Category Archives: science

Tim Blais and A Capella Science

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for information about another Canadian ‘science musician’. Tim Blais has been producing science music videos for almost two years now. His first video, posted on YouTube, in August 2012 featured an Adele tune ‘Rolling in the deep’ sung to lyrics featuring the Higgs Boson (‘Rolling in the Higgs’),

He shares the text of the lyrics (from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtItBX1l1VY&list=UUTev4RNBiu6lqtx8z1e87fQ),

There’s a collider under Geneva
Reaching new energies that we’ve never achieved before
Finally we can see with this machine
A brand new data peak at 125 GeV
See how gluons and vector bosons fuse
Muons and gamma rays emerge from something new
There’s a collider under Geneva
Making one particle that we’ve never seen before

The complex scalar
Elusive boson
Escaped detection by the LEP and Tevatron
The complex scalar
What is its purpose?
It’s got me thinking

Chorus:
We could have had a model (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
Without a scalar field (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)
But symmetry requires no mass (Particle breakthrough, at the LHC)
So we break it, with the Higgs (5-sigma result, could it be the Higgs)

Baby I have a theory to be told
The standard model used to discover our quantum world
SU(3), U(1), SU(2)’s our gauge
Make a transform and the equations shouldn’t change

The particles then must all be massless
Cause mass terms vary under gauge transformation
The one solution is spontaneous
Symmetry breaking

Roll your vacuum to minimum potential
Break your SU(2) down to massless modes
Into mass terms of gauge bosons they go
Fermions sink in like skiers into snow

Lyrics and arrangement by Tim Blais and A Capella Science
Original music by Adele

In a Sept. 17, 2012 article by Ethan Yang for The McGill Daily (University of McGill, Montréal, Québec) Blais describes his background and inspiration,

How does a master’s physics student create a Higgs boson-based parody of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” that goes viral and gets featured in popular science magazines and blogs? We sat down with Tim Blais to learn more about the personal experiences leading to his musical and scientific project, “A Capella Science”.

McGill Daily: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, your childhood, and other experiences that in hindsight you think might have led you to where you are now?
Tim Blais: I grew up in a family of five in the little town of Hudson, Quebec, twenty minutes west of the island of Montreal. My childhood was pretty full of music; I started experimenting with the piano, figuring out songs my older siblings were playing, when I was about four, and soon got actual piano lessons. My mom also ran, and continues to run, our local church choir, so from the time I was three I was singing in front of people as well. Also at about three or four a kid in my preschool introduced me to Bill Nye the Science Guy, which became the only TV I watched for about six years. After kindergarten I didn’t go to school until Grade 10, but was homeschooled by my parents. We had a very multifaceted way of learning [...] that I think allowed me to see the big picture of things without getting bogged down in the horrible little details that are often the stumbling block when you start learning something. That gave me a fascination with science that’s essentially carried me through a science DEC and one-and-a-half university degrees. But my parents have always been super cool about not pressuring us kids to be anything in particular, and now to show for it they’ve got an emerging rock star – my brother, Tom; a dedicated speech pathologist – my sister, Mary-Jane; and me, researcher in incomprehensible physics and recently popular internet fool. I think they did alright.

Since 2012, Blais has graduated with a masters in physics and is now devoted to a life as a musician (from a 2013 [?] posting on redefineschool.com),

Blais has just finished up his master’s degree program at McGill, and he says he’s putting academia aside for a while. “I’ve been in school all my life so I’m switching gears and being a musician this year!” he tweeted. And that career choice is just fine by McGill theoretical physicist Alex Maloney, Blais’ faculty adviser.

To bring us up-to-date with Blais, David has featured the latest A Capella Science music video titled: ‘Eminemium (Choose Yourself)’ in his July 16, 2014 ‘musical science’ posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog.

One last tidbit, Blais will be appearing at Calgary’s (Alberta) Beakerhead ‘festival’ (Sept. 10 – 14, 2014). Specifically, he will be at (from the TELUS Sept. 11, 2014 event page):

TELUS Spark Adults Only Night
September 11 [2014] @ 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm
[TELUS Spark Adults Only Night]

Mark your calendar for this special Beakerhead-themed adult night at TELUS Spark Science Centre. Meet the Festo Automation folks from Germany and see their mind-boggling biomechanical creatures up close. Are you also a fan of the internet sensation A Capella Science Bohemian Gravity? Meet the maker, Tim Blais, here in Calgary for Beakerhead.

