Category Archives: science

Wars (such as they are) on science

I hinted in a Jan. 27, 2017 posting (scroll down abotu 15% of the way) that advice from Canadians with regard to an ‘American war on science’ might not be such a good idea. It seems that John Dupuis (mentioned in the Jan. 27, 2017 posting) has yet more advice for our neighbours to the south in his Feb. 5, 2017 posting (on the Confessions of a Science Librarian blog; Note: A link has been removed),

My advice? Don’t bring a test tube to a Bunsen burner fight. Mobilize, protest, form partnerships, wrote op-eds and blog posts and books and articles, speak about science at every public event you get a chance, run for office, help out someone who’s a science supporter run for office.

Don’t want your science to be seen as political or for your “objectivity” to be compromised? Too late, the other side made it political while you weren’t looking. And you’re the only one that thinks you’re objective. What difference will it make?

Don’t worry about changing the other side’s mind. Worry about mobilizing and energizing your side so they’ll turn out to protest and vote and send letters and all those other good things.

Worried that you will ruin your reputation and that when the good guys come back into power your “objectivity” will be forever compromised? Worry first about getting the good guys back in power. They will understand what you went through and why you had to mobilize. And they never thought your were “objective” to begin with.

Proof? The Canadian experience. After all, even the Guardian wants to talk about How science helped to swing the Canadian election? Two or four years from now, you want them to be writing articles about how science swung the US mid-term or presidential elections.

Dupuis goes on to offer a good set of links to articles about the Canadian experience written for media outlets from across the world.

The thing is, Stephen Harper is not Donald Trump. So, all this Canadian experience may not be as helpful as we or our neighbours to the south might like.

This Feb . 6, 2017 article by Daniel Engber for Slate.com gives a perspective that I think has been missed in this ‘Canadian’ discussion about the latest US ‘war on science’ (Note: Link have been removed),

An army of advocates for science will march on Washington, D.C. on April 22, according to a press release out last Thursday. The show of force aims to “draw attention to dangerous trends in the politicization of science,” the organizers say, citing “threats to the scientific community” and the need to “safeguard” researchers from a menacing regime. If Donald Trump plans to escalate his apparent assault on scientific values, then let him be on notice: Science will fight back.

We’ve been through this before. Casting opposition to a sitting president as resistance to a “war on science” likely helped progressives 10 or 15 years ago, when George W. Bush alienated voters with his apparent disrespect for climate science and embryonic stem-cell research (among other fields of study). The Bush administration’s meddling in research and disregard for expertise turned out to be a weakness, as the historian Daniel Sarewitz described in an insightful essay from 2009. Who could really argue with the free pursuit of knowledge? Democratic challengers made a weapon of their support for scientific progress: “Americans deserve a president who believes in science,” said John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. “We will end the Bush administration’s war on science, restore scientific integrity and return to evidence-based decision-making,” the Democratic Party platform stated four years later.

But what had been a sharp-edged political strategy may now have lost its edge. I don’t mean to say that the broad appeal of science has been on the wane; overall, Americans are about as sanguine on the value of our scientific institutions as they were before. Rather, the electorate has reorganized itself, or has been reorganized by Trump, in such a way that fighting on behalf of science no longer cuts across party lines, and it doesn’t influence as many votes beyond the Democratic base.

The War on Science works for Trump because it’s always had more to do with social class than politics. A glance at data from the National Science Foundation shows how support for science tracks reliably with socioeconomic status. As of 2014, 50 percent of Americans in the highest income quartile and more than 55 percent of those with college degrees reported having great confidence in the nation’s scientific leaders. Among those in the lowest income bracket or with very little education, that support drops to 33 percent or less. Meanwhile, about five-sixths of rich or college-educated people—compared to less than half of poor people or those who never finished high school—say they believe that the benefits of science outweigh the potential harms. To put this in crude, horse-race terms, the institution of scientific research consistently polls about 30 points higher among the elites than it does among the uneducated working class.

