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Brain composer

This is a representation of the work they are doing on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at the Technical University of Graz (TU Graz; Austria),

A Sept. 11, 2017 news item on announces the research into thinking melodies turning them into a musical score,

TU Graz researchers develop new brain-computer interface application that allows music to be composed by the power of thought. They have published their results in the current issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) can replace bodily functions to a certain degree. Thanks to BCI, physically impaired persons can control special prostheses via their minds, surf the internet and write emails.

A group led by BCI expert Gernot Müller-Putz from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering shows that experiences of quite a different tone can be sounded from the keys of brain-computer interfaces. Derived from an established BCI method for writing, the team has developed a new application by which music can be composed and transferred onto a musical score through the power of thought. It employs a special cap that measures brain waves, the adapted BCI, music composition software, and a bit of musical knowledge.

A Sept. 6, 2017 TU Graz press release by Suzanne Eigner, which originated the news item, explains the research in more detail,

The basic principle of the BCI method used, which is called P300, can be briefly described: various options, such as letters or notes, pauses, chords, etc. flash by one after the other in a table. If you’re trained and can focus on the desired option while it lights up, you cause a minute change in your brain waves. The BCI recognises this change and draws conclusions about the chosen option.

Musical test persons

18 test persons chosen for the study by Gernot Müller-Putz, Andreas Pinegger and Selina C. Wriessnegger from TU Graz’s Institute of Neural Engineering as well as Hannah Hiebel, meanwhile at the Institute of Cognitive Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of Graz, had to “think” melodies onto a musical score. All test subjects were of sound bodily health during the study and had a certain degree of basic musical and compositional knowledge since they all played musical instruments to some degree. Among the test persons was the late Graz composer and clarinettist, Franz Cibulka. “The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard. And what is more important: the test persons enjoyed it. After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score and then play them. The very positive results of the study with bodily healthy test persons are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients,” stresses Müller-Putz.

Sideshow of BCI research

This little-noticed sideshow of the lively BCI research at TU Graz, with its distinct focus on disabled persons, shows us which other avenues may yet be worth exploring. Meanwhile there are some initial attempts at BCI systems on smart phones. This makes it easier for people to use BCI applications, since the smart phone as powerful computer is becoming part of the BCI system. It is thus conceivable, for instance, to have BCI apps which can analyse brain signals for various applications. “20 years ago, the idea of composing a piece of music using the power of the mind was unimaginable. Now we can do it, and at the same time have tens of new, different ideas which are in part, once again, a long way from becoming reality. We still need a bit more time before it is mature enough for daily applications. The BCI community is working in many directions at high pressure.

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

Composing only by thought: Novel application of the P300 brain-computer interface by Andreas Pinegger, Hannah Hiebel, Selina C. Wriessnegger, Gernot R. Müller-Putz. PLOS Published: September 6, 2017

This paper is open access.

This BCI ‘sideshow’ reminded me of The Music Man, a musical by Meredith Wilson. It was both a play and a film  and I’ve only ever seen the 1962 film. It features a con man, Harold Hill, who sells musical instruments and uniforms in small towns in Iowa. He has no musical training but while he’s conning the townspeople he convinces them that he can provide musical training with his ‘think method’. After falling in love with one of the townsfolk, he is hunted down and made to prove his method works. This is a clip from a Broadway revival of the play where Harold Hill is hoping that his ‘think method’ while yield results,

Of course, the people in this study had musicaltraining so they could think a melody into a musical score but I find the echo from the past amusing nonetheless.

Bandage with a voice (sort of)

Researchers at Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) have not developed a talking bandage despite the title (Bandage with a Voice) for a July 4, 2017 Empa press release  (also a July 4, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

A novel bandage alerts the nursing staff as soon as a wound starts healing badly. Sensors incorporated into the base material glow with a different intensity if the wound’s pH level changes. This way even chronic wounds could be monitored at home.


Using a UV lamp, the pH level in the wound can be verified without removing the bandage and the healing process can continue unimpeded. Image: Empa / CSEM

All too often, changing bandages is extremely unpleasant, even for smaller, everyday injuries. It stings and pulls, and sometimes a scab will even start bleeding again. And so we prefer to wait until the bandage drops off by itself.

It’s a different story with chronic wounds, though: normally, the nursing staff has to change the dressing regularly – not just for reasons of hygiene, but also to examine the wound, take swabs and clean it. Not only does this irritate the skin unnecessarily; bacteria can also get in, the risk of infection soars. It would be much better to leave the bandage on for longer and have the nursing staff “read” the condition of the wound from outside.

The idea of being able to see through a wound dressing gave rise to the project Flusitex (Fluorescence sensing integrated into medical textiles), which is being funded by the Swiss initiative Nano-Tera. Researchers from Empa teamed up with ETH Zurich, Centre Suisse d’Electronique et de Microtechnique (CSEM) and University Hospital Zurich to develop a high-tech system that is supposed to supply the nursing staff with relevant data about the condition of a wound. As Luciano Boesel from Empa’s Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles, who is coordinating the project at Empa, explains: “The idea of a smart wound dressing with integrated sensors is to provide continuous information on the state of the healing process without the bandages having to be changed any more frequently than necessary.” This would mean a gentler treatment for patients, less work for the nursing staff and, therefore, lower costs: globally, around 17 billion $ were spent on treating wounds last year.