This event is included with Admission and Membership. TOP TIP: Skip the queue with advance tickets. [go to TELUS event page to buy tickets]

You can find out more about A Capella Science on its Facebook page or via its Twitter feed. For more about Beakerhead events, go here.

US military wants you to remember

While this July 10, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily concerns DARPA, an implantable neural device, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), it is a new project and not the one featured here in a June 18, 2014 posting titled: ‘DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awards funds for implantable neural interface’.

The new project as per the July 10, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily concerns memory,

The Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) up to $2.5 million to develop an implantable neural device with the ability to record and stimulate neurons within the brain to help restore memory, DARPA officials announced this week.

The research builds on the understanding that memory is a process in which neurons in certain regions of the brain encode information, store it and retrieve it. Certain types of illnesses and injuries, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, disrupt this process and cause memory loss. TBI, in particular, has affected 270,000 military service members since 2000.

A July 2, 2014 LLNL news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The goal of LLNL’s work — driven by LLNL’s Neural Technology group and undertaken in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Medtronic — is to develop a device that uses real-time recording and closed-loop stimulation of neural tissues to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore individuals’ ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones.

Specifically, the Neural Technology group will seek to develop a neuromodulation system — a sophisticated electronics system to modulate neurons — that will investigate areas of the brain associated with memory to understand how new memories are formed. The device will be developed at LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering.

“Currently, there is no effective treatment for memory loss resulting from conditions like TBI,” said LLNL’s project leader Satinderpall Pannu, director of the LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering, a unique facility dedicated to fabricating biocompatible neural interfaces. …

LLNL will develop a miniature, wireless and chronically implantable neural device that will incorporate both single neuron and local field potential recordings into a closed-loop system to implant into TBI patients’ brains. The device — implanted into the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus — will allow for stimulation and recording from 64 channels located on a pair of high-density electrode arrays. The entorhinal cortex and hippocampus are regions of the brain associated with memory.

The arrays will connect to an implantable electronics package capable of wireless data and power telemetry. An external electronic system worn around the ear will store digital information associated with memory storage and retrieval and provide power telemetry to the implantable package using a custom RF-coil system.

Designed to last throughout the duration of treatment, the device’s electrodes will be integrated with electronics using advanced LLNL integration and 3D packaging technologies. The microelectrodes that are the heart of this device are embedded in a biocompatible, flexible polymer.

Using the Center for Bioengineering’s capabilities, Pannu and his team of engineers have achieved 25 patents and many publications during the last decade. The team’s goal is to build the new prototype device for clinical testing by 2017.

Lawrence Livermore’s collaborators, UCLA and Medtronic, will focus on conducting clinical trials and fabricating parts and components, respectively.

“The RAM [Restoring Active Memory] program poses a formidable challenge reaching across multiple disciplines from basic brain research to medicine, computing and engineering,” said Itzhak Fried, lead investigator for the UCLA on this project and  professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “But at the end of the day, it is the suffering individual, whether an injured member of the armed forces or a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, who is at the center of our thoughts and efforts.”

LLNL’s work on the Restoring Active Memory program supports [US] President [Barack] Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative.

Obama’s BRAIN is picking up speed.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

I recently wrote an exhaustive four-part series (links at the end of this posting) featuring Raman spectroscopy testing of an authenticated (Hurdy Gurdy) and a purported (Autumn Harbour) Lawren Harris paintings. During the course of my research, I sent a query to the Canadian Conservation Institute to disprove or confirm my statements regarding Canada and its database of art pigments,

.. According to some informal sources, Canada has a very small (almost nonexistent) data bank of information about pigments used in its important paintings. For example, the federal government’s Canadian Conservation Institute has a very small database of pigments and nothing from Lawren Harris paintings [unconfirmed at time of publication; June 18, 2014 query outstanding] …

Marie-Claude Corbeil, Ph.D. Gestionnaire de la Division de la science de la conservation | Manager of Conservation Science Division, very kindly replied to my query with this on July 10, 2014 (I believe she was on holidays [en vacances] when my query was received in June),

The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has been conducting research into the materials and techniques of Canadian artists (mainly 20th-century artists) since the early 1990s. Databases were created for each artists. At the moment CCI has no such database on Harris.