Ten years ago, that distinction didn’t matter quite so much for politics. …

… with the battle lines redrawn, the same approach to activism now seems as though it could have the opposite effect. In the same way that fighting the War on Journalism delegitimizes the press by making it seem partisan and petty, so might the present fight against the War on Science sap scientific credibility. By confronting it directly, science activists may end up helping to consolidate Trump’s support among his most ardent, science-skeptical constituency. If they’re not careful where and how they step, the science march could turn into an ambush.

I think Engber is making an important point and the strategies and tactics being employed need to be carefully reviewed.

As for the Canadian situation, things are indeed better now but my experience is that while we rarely duplicate the situation in the US, we often find ourselves echoing their cries, albeit years later and more faintly. The current leadership race for the Conservative party has at least one Trump admirer (Kelly Leitch see the section titled: Controversy) fashioning her campaign in light of his perceived successes. Our next so called ‘war on science’ could echo in some ways the current situation in the US and we’d best keep that in mind.

Seeing the future with quantum computing

Researchers at the University of Sydney (Australia) have demonstrated the ability to see the ‘quantum future’ according to a Jan. 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Sydney have demonstrated the ability to “see” the future of quantum systems, and used that knowledge to preempt their demise, in a major achievement that could help bring the strange and powerful world of quantum technology closer to reality.

The applications of quantum-enabled technologies are compelling and already demonstrating significant impacts — especially in the realm of sensing and metrology. And the potential to build exceptionally powerful quantum computers using quantum bits, or qubits, is driving investment from the world’s largest companies.

However a significant obstacle to building reliable quantum technologies has been the randomisation of quantum systems by their environments, or decoherence, which effectively destroys the useful quantum character.

The physicists have taken a technical quantum leap in addressing this, using techniques from big data to predict how quantum systems will change and then preventing the system’s breakdown from occurring.

A Jan. 14, 2017 University of Sydney press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Much the way the individual components in mobile phones will eventually fail, so too do quantum systems,” said the paper’s senior author Professor Michael J.  Biercuk.

“But in quantum technology the lifetime is generally measured in fractions of a second, rather than years.”

Professor Biercuk, from the University of Sydney’s School of Physics and a chief investigator at the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, said his group had demonstrated it was possible to suppress decoherence in a preventive manner. The key was to develop a technique to predict how the system would disintegrate.

Professor Biercuk highlighted the challenges of making predictions in a quantum world: “Humans routinely employ predictive techniques in our daily experience; for instance, when we play tennis we predict where the ball will end up based on observations of the airborne ball,” he said.

“This works because the rules that govern how the ball will move, like gravity, are regular and known.  But what if the rules changed randomly while the ball was on its way to you?  In that case it’s next to impossible to predict the future behavior of that ball.

“And yet this situation is exactly what we had to deal with because the disintegration of quantum systems is random. Moreover, in the quantum realm observation erases quantumness, so our team needed to be able to guess how and when the system would randomly break.

“We effectively needed to swing at the randomly moving tennis ball while blindfolded.”

The team turned to machine learning for help in keeping their quantum systems – qubits realised in trapped atoms – from breaking.

What might look like random behavior actually contained enough information for a computer program to guess how the system would change in the future. It could then predict the future without direct observation, which would otherwise erase the system’s useful characteristics.

The predictions were remarkably accurate, allowing the team to use their guesses preemptively to compensate for the anticipated changes.

Doing this in real time allowed the team to prevent the disintegration of the quantum character, extending the useful lifetime of the qubits.

“We know that building real quantum technologies will require major advances in our ability to control and stabilise qubits – to make them useful in applications,” Professor Biercuk said.

Our techniques apply to any qubit, built in any technology, including the special superconducting circuits being used by major corporations.

“We’re excited to be developing new capabilities that turn quantum systems from novelties into useful technologies. The quantum future is looking better all the time,” Professor Biercuk said.

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

Prediction and real-time compensation of qubit decoherence via machine learning by Sandeep Mavadia, Virginia Frey, Jarrah Sastrawan, Stephen Dona, & Michael J. Biercuk. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14106 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14106 Published online: 16 January 2017

This paper is open access.

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.

ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.

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.