When wounds heal, the body produces specific substances in a complex sequence of biochemical processes, which leads to a significant variation in a number of metabolic parameters. For instance, the amount of glucose and oxygen rises and falls depending on the phase of the healing process; likewise does the pH level change. All these variations can be detected with specialized sensors. With this in mind, Empa teamed up with project partner CSEM to develop a portable, cheap and easy-to-use device for measuring fluorescence that is capable of monitoring several parameters at once. It should enable nursing staff to keep tabs on the pH as well as on glucose and oxygen levels while the wound heals. If these change, conclusions about other key biochemical processes involved in wound healing can be drawn.

The bandage reveals ist measurings in UV light.
A high pH signals chronic wounds

The pH level is particularly useful for chronic wounds. If the wound heals normally, the pH rises to 8 before falling to 5 or 6. If a wound fails to close and becomes chronic, however, the pH level fluctuates between 7 and 8. Therefore, it would be helpful if a signal on the bandage could inform the nursing staff that the wound pH is permanently high. If the bandage does not need changing for reasons of hygiene and pH levels are low, on the other hand, they could afford to wait.

But how do the sensors work? The idea: if certain substances appear in the wound fluid, “customized” fluorescent sensor molecules respond with a physical signal. They start glowing and some even change color in the visible or ultra-violet (UV) range. Thanks to a color scale, weaker and stronger changes in color can be detected and the quantity of the emitted substance be deduced.

Empa chemist Guido Panzarasa from the Laboratory for Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles vividly demonstrates how a sample containing sensor molecules begins to fluoresce in the lab. He carefully drips a solution with a pH level of 7.5 into a dish. Under a UV light, the change is plain to see. He adds another solution and the luminescence fades. A glance at the little bottle confirms it: the pH level of the second solution is lower.

Luminous molecules under UV

The Empa team designed a molecule composed of benzalkonium chloride and pyranine. While benzalkonium chloride is a substance also used for conventional medical soap to combat bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms, pyranine is a dye found in highlighters that glows under UV light. “This biomarker works really well,” says Panzarasa; “especially at pH levels between 5.5 and 7.5. The colors can be visualized with simple UV lamps available in electronics stores.” The Empa team recently published their results in the journal “Sensors and Actuators”.

The designer molecule has another advantage: thanks to the benzalkonium chloride, it has an antimicrobial effect, as researchers from Empa’s Laboratory for Biointerfaces confirmed for the bacteria strain Staphylococcus aureus. Unwelcome bacteria might potentially also be combatted by selecting the right bandage material in future. As further investigations, such as on the chemical’s compatibility with cells and tissues, are currently lacking, however, the researchers do not yet know how their sensor works in a complex wound.

Keen interest from industry

In order to illustrate what a smart wound dressing might actually look like in future, Boesel places a prototype on the lab bench. “You don’t have to cover the entire surface of wound dressings with sensors,” he explains. “It’s enough for a few small areas to be impregnated with the pyranine benzalkonium molecules and integrated into the base material. This means the industrial wound dressings won’t be much pricier than they are now – only up to 20% more expensive.” Empa scientists are currently working on this in the follow-up project FlusiTex-Gateway in cooperation with industrial partners Flawa, Schöller, Kenzen and Theranoptics.
Panzarasa now drips various liquids with different pH levels onto all the little cylinders on the wound pad prototype. Sure enough, the lighter and darker dots are also clearly discernible as soon as the UV lamp is switched on. They are even visible to the naked eye and glow in bright yellow if liquids with a high pH come into contact with the sensor. The scientists are convinced: since the pH level is so easy to read and provides precise information about the acidic or alkaline state of the sample, this kind of wound dressing is just the ticket as a diagnostic tool. Using the fluorescence meter developed by CSEM, more accurate, quantitative measure-ments of the pH level can be accomplished for medical purposes.

According to Boesel, it might one day even be possible to read the signals with the aid of a smartphone camera. Combined with a simple app, nursing staff and doctors would have a tool that enables them to easily and conveniently read the wound status “from outside”, even without a UV lamp. And patients would then also have the possibility of detecting the early onset of a chronic wound at home.

I wonder how long or even if this innovation will ever make its way into medical practice. I’m guessing this stage would be described as ‘proof of concept’ and that clinical testing is still many years away.

The metaphor in the press release’s title helped to wake me up. Thank you to whoever wrote it.

Gold nanoparticles used to catalyze biofuel waste and create a useful additive

This work is the result of an international collaboration including Russia (from a May 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Gold nanoparticles serve as catalysts for obtaining valuable chemical products based on glycerol. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and their international colleagues are developing gold catalysts to recycle one of the main byproducts of biofuel production. The obtained products are in high demand in medicine, agriculture, cosmetic industry and other sectors.

Scientists from the University of Milano (Italy), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry of Madrid (Spain) and the University of Porto (Portugal) take part in the study of gold nanoparticles.