The CCI is the only institution in Canada carrying out this kind of research. I would add that European conservation institutes or laboratories have a long tradition of conducting this type of research focusing mainly on European art, basically because many were created long before North-American conservation institutes or laboratories were established.

… An important point to make is that scientific investigation is only one part of an authentication study. Authentication should start with stylistic study and research into the provenance of the artwork which are carried out by curators and art historians.

Regarding your question about Raman spectroscopy, I would say that Raman spectroscopy is only one of many techniques that can be used to analyse paint or any other material. At CCI we often use up to six techniques to analyse paint to obtain the full makeup of the sample including pigments, fillers and binding media. I should also add that analysis of material is carried out at CCI to answer questions related to a number of issues, including but not limited to authentication. Analysis is often carried out to understand the degradation of museum objects and works of art, or to provide information required during the course of a conservation treatment.

Thank you for this excellent explanation and for your time.

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1305 PDT: For those who want more information, Ms. Corbeil has provided some articles about the CCI and its Canadian Artists Painting Materials Research Project:

The Canadian Artists’ Painting Materials Project, 1992, J. M. Taylor. (PDF)

CCI 1992 Taylor

Detecting Art Fraud: Sometimes Scientific Examination Can Help, 1993. J. M. Taylor (PDF)

CCI 1993 Taylor
The Canadian Artists Painting Materials Research Project, 1995, Marie-Claude Corbeil (PDF)

CCI 1995 Corbeil

Science, Scotland, and independence

A referendum on Scotland’s independence will take place later this year on Sept, 18, 2014 and. in the meantime, there’s a great deal of discussion about what a ‘yes’ vote might mean. Canadians will be somewhat familiar with this process having experienced two ‘sovereignty’ referendum votes (1980 and 1995, respectively) in the province of Québec and two 1948 referendums (the first result was inconclusive) in Newfoundland where they chose between dominion status and joining the Canadian confederation (Referendums in Canada Wikipedia entry).

One of the features of Québec’s sovereignty or independence proposals is a desire to retain the financial advantages of being party to a larger,established country while claiming new advantages available to an independent constituency or as they say ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’.

While there are many, many historical, cultural and other differences between the situations in Québec and Scotland, it is not entirely surprising to note that there is at least one area where the Scottish/UK debates seem to be emulating the Québec/Canada debates and that is the desire to retain the advantages of being part of the UK with regard to science research funding.

According to a Dec. 2013 (?) posting of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ‘Future of the UK and Scotland’ blog two reports discussing the subject of science research funding in the context of Scotland’s proposed independence were launched in November 2013,

In November [2013], two papers were published regarding the future of Scotland. The first, ‘Scotland analysis: Science and research’, written by the UK government, and unveiled by David Willetts, UK Science Minister earlier in November, focuses solely on the issues related to science and research in Scotland,  whereas the second one, a Scottish Government White Paper, addresses a whole range of issues associated with independence in Scotland with a brief discussion of the futures of science and higher education in Scotland (Chapter 5- Education, Skills and Employment).

Both papers testify to the strength of the Scottish science base and the contribution of Scottish universities to the UK research base as a whole. …

However, when it comes to the independence debate, the two papers present contrasting positions. The UK government paper highlights the disproportionate level of funding and research support that Scottish universities receive compared to the rest of the UK, warning that the funding will not continue at the same level in an independent Scotland. According to the paper, while Scotland only contributes 8% to the GDP, it receives 13% of the research funding from various funding bodies. Should Scotland go independent, the paper argues, the UK research funding flow will stop and it will be up to the Scottish Funding Council to decide whether to keep public research funding at present levels. [emphasis mine]…

