Category Archives: science

Essays on Frankenstein

Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?

Introductions

Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.

Lingo

….

Debates

Popular Culture

Further Reading

….

‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

The reason the findings in a popular thermoelectricity paper can’t be replicated

It seems to me that over the last few years there’s been a lot more discussion about errors in science. There have always been scandals but this public interest in reproducibility of scientific results seems relatively new. In any event, a Nov. 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights research that explains why scientists have been unable to reproduce results of an influential 2014 paper (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of physicists in Clemson University’s College of Science and Academia Sinica in Taiwan has determined why other scientists have been unable to replicate a highly influential thermoelectricity study published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal.

In the April 2014 issue of the journal Nature (“Ultralow thermal conductivity and high thermoelectric figure of merit in SnSe crystals”), a group of scientists described an emerging crystalline material made of tin selenide that provided the highest efficiency ever recorded for thermoelectricity, the process of capturing wasted energy which is released as heat and making it available again as electricity. The paper has been viewed 45,000 times and its findings have been referenced in 600 subsequent studies, according to Google Scholar.

A thermoelectricity (TE) module captures waste energy, released as heat, converts it to electricity and returns it to a device. Image Credit: Thomas Masservy, Clemson University

There appears to have been a mistake in the original research. A Nov. 17, 2016 Clemson University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

“If it were true, basically, they would have found a crown jewel,” said Apparao Rao, the Robert A. Bowen professor of Physics and the director of the Clemson Nanomaterials Institute.

On Nov. 3, 2016, Nature ran a brief communication by the Clemson-Sinica team explaining why the 2014 data could not be replicated.

Thermoelectricity could provide enormous monetary and environmental savings because it is sustainable; instead of requiring fuel it continually captures wasted heat energy and puts it to use. And there’s a lot of wasted energy; about 70 percent in most machines, including cars.

“When your laptop gets hot, energy is released as waste heat because it doesn’t use all the supplied electricity. Machines have limited efficiency,” according to Ramakrishna Podila, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Clemson who co-authored the paper solving the mystery.

But, so far, the perfect material for capturing and creating thermoelectricity has proven elusive.

Heat and electrical current can flow through any material when heat is applied to one side. But to efficiently harness thermoelectricity, the material has to trap heat on one side while letting the current flow. The difference in temperature, from one side to the other, generates energy.

Imagine cookware. Expensive pots and pans are copper or they have copper cores. Copper is a great heat-conducting material: it quickly and evenly spreads heat so food cooks evenly. Copper makes for good cookware, but poor thermoelectric material.

In an ideal thermoelectric material, current-carrying electrons should flow unimpeded from the hot side to the cold side, but heat-carrying phonons, which are atomic vibrations, must be blocked, either by large atoms or defects where the material is of lower density.

Rao; Podila; Sriparna Bhattacharya, a research assistant professor in astronomy and physics; and Jian He, an associate professor in physics and astronomy at Clemson and a thermoelectrics expert, performed their own study on tin selenide in collaboration with Academia Sinica’s Institute of Physics in Taipei.

Right away, Bhattacharya noticed a problem. “The most puzzling thing was that when we measured our own tin-selenide material, we observed the same electrical flow as reported in the 2014 article, but the heat carried by the phonons was relatively higher,” Bhattacharya said.

The original research group “made tin-selenide crystal that was not fully dense,” Bhattacharya said. Ideally, a crystalline material matches its “theoretical density,” meaning it’s as dense as it can be expected to get.

“Instead of reaching 100 percent theoretical density, it reached 89 percent. A 10 percent difference might not seem like much,” she said, but it can have a huge implication on the electron and phonon flow.

The Clemson-Taiwan collaborators are now focusing on their own assessment of thermoelectricity in tin-selenide. They expect to publish soon.

Here’s a link to and a citation to the 2014 thermoelectricity paper and a link to and a citation for the 2016 paper critiquing it,

Ultralow thermal conductivity and high thermoelectric figure of merit in SnSe crystals by Li-Dong Zhao, Shih-Han Lo, Yongsheng Zhang, Hui Sun, Gangjian Tan, Ctirad Uher, C. Wolverton, Vinayak P. Dravid, & Mercouri G. Kanatzidis. Nature 508, 373–377 (17 April 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13184 Published online 16 April 2014

The intrinsic thermal conductivity of SnSe by Pai-Chun Wei, S. Bhattacharya, J. He, S. Neeleshwar, R. Podila, Y. Y. Chen, & A. M. Rao. Nature 539, E1–E2 (03 November 2016) doi:10.1038/nature19832 Published online 02 November 2016

Both papers are behind a paywall.

One final observation, scientists may mistakes as do we all. The point after all is to contribute and the mistakes can be as useful as the successes.

2016 thoughts and 2017 hopes from FrogHeart

This is the 4900th post on this blog and as FrogHeart moves forward to 5000, I’m thinking there will be some changes although I’m not sure what they’ll be. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts on the year that was in Canadian science and on the FrogHeart blog.

Changeover to Liberal government: year one

Hopes were high after the Trudeau government was elected. Certainly, there seems to have been a loosening where science communication policies have been concerned although it may not have been quite the open and transparent process people dreamed of. On the plus side, it’s been easier to participate in public consultations but there has been no move (perceptible to me) towards open government science or better access to government-funded science papers.

Open Science in Québec

As far as I know, la crème de la crème of open science (internationally) is the Montreal Neurological Institute (Montreal Neuro; affiliated with McGill University. They bookended the year with two announcements. In January 2016, Montreal Neuro announced it was going to be an “Open Science institution (my Jan. 22, 2016 posting),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Québec, Canada, known informally and widely as Montreal Neuro, has ‘opened’ its science research to the world. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute.

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

Then, there’s my Dec. 19, 2016 posting about this Montreal Neuro announcement,

It’s one heck of a Christmas present. Canadian businessmen Larry Tannenbaum and his wife Judy have given the Montreal Neurological Institute (Montreal Neuro), which is affiliated with McGill University, a $20M donation. From a Dec. 16, 2016 McGill University news release,

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was present today at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNI) for the announcement of an important donation of $20 million by the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum family. This transformative gift will help to establish the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute, a bold initiative that will facilitate the sharing of neuroscience findings worldwide to accelerate the discovery of leading edge therapeutics to treat patients suffering from neurological diseases.