A May 23, 2027 Tomsk Polytechnic University press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Today the production of biofuels is an important area in many countries. They can be obtained from a great variety of biomasses. In Latin America it is orange and tangerine peel as well as banana skin. In USA biofuels are produced from corn, in the central part of Russia and Europe – from rape (Brassica napus). When processing these plants into biofuels a large amount of glycerol is formed. Its esters constitute the basis of oils and fats. Glycerol is widely used in cosmetic industry as an individual product. However, much more glycerol is obtained in the production of biofuels – many thousands of tons a year. As a result, unused glycerol merely becomes waste,’ describes the problem Alexey Pestryakov, the Head of the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry. ‘Now, a lot of research groups are engaged in this issue as to how to transform excess glycerol into other useful products. Along with our foreign colleagues we offered catalysts based on gold nanoparticles.’

The authors of the research note that catalytic oxidation on gold is one of the most effective techniques to obtain from glycerol such useful products as aldehydes, esters, carboxylic acids and other substances.

‘All these substances are products of fine organic chemistry and are in demand in a wide range of industries, first of all, in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. In agriculture they are applied as part of different feed additives, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, plant treatment products, etc.

Thus, unused glycerol after being processed will further be applied,’ sums up Alexey Pestryakov.

Gold catalysts are super active. They can enter into chemical reactions with other substances at room temperature (other catalysts need to be heated), in some case even under zero. However, gold can be a catalyst only at the nanolevel.

‘If you take a piece of gold, even very tiny, there will be no chemical reaction. In order to make gold become chemically active, the size of its particle should be less than two nanometers. Only then it gets its amazing properties,’ explains the scientist.

As a catalyst gold was discovered not so long ago, in the early 1990s, by Japanese chemists.

To date, TPU scientists and their colleagues are not the only ones who develop such catalysts.

Unlike their counterparts the gold catalysts developed at TPU are more stable (they retain their activity longer).

‘A great challenge in this area is that gold catalysts are very rapidly deactivated, not only during work, but even during storage. Our objective is to ensure their longer shelf life. It is also important to use oxygen as an oxidizer, since toxic and corrosive peroxide compounds are often used for such purposes,’ says Alexey Petryakov.

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

More Insights into Support and Preparation Method Effects in Gold Catalyzed Glycerol Oxidation by Nina Bogdanchikova, Inga Tuzovskaya, Laura Prati, Alberto Villa, Alexey Pestryakov, Mario Farías. Current Organic Synthesis VOLUME: 14 ISSUE: 3 Year: 2017Page: [377 – 382] Pages: 6 DOI: 10.2174/1570179413666161031114833

This paper is behind a paywall. (Scroll down the page to find the article.)

Job posting: G20 Water Technologies is looking for a PhD level scientist to join a fast-growing and well-funded start-up company developing graphene based water treatment.

This is the June 6, 2017 G20 Water Technologies notice I received via email,

Senior Application Scientist Vacancy

This is an opportunity for a PhD level scientist to join a fast growing
and well funded start up developing graphene based water treatment.

The company has developed coatings for existing filter materials with
applications in oil/water separation, waste water treatment, dehydration
of organic liquids and desalination, with addressable markets in excess
of £2.8Bn.

We have a vacancy for an exceptional individual with an in depth
understanding of membranes and 2D materials to join our team as a Senior
Application Scientist. This post carries a high degree of responsibility
to deliver results, a salary to match, will report directly to the
company’s CEO and will be based with the Water@Leeds interdisciplinary
group in the University of Leeds.

Key responsibilities include:

* Managing the company’s internal and external research and
development activities with both academic and commercial partners;
* To further develop graphene oxide (GO)-based coatings/membranes for
highly efficient water purification. This will involve working closely
with materials suppliers and end users to understand and deliver the
required performance;
* Developing test methodologies to quantify membrane performance
* Supporting current and future government funded grant work;
* Further developing and strengthening G2O’s IP portfolio.

The successful candidate will be expected to have:

* The ability to design, manage and deliver technology R&D projects;
* Experience in working with academic institutions in an industrial
* An in depth knowledge of formulation of 2D material dispersions;
* A PhD or other suitable academic qualifications to be accepted as a
Visiting Fellow by the company’s academic partners.

Before getting to the contact information, a few words about one of the company’s principles, Tim Harper, G20 Chief Executive Officer. I’ve never met him in person but have known him online for many years (we’ve exchanged emails and tweets). He has been an active member of the ‘nano’ blogosphere and social media environment for many years. He has run his own consultation company (on emerging technologies), Cientifica (About Us) since 1997, and other companies. He’s been involved with the World Economic Forum and has consulted internationally for governments and other entities. That said, there are no guarantees with start-up companies and you do need to perform your own due diligence as I’m sure Tim Harper would counsel you. One other piece of information before you dash off, the company’s headquarters are in Manchester where its university boasts it’s the ‘home of graphene’ and houses the National Graphene Institute.

Here are a few places you might want to check:

G20 website

About G20 webpage

Contact us (for more details about the position)

Good Luck!

