science and ICT.

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

Rates of cavity filling by liquids by Dongjin Seo, Alex M. Schrader, Szu-Ying Chen, Yair Kaufman, Thomas R. Cristiani, Steven H. Page, Peter H. Koenig, Yonas Gizaw, Dong Woog Lee, and Jacob N. Israelachvili. PNAS August 7, 2018 115 (32) 8070-8075 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1804437115 Published ahead of print July 19, 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Storytelling, space, science, and a mini authors’ tour of Vancouver and Victoria (Canada)

I wasn’t expecting to go down a rabbit hole when I received an April 18, 2019 email announcement from Vancouver’s Curiosity Collider about an upcoming April 26, 2019 event but why not join me on the trip?

From the April 18, 2019 Curiosity Collider email,

Join astrophysicist / writer Elizabeth Tasker & young adult (YA) novelist Ria Voros as they share how discoveries of new worlds help tell stories of family

Curiosity Collider is co-hosting [emphasis mine] a special evening event with authors Ria Voros and Elizabeth Tasker. Ria and Elizabeth seem to be authors of a very different type: Ria is a YA novelist, while Elizabeth is an astrophysicist who writes popular science. The two authors will discuss how they came to work together unexpectedly through Ria’s novel. Ria will explain the process and research for her novel, The Centre of the Universe, and how the use of space metaphors help explain relationships between the characters. Elizabeth will then cast a scientific eye over these same metaphors, before moving on to talk in more depth about her own research and book, The Planet Factory

When: 7:00pm on Friday, April 26, 2019.
Where: Room 202, Hennings Building on UBC [University of British Columiba, Vancouver Endowment Lands] Campus (6224 Agricultural Road)
Cost: Free

Book signing to follow immediately after the event. UBC Bookstore will be on site with both Ria and Elizabeth’s books. 

Ria Voros is a YA author whose latest novel, The Centre of the Universe, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters and also explores a teen’s passion for astronomy. Ria has an MFA in creative writing from UBC and her books have been nominated for several awards across the country. She writes, teaches and lives in Victoria.

Elizabeth Tasker is an astrophysicist at Japan’s national space agency, JAXA. Her research uses computer models to explore how stars and planets form. She is a keen science communicator, writing principally about planets and space missions for publications that have included Scientific American, Astronomy Magazine and Room, and she is a regular feature writer for the NASA NExSS ‘Many Worlds’ online column. Her popular science book, The Planet Factory, comes out in paperback in Canada this April.

Curious as to what Tasker, an astrophysicist working in Japan, is doing here in BC, I noted the event is being cohosted by UBC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy (presumably Tasker is visiting colleagues and/or engaged on a sabbatical leave) along with Curiosity Collider. Not so coincidentally, Theresa Liao is the communications coordinator for the UBC department and is a member of the Curiosity Collider ‘team‘.

This April 26, 2019 Curiosity Collider event is the first of three of these authors’ events (according to my searches) within three days. The next is on April 27, 2019,. From the Royal BC Museum Astronomy Day (2019) event day webpage, (sometimes it’s ‘Astronomy Day’ and sometimes it’s ‘International Astronomy Day’)

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Victoria Centre) will host the celebrations for International Astronomy Day [emphasis mine]. Join us and explore the mysteries of the universe!

2:30 PM – Science & Storytelling: How discoveries of new worlds help tell stories of family
By Ria Voros and Dr. Elizabeth Tasker

Ria and Elizabeth seem to be authors of a very different type: Ria is a “Young Adult” novelist, while Elizabeth writes popular science. The first part of this talk will tackle a crucial question: why are they presenting together? The two authors will discuss how they came to work together unexpectedly through Ria’s novel. Ria will then explain the process and research for her novel, The Centre of the Universe and how the use of space metaphors help explain relationships between the characters. Elizabeth will then cast a scientific eye over these same metaphors, before moving on to talk in more depth about her own research and book, The Planet Factory.

Event Details
April 27, 2019
10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Royal BC Museum
Free

Segue: I found more than one International Astronomy Day for 2019., the April 27, 2019 date in Victoria, BC, an April 28, 2019 date, and a May 11, 2019 date. As well, there is an International Astronomy Week being celebrated May 6 – 12, 2019 (as noted on the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s (RASC) Astronomy Events webpage). Lots of options for folks.

On the last date of this mini tour, the authors return to Vancouver for an April 28, 2019 event at the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre,

Passion for Astronomy: A Tale of Two Authors

Have you ever wondered how writers develop their stories? Have you ever wanted to write your own novel?

Join us Sunday, April 28th [2019] to find out how popular science author Dr. Elizabeth Tasker and Young Adult novelist Ria Voros develop their work. There is no charge to attend and all ages are welcome.