Adopting a different perspective, the Scottish Government White Paper argues that it will be in the interest of both sides to remain in a ‘common research area’, which shares research councils, access to facilities, and peer reviewing. According to this paper, Scotland universities have made a huge input to UK research and the research councils have been partly funded by Scottish taxpayers. Therefore, Scotland will seek to remain in the ‘common research area‘ and will negotiate a formula to continue funding research councils based on population, but with Scottish research institutes receiving lower or higher funding support based on their research performance. [emphases mine]

… The Scottish Government White Paper presents an ideal research system which maintains the positive aspects of the current system but eliminates other features (for example, attracting international research talent through modifying immigration policy). [emphasis mine] …

At a workshop, organised by the ESRC Innogen Centre in November [2013] and attended by Scottish-based industrialists, academics, policy agencies and senior research managers, there was considerable debate about uncertainties such as these. There were real worries about how the current high levels of research funding could be continued and how Scotland would be able to compete on research

A July 5, 2014 news item on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) News online mentions the latest doings in this area of Scotland’s independence debate,

Medical and scientific research across the UK would suffer if Scotland votes for independence, according to the heads of three academic institutions.

The claim was made by the presidents of the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Sir Paul Nurse, Lord Stern and Sir John Tooke said scientific collaboration would be damaged by a “Yes” vote.

In a joint letter to The Times newspaper, the three academics also claimed that maintaining existing levels of research in Scotland would cost Scottish taxpayers more should the country leave the UK.

They wrote: “Scotland has long done particularly well through its access to UK research funding.

“If it turns out that an independent Scotland has to form its own science and research budget, maintaining these levels of research spending would cost the Scottish taxpayer significantly more.”

They went on to state that the strong links and collaborations which exist across the UK “would be put at risk”, with any new system aiming to restore these links “likely to be expensive and bureaucratic”.

The presidents wrote: “We believe that if separation were to occur, research not only in Scotland but also the rest of the UK would suffer.

However Academics for Yes, a pro-independence group which comprises 60 academics from Scottish universities, said a “Yes” vote would protect the country’s universities and allow research priorities to be determined.

Its spokesman, Professor Bryan MacGregor from the University of Aberdeen, said: “On the one hand, we have the UK and England contexts of cuts in research and science funding, high student fees with unsustainable loan funding, an immigration policy that is preventing and deterring international student recruitment and the possibility of an exit from the EU and its research funding.

“And, on the other, we have a Scottish government committed to funding research, to free access to universities for residents and to attracting international students.

Earlier this year a group of 14 clinical academics and scientists put their names to an open letter raising “grave concerns that the country does not sleepwalk into a situation that jeopardises its present success in the highly-competitive arena of biomedical research”.

But the Scottish government, which currently provides about a third of research funds, has argued there is no reason why the current UK-wide structure for funding could not continue post-independence.

Kieron Flanagan in a Feb. 12, 2013 posting on the Guardian political science blog explored the possibilities (Note: Links have been removed),

Let’s face it: few people on either side of the Scottish independence debate are likely to be swayed by arguments about the impacts independence might have on scientific research. Yet science is a policy area where major changes would follow from a “Yes” vote for an independent Scotland. Nonetheless, the commentator Colin Macilwain passionately argued that Scottish science is ready to go it alone in a recent Nature opinion column.

… an independent Scotland could choose to continue to subscribe to the UK research councils in the same way that associated non-EU countries pay to take part in the European research programmes. It would have a strong moral claim to continued access, and it would be difficult to see how a UK government could refuse such an arrangement. Continued access to the existing research councils would allow Scotland to ensure that a diverse range of funding sources remains available to its scientists, and might also help encourage UK research charities to continue to fund research in the country.

So, while Macilwain is certainly right that Scottish science can go it alone, those working in Scottish science may conclude that the additional costs of running a small country research system, the additional risks of maintaining autonomy for funding decisions in a much smaller political world, and the consequent reduction in diversity of funding streams together outweigh the attractions of building a whole new research system from scratch.

While I think Flanagan is quite right when he says the impact that a ‘Yes’ vote will have on science funding and research in Scotland is unlikely to sway anyone’s vote, it’s fascinating to observe the discussion. I don’t believe that any such specific concerns about science and research funding have ever arisen in the context of the Québec referendums. If someone knows otherwise, please drop a line in the comments.