The insanity of Canadian science outreach (Science Odyssey, May 12 – 21, 2017 and Science RendezVous on May 13, 2017)

When was the last time you saw a six-year old or a twelve-year old attend a political candidates’ meeting or vote in an election? Sadly, most creative science outreach in Canada is aimed at children and teenagers in the misbegotten belief that adults don’t matter and ‘youth are the future’. There are three adult science outreach scenarios although they didn’t tend to be particularly creative. (1) Should scientists feel hard done by elected representatives, they reach out to other adults for support. (2) Should those other adults become disturbed by any scientific or technological ‘advance’ then scientific experts will arrive to explain why that’s wrong. (3) Should the science enterprise want money, then a call goes out (see my May 12, 2017 posting about the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation gala and, yes, they were a bit creative about it).

I am oversimplifying the situation but not by much especially if one considers two upcoming national Canadian science events: Science Rendezvous which is a day-long (May 13, 2017) cross country science event taking place during while the Science Odyssey holds a 10-day (May 12 – 2017) cross country science event. The two groups arranged their events separately and then decided to coordinate their efforts. Science Odyssey is a rebranding of the Canada Science and Technology Week organized by the federal government for at least two decades and which was held (until 2016) in the fall of each year. Science Rendezvous (About page) was launched in Toronto in 2008 (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)).

Regardless, both events are clearly aimed at children (and families).

I’m not suggesting that exciting science outreach for children should be curtailed. Let’s expand the efforts to9 include the adult and senior populations too.

In all the talk about Canada’s adult and ageing populations, perhaps we could approach it all more creatively. For example, there’s this (from an April 18, 2017 University of California at San Diego University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Inga Kiderra,

Philip Guo caught the coding bug in high school, at a fairly typical age for a Millennial. Less typical is that the UC San Diego cognitive scientist is now eager to share his passion for programming with a different demographic. And it’s not one you’re thinking of – it’s not elementary or middle school-aged kids. Guo wants to get adults age 60 and up.

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, Guo outlines his reasons: People are living and working longer. This is a growing segment of the population, and it’s severely underserved by learn-to-code intiatives, which usually target college students and younger. Guo wants to change that. He would like this in-demand skill to become more broadly accessible.

“Computers are everywhere, and digital literacy is becoming more and more important,” said Guo, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, who is also affiliated with UC San Diego’s Design Lab and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “At one time, 1,000 years ago, most people didn’t read or write – just some monks and select professionals could do it. I think in the future people will need to read and write in computer language as well. In the meantime, more could benefit from learning how to code.”

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, ACM SIGCHI. Guo will present his findings at the group’s premier international conference, CHI, in May [2017].

When prior human-computer interaction studies have focused on older adults at all, Guo said, it has been mostly as consumers of new technology, of social networking sites like Facebook, say, or ride-sharing services. While a few have investigated the creation of content, like blogging or making digital music, these have involved the use of existing apps. None, to his knowledge, have looked at older adults as makers of entirely new software applications, so he set out to learn about their motivations, their frustrations and if these provided clues to design opportunities.

The Study

For his study, Guo surveyed users of A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses). Despite its legacy name, the tool helps people supplement their studies not only of the Python programming language but also Java, JavaScript, Ruby, C and C++, all of which are commonly used to teach programing. The users of Python Tutor represent a wide range of demographic groups.

Guo’s survey included 504 people between the ages of 60 and 85, from 52 different countries. Some were retired and semi-retired while others were still working.

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad pedagogy. It was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Other frustrations included a perceived decline in cognitive abilities (12 percent) and no human contact with tutors and peers (10 percent).

The study’s limitations are tied in part to the instrument – self-reporting on an online survey – and in part to the survey respondents themselves. Most hailed from North America and other English-speaking nations. Most, 84 percent, identified themselves as male; this stat is consistent with other surveys of online learning, especially in math and science topics. There was a diverse array of occupations reported, but the majority of those surveyed were STEM professionals, managers and technicians. These learners, Guo said, likely represent “early adopters” and “the more technology-literate and self-motivated end of the general population.” He suggests future studies look both at in-person learning and at a broader swath of the public. But he expects the lessons learned from this group will generalize.

The Implications

Based on this first set of findings and using a learner-centered design approach, Guo proposes tailoring computer-programming tools and curricula specifically for older learners. He notes, for example, that many of his respondents seemed to take pride in their years and in their tech-savvy, so while it may be good to advertise products as targeting this age group, they should not appear patronizing. It might make sense to reframe lessons as brain-training games, like Lumosity, now popular among the older set.

Just as it’s key to understand who the learners are so is understanding where they have trouble. Repetition and frequent examples might be good to implement, as well as more in-person courses or video-chat-based workshops, Guo said, which may lead to improvements in the teaching of programming not just for older adults but across the board.

Context matters, too. Lessons are more compelling when they are put into domains that people personally care about. And Guo recommends coding curricula that enable older adults to tell their life stories or family histories, for example, or write software that organizes health information or assists care-givers.

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain. [emphasis mine]

Guo joined the UC San Diego cognitive science faculty in 2016 after two years as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2012. Before becoming a professor, he built online learning tools as a software engineer at Google and a research scientist at edX. He also blogs, vlogs and podcasts at

When was the last time you heard about a ‘coding’ camp for adults and seniors in Canada? Also,, ask yourself if after you’d reached a certain age (40? 50? more? less?) you’d feel welcome at the Science Rendezvous events (without a child in tow), Science Odyssey events (without a child in tow), or the May 17, 2017 National Science and Innovation Gala in Ottawa (from my May 12, 2017 posting “It would seem the only person over the age of 30 who’s expected to attend is the CBC host, Heather Hiscox.”)?