Learn how a shared passion for science and astronomy, and Ria’s latest novel ’The Centre of the Universe’, lead to a collaboration between these two authors.

Ria will be sharing the backstory and process she used to develop ’The Centre of the Universe’, and how she used space metaphors to help explore relationships between her characters. Elizabeth will shed a scientific light on the metaphors in Ria’s work before talking about her own research and book ’The Planet Factory’.

We will close the talk with a Q&A and book signing.

Located in the lower level auditorium.

Event Details
April 28, 2019 – 3:00pm to 4:00pm
Tickets

FREE ADMISSION. Reserve your seat on Evenbrite

Enjoy!

ETA April 21, 2019: I missed one stop on the tour. according to an April 19, 2019 article by Dana Gee for the Vancouver Sun, there will be two events on April 28, In addition to the one at the H. R. MacMillan Space Centre, Tasker and Voros will be hosted by the B.C. Humanist Association, from the BC Humanist Association’s Events webpage,

Sunday, April 28, 2019 at 10:00 AM
Oakridge Seniors Centre in Vancouver, BC, Canada
Vancouver Sunday Meeting: Elizabeth Tasker and Ria Voros – The Planet Factory

Dr Elizabeth Tasker is an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (ISAS). Her research uses computer models to explore the formation of planets and galaxies. Her new book, The Planet Factory, tells the story of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system.

She’ll be joined by Ria Voros, a Canadian author who’s new young adult book, The Centre of the Universe, follows 17 year old Grace, whose mother is missing. Grace is fascinated by exoplanets and meets Dr Tasker as a character in the story.

Both will discuss how they met and a bit about each of their books.

All are welcome to attend. Join us at 10 am for BYO coffee, tea, and socializing. At 10:30 am we start our presentation and discuss topics of interest to our members.

The BC Humanist Association was formed in 1984 and we have a regular attendance of over 30 people at our Sunday meetings.

Click here for more details on how to find the Centre. Our events are independent of the Seniors’ Centre and are open to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Now you have one more option.

Probing the physical limits of plasmons in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms

A Sept. 5, 2018  news item on ScienceDaily introduces the work,

Rice University [Texas, US] researchers are probing the physical limits of excited electronic states called plasmons by studying them in organic molecules with fewer than 50 atoms.

A Sept. 4, 2018 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert published on Sept. 5, 2018), which originated the news item, explains what plasmons are and why this research is being undertaken,

Plasmons are oscillations in the plasma of free electrons that constantly swirl across the surface of conductive materials like metals. In some nanomaterials, a specific color of light can resonate with the plasma and cause the electrons inside it to lose their individual identities and move as one, in rhythmic waves. Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics (LANP) has pioneered a growing list of plasmonic technologies for applications as diverse as color-changing glass, molecular sensing, cancer diagnosis and treatment, optoelectronics, solar energy collection and photocatalysis.

Reporting online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, LANP scientists detailed the results of a two-year experimental and theoretical study of plasmons in three different polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Unlike the plasmons in relatively large metal nanoparticles, which can typically be described with classical electromagnetic theory like Maxwell’s [James Clerk Maxwell] equations, the paucity of atoms in the PAHs produces plasmons that can only be understood in terms of quantum mechanics, said study co-author and co-designer Naomi Halas, the director of LANP and the lead researcher on the project.

“These PAHs are essentially scraps of graphene that contain five or six fused benzene rings surrounded by a perimeter of hydrogen atoms,” Halas said. “There are so few atoms in each that adding or removing even a single electron dramatically changes their electronic behavior.”

Halas’ team had experimentally verified the existence of molecular plasmons in several previous studies. But an investigation that combined side by side theoretical and experimental perspectives was needed, said study co-author Luca Bursi, a postdoctoral research associate and theoretical physicist in the research group of study co-designer and co-author Peter Nordlander.

“Molecular excitations are a ubiquity in nature and very well studied, especially for neutral PAHs, which have been considered as the standard of non-plasmonic excitations in the past,” Bursi said. “Given how much is already known about PAHs, they were an ideal choice for further investigation of the properties of plasmonic excitations in systems as small as actual molecules, which represent a frontier of plasmonics.”

Lead co-author Kyle Chapkin, a Ph.D. student in applied physics in the Halas research group, said, “Molecular plasmonics is a new area at the interface between plasmonics and molecular chemistry, which is rapidly evolving. When plasmonics reach the molecular scale, we lose any sharp distinction of what constitutes a plasmon and what doesn’t. We need to find a new rationale to explain this regime, which was one of the main motivations for this study.”