‟Today, we take an important step forward in opening up new horizons in neuroscience research and discovery,” said Mr. Larry Tanenbaum. ‟Our digital world provides for unprecedented opportunities to leverage advances in technology to the benefit of science.  That is what we are celebrating here today: the transformation of research, the removal of barriers, the breaking of silos and, most of all, the courage of researchers to put patients and progress ahead of all other considerations.”

Neuroscience has reached a new frontier, and advances in technology now allow scientists to better understand the brain and all its complexities in ways that were previously deemed impossible. The sharing of research findings amongst scientists is critical, not only due to the sheer scale of data involved, but also because diseases of the brain and the nervous system are amongst the most compelling unmet medical needs of our time.

Neurological diseases, mental illnesses, addictions, and brain and spinal cord injuries directly impact 1 in 3 Canadians, representing approximately 11 million people across the country.

“As internationally-recognized leaders in the field of brain research, we are uniquely placed to deliver on this ambitious initiative and reinforce our reputation as an institution that drives innovation, discovery and advanced patient care,” said Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and Chair of McGill University’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. “Part of the Tanenbaum family’s donation will be used to incentivize other Canadian researchers and institutions to adopt an Open Science model, thus strengthening the network of like-minded institutes working in this field.”

Chief Science Advisor

Getting back to the federal government, we’re still waiting for a Chief Science Advisor. Should you be interested in the job, apply here. The job search was launched in early Dec. 2016 (see my Dec. 7, 2016 posting for details) a little over a year after the Liberal government was elected. I’m not sure why the process is taking so long. It’s not like the Canadian government is inventing a position or trailblazing in this regard. Many, many countries and jurisdictions have chief science advisors. Heck the European Union managed to find their first chief science advisor in considerably less time than we’ve spent on the project. My guess, it just wasn’t a priority.

Prime Minister Trudeau, quantum, nano, and Canada’s 150th birthday

In April 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stunned many when he was able to answer, in an articulate and informed manner, a question about quantum physics during a press conference at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario (my April 18, 2016 post discussing that incident and the so called ‘quantum valley’ in Ontario).

In Sept. 2016, the University of Waterloo publicized the world’s smallest Canadian flag to celebrate the country’s upcoming 150th birthday and to announce its presence in QUANTUM: The Exhibition (a show which will tour across Canada). Here’s more from my Sept. 20, 2016 posting,

The record-setting flag was unveiled at IQC’s [Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo] open house on September 17 [2016], which attracted nearly 1,000 visitors. It will also be on display in QUANTUM: The Exhibition, a Canada 150 Fund Signature Initiative, and part of Innovation150, a consortium of five leading Canadian science-outreach organizations. QUANTUM: The Exhibition is a 4,000-square-foot, interactive, travelling exhibit IQC developed highlighting Canada’s leadership in quantum information science and technology.

“I’m delighted that IQC is celebrating Canadian innovation through QUANTUM: The Exhibition and Innovation150,” said Raymond Laflamme, executive director of IQC. “It’s an opportunity to share the transformative technologies resulting from Canadian research and bring quantum computing to fellow Canadians from coast to coast to coast.”

The first of its kind, the exhibition will open at THEMUSEUM in downtown Kitchener on October 14 [2016], and then travel to science centres across the country throughout 2017.

You can find the English language version of QUANTUM: The Exhibition website here and the French language version of QUANTUM: The Exhibition website here.

There are currently four other venues for the show once finishes its run in Waterloo. From QUANTUM’S Join the Celebration webpage,

2017

  • Science World at TELUS World of Science, Vancouver
  • TELUS Spark, Calgary
  • Discovery Centre, Halifax
  • Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottawa

I gather they’re still looking for other venues to host the exhibition. If interested, there’s this: Contact us.

Other than the flag which is both nanoscale and microscale, they haven’t revealed what else will be included in their 4000 square foot exhibit but it will be “bilingual, accessible, and interactive.” Also, there will be stories.

Hmm. The exhibition is opening in roughly three weeks and they have no details. Strategy or disorganization? Only time will tell.

Calgary and quantum teleportation

This is one of my favourite stories of the year. Scientists at the University of Calgary teleported photons six kilometers from the university to city hall breaking the teleportation record. What I found particularly interesting was the support for science from Calgary City Hall. Here’s more from my Sept. 21, 2016 post,

Through a collaboration between the University of Calgary, The City of Calgary and researchers in the United States, a group of physicists led by Wolfgang Tittel, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary have successfully demonstrated teleportation of a photon (an elementary particle of light) over a straight-line distance of six kilometres using The City of Calgary’s fibre optic cable infrastructure. The project began with an Urban Alliance seed grant in 2014.

This accomplishment, which set a new record for distance of transferring a quantum state by teleportation, has landed the researchers a spot in the prestigious Nature Photonics scientific journal. The finding was published back-to-back with a similar demonstration by a group of Chinese researchers.

The research could not be possible without access to the proper technology. One of the critical pieces of infrastructure that support quantum networking is accessible dark fibre. Dark fibre, so named because of its composition — a single optical cable with no electronics or network equipment on the alignment — doesn’t interfere with quantum technology.

The City of Calgary is building and provisioning dark fibre to enable next-generation municipal services today and for the future.

“By opening The City’s dark fibre infrastructure to the private and public sector, non-profit companies, and academia, we help enable the development of projects like quantum encryption and create opportunities for further research, innovation and economic growth in Calgary,” said Tyler Andruschak, project manager with Innovation and Collaboration at The City of Calgary.

As for the science of it (also from my post),

A Sept. 20, 2016 article by Robson Fletcher for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting News) online provides a bit more insight from the lead researcher (Note: A link has been removed),

“What is remarkable about this is that this information transfer happens in what we call a disembodied manner,” said physics professor Wolfgang Tittel, whose team’s work was published this week in the journal Nature Photonics.

“Our transfer happens without any need for an object to move between these two particles.”