Let’s open the door a bit wider, eh?

Shooting drugs to an infection site with a slingshot

It seems as if I’ve been writing up nanomedicine research a lot lately, so I would have avoided this piece. However, since I do try to cover Canadian nanotechnology regardless of the topic and this work features researchers from l’Université de Montréal (Québec, Canada), here’s one of the latest innovations in the field of nanomedicine. (I have some additional comments about the nano scene in Canada and one major issue concerning nanomedicine at the end of this posting.) From a May 8, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

An international team of researchers from the University of Rome Tor Vergata and the University of Montreal has reported, in a paper published this week in Nature Communications, the design and synthesis of a nanoscale molecular slingshot made of DNA that is 20,000 times smaller than a human hair. This molecular slingshot could “shoot” and deliver drugs at precise locations in the human body once triggered by specific disease markers.

A May 8, 2017 University of Montreal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The molecular slingshot is only a few nanometres long and is composed of a synthetic DNA strand that can load a drug and then effectively act as the rubber band of the slingshot. The two ends of this DNA “rubber band” contain two anchoring moieties that can specifically stick to a target antibody, a Y-shaped protein expressed by the body in response to different pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. When the anchoring moieties of the slingshot recognize and bind to the arms of the target antibody the DNA “rubber band” is stretched and the loaded drug is released.

“One impressive feature about this molecular slingshot,” says Francesco Ricci, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, “is that it can only be triggered by the specific antibody recognizing the anchoring tags of the DNA ‘rubber band’. By simply changing these tags, one can thus program the slingshot to release a drug in response to a variety of specific antibodies. Since different antibodies are markers of different diseases, this could become a very specific weapon in the clinician’s hands.”

“Another great property of our slingshot,” adds Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Montreal, “is its high versatility. For example, until now we have demonstrated the working principle of the slingshot using three different trigger antibodies, including an HIV antibody, and employing nucleic acids as model drugs. But thanks to the high programmability of DNA chemistry, one can now design the DNA slingshot to ‘shoot’ a wide range of threrapeutic molecules.”

“Designing this molecular slingshot was a great challenge,” says Simona Ranallo, a postdoctoral researcher in Ricci’s team and principal author of the new study. “It required a long series of experiments to find the optimal design, which keeps the drug loaded in ‘rubber band’ in the absence of the antibody, without affecting too much its shooting efficiency once the antibody triggers the slingshot.”

The group of researchers is now eager to adapt the slingshot for the delivery of clinically relevant drugs, and to demonstrate its clinical efficiency. [emphasis mine] “We envision that similar molecular slingshots may be used in the near future to deliver drugs to specific locations in the body. This would drastically improve the efficiency of drugs as well as decrease their toxic secondary effects,” concludes Ricci.

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

Antibody-powered nucleic acid release using a DNA-based nanomachine by Simona Ranallo, Carl Prévost-Tremblay, Andrea Idili, Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, & Francesco Ricci. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15150 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms15150 Published online: 08 May 2017

This is an open access paper.

A couple of comments

The Canadian nanotechnology scene is pretty much centered in Alberta and Québec. The two provinces have invested a fair amount of money in their efforts. Despite the fact that the province of Alberta also hosts the federal government’s National Institute of Nanotechnology, it seems that the province of Québec is the one making the most progress in its various ‘nano’ fields of endeavour. Another province that should be mentioned with regard to its ‘nano’ efforts is Ontario. As far as I can tell, nanotechnology there doesn’t enjoy the same level of provincial funding support as the other two but there is some important work coming out of Ontario.

My other comment has to do with nanomedicine. While it is an exciting field, there is a tendency toward a certain hyperbole. For anyone who got excited about the ‘slingshot’, don’t forget this hasn’t been tested on any conditions close to the conditions found in a human body nor have they even used, “... clinically relevant drugs,  … .”  It’s also useful to know that less than 1% of the drugs used in nanoparticle-delivery systems make their way to the affected site (from an April 27, 2016 posting about research investigating the effectiveness of nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems). By the way, it was a researcher at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) who first noted this phenomenon after a meta-analysis of the research,

More generally, the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

It’s not clear from the news release, the paper, or the May 8, 2017 article by Sherry Noik for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s News Online website, how this proposed solution would be administered but presumably the same factors which affect other nano-based drug deliveries could affect this new one,

Scientists have for many years been working on improving therapies like chemo and radiation on that score, but most efforts have focused on modifying the chemistry rather than altering the delivery of the drug.

“It’s all about tuning the concentration of the drug optimally in the body: high concentration where you want it to be active, and low concentration where you don’t want to affect other healthy parts,” says Prof. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle of the University of Montreal, co-author of the report published this week in Nature Communications.

“If you can increase the concentration of that drug at the specific location, that drug will be more efficient,” he told CBC News in an interview.

‘Like a weapon’

Restricting the movement of the drug also reduces potentially harmful secondary effects on other parts of the body — for instance, the hair loss that can result from toxic cancer treatments, or the loss of so-called good bacteria due to antibiotic use.