In their native state, the PAHs that were studied — anthanthrene, benzo[ghi]perylene and perylene — are charge-neutral and cannot be excited into a plasmonic state by the visible wavelengths of light used in Chapkin’s experiments. In their anionic form, the molecules contain an additional electron, which alters their “ground state” and makes them plasmonically active in the visible spectrum. By exciting both the native and anionic forms of the molecules and comparing precisely how they behaved as they relaxed back to their ground states, Chapkin and Bursi built a solid case that the anionic forms do support molecular plasmons in the visible spectrum.

The key, Chapkin said, was identifying a number of similarities between the behavior of known plasmonic particles and the anionic PAHs. By matching both the timescales and modes for relaxation behaviors, the LANP team built up a picture of a characteristic dynamics of low-energy plasmonic excitations in the anionic PAHs.

“In molecules, all excitations are molecular excitations, but select excited states show some characteristics that allow us to draw a parallel with the well-established plasmonic excitations in metal nanostructures,” Bursi said.

“This study offers a window on the sometimes surprising behavior of collective excitations in few-atom quantum systems,” Halas said. “What we’ve learned here will aid our lab and others in developing quantum-plasmonic approaches for ultrafast color-changing glass, molecular-scale optoelectronics and nonlinear plasmon-mediated optics.”

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

Lifetime dynamics of plasmons in the few-atom limit by Kyle D. Chapkin, Luca Bursi, Grant J. Stec, Adam Lauchner, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Yao Cui, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS September 11, 2018 115 (37) 9134-9139; published ahead of print August 27, 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805357115

This paper is behind a paywall.

Two new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) at the University of British Columbia (Canada) bring bioproducts and precision medicine skills

This is very fresh news. One of these chairs has not yet been listed (at the time of this writing) as a member of the institute that he will be leading. Here’s the big picture news from an
April 17, 2019 University of British Columbia (UBC) news release, Note: Links have been removed,

Two internationally recognized researchers join the University of British Columbia as Canada Excellence Research Chairs, bringing international talent in the fields of forest bioproducts and precision cancer drug design.

Orlando Rojas has accepted the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts, while Sriram Subramaniam will hold the Gobind Khorana Canada Excellence Research Chair in Precision Cancer Drug Design—named after late Nobel Prize-winning UBC biochemistry professor Har Gobind Khorana.

“We are delighted to welcome Dr. Rojas and Dr. Subramaniam to UBC,” said UBC President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Santa J. Ono. “Thanks to the CERC program and the generous support of our partners, including VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, we have an opportunity to continue to build on UBC’s reputation as a global leader in these vitally important research fields.”

The Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program was established by the federal government in 2008 to attract top research talent from abroad to Canada. UBC will receive up to $10 million over seven years to support each chair and their research teams. In addition, a philanthropic gift of $18 million made to VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation will support cancer drug design that will be carried out by Subramaniam in close partnership with UBC and the Vancouver Prostate Centre at VGH.

“VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation is honoured to announce an $18 million gift from Aqueduct Foundation on behalf of an anonymous donor that will increase capacity for discovering and testing new life-saving cancer treatments right here in B.C. This funding will specifically support the design of precise, targeted and cost-effective drugs for cancer in work led by Dr. Sriram Subramaniam in close partnership with UBC and the Vancouver Prostate Centre at VGH and other research centres,” says Barbara Grantham, president and CEO of VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation.

Bioproducts

The April 17, 2019 UBC news release, goes on to describe the two new chairs,

Breaking new ground in forest bioproducts

Orlando Rojas comes to UBC from Aalto University [Finland], where he directs with VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland, a scientific cluster to advance the Finnish materials bio-economy. A recipient of the Anselme Payen Award—one of the highest international recognitions in the area of cellulose and renewable materials—and an elected member of the American Chemical Society and the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, Rojas is recognized as a worldwide leader in the area of nanocelluloses.

“I’m thrilled to join an already stellar team of researchers at UBC’s BioProducts Institute,” said Rojas. “My research is aimed at uncovering solutions that can be found in nature to fulfill our material needs by using sustainably, readily available bio-resources. I hope to break new grounds to create positive societal impacts and to better our quality of life.”

As the CERC in Forest Bioproducts, Rojas will establish a world-class research program in genomics, synthetic biology, materials science and engineering. Together with his team and by applying cutting-edge nano- and biotechnologies, he will discover new strategies to isolate and transform biomass components—non-fossil organic materials derived from plants (including wood)—as well as side-streams and residuals from forestry and agriculture, oils and biomolecules. The work will lead to the generation of new bio-based precursors and advanced materials critical to the future bioeconomy. Rojas will be the scientific director of the UBC BioProducts Institute, synergizing a distinguished group of professors and researchers across campus who will conduct multi- and cross-disciplinary research that will position UBC at the forefront in the area.