In any event, I can’t help but wonder what impact a ‘Yes’ vote will have on other independence movements both in Canada (Québec certainly and Alberta possibly, where mumbles about independence are sometimes heard) and elsewhere.

AsapSCIENCE, Coming Out Twice and Canada Day

AsapSCIENCE was last featured here in a May 21, 2013 posting about a Periodic Table of Elements video the pair, Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, produced for their YouTube channel, AsapSCIENCE. Thanks to a June 11, 2014 posting by Sarah Gray for Salon.com, I learned of a recent video, Coming out Twice, produced by Moffit and Brown for their second YouTube Channel, AsapTHOUGHT,

Today [June 11, 2014], the creators of these two channels shared what might be their most powerful and impactful video to date: “Coming Out Twice.” In it Gregory Brown and Mitchell Moffit, proudly state that while their YouTube experience has been mostly positive, they’ve encountered a lot of vitriol and homophobia. To combat this, the two, who are partners and have been together for 7 and a half years, decided to make this video to “come out, again.”

“We are openly, proud gay people, who love science,” Brown says.

It seems fitting to share on this on the eve of the July 1, 2014 Canada Day celebrations and just post the 2014 World Pride Celebrations (June 20 – 29, 2014) in Toronto, Ontario.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously said, more or less,  the ‘government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation’ and, as then Justice Minister, went on to decriminalize (with a lot of help) homosexuality in Canada in 1969.

The celebration of 2014 Canada Day started here last week with a four-part posting about art authentication. You can start here with: Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 1 of 4).

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 3 of 4)

Dramatic headlines (again)

Ignoring the results entirely, Metro News Vancouver, which favours the use of the word ‘fraud’, featured it in the headline of a second article about the testing, “Alleged Group of Seven work a fraud: VAG curator” by Thandi Fletcher (June 5, 2014 print issue); happily the online version of Fletcher’s story has had its headline changed to the more accurate: “Alleged Group of Seven painting not an authentic Lawren Harris, says Vancouver Art Gallery curator.” Fletcher’s article was updated after its initial publication with some additional text (it is worth checking out the online version even if you’re already seen the print version). There had been a second Vancouver Metro article on the testing of the authenticated painting by Nick Wells but that in common, with his June 4, 2014 article about the first test, “A fraud or a find?” is no longer available online. Note: Standard mainstream media practice is that the writer with the byline for the article is not usually the author of the article’s headline.

There are two points to be made here. First, Robertson has not attempted to represent ‘Autumn Harbour’ as an authentic Lawren Harris painting other than in a misguided headline for his 2011 news release.  From Robertson’s July 26, 2011 news release (published by Reuters and published by Market Wired) where he crossed a line by stating that Autumn Harbour is a Harris in his headline (to my knowledge the only time he’s done so),

Lost Lawren Harris Found in Bala, Ontario

Unknown 24×36 in. Canvas Piques a Storm of Controversy

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA–(Marketwire – July 26, 2011) -
Was Autumn Harbour painted by Lawren Harris in the fall of 1912? That summer Lawren Harris was 26 years old and had proven himself as an accomplished and professional painter. He had met J.E.H. MacDonald in November of 1911. They became fast friends and would go on to form the Group of Seven in 1920 but now in the summer of 1912 they were off on a sketching expedition to Mattawa and Temiscaming along the Quebec-Ontario border. Harris had seen the wilderness of the northern United States and Europe but this was potentially his first trip outside the confines of an urban Toronto environment into the Canadian wilderness.

By all accounts he was overwhelmed by what he saw and struggled to find new meaning in his talents that would capture these scenes in oil and canvas. There are only two small works credited to this period, archived in the McMichael gallery in Kleinburg, Ontario. Dennis Reid, Assistant Curator of the National Gallery of Canada stated in 1970 about this period: “Both Harris and (J.E.H.) MacDonald explored new approaches to handling of colour and overall design in these canvases. Harris in particular was experimenting with new methods of paint handling, and Jackson pointed out the interest of the other painters in these efforts, referring to the technique affectionately as ‘Tomato Soup’.” For most authorities the summer and fall of 1912 are simply called his ‘lost period’ because it was common for Harris to destroy, abandon or give away works that did not meet his standards. The other trait common to Harris works, is the lack of a signature and some that are signed were signed on his behalf. The most common proxy signatory was Betsy Harris, his second wife who signed canvases on his behalf when he could no longer do so.