A Sept. 20, 2016 University of Calgary news release by Drew Scherban, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

“Such a network will enable secure communication without having to worry about eavesdropping, and allow distant quantum computers to connect,” says Tittel.

Experiment draws on ‘spooky action at a distance’

The experiment is based on the entanglement property of quantum mechanics, also known as “spooky action at a distance” — a property so mysterious that not even Einstein could come to terms with it.

“Being entangled means that the two photons that form an entangled pair have properties that are linked regardless of how far the two are separated,” explains Tittel. “When one of the photons was sent over to City Hall, it remained entangled with the photon that stayed at the University of Calgary.”

Next, the photon whose state was teleported to the university was generated in a third location in Calgary and then also travelled to City Hall where it met the photon that was part of the entangled pair.

“What happened is the instantaneous and disembodied transfer of the photon’s quantum state onto the remaining photon of the entangled pair, which is the one that remained six kilometres away at the university,” says Tittel.

Council of Canadian Academies and The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada

Preliminary data was released by the CCA’s expert panel in mid-December 2016. I reviewed that material briefly in my Dec. 15, 2016 post but am eagerly awaiting the full report due late 2017 when, hopefully, I’ll have the time to critique the material, and which I hope will have more surprises and offer greater insights than the preliminary report did.

Colleagues

Thank you to my online colleagues. While we don’t interact much it’s impossible to estimate how encouraging it is to know that these people continually participate and help create the nano and/or science blogosphere.

David Bruggeman at his Pasco Phronesis blog keeps me up-to-date on science policy both in the US, Canada, and internationally, as well as, keeping me abreast of the performing arts/science scene. Also, kudos to David for raising my (and his audience’s) awareness of just how much science is discussed on late night US television. Also, I don’t know how he does it but he keeps scooping me on Canadian science policy matters. Thankfully, I’m not bitter and hope he continues to scoop me which will mean that I will get the information from somewhere since it won’t be from the Canadian government.

Tim Harper of Cientifica Research keeps me on my toes as he keeps shifting his focus. Most lately, it’s been on smart textiles and wearables. You can download his latest White Paper titled, Fashion, Smart Textiles, Wearables and Disappearables, from his website. Tim consults on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies at the international level.

Dexter Johnson of the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website consistently provides informed insight into how a particular piece of research fits into the nano scene and often provides historical details that you’re not likely to get from anyone else.

Dr. Andrew Maynard is currently the founding Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at the University of Arizona. I know him through his 2020 Science blog where he posts text and videos on many topics including emerging technologies, nanotechnologies, risk, science communication, and much more. Do check out 2020 Science as it is a treasure trove.

2017 hopes and dreams

I hope Canada’s Chief Science Advisor brings some fresh thinking to science in government and that the Council of Canadian Academies’ upcoming assessment on The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada is visionary. Also, let’s send up some collective prayers for the Canada Science and Technology Museum which has been closed since 2014 (?) due to black mold (?). It would be lovely to see it open in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

I’d like to see the nanotechnology promise come closer to a reality, which benefits as many people as possible.

As for me and FrogHeart, I’m not sure about the future. I do know there’s one more Steep project (I’m working with Raewyn Turner on a multiple project endeavour known as Steep; this project will involve sound and gold nanoparticles).

Should anything sparkling occur to me, I will add it at a future date.

In the meantime, Happy New Year and thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading this blog!

Kinetic properties of cement at the nanoscale

There was a Vancouver-born architect, Arthur Erickson, who adored concrete as a building material. In fact, he gained an international reputation for his ‘concrete’ work. I have never been a fan, especially after attending Simon Fraser University (one of Erickson’s early triumphs) in Vancouver (Canada) and experiencing the joy of deteriorating concrete structures.

This somewhat related news concerns cement, (from a Dec.7, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Bringing order to disorder is key to making stronger and greener cement, the paste that binds concrete.

Scientists at Rice University have decoded the kinetic properties of cement and developed a way to “program” the microscopic, semicrystalline particles within. The process turns particles from disordered clumps into regimented cubes, spheres and other forms that combine to make the material less porous and more durable.

A Dec. 7, 2016 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, explains further (Note: Links have been removed),

The technique may lead to stronger structures that require less concrete – and less is better, said Rice materials scientist and lead author Rouzbeh Shahsavari. Worldwide production of more than 3 billion tons of concrete a year now emits as much as 10 percent of the carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, released to the atmosphere.

Through extensive experiments, Shahsavari and his colleagues decoded the nanoscale reactions — or “morphogenesis” — of the crystallization within calcium-silicate hydrate (C-S-H) cement that holds concrete together.

For the first time, they synthesized C-S-H particles in a variety of shapes, including cubes, rectangular prisms, dendrites, core-shells and rhombohedra and mapped them into a unified morphology diagram for manufacturers and builders who wish to engineer concrete from the bottom up.

“We call it programmable cement,” he said. “The great advance of this work is that it’s the first step in controlling the kinetics of cement to get desired shapes. We show how one can control the morphology and size of the basic building blocks of C-S-H so that they can self-assemble into microstructures with far greater packing density compared with conventional amorphous C-S-H microstructures.”

He said the idea is akin to the self-assembly of metallic crystals and polymers. “It’s a hot area, and researchers are taking advantage of it,” Shahsavari said. “But when it comes to cement and concrete, it is extremely difficult to control their bottom-up assembly. Our work provides the first recipe for such advanced synthesis.

“The seed particles form first, automatically, in our reactions, and then they dominate the process as the rest of the material forms around them,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s in situ, seed-mediated growth and does not require external addition of seed particles, as commonly done in the industry to promote crystallization and growth.”

Previous techniques to create ordered crystals in C-S-H required high temperatures or pressures, prolonged reaction times and the use of organic precursors, but none were efficient or environmentally benign, Shahsavari said.

The Rice lab created well-shaped cubes and rectangles by adding small amounts of positive or negative ionic surfactants and calcium silicate to C-S-H and exposing the mix to carbon dioxide and ultrasonic sound. The crystal seeds took shape around surfactant micelles within 25 minutes. Decreasing the calcium silicate yielded more spherical particles and smaller cubes, while increasing it formed clumped spheres and interlocking cubes.