As climate change continues to be the greatest threat to our world, the need to transition toward a more sustainable bio-based circular economy is critical. Rojas’ research is vital in understanding the role of forest and other plant-based resources in facilitating the transition to renewable materials and bioproducts.

As I noted earlier, Rojas has yet to be added to the UBC BioProducts Institute roster but I did find a listing of his published papers on Google Scholar and noted a number of them are focused on nanocellulose with at least one study on cellulose nanocrystals (CNC),

  • Cellulose nanocrystals: chemistry, self-assembly, and applications [by] Y Habibi, LA Lucia, OJ Rojas Chemical reviews 110 (6), 3479-3500

The University of British Columbia was the site for much of the early work in Canada and internationally on cellulose nanocrystals. After the provincial government lost interest in supporting it, the researchers at FPInnovations (I think it was a university spin-off organization) moved their main headquarters (leaving a smaller group in British Columbia) to the province of Québec where they receive significant support . In turn, FPInnovations spun-off a company, CelluForce which produces CNC from forest products.This news about Roja’s appointment would seem to make for an interesting development in Canada’s nanocellulose story.

Precision medicine with cryo-electron microscopy

Now for the second CERC appointment, from the April 17, 2019 UBC news release,

Putting Canada at the forefront of precision medicine

Sriram Subramaniam is recognized as a global leader in the emerging field of cryo-electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, a technology that has sparked a revolution in imaging of protein complexes. Subramaniam and his team demonstrated that proteins and protein-bound drugs could be visualized at atomic resolution with cryo-EM, paving the way for this technology to be used in accelerating drug discovery.

Subramaniam comes to UBC’s faculty of medicine from the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where he led a research team that made seminal advances in molecular and cellular imaging using electron microscopy, including work on advancing vaccine design for viruses such as HIV. Subramaniam is also founding director of the National Cryo-EM Program at NCI, NIH.

As the Gobind Khorana Canada Excellence Research Chair in Precision Cancer Drug Design, Subramaniam will establish and direct a laboratory located at UBC, aimed at bringing about transformative discoveries in cancer, neuroscience and infectious disease. Subramaniam is appointed both in the department of urologic sciences and in biochemistry and molecular biology at UBC, and is linked to the precision cancer drug design program at the Vancouver Prostate Centre at VGH.

His research is supported by a philanthropic gift of $18 million made to VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation. He will work in close partnership with the Vancouver Prostate Centre at VGH.

“We would not be able to undertake this path aimed at leveraging advances in imaging technology to improve patient outcomes if it weren’t for the generous support of the donor, the Canadian government, and VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation,” said Subramaniam. “I am proud to be part of a team of outstanding researchers here in Vancouver, and working together to harness the true potential of cryo-EM to accelerate drug design. Our work has the potential to establish VGH, UBC and Canada at the forefront of the emerging era of precision medicine.”

I was not able to find much in the way of additional information about Subramaniam—other than this (from the High Resolution Electron Microscopy Lab Members webpage),

Sriram Subramaniam received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Stanford University and completed postdoctoral training in the Departments of Chemistry and Biology at M.I.T. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] He is chief of the Biophysics Section in the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute. He holds a visiting faculty appointment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Welcome to both Orlando J. Rohas and Sriram Subramaniam!

A snout weevil at the end of the rainbow

I’ve never heard of a snout weevil before but it seems to be a marvelous creature,

Caption: Left: A photograph of the ‘rainbow’ weevil, with the rainbow-colored spots on its thorax and elytra (wing casings). Right: A microscope image of the rim of a single rainbow spot, showing the different colors of individual scales. Credit: Dr Bodo D Wilts

From a Sept. 11, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from Yale [University]-NUS College and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have discovered a novel colour-generation mechanism in nature, which if harnessed, has the potential to create cosmetics and paints with purer and more vivid hues, screen displays that project the same true image when viewed from any angle, and even reduce the signal loss in optical fibres.

Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Science (Life Science) Vinodkumar Saranathan led the study with Dr Bodo D Wilts from the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg. Dr Saranathan examined the rainbow-coloured patterns in the elytra (wing casings) of a snout weevil from the Philippines, Pachyrrhynchus congestus pavonius, using high-energy X-rays, while Dr Wilts performed detailed scanning electron microscopy and optical modelling.

They discovered that to produce the rainbow palette of colours, the weevil utilised a colour-generation mechanism that is so far found only in squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses, which are renowned for their colour-shifting camouflage.