The idea of the slingshot is to home in on the target cells at a molecular level.

The two ends of the strand anchor themselves to the antibody, stretching the strand taut and catapulting the drug to its target.

“Imagine our slingshot like a weapon, and this weapon is being used by our own antibody,” said Vallée-Bélisle, who heads the Laboratory of Biosensors & Nanomachines at U of M. “We design a specific weapon targeting, for example, HIV. We provide the weapon in the body with the bullet — the drug. If the right solider is there, the soldier can use the weapon and shoot the problem.”

Equally important: if the wrong soldier is present, the weapon won’t be deployed.

So rather than delay treatment for an unidentified infection that could be either viral or bacterial, a patient could receive the medication for both and their body would only use the one it needed.

Getting back to my commentary, how does the drug get to its target? Through the bloodstream?  Does it get passed through various organs? How do we increase the amount of medication (in nano-based drug delivery systems) reaching affected areas from less than 1%?

The researchers deserve to be congratulated for this work and given much encouragement and thanks as they grapple with the questions I’ve posed and with all of the questions I don’t know how to ask.

Talking about quantum entanglement and art at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art University

Something happened and I couldn’t publish (my internet seemed to break) this ahead of time but I have gone ahead and published today (April 28, 2017) for two reasons. (1) I’ve been building up an archive (of sorts) of art/science events in Canada and (2) there are some links you might find interesting offered at the end of this.

If you have some spare time tonight (April 27, 2017) and are lucky enough to live in Toronto, Canada, there’s an event featuring quantum theory and artistic practice . Here’s more from the April 20, 2017 ArtSci Salon notice (received via email),




Thursday April 27, 2017 6-8 pm
Great Hall at OCAD University
100 McCaul St., Toronto, Canada

The expanding interest in quantum phenomena by interdisciplinary
artists recently inspired interactive installations, electronic music,
animations and video installations such as Schrödinger’s [Bird] video
animation viewed 80 000 times on the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] science website, the FutureEverything Moscow Festival in 2016 [sic] and the first Quantum Art
exhibition in space in collaboration between NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration], ESA [European Space Agency] and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], 2015. These artworks attest to the importance of art, science and design
collaborations and the ability to communicate to the larger public the
complexity of significant yet often perceived abstract scientific

The Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) series present an
international program of evening gatherings spanning North America,
expanding to Europe that bring artists and scientists together for
informal presentations and conversations.

For this LASER event held at the Ontario College of Art University we
focus on quantum phenomena, visualization, and creative practice. We
have invited a panel of interdisciplinary artists and researchers
including Raymond Laflamme, Laura DeDecker, Karin von Ompteda, and
Jason Irizawa in the hope of engaging in a sustained and rigorous
discussion with our presenters and the audience on topics related to
quantum physics, visualization, art and design.


Raymond Laflamme [emphasis mine]
Director, Institute for Quantum Computing
University of Waterloo

Karin von Ompteda
Assistant Professor
OCAD University

Laura de Decker
Independent Artist

Jason Irizawa
Ryerson University


Monday April 24 to Thursday 27, 2017
Great Hall at OCAD University
100 McCaul St., Toronto, Canada

OCAD University’s Public Visualization Lab is pleased to also present
an exhibition of posters interpreting quantum concepts through visual
form. The posters are the outcome of an exploration of six different
concepts that describe the peculiar characterists of quantum reality.
Works will be on display in the Great Hall before and during the panel
discussion. Poster created by Bailey McGinn, Jason Etcovitch, Jasmine
Leung, Kate McDermott, Calvin Calenda, Sharon Leung. Coordinated by
Ali Qadeer and Patricio Davila.

Raymond laflamme has graced this blog before notably in a May 11, 2015 posting which featured an interview with him (scroll down to the subsection subtitled with his name),

Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)

… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.

Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.


For those of us who can’t attend, I have links to some of what’s mentioned in the notice.

ABC Science

Schrödinger’s Bird (video by Steve Durbach and article by Daniel Keane)

Future of Everything festivals (this page provides links to all of the festivals including the 2014 festival in Moscow)

Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) series

First Quantum Art Exhibition in Space (Jan. 13, 2015 posting on The Physicis arXiv blog)


Nanotechnology and water sustainability webinar, Oct. 19, 2016

An upcoming (Oct. 19, 2016) webinar from the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is the first of a new series (from an Oct. 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk),

“Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: A Federal Perspective” – This webinar is the first in a series exploring the confluence of nanotechnology and water. This event will introduce the Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI): Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology and highlight the activities of several participating Federal agencies. …

The NNI event page for the Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology webinar provides more detail,

Panelists include Nora Savage (National Science Foundation), Daniel Barta (National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration), Paul Shapiro (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Jim Dobrowolski (USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture), and Hongda Chen (USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture).

Webinar viewers will be able to submit questions for the panelists to answer during the Q&A period. Submitted questions will be considered in the order received and may be posted on the NNI website. A moderator will identify relevant questions and pose them to the speakers. Due to time constraints, not all questions may be addressed during the webinar. The moderator reserves the right to group similar questions and to skip questions, as appropriate.