Once the calcite “seeds” form, they trigger the molecules around them to self-assemble into cubes, spheres and other shapes that are orders of magnitude larger. These can pack more tightly together in concrete than amorphous particles, Shahsavari said. Carefully modulating the precursor concentration, temperature and duration of the reaction varies the yield, size and morphology of the final particles.

The discovery is an important step in concrete research, he said. It builds upon his work as part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team that decoded cement’s molecular “DNA” in 2009. “There is currently no control over C-S-H shape,” Shahsavari said. “The concrete used today is an amorphous colloid with significant porosity that entails reduced strength and durability.”

Concrete is one focus of Shahsavari’s Rice lab, which has studied both its macroscale manufacture and intrinsic nanoscale properties. Because concrete is the world’s most common construction material and a significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, he is convinced of the importance of developing “greener” concrete.

The new technique has several environmental benefits, Shahsavari said. “One is that you need less of it (the concrete) because it is stronger. This stems from better packing of the cubic particles, which leads to stronger microstructures. The other is that it will be more durable. Less porosity makes it harder for unwanted chemicals to find a path through the concrete, so it does a better job of protecting steel reinforcement inside.”

The research required the team to develop a method to test microscopic concrete particles for strength. The researchers used a diamond-tipped nanoindenter to crush single cement particles with a flat edge.

They programmed the indenter to move from one nanoparticle to the next and crush it and gathered mechanical data on hundreds of particles of various shapes in one run. “Other research groups have tested bulk cement and concrete, but no group had ever probed the mechanics of single C-S-H particles and the effect of shape on mechanics of individual particles,” Shahsavari said.

He said strategies developed during the project could have implications for other applications, including bone tissue engineering, drug delivery and refractory materials, and could impact such other complex systems as ceramics and colloids.

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

Morphogenesis of Cement Hydrate by Sakineh E Moghaddam, vahid hejazi, Sung Hoon Hwang, Sreeprasad Srinavasan, Joseph B. Miller, Benhang Shi, Shuo Zhao, Irene Rusakova, Aali R. Alizadeh, Kenton Whitmire and Rouzbeh Shahsavari. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2016, DOI: 10.1039/C6TA09389B First published online 30 Nov 2016

I believe this paper is behind a paywall.

Artificial intelligence and industrial applications

This is take on artificial intelligence that I haven’t encountered before. Sean Captain’s Nov. 15, 2016 article for Fast Company profiles industry giant GE (General Electric) and its foray into that world (Note: Links have been removed),

When you hear the term “artificial intelligence,” you may think of tech giants Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, or Facebook. Industrial powerhouse General Electric is now aiming to be included on that short list. It may not have a chipper digital assistant like Cortana or Alexa. It won’t sort through selfies, but it will look through X-rays. It won’t recommend movies, but it will suggest how to care for a diesel locomotive. Today, GE announced a pair of acquisitions and new services that will bring machine learning AI to the kinds of products it’s known for, including planes, trains, X-ray machines, and power plants.

The effort started in 2015 when GE announced Predix Cloud—an online platform to network and collect data from sensors on industrial machinery such as gas turbines or windmills. At the time, GE touted the benefits of using machine learning to find patterns in sensor data that could lead to energy savings or preventative maintenance before a breakdown. Predix Cloud opened up to customers in February [2016?], but GE is still building up the AI capabilities to fulfill the promise. “We were using machine learning, but I would call it in a custom way,” says Bill Ruh, GE’s chief digital officer and CEO of its GE Digital business (GE calls its division heads CEOs). “And we hadn’t gotten to a general-purpose framework in machine learning.”

Today [Nov. 15, 2016] GE revealed the purchase of two AI companies that Ruh says will get them there. Bit Stew Systems, founded in 2005, was already doing much of what Predix Cloud promises—collecting and analyzing sensor data from power utilities, oil and gas companies, aviation, and factories. (GE Ventures has funded the company.) Customers include BC Hydro, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Scottish & Southern Energy.

The second purchase, Wise.io is a less obvious purchase. Founded by astrophysics and AI experts using machine learning to study the heavens, the company reapplied the tech to streamlining a company’s customer support systems, picking up clients like Pinterest, Twilio, and TaskRabbit. GE believes the technology will transfer yet again, to managing industrial machines. “I think by the middle of next year we will have a full machine learning stack,” says Ruh.

Though young, Predix is growing fast, with 270 partner companies using the platform, according to GE, which expects revenue on software and services to grow over 25% this year, to more than $7 billion. Ruh calls Predix a “significant part” of that extra money. And he’s ready to brag, taking a jab at IBM Watson for being a “general-purpose” machine-learning provider without the deep knowledge of the industries it serves. “We have domain algorithms, on machine learning, that’ll know what a power plant is and all the depth of that, that a general-purpose machine learning will never really understand,” he says.

One especially dull-sounding new Predix service—Predictive Corrosion Management—touches on a very hot political issue: giant oil and gas pipeline projects. Over 400 people have been arrested in months of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would carry crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The issue is very complicated, but one concern of protestors is that a pipeline rupture would contaminate drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

“I think absolutely this is aimed at that problem. If you look at why pipelines spill, it’s corrosion,” says Ruh. “We believe that 10 years from now, we can detect a leak before it occurs and fix it before you see it happen.” Given how political battles over pipelines drag on, 10 years might not be so long to wait.

I recommend reading the article in its entirety if you have the time. And, for those of us in British Columbia, Canada, it was a surprise to see BC Hydro on the list of customers for one of GE’s new acquisitions. As well, that business about the pipelines hits home hard given the current debates (Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines) here. *ETA Dec. 27, 2016: This was originally edited just prior to publication to include information about the announcement by the Trudeau cabinet approving two pipelines for TransMountain  and Enbridge respectively while rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] online news Nov. 29, 2016).  I trust this second edit will stick.*

It seems GE is splashing out in a big way. There’s a second piece on Fast Company, a Nov. 16, 2016 article by Sean Captain (again) this time featuring a chat between an engineer and a robotic power plant,

We are entering the era of talking machines—and it’s about more than just asking Amazon’s Alexa to turn down the music. General Electric has built a digital assistant into its cloud service for managing power plants, jet engines, locomotives, and the other heavy equipment it builds. Over the internet, an engineer can ask a machine—even one hundreds of miles away—how it’s doing and what it needs. …

Voice controls are built on top of GE’s Digital Twin program, which uses sensor readings from machinery to create virtual models in cyberspace. “That model is constantly getting a stream of data, both operational and environmental,” says Colin Parris, VP at GE Software Research. “So it’s adapting itself to that type of data.” The machines live virtual lives online, allowing engineers to see how efficiently each is running and if they are wearing down.