So the question remains. Can an unsigned 24×36 in. canvas dated to 1900-1920 that was found in a curio shop in Bala, Ontario be a long lost Lawren Harris? When pictures were shown to Charles C. Hill, Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, he replied: “The canvas looks like no Harris I have ever seen…” A similar reply also came from Ian Thom, Head Curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery: “I do not believe that your work can be connected with Harris in any way.” [emphases mine] Yet the evidence still persists. The best example resides within the National Art Gallery. A 1919, 50.5 X 42.5 in. oil on rough canvas shows Harris’s style of under painting, broad brush strokes and stilled composition. Shacks, painted in 1919 and acquired the Gallery in 1920 is an exact technique clone of Autumn Harbour. For a list of comparisons styles with known Harris works and a full list of the collected evidence please consult www.1912lawrenharris.ca/ and see for yourself.

If Robertson was intent on perpetrating a fraud, why would he include the negative opinions from the curators or attempt to authenticate his purported Harris? The 2011 website is no longer available but Robertson has established another website, http://autumnharbour.ca/.

It’s not a crime (fraud) to have strong or fervent beliefs. After all, Robertson was the person who contacted ProSpect* Scientific to arrange for a test.

Second, Ian Thom, the VAG curator did not call ‘Autumn Harbour’ or David Robertson, a fraud. From the updated  June 5, 2014 article sporting a new headline by Thandi Fletcher,

“I do not believe that the painting … is in fact a Lawren Harris,” said Ian Thom, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “It’s that simple.”

It seems Thom feels as strongly as Robertson does; it’s just that Thom holds an opposing opinion.

Monetary value was mentioned earlier as an incentive for Robertson’s drive to prove the authenticity of his painting, from the updated June 5, 2014 article with the new headline by Thandi Fletcher,

Still, Robertson, who has carried out his own research on the painting, said he is convinced the piece is an authentic Harris. If it were, he said it would be worth at least $3 million. [emphasis mine]

“You don’t have to have a signature on the canvas to recognize brushstroke style,” he said.

Note: In a June 13, 2014 telephone conversation, Robertson used the figure of $1M to denote his valuation of Autumn Harbour and claimed a degree in Geography with a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Waterloo. He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.

As for the owner of Hurdy Gurdy and the drama that preceded its test on June 4, 2014, Fletcher had this in her updated and newly titled article,

Robertson said the painting’s owner, local Vancouver businessman Tony Ma, had promised to bring the Harris original to the chemistry conference but pulled out after art curator Thom told him not to participate.

While Thom acknowledged that Ma did ask for his advice, he said he didn’t tell him to pull out of the conference.

“It was more along the lines of, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything,’” said Thom, adding that the final decision is up to Ma. [emphasis mine]

A request for comment from Ma was not returned Wednesday [June 5, 2014].

Thom, who already examined Robertson’s painting a year ago [in 2013? then, how is he quoted in a 2011 news release?], said he has no doubt Harris did not paint it.

“The subject matter is wrong, the handling of the paint is wrong, and the type of canvas is wrong,” he said, adding that many other art experts agree with him.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014. Minor grammatical change made to sentence: ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to a be of Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ to ‘He also expressed the hope that Autumn Harbour would prove to be a* Rosetta Stone of sorts for art pigments used in the early part of the 20th century.’ on July 2, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 2 of 4)

Testing the sample and Raman fingerprints

The first stage of the June 3, 2010 test of David Robertson’s Autumn Harbour, required taking a tiny sample from the painting,. These samples are usually a fleck of a few microns (millionths of an inch), which can then be tested to ensure the lasers are set at the correct level assuring no danger of damage to the painting. (Robertson extracted the sample himself prior to arriving at the conference. He did not allow anyone else to touch his purported Harris before, during, or after the test.)