A Sept. 11, 2018 Yale-NUS College news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more on the weevil and on the research,

P. c. pavonius, or the “Rainbow” Weevil, is distinctive for its rainbow-coloured spots on its thorax and elytra (see attached image). These spots are made up of nearly-circular scales arranged in concentric rings of different hues, ranging from blue in the centre to red at the outside, just like a rainbow. While many insects have the ability to produce one or two colours, it is rare that a single insect can produce such a vast spectrum of colours. Researchers are interested to figure out the mechanism behind the natural formation of these colour-generating structures, as current technology is unable to synthesise structures of this size.

“The ultimate aim of research in this field is to figure out how the weevil self-assembles these structures, because with our current technology we are unable to do so,” Dr Saranathan said. “The ability to produce these structures, which are able to provide a high colour fidelity regardless of the angle you view it from, will have applications in any industry which deals with colour production. We can use these structures in cosmetics and other pigmentations to ensure high-fidelity hues, or in digital displays in your phone or tablet which will allow you to view it from any angle and see the same true image without any colour distortion. We can even use them to make reflective cladding for optical fibres to minimise signal loss during transmission.”

Dr Saranathan and Dr Wilts examined these scales to determine that the scales were composed of a three-dimensional crystalline structure made from chitin (the main ingredient in insect exoskeletons). They discovered that the vibrant rainbow colours on this weevil’s scales are determined by two factors: the size of the crystal structure which makes up each scale, as well as the volume of chitin used to make up the crystal structure. Larger scales have a larger crystalline structure and use a larger volume of chitin to reflect red light; smaller scales have a smaller crystalline structure and use a smaller volume of chitin to reflect blue light. According to Dr Saranathan, who previously examined over 100 species of insects and spiders and catalogued their colour-generation mechanisms, this ability to simultaneously control both size and volume factors to fine-tune the colour produced has never before been shown in insects, and given its complexity, is quite remarkable. “It is different from the usual strategy employed by nature to produce various different hues on the same animal, where the chitin structures are of fixed size and volume, and different colours are generated by orienting the structure at different angles, which reflects different wavelengths of light,” Dr Saranathan explained.

The research was partly supported though the National Centre of Competence in Research “Bio-Inspired Materials” and the Ambizione program of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to Dr Wilts, and partly through a UK Royal Society Newton Fellowship, a Linacre College EPA Cephalosporin Junior Research Fellowship, and Yale-NUS College funds to Dr Saranathan. Dr Saranathan is currently part of a research team led by Yale-NUS College Associate Professor of Science Antonia Monteiro, which has recently been awarded a separate Competitive Research Programme (CRP) grant by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) to examine the genetic basis of the colour-generation mechanism in butterflies. Dr Saranathan and Dr Monteiro are both also from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science. In addition, Dr Saranathan is affiliated with the NUS Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative.

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

Literal Elytral Rainbow: Tunable Structural Colors Using Single Diamond Biophotonic Crystals in Pachyrrhynchus congestus Weevils by Bodo D. Wilts, Vinodkumar Saranathan. Samll https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.201802328 First published: 15 August 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Graphene-gilded artifacts (or artefacts)

Caption: L: An artist rendering of graphene gilding on Tutankhamun’s middle coffin (original photograph copyright: Griffith Institute, University of Oxford). R: Microscope image of a graphene crystal is shown on the palladium leaf. Although graphene is only a single atom thick, it can be observed in the scanning electron microscope. Here, a small crystal of graphene is shown to observe its edges. The team produces leaves where the graphene fully cover the metal surface. Credit: Original photograph copyright: Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

As icons go, Tutankhamun’s middle coffin ranks highly and it’s a great image to use as an example of what might be accomplished with graphene gilding. From a Sept. 10, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Gilding is the process of coating intricate artifacts with precious metals. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese coated their sculptures with thin metal films using gilding—and these golden sculptures have resisted corrosion, wear, and environmental degradation for thousands of years. The middle and outer coffins of Tutankhamun, for instance, are gold leaf gilded, as are many other ancient treasures.

In a new study, Illinois’ Sameh Tawfick, from the Department of Mechanical Science & Engineering (MechSE) and the Beckman Institute, inspired by this ancient process, has added a single layer of carbon atoms, known as graphene, on top of metal leaves—doubling the protective quality of gilding against wear and tear.

A Sept. 10, 2018 University of Illinois news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, offers more details,

Metal leaves, or foils, offer many advantages as a scalable coating material, including their commercial availability in large rolls and their comparatively low price. By bonding a single layer of graphene to the leaves, Tawfick and his team demonstrated unexpected benefits, including enhanced mechanical resistance. Their work presents exciting opportunities for protective coating applications on large structures like buildings or ship hulls, metal surfaces of consumer electronics, and small precious artifacts or jewelry.