GE partnered with Microsoft on the interface, using the Bing Speech API (the same tech powering the Cortana digital assistant), with special training on key terms like “rotor.” The twin had little trouble understanding the Mandarin Chinese accent of Bo Yu, one of the researchers who built the system; nor did it stumble on Parris’s Trinidad accent. Digital Twin will also work with Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality goggles, allowing someone to step into a 3D image of the equipment.

I can’t help wondering if there are some jobs that were eliminated with this technology.

Chimera state: simultaneous synchrony and asynchrony

It turns out there’s more than one kind of chimera. (I published a Sept. 7, 2016 post about chimeras that are animal/human hybrids and a US public consultation on the matter.)

The chimera being investigated by researchers at the University of New Mexico (US) is of an altogether different kind. From a Nov. 15, 2016 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Order and disorder might seem dichotomous conditions of a functioning system, yet both states can, in fact, exist simultaneously and durably within a system of oscillators, in what’s called a chimera state. Taking its name from a composite creature in Greek mythology, this exotic state still holds a lot of mystery, but its fundamental nature offers potential in understanding governing dynamics across many scientific fields. A research team at the University of New Mexico has recently advanced this understanding with work that will be published this week in the journal Chaos, from AIP Publishing.

“A system of oscillators” may sound obscure, but it actually describes, in a very general but fundamental way, all sorts of physical systems.

“Lots of biological systems can be thought of as populations of oscillators. The heartbeat is just oscillating heart cells that a wave propagates on. And neurons in the brain are oscillators as well, and have been treated with these methods,” said Karen Blaha, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of New Mexico working on the project. “But doing experiments on those systems is really, really hard. The cells can die, and if you can manipulate them in a way that you can measure the data, they may not be behaving as they do naturally.”

For this reason, the team, led by Francesco Sorrentino, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of New Mexico, built on previous work done to understand chimera states with mechanical oscillators, in this case a collection of metronomes, resting on coupled platforms.

“The ultimate goal is that these systems are better behaved than the biological systems that we hope eventually they might be good proxies for,” Blaha said.

The team built a system of three coupled platforms, each supporting up to 15 ticking metronomes whose motions were individually tracked. A chimera state in this system consisted of in-phase, or synchronous, motion of a subset of the metronomes, and asynchronous motion of the others. By varying characteristics of the system, such as the strength of coupling between the platforms or the number of metronomes, they could deduce which factors led to more perfect chimera states.

Of particular interest in this experiment was the effect symmetries of the system had on the emergence of chimera states. Sorrentino and his team looked at, for example, the effect of having the same versus different coupling strengths of the outer platforms to the center platform.

“It puts together a new ingredient that kind of makes the whole thing more complex. Basically we are wondering how this type of mixed behavior can occur in systems that have symmetries. And our work is experimental so we see this chimera state in systems with symmetries,” Sorrentino said.

In addition to developing a method for better understanding these important, complex systems, Sorrentino views the effort to be a powerful educational tool. The tabletop scale and visual nature of the measurements and effects offer students more direct involvement with the concepts being investigated.

“It’s a full experience for the student [and] we have a broad authorship,” Sorrentino said, highlighting the collaboration between undergraduates, graduate students and senior researchers. “It’s really a team effort.”

Future work by the diverse team will investigating other symmetries, as well as varying factors such as coupling method. They also plan to add methods of controlling the system and synchrony. “We are working in several directions. Definitely the symmetries are something we will keep in mind and try to generalize to more complex situations,” Sorrentino said.

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

Symmetry effects on naturally arising chimera states in mechanical oscillator networks by Karen Blaha, Ryan J. Burrus, Jorge L. Orozco-Mora, Elvia Ruiz-Beltrán, Abu B. Siddique, V. D. Hatamipour, and Francesco Sorrentino. Chaos 26, 116307 (2016); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4965993

This paper appears to be open access.

“Science Fiction by Real Scientists” campaign success

This news bit concerns a science fiction short  story anthology and novel series from scientists and experts and a now completed fundraising campaign. From a Nov. 14, 2016 Springer Books press release on EurekAlert,

Springer Nature and Humble Bundle have raised a charitable contribution of $22,000 through the science fiction book campaign “Science Fiction by Real Scientists.” One half of the proceeds, $11,000, goes to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Givers Fund. The same amount goes to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF as part of the global children’s charity’s annual Halloween fundraising drive. Humble Bundle supports a number of charities by offering media packages to its customers on a pay-what-you-want basis.

During the campaign, Springer offered a specially priced eBook bundle from its Science and Fiction series, consisting of nine full novels, two books of short stories and five nonfiction books. Readers were able to choose how their purchase dollars were allocated between the publisher and charity. Starting at just one dollar, customers could name their price, increasing their contribution to upgrade their bundles or contribute more to charity.

The Science and Fiction series, launched in 2012 by Springer, is a unique publishing program for fiction written by actual scientists and experts in scientific fields. Each novel or anthology of short stories is accompanied by an extensive afterword that explains, in lay terms, the current scientific theory or findings that serve as the basis for the fictional work.

Mia Kravitz, Director Global eRetail at Springer Nature, said, “Springer was so pleased to work with Humble Bundle on this worthwhile effort to aid children globally as well as support writers and artists in the science fiction genre. Pushing the envelope for scientific inquiry is part of our mission, and this is a fun way to bring current research to a wider audience.”