There will be more in this series according to the webinar event page,

  • Increase water availability.
  • Improve the efficiency of water delivery and use.
  • Enable next-generation water monitoring systems.

You can register here to participate.

The NNI has a webpage dedicated to Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge, which explains their perspective on the matter,

Water is essential to all life, and its significance bridges many critical areas for society: food, energy, security, and the environment. Projected population growth in the coming decades and associated increases in demands for water exacerbate the mounting pressure to address water sustainability. Yet, only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water, and some of the most severe impacts of climate change are on our country’s water resources. For example, in 2012, droughts affected about two-thirds of the continental United States, impacting water supplies, tourism, transportation, energy, and fisheries – costing the agricultural sector alone $30 billion. In addition, the ground water in many of the Nation’s aquifers is being depleted at unsustainable rates, which necessitates drilling ever deeper to tap groundwater resources. Finally, water infrastructure is a critically important but sometimes overlooked aspect of water treatment and distribution. Both technological and sociopolitical solutions are required to address these problems.

The text also goes on to describe how nanotechnology could  assist with this challenge.

Ars Electronica and gender

A Sept. 12, 2016 essay in the Guardian by Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Addie Wagenknecht, Camilla Mørk Røstvik, and Kathy High discusses the festival’s top prizes and the preponderance of male winners (Note: Links have been removed),

Today [Sept. 12, 2016] is the last day of the annual Ars Electronica festival, held in Linz Austria. Over the past 37 years it has aimed to provide an environment of “experimentation, evaluation and reinvention” in the area broadly defined as art, technology and society. Its top award, the Golden Nica, honours forward-thinking work with broad cultural impact, in an effort to “spotlight the ideas of tomorrow.” However, the prize, hailed by many in the field as the top honour for artists working with science and technology, has a gender problem.

This was uncovered by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg after she received an honourable mention in the Hybrid Arts Category last year. The prize’s online archive showed that throughout its 29-year history, 9 out of 10 Golden Nica have been awarded to men.

It was only weeks before the festival and her work was already shipped. Unable to withdraw, Heather began discussing the problem with other artists to develop a plan. A painstaking review of the statistics confirmed that more than 90% of winners self-identified as male. Although fewer women had applied, there was no shortage of great female artists among the applicants: the archive included internationally recognized women such as Rebecca Gomperts, Lillian Schwartz, Mariam Ghani, Pinar Yoldas, Daisy Ginsberg, Holly Herndon, Kaho Abe, and Ai Hasegawa. In response, Heather and the other artists developed a social media campaign: #KissMyArs.

There was an interesting response to the campaign (Note: Links have been removed),

… While many were supportive, some voiced disagreement, including 2013 Golden Nica winner Memo Atken. He commented on what he viewed as the campaigners’ misrepresentation of statistics, focusing only on the winners rather than diversity of submissions. After being confronted with a significant backlash to these comments on social media, pointing out among other things that the prize was not a lottery and there was no shortage of impressive female applicants, Atken apologised.

On the flip side artists Golan Levin and Mushon Zer-Aviv critiqued the campaign as not being radical enough for their liking and calling for a “feminist revolution across media arts.”

The two artists criticizing the campaign are both male and far less likely to suffer the kind of repercussions that women do. From the Sept. 12, 2016 essay,

In an insular field like art and technology, making a statement means that you risk your career. Heather Dewey-Hagborg writes, “My participation in this campaign stemmed from a frustration that this highly esteemed prize was one designed for men, and others need not apply. As women in art and tech we are consistently under-recognised, under-funded, and written out of history. We are made to feel that our work must simply not be as good as that of our male peers, and if only we made better work we would attain the same accolades and accomplishments as they did. Last year I finally realised that this was bullshit.”

Addie Wagenknecht, a collaborator on the campaign, became aware of issues of gender bias in the tech industry when she joined a game development company out of college. Constantly surrounded by “a few thousand men” at game conferences started to feel suffocating, although a decade later she felt a shift in attitudes, not only toward women but also people of colour and from LGBTQ communities.

Nevertheless, Addie sees Ars Electronica’s top prize, as “the perfect metaphor of how women are represented”. It is a golden sculpture of an idealised female form, with her head cut off: “I find the irony in the ‘award’ being of a headless woman, to speak volumes towards how we commodify women within the communities in which we claim to be honouring.” She sees the male-bias of the prize as connected to a larger systemic problem which excludes women from exhibitions, under-cuts and discounts women’s work in galleries, and ultimately cuts women out of the larger canon of contemporary art.

The systemic issues mentioned by Dewey-Hagborg and Wagenknecht can also be seen in the world of film. A July 12, 2016 article by Nico Lang for discusses film criticism in the context of the ‘all women Ghostbuster’ reboot (Note: Links have been removed),

After months of fanboys arguing over a movie no one has even seen, critics finally got a peek at Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, in which comedians Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy suit up to fight the supernatural. And much to the relief of everyone who has spent months preparing themselves for the worst, the consensus is mainly positive: The film currently holds a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

There is, however, a growing gender divide over the film’s reception. As of the time of writing, the film’s scores from female reviewers are considerably higher, with 84 percent of women giving the movie a thumbs up. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek comments, “The movie glows with vitality, thanks largely to the performers, who revel in one another’s company.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis writes that it’s “cheerfully silly” and Kate Muir of U.K.’s The Times says it’s a “rollickingly funny delight.”