“Adding one more layer of graphene atoms onto the palladium made it twice as resistant to indents than the bare leaves alone,” said Tawfick. “It’s also very attractive from a cost perspective. The amount of graphene needed to cover the gilded structures of the Carbide & Carbon Building in Chicago, for example, would be the size of the head of a pin.”

Additionally, the team developed a new technology to grow high-quality graphene directly on the surface of 150 nanometer-thin palladium leaves—in just 30 seconds. Using a process called chemical vapor deposition, in which the metal leaf is processed in a 1,100°C furnace, the bare palladium leaf acts as a catalyst, allowing the gases to react quickly.

“Chemical vapor deposition of graphene requires a very high temperature, which could melt the leaves or cause them to bead up by a process called solid state dewetting,” said Kaihao Zhang, PhD candidate in MechSE and lead author of the study. “The process we developed deposits the graphene quickly enough to avoid high-temperature degradation, it’s scalable, and it produces graphene of very high quality.”

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

Gilding with Graphene: Rapid Chemical Vapor Deposition Synthesis of Graphene on Thin Metal Leaves by Kaihao Zhang, Charalampos Androulidakis, Mingze Chen, Sameh Tawfick. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201804068 First published: 06 September 2018

This paper is behind  a paywall.

Iridescent giant clams could point the way to safety, climatologically speaking

Giant clams in Palau (Cynthia Barnett)

These don’t look like any clams I’ve ever seen but that is the point of Cynthia Barnett’s absorbing Sept. 10, 2018 article for The Atlantic (Note: A link has been removed),

Snorkeling amid the tree-tangled rock islands of Ngermid Bay in the western Pacific nation of Palau, Alison Sweeney lingers at a plunging coral ledge, photographing every giant clam she sees along a 50-meter transect. In Palau, as in few other places in the world, this means she is going to be underwater for a skin-wrinkling long time.

At least the clams are making it easy for Sweeney, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The animals plump from their shells like painted lips, shimmering in blues, purples, greens, golds, and even electric browns. The largest are a foot across and radiate from the sea floor, but most are the smallest of the giant clams, five-inch Tridacna crocea, living higher up on the reef. Their fleshy Technicolor smiles beam in all directions from the corals and rocks of Ngermid Bay.

… Some of the corals are bleached from the conditions in Ngermid Bay, where naturally high temperatures and acidity mirror the expected effects of climate change on the global oceans. (Ngermid Bay is more commonly known as “Nikko Bay,” but traditional leaders and government officials are working to revive the indigenous name of Ngermid.)

Even those clams living on bleached corals are pulsing color, like wildflowers in a white-hot desert. Sweeney’s ponytail flows out behind her as she nears them with her camera. They startle back into their fluted shells. Like bashful fairytale creatures cursed with irresistible beauty, they cannot help but draw attention with their sparkly glow.

Barnett makes them seem magical and perhaps they are (Note: A link has been removed),

It’s the glow that drew Sweeney’s attention to giant clams, and to Palau, a tiny republic of more than 300 islands between the Philippines and Guam. Its sun-laden waters are home to seven of the world’s dozen giant-clam species, from the storied Tridacna gigas—which can weigh an estimated 550 pounds and measure over four feet across—to the elegantly fluted Tridacna squamosa. Sweeney first came to the archipelago in 2009, while working on animal iridescence as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Whether shimmering from a blue morpho butterfly’s wings or a squid’s skin, iridescence is almost always associated with a visual signal—one used to attract mates or confuse predators. Giant clams’ luminosity is not such a signal. So, what is it?

In the years since, Sweeney and her colleagues have discovered that the clams’ iridescence is essentially the outer glow of a solar transformer—optimized over millions of years to run on sunlight and algal biofuel. Giant clams reach their cartoonish proportions thanks to an exceptional ability to grow their own photosynthetic algae in vertical farms spread throughout their flesh. Sweeney and other scientists think this evolved expertise may shed light on alternative fuel technologies and other industrial solutions for a warming world.

Barnett goes on to describe Palau’s relationship to the clams and the clams’ environment,

Palau’s islands have been inhabited for at least 3,400 years, and from the start, giant clams were a staple of diet, daily life, and even deity. Many of the islands’ oldest-surviving tools are crafted of thick giant-clam shell: arched-blade adzes, fishhooks, gougers, heavy taro-root pounders. Giant-clam shell makes up more than three-fourths of some of the oldest shell middens in Palau, a percentage that decreases through the centuries. Archaeologists suggest that the earliest islanders depleted the giant clams that crowded the crystalline shallows, then may have self-corrected. Ancient Palauan conservation law, known as bul, prohibited fishing during critical spawning periods, or when a species showed signs of over-harvesting.