Here’s a bit more information about the “Science and Fiction” series from a Sept. 20, 2016 Springer Books press release,

The Springer series Science and Fiction was launched in 2012 and comprises entertaining and thought-provoking books which appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans. The idea was born out of the recognition that scientific discovery and the creation of plausible fictional scenarios are often two sides of the same coin. Each science fiction book, with an afterword on the science underlying the tale, relies on an understanding of the way the world works, coupled with the imaginative ability to invent new or alternative explanations and even other worlds.

Christian Caron, Executive Editor Physics at Springer, said the concept developed when a Springer author, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, published his first hard science fiction novel on Amazon. “Our very first thought was, why couldn’t we do this?” he said. “Our authors, all of them scientists and experts at some forefront of research, would of course have an interface with speculative science in their fields.”

The books in Springer’s Science and Fiction series explore and exploit the borderlands between accepted science and its fictional counterpart. Uncovering mutual influences, promoting fruitful interaction, and narrating and analyzing fictional scenarios, they serve as a reaction vessel for inspired new ideas in science, technology and beyond.

You can find a list of books in the series here. Note: I found forthcoming titles in 2017 and titles dating back to 2014. Springer made the announcement in 2012 but didn’t publish any books in the series until 2014.

Montreal Neuro creates a new paradigm for technology transfer?

It’s one heck of a Christmas present. Canadian businessmen Larry Tannenbaum and his wife Judy have given the Montreal Neurological Institute (Montreal Neuro), which is affiliated with McGill University, a $20M donation. From a Dec. 16, 2016 McGill University news release,

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was present today at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (MNI) for the announcement of an important donation of $20 million by the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum family. This transformative gift will help to establish the Tanenbaum Open Science Institute, a bold initiative that will facilitate the sharing of neuroscience findings worldwide to accelerate the discovery of leading edge therapeutics to treat patients suffering from neurological diseases.

‟Today, we take an important step forward in opening up new horizons in neuroscience research and discovery,” said Mr. Larry Tanenbaum. ‟Our digital world provides for unprecedented opportunities to leverage advances in technology to the benefit of science.  That is what we are celebrating here today: the transformation of research, the removal of barriers, the breaking of silos and, most of all, the courage of researchers to put patients and progress ahead of all other considerations.”

Neuroscience has reached a new frontier, and advances in technology now allow scientists to better understand the brain and all its complexities in ways that were previously deemed impossible. The sharing of research findings amongst scientists is critical, not only due to the sheer scale of data involved, but also because diseases of the brain and the nervous system are amongst the most compelling unmet medical needs of our time.

Neurological diseases, mental illnesses, addictions, and brain and spinal cord injuries directly impact 1 in 3 Canadians, representing approximately 11 million people across the country.

“As internationally-recognized leaders in the field of brain research, we are uniquely placed to deliver on this ambitious initiative and reinforce our reputation as an institution that drives innovation, discovery and advanced patient care,” said Dr. Guy Rouleau, Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and Chair of McGill University’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. “Part of the Tanenbaum family’s donation will be used to incentivize other Canadian researchers and institutions to adopt an Open Science model, thus strengthening the network of like-minded institutes working in this field.”

What they don’t mention in the news release is that they will not be pursuing any patents (for five years according to one of the people in the video but I can’t find text to substantiate that time limit; there are no time limits noted elsewhere) on their work. For this detail and others, you have to listen to the video they’ve created,

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online Dec. 16, 2016 posting (with files from Sarah Leavitt and Justin Hayward) adds a few personal details about Tannenbaum,

“Our goal is simple: to accelerate brain research and discovery to relieve suffering,” said Tanenbaum.

Tanenbaum, a Canadian businessman and chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said many of his loved ones suffered from neurological disorders.

“I lost my mother to Alzheimer’s, my father to a stroke, three dear friends to brain cancer, and a brilliant friend and scientist to clinical depression,” said Tanenbaum.

He hopes the institute will serve as the template for science research across the world, a thought that Trudeau echoed.

“This vision around open science, recognizing the role that Canada can and should play, the leadership that Canadians can have in this initiative is truly, truly exciting,” said Trudeau.

The Neurological Institute says the pharmaceutical industry is supportive of the open science concept because it will provide crucial base research that can later be used to develop drugs to fight an array of neurological conditions.

Jack Stilgoe in a Dec. 16, 2016 posting on the Guardian blogs explains what this donation could mean (Note: Links have been removed),

With the help of Tanenbaum’s gift of 20 million Canadian dollars (£12million) the ‘Neuro’, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, is setting up an experiment in experimentation, an Open Science Initiative with the express purpose of finding out the best way to realise the potential of scientific research.

Governments in science-rich countries are increasingly concerned that they do not appear to reaping the economic returns they feel they deserve from investments in scientific research. Their favoured response has been to try to bridge what they see as a ‘valley of death’ between basic scientific research and industrial applications. This has meant more funding for ‘translational research’ and the flowering of technology transfer offices within universities.

… There are some success stories, particularly in the life sciences. Patents from the work of Richard Axel at Columbia University at one point brought the university almost $100 million per year. The University of Florida received more than $150 million for inventing Gatorade in the 1960s. The stakes are high in the current battle between Berkely and MIT/Harvard over who owns the rights to the CRISPR/Cas9 system that has revolutionised genetic engineering and could be worth billions.

Policymakers imagine a world in which universities pay for themselves just as a pharmaceutical research lab does. However, for critics of technology transfer, such stories blind us to the reality of university’s entrepreneurial abilities.

For most universities, evidence of their money-making prowess is, to put it charitably, mixed. A recent Bloomberg report shows how quickly university patent incomes plunge once we look beyond the megastars. In 2014, just 15 US universities earned 70% of all patent royalties. British science policy researchers Paul Nightingale and Alex Coad conclude that ‘Roughly 9/10 US universities lose money on their technology transfer offices… MIT makes more money from selling T-shirts than it does from licensing’. A report from the Brookings institute concluded that the model of technology transfer ‘is unprofitable for most universities and sometimes even risks alienating the private sector’. In the UK, the situation is even worse. Businesses who have dealings with universities report that their technology transfer offices are often unrealistic in negotiations. In many cases, academics are, like a small child who refuses to let others play with a brand new football, unable to make the most of their gifts. And areas of science outside the life sciences are harder to patent than medicines, sports drinks and genetic engineering techniques. Trying too hard to force science towards the market may be, to use the phrase of science policy professor Keith Pavitt, like pushing a piece of string.