On the flip side, 77 percent of the critics who gave the film a thumbs down are male.

Roger Ebert’s one-time sidekick, Richard Roeper, called it a “horror from start to finish,” while David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter referred to “Ghostbusters” as a “bust.” That disparity has hampered the film’s reception: Currently, there’s a 10 percentage point difference between male and female opinion on the movie. If reviewing were left up to male critics alone, “Ghostbusters” would have a 74 percent approval rating.

What gives? As Meryl Streep pointed out in a 2015 speech, this discrepancy is likely due to the fact that in a way, these critics are watching two different movies.

“Women are so used to that active empathizing with the active protagonist of a male-driven plot,” Meryl Streep said during a 2015 panel. “That’s what we’ve done all our lives. You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it’s all fellas. But they’ve never had to do the other thing. And the hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That’s a really hard thing. It’s very hard thing for them to put themselves in the shoes of female protagonist.”

Because men are commonly treated as the default in movies—the everyman who stands in for the audience—they rarely are forced to empathize with others’ perspectives. If cinema does not reflect men’s experiences, it can, thus, be difficult for male audience members to see themselves in the picture in the way women are forced to. That affects not only the way that men interact with movies but also how they review them.

I wonder if this same type of bias, the man’s perspective and approach to art and technology as the default might also affect the Ars Electronica prize system?

In any event, there’s much food for thought in both the Guardian piece (which offers some suggestions for positive change) and the Salon piece (which has some fascinating statistical information on how female critics and male critics differ in their judgments).

D-PLACE: an open access database of places, language, culture, and enviroment

In an attempt to be a bit more broad in my interpretation of the ‘society’ part of my commentary I’m including this July 8, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of researchers has developed a website at to help answer long-standing questions about the forces that shaped human cultural diversity.

D-PLACE — the Database of Places, Language, Culture and Environment — is an expandable, open access database that brings together a dispersed body of information on the language, geography, culture and environment of more than 1,400 human societies. It comprises information mainly on pre-industrial societies that were described by ethnographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A July 8, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Human cultural diversity is expressed in numerous ways: from the foods we eat and the houses we build, to our religious practices and political organisation, to who we marry and the types of games we teach our children,” said Kathryn Kirby, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Geography at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “Cultural practices vary across space and time, but the factors and processes that drive cultural change and shape patterns of diversity remain largely unknown.

“D-PLACE will enable a whole new generation of scholars to answer these long-standing questions about the forces that have shaped human cultural diversity.”

Co-author Fiona Jordan, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Bristol and one of the project leads said, “Comparative research is critical for understanding the processes behind cultural diversity. Over a century of anthropological research around the globe has given us a rich resource for understanding the diversity of humanity – but bringing different resources and datasets together has been a huge challenge in the past.

“We’ve drawn on the emerging big data sets from ecology, and combined these with cultural and linguistic data so researchers can visualise diversity at a glance, and download data to analyse in their own projects.”

D-PLACE allows users to search by cultural practice (e.g., monogamy vs. polygamy), environmental variable (e.g. elevation, mean annual temperature), language family (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian), or region (e.g. Siberia). The search results can be displayed on a map, a language tree or in a table, and can also be downloaded for further analysis.

It aims to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions.

D-PLACE was developed by an international team of scientists interested in cross-cultural research. It includes researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human history in Jena Germany, University of Auckland, Colorado State University, University of Toronto, University of Bristol, Yale, Human Relations Area Files, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, American Museum of Natural History, and City University of New York.

The diverse team included: linguists; anthropologists; biogeographers; data scientists; ethnobiologists; and evolutionary ecologists, who employ a variety of research methods including field-based primary data collection; compilation of cross-cultural data sources; and analyses of existing cross-cultural datasets.

“The team’s diversity is reflected in D-PLACE, which is designed to appeal to a broad user base,” said Kirby. “Envisioned users range from members of the public world-wide interested in comparing their cultural practices with those of other groups, to cross-cultural researchers interested in pushing the boundaries of existing research into the drivers of cultural change.”

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

D-PLACE: A Global Database of Cultural, Linguistic and Environmental Diversity by Kathryn R. Kirby, Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Fiona M. Jordan, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Damián E. Blasi, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Dan Leehr, Bobbi S. Low, Joe McCarter, William Divale, Michael C. Gavin.  PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0158391 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0158391 Published July 8, 2016.

This paper is open access.

You can find D-PLACE here.

While it might not seem like that there would be a close link between anthropology and physics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that information can be mined for more contemporary applications. For example, someone who wants to make a case for a more diverse scientific community may want to develop a social science approach to the discussion. The situation in my June 16, 2016 post titled: Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons, could  be extended into a discussion and educational process using data from D-Place and other sources to make the point,

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

More generally, with D-PLACE and the recently announced Trans-Atlantic Platform (see my July 15, 2016 post about it), it seems Canada’s humanities and social sciences communities are taking strides toward greater international collaboration and a more profound investment in digital scholarship.