Before the Christianity that now dominates Palauan religion sailed in on eighteenth-century mission ships, the culture’s creation lore began with a giant clam called to life in an empty sea. The clam grew bigger and bigger until it sired Latmikaik, the mother of human children, who birthed them with the help of storms and ocean currents.

The legend evokes giant clams in their larval phase, moving with the currents for their first two weeks of life. Before they can settle, the swimming larvae must find and ingest one or two photosynthetic alga, which later multiply, becoming self-replicating fuel cells. After the larvae down the alga and develop a wee shell and a foot, they kick around like undersea farmers, looking for a sunny spot for their crop. When they’ve chosen a well-lit home in a shallow lagoon or reef, they affix to the rock, their shell gaping to the sky. After the sun hits and photosynthesis begins, the microalgae will multiply to millions, or in the case of T. gigas, billions, and clam and algae will live in symbiosis for life.

Giant clam is a beloved staple in Palau and many other Pacific islands, prepared raw with lemon, simmered into coconut soup, baked into a savory pancake, or sliced and sautéed in a dozen other ways. But luxury demand for their ivory-like shells and their adductor muscle, which is coveted as high-end sashimi and an alleged aphrodisiac, has driven T. gigas extinct in China, Taiwan, and other parts of their native habitat. Some of the toughest marine-protection laws in the world, along with giant-clam aquaculture pioneered here, have helped Palau’s wild clams survive. The Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center raises hundreds of thousands of giant clams a year, supplying local clam farmers who sell to restaurants and the aquarium trade and keeping pressure off the wild population. But as other nations have wiped out their clams, Palau’s 230,000-square-mile ocean territory is an increasing target of illegal foreign fishers.

Barnett delves into how the country of Palau is responding to the voracious appetite for the giant clams and other marine life,

Palau, drawing on its ancient conservation tradition of bul, is fighting back. In 2015, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed into law the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which prohibits fishing in 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone and creates a domestic fishing area in the remaining 20 percent, set aside for local fishers selling to local markets. In 2016, the nation received a $6.6 million grant from Japan to launch a major renovation of the Palau Mariculture Demonstration Center. Now under construction at the waterfront on the southern tip of Malakal Island, the new facility will amp up clam-aquaculture research and increase giant-clam production five-fold, to more than a million seedlings a year.

Last year, Palau amended its immigration policy to require that all visitors sign a pledge to behave in an ecologically responsible manner. The pledge, stamped into passports by an immigration officer who watches you sign, is written to the island’s children:

Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home. I vow to tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully. I shall not take what is not given. I shall not harm what does not harm me. The only footprints I shall leave are those that will wash away.

The pledge is winning hearts and public-relations awards. But Palau’s existential challenge is still the collective “we,” the world’s rising carbon emissions and the resulting upturns in global temperatures, sea levels, and destructive storms.

F. Umiich Sengebau, Palau’s Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, and Tourism, grew up on Koror and is full of giant-clam proverbs, wisdom and legends from his youth. He tells me a story I also heard from an elder in the state of Airai: that in old times, giant clams were known as “stormy-weather food,” the fresh staple that was easy to collect and have on hand when it was too stormy to go out fishing.

As Palau faces the storms of climate change, Sengebau sees giant clams becoming another sort of stormy-weather food, serving as a secure source of protein; a fishing livelihood; a glowing icon for tourists; and now, an inspiration for alternative energy and other low-carbon technologies. “In the old days, clams saved us,” Sengebau tells me. “I think there’s a lot of power in that, a great power and meaning in the history of clams as food, and now clams as science.”

I highly recommend Barnett’s article, which is one article in a larger series, from a November 6, 2017 The Atlantic press release,

The Atlantic is expanding the global footprint of its science writing today with a multi-year series to investigate life in all of its multitudes. The series, “Life Up Close,” created with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education (HHMI), begins today at TheAtlantic.com. In the first piece for the project, “The Zombie Diseases of Climate Change,” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer travels to Greenland to report on the potentially dangerous microbes emerging from thawing Arctic permafrost.

The project is ambitious in both scope and geographic reach, and will explore how life is adapting to our changing planet. Journalists will travel the globe to examine these changes as they happen to microbes, plants, and animals in oceans, grasslands, forests, deserts, and the icy poles. The Atlantic will question where humans should look for life next: from the Martian subsurface, to Europa’s oceans, to the atmosphere of nearby stars and beyond. “Life Up Close” will feature at least twenty reported pieces continuing through 2018.

“The Atlantic has been around for 160 years, but that’s a mere pinpoint in history when it comes to questions of life and where it started, and where we’re going,” said Ross Andersen, The Atlantic’s senior editor who oversees science, tech, and health. “The questions that this project will set out to tackle are critical; and this support will allow us to cover new territory in new and more ambitious ways.”