Science policy is slowly waking up to the realisation that the value of science may lie in people and places rather than papers and patents. It’s an idea that the Neuro, with the help of Tanenbaum’s gift, is going to test. By sharing data and giving away intellectual property, the initiative aims to attract new private partners to the institute and build Montreal as a hub for knowledge and innovation. The hypothesis is that this will be more lucrative than hoarding patents.

This experiment is not wishful thinking. It will be scientifically measured. It is the job of Richard Gold, a McGill University law professor, to see whether it works. He told me that his first task is ‘to figure out what to counts… There’s going to be a gap between what we would like to measure and what we can measure’. However, he sees an open-mindedness among his colleagues that is unusual. Some are evangelists for open science; some are sceptics. But they share a curiosity about new approaches and a recognition of a problem in neuroscience: ‘We haven’t come up with a new drug for Parkinson’s in 30 years. We don’t even understand the biological basis for many of these diseases. So whatever we’re doing at the moment doesn’t work’. …

Montreal Neuro made news on the ‘open science’ front in January 2016 when it formally announced its research would be freely available and that researchers would not be pursuing patents (see my January 22, 2016 posting).

I recommend reading Stilgoe’s posting in its entirety and for those who don’t know or have forgotten, Prime Minister’s Trudeau’s family has some experience with mental illness. His mother has been very open about her travails. This makes his presence at the announcement perhaps a bit more meaningful than the usual political presence at a major funding announcement.

Preliminary data from third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada

It’s a little misleading to call this a third assessment as the first two were titled “The state of science and technology” whereas this time they’ve thrown “industrial research and development” (which previously rated its own separate assessment) into the mix as I noted in my July 1, 2016 post about this upcoming report by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA).

To whet our appetites, the CCA’s expert panel has released some preliminary data according to a Dec. 15, 2016 news release (received via email),

The Council of Canadian Academies is pleased to release the Preliminary Data Update on Canadian Research Performance and International Reputation. This document represents the early work of the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada. It contains a preliminary update of key bibliometric and opinion survey data comparable to that published in the 2012 CCA assessment on the state of science and technology in Canada.

“This update provides a window into some of the data we are using to explore the state of research, development, and innovation in Canada,” said Max Blouw, Chair of the Expert Panel and President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University. “Our intention is to provide timely access to a body of evidence on Canada’s research performance that may serve as an important input to ongoing federal policy development.”

Highlights of this work include updated data on research output and collaboration, research impact, international reputation and stature, and data on research fields.

This data update is part of a larger project to assess the state of research, development, and innovation in Canada. The Expert Panel continues to work on its final report, which is expected to be released in late 2017.

I have taken a look at the material and these are the research highlights from the preliminary report,

Research Output and Collaboration
• Canada ranks ninth in the world in research publication output and accounts for 3.8% of the world’s output.
• Canada’s research output is growing at a rate comparable to that exhibited by most developed countries. Developed countries, however, are increasingly being overshadowed by the dramatic growth in research production in China and other emerging economies over the past decade.
• Canadian researchers continue to be highly collaborative internationally, working with international co-authors in nearly 46% of their publications.

Research Impact
• Citation-based indicators show that Canadian research continues to have relatively high levels of impact. By ARC score, Canada ranks sixth out of leading countries: its research is cited 43% more than the world average across all fields of study.
• The impact of Canada’s research, as reflected in citations (ARC, MRC, and HCP1%), has increased in recent years. However, these increases have been often matched or exceeded by other countries. Canada’s rank by ARC declined slightly in many fields as a result.

International Reputation and Stature
• Canada’s research contributions continue to be well regarded internationally according to a survey of top-cited researchers around the world. The share of top-cited researchers who rate Canada’s research as strong in their field of study rose from 68% in 2012 to 72% in 2016.
• Approximately 36% of surveyed top-cited researchers identify Canada as one of the top five countries in their research fields. As a result, Canada ranks fourth overall, behind the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany.
• The share of top-cited researchers who have worked or studied in Canada, or collaborated with Canadians, has increased since 2012.

Data by Field of Research
• Preliminary analysis of Canadian research by field reveals patterns similar to those presented in the 2012 S&T report.
• All fields of research in Canada were cited at rates above the world average in 2009–2014. Few fields in Canada have experienced major shifts in output or impact in recent years, though the specialization rate of Clinical Medicine gradually increased and that of Engineering decreased relative to other countries.
• Fields in which Canada has both a relatively high degree of specialization and a high impact (above the G7 average) include Clinical Medicine; Biology; Information and Communication Technologies; Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry; Earth and Environmental Sciences; and Economics and Business.
• Canada’s research contributions in Physics and Astronomy continue to be highly cited despite a lower publication output than might be expected. Chemistry and Enabling and Strategic Technologies (Energy, Biotechnology, Bioinformatics, Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Optoelectronics and Photonics) are other areas in which Canada’s research output is low relative to other countries.
• When analyzed by field of study, results from the international survey of top-cited researchers are consistent with those from the 2012 survey. Canada continues to rank among the top five countries in three-quarters of fields.
• Canada’s research reputation is the weakest in core fields of the natural sciences such as Mathematics and Statistics, Physics and Astronomy, Chemistry, Engineering, and in Enabling and Strategic Technologies. [p. 5 PDF; p. v print]

As the panel notes they have the same problem as their predecessors. Bibliometric data, i. e., the number of papers your researchers have published, how often they’ve been cited, and in which journals (impact factor) they’ve been published are problematic as indicators of scientific progress.  Excellent research can end up in an obscure journal and be ignored for decades while more problematic (substandard) work may be published in a prestigious (high impact) journal thereby gaining more attention.  Unfortunately, despite these and other issues, bibliometric data remains a basic indicator of scientific progress. The expert panel for the 2012 report (State of Science and Technology) attempted to mitigate some of the problems by using other indicators. If I remember rightly, one of those indicators was an international survey of researchers (which is also problematic in some ways) about their awareness of and opinion of Canadian research. It seems this expert panel has also gone that route,

Qualitative evidence can be a useful complement to bibliometric data in assessing research performance, especially when drawing on the insights of researchers and scientists who are highly accomplished in their fields. Similar to the 2012 S&T report, a survey was sent to the top 1% of highly cited researchers by field worldwide, asking them to identify the leading countries in their areas of expertise. The results of this survey are comparable to those from 2012 and illustrate that Canada’s international research reputation remains strong across most fields of research.