About The Atlantic:
Founded in 1857 and today one of the fastest growing media platforms in the industry, The Atlantic has throughout its history championed the power of big ideas and continues to shape global debate across print, digital, events, and video platforms. With its award-winning digital presence TheAtlantic.com and CityLab.com on cities around the world, The Atlantic is a multimedia forum on the most critical issues of our times—from politics, business, urban affairs, and the economy, to technology, arts, and culture. The Atlantic is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. Bob Cohn is president of The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg is editor in chief.

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Department of Science Education:
HHMI is the leading private nonprofit supporter of scientific research and science education in the United States. The Department of Science Education’s BioInteractive division produces free, high quality educational media for science educators and millions of students around the globe, its HHMI Tangled Bank Studios unit crafts powerful stories of scientific discovery for television and big screens, and its grants program aims to transform science education in universities and colleges. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

Getting back to the giant clams, sometimes all you can do is marvel, eh?

Artificial synapse based on tantalum oxide from Korean researchers

This memristor story comes from South Korea as we progress on the way to neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing). A Sept. 7, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

A research team led by Director Myoung-Jae Lee from the Intelligent Devices and Systems Research Group at DGIST (Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology) has succeeded in developing an artificial synaptic device that mimics the function of the nerve cells (neurons) and synapses that are response for memory in human brains. [sic]

Synapses are where axons and dendrites meet so that neurons in the human brain can send and receive nerve signals; there are known to be hundreds of trillions of synapses in the human brain.

This chemical synapse information transfer system, which transfers information from the brain, can handle high-level parallel arithmetic with very little energy, so research on artificial synaptic devices, which mimic the biological function of a synapse, is under way worldwide.

Dr. Lee’s research team, through joint research with teams led by Professor Gyeong-Su Park from Seoul National University; Professor Sung Kyu Park from Chung-ang University; and Professor Hyunsang Hwang from Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTEC), developed a high-reliability artificial synaptic device with multiple values by structuring tantalum oxide — a trans-metallic material — into two layers of Ta2O5-x and TaO2-x and by controlling its surface.

A September 7, 2018 DGIST press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

The artificial synaptic device developed by the research team is an electrical synaptic device that simulates the function of synapses in the brain as the resistance of the tantalum oxide layer gradually increases or decreases depending on the strength of the electric signals. It has succeeded in overcoming durability limitations of current devices by allowing current control only on one layer of Ta2O5-x.

In addition, the research team successfully implemented an experiment that realized synapse plasticity [or synaptic plasticity], which is the process of creating, storing, and deleting memories, such as long-term strengthening of memory and long-term suppression of memory deleting by adjusting the strength of the synapse connection between neurons.

The non-volatile multiple-value data storage method applied by the research team has the technological advantage of having a small area of an artificial synaptic device system, reducing circuit connection complexity, and reducing power consumption by more than one-thousandth compared to data storage methods based on digital signals using 0 and 1 such as volatile CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor).

The high-reliability artificial synaptic device developed by the research team can be used in ultra-low-power devices or circuits for processing massive amounts of big data due to its capability of low-power parallel arithmetic. It is expected to be applied to next-generation intelligent semiconductor device technologies such as development of artificial intelligence (AI) including machine learning and deep learning and brain-mimicking semiconductors.

Dr. Lee said, “This research secured the reliability of existing artificial synaptic devices and improved the areas pointed out as disadvantages. We expect to contribute to the development of AI based on the neuromorphic system that mimics the human brain by creating a circuit that imitates the function of neurons.”

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

Reliable Multivalued Conductance States in TaOx Memristors through Oxygen Plasma-Assisted Electrode Deposition with in Situ-Biased Conductance State Transmission Electron Microscopy Analysis by Myoung-Jae Lee, Gyeong-Su Park, David H. Seo, Sung Min Kwon, Hyeon-Jun Lee, June-Seo Kim, MinKyung Jung, Chun-Yeol You, Hyangsook Lee, Hee-Goo Kim, Su-Been Pang, Sunae Seo, Hyunsang Hwang, and Sung Kyu Park. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2018, 10 (35), pp 29757–29765 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.8b09046 Publication Date (Web): July 23, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

You can find other memristor and neuromorphic computing stories here by using the search terms I’ve highlighted,  My latest (more or less) is an April 19, 2018 posting titled, New path to viable memristor/neuristor?

Finally, here’s an image from the Korean researchers that accompanied their work,

Caption: Representation of neurons and synapses in the human brain. The magnified synapse represents the portion mimicked using solid-state devices. Credit: Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology(DGIST)