6.1 CANADA’S OvERALL RESEARCH REPUTATION

Researchers were asked to identify the top five countries in their field and sub-field of expertise. As shown in Figure 6.1, 35.5% of respondents (compared with 37% in the 2012 survey) from across all fields of research rated Canada within the top five countries in their field. Canada ranks fourth out of all countries, behind the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany and ahead of France. This represents a change of about 1.5 percentage points from the overall results of the 2012 survey. There was a three percentage point decrease in how often France is ranked among the top five countries; the ordering of the top five countries, however, remains the same.

When asked to rate Canada’s research strength among other advanced countries in their field of expertise, 72% of respondents rated Canadian research as “strong” (corresponds to a score of 5 or higher on a 7-point scale), and 47% rated it as “very strong” (Figure 6.1 and Table 6.1). These ratings increased from 68% and 42%, respectively, in the 2012 report.16 [p. 29 PDF, p. 23 print]

Taking into account that there are no perfect measures, here’s what the preliminary report has to say overall,

Canada continues to rank within the top 10 countries in total output of research publications, but fell from seventh place to ninth between 2003–2008 and 2009–2014. Canada produces 3.8% of the world output.6 During the period, Canadian researchers produced about 496,696 publications (see Table 3.1).7 In the 2012 S&T report, Canada ranked seventh in 2005–2010 with roughly 395,000 scientific publications. Although India and Italy overtook Canada to reach the seventh and eighth positions, respectively, the distance separating Canada from Italy is negligible (over 2,000 publications). The United States continues to lead in number of publications, but the gap with China is rapidly narrowing.

This data update presents country rankings in a similar manner to the 2012 S&T report. Note that research output may be normalized by various measures to produce alternative rankings. For example, output can be examined relative to the size of the population or the economy of a country.

Figure 3.1 shows overall output of publications relative to a country’s population. By this measure, Canada ranks fifth with about 14 publications per 1,000 inhabitants in 2009–2014. This indicator shows China’s rank to be lower on a per capita basis; however, this could also indicate China’s potential for considerable future growth. For countries like Switzerland, high publication output reflects a high level of international collaboration and the presence of major scientific research facilities, such as CERN, which are associated with global networks of researchers. [p. 11 PDF; p. 5 print]

This represents a few bits of information from the panel’s 34 pp. preliminary report. If you have the time, do take a look at it. As these things go, it’s readable. One last comment, the panel notes that nothing about industrial research has been included in the preliminary report.

Disorderly conduct amongst electrons

An Oct. 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk highlights some research from A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science and Technology Research), Note: A link has been removed,

Solid materials whose atoms are arranged in a well-ordered crystalline structure are usually better conductors of electricity than randomly structured, or amorphous, solids. Recently, however, A*STAR researchers found that iron-tellurium (FeTe) breaks this rule, displaying higher conductivity, and optical reflectivity, in the amorphous phase.

A recent study, published in the journal Acta Materialia (“Unravelling the anomalous electrical and optical phase-change characteristics in FeTe”), describes their efforts to understand why FeTe’s behavior is counterintuitive to expectations.

Iron-tellurium conducts electricity best when in a disordered amorphous phase. ©KTSDESIGN/Science Photo Library/Getty Courtesy: A*STAR

Iron-tellurium conducts electricity best when in a disordered amorphous phase. ©KTSDESIGN/Science Photo Library/Getty Courtesy: A*STAR

An Oct. 7, 2016 A*STAR press release, which originated the news item, explains more,

FeTe is a phase-change material, with the ability to rapidly switch its state from crystalline to amorphous and back again when it is heated or cooled, a property which makes it useful for data storage and memory applications. Conventional phase-change materials such as germanium-antimony-tellurium (GST), commonly used in rewritable DVDs, display higher optical reflectivity and electrical conductivity in their crystalline state because the highly-ordered structuring of atoms in the crystal results in more electron vacancies, or holes, that act as charge carriers.

“FeTe behaves differently from other phase-change materials,” explains Kewu Bai at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing, who worked on the project with scientists from the National University of Singapore. “We hypothesized that these unusual characteristics may be connected with the behavior of ‘lone-pair’ electrons. This refers to a pair of electrons from any one atom that are not involved in the bonding of materials.”

The team prepared thin films of FeTe at room temperature to produce amorphous structures, and at 220 degrees Celsuis to acquire crystalline samples, and showed that the films could be flipped between the two states using a fast pulsing laser. They analyzed the molecular structure of the different films using X-ray spectroscopy, electron microscopy and first-principle calculations to investigate these unusual properties of FeTe.

The researchers confirmed the existence of lone-pair electrons in both the amorphous and crystalline phases. In the crystalline phase, where Te and Fe atoms were strongly bonded in a regular lattice, electrons were engaged in strong hybridization, meaning their orbitals overlapped and caused their electrons to localize. Thus, lone-pair electrons were incorporated as part of the integral structure.

In contrast, when FeTe entered its amorphous phase, some Te atoms were orientated so that their lone-pair electrons delocalized from the atoms, resulting in holes that acted as charge carriers.

“We are hopeful that FeTe could prove to be useful material for phase-change memory,” says Bai. “It could also act as an effective thermo-electric material, generating electric current in response to temperature.”

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

Unravelling the anomalous electrical and optical phase-change characteristics in FeTe by H.W. Ho, P.S. Branicio, W.D. Song, K. Bai, Teck L. Tan, R. Ji, Y. Yang, P. Yang, Y.H. Du, M.B. Sullivan. Acta Materialia Volume 112, 15 June 2016, Pages 67–76  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actamat.2016.04.017

This paper is behind a paywall.