Here’s how ProSpect* Scientific describes the ‘rehearsal’ test on the paint chip,

Tests on this chip were done simply to ensure we knew what power levels were safe for use on the painting.  While David R stated he believed the painting was oil on canvas without lacquer, we were not entirely certain of that.  Lacquer tends to be easier to burn than oil pigments and so we wanted to work with this chip just to be entirely certain there was no risk to the painting itself.

The preliminary (rehearsal) test resulted in a line graph that showed the frequencies of the various pigments in the test sample. Titanium dioxide, for example, was detected and its frequency (spectra) reflected on the graph.

I found this example of a line graph representing the spectra (fingerprint) for a molecule of an ultramarine (blue) pigment along with a general explanation of a Raman ‘fingerprint’. There is no indication as to where the ultramarine pigment was obtained. From the  WebExhibits.org website featuring a section on Pigments through the Ages and a webpage on Spectroscopy,

raman-ArtPigment

Ultramarine [downloaded from http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/spectroscopy.html]

Raman spectra consist of sharp bands whose position and height are characteristic of the specific molecule in the sample. Each line of the spectrum corresponds to a specific vibrational mode of the chemical bonds in the molecule. Since each type of molecule has its own Raman spectrum, this can be used to characterize molecular structure and identify chemical compounds.

Most people don’t realize that the chemical signature (spectra) for pigment can change over time with new pigments being introduced. Finding a pigment that was on the market from 1970 onwards in a painting by Jackson Pollock who died in 1956 suggests strongly that the painting couldn’t have come from Pollock’s hand. (See Michael Shnayerson’s May 2012 article, A Question of Provenance, in Vanity Fair for more about the Pollock painting. The article details the fall of a fabled New York art gallery that had been in business prior to the US Civil War.)

The ability to identify a pigment’s molecular fingerprint means that an examination by Raman spectroscopy can be part of an authentication, a restoration, or a conservation process. Here is how a representative from ProSpect Scientific describes the process,

Raman spectroscopy is non-destructive (when conducted at the proper power levels) and identifies the molecular components in the pigments, allowing characterization of the pigments for proper restoration or validation by comparison with other pigments of the same place/time. It is valuable to art institutions and conservators because it can do this.  In most cases of authentication Raman spectroscopy is one of many tools used and not the first in line. A painting would be first viewed by art experts for technique, format etc, then most often analysed with IR or X-Ray, then perhaps Raman spectroscopy. It is impossible to use Raman spectroscopy to prove authenticity as paint pigments are usually not unique to any particular painter.  Most often Raman spectroscopy is used by conservators to determine proper pigments for appropriate restoration.  Sometimes Raman will tell us that the pigment isn’t from the time/era the painting is purported to be from (anachronisms).

Autumn Harbour test

Getting back to the June 3, 2014 tests, once the levels were set then it was time to examine Autumn Harbour itself to determine the spectra for the various pigments.  ProSpect Scientific has provided an explanation of the process,

This spectrometer was equipped with an extension that allowed delivery of the laser and collection of the scattered light at a point other than directly under the microscope. We could also have used a flexible fibre optic probe for this, but this device is slightly more efficient. This allowed us to position the delivery/collection point for the light just above the painting at the spot we wished to test. For this test, we don’t sweep across the surface, we test a small pinpoint that we feel is a pigment of the target colour.

We only use one laser at a time. The system is built so we can easily select one laser or another, depending on what we wish to look at. Some researchers have 3 or 4 lasers in their system because different lasers provide a better/worse raman spectrum depending on the nature of the sample. In this case we principally used the 785nm laser as it is better for samples that exhibit fluorescence at visible wavelengths. 532nm is a visible wavelength.  For samples that didn’t produce good signal we tried the 532nm laser as it produces better signal to noise than 785nm, generally speaking. I believe the usable results in our case were obtained with the 785nm laser.

The graphed Raman spectra shows peaks for the frequency of scattered light that we collect from the laser-illuminated sample (when shining a laser on a sample the vast majority of light is scattered in the same frequency of the laser, but a very small amount is scattered at different frequencies unique to the molecules in the sample). Those frequencies correspond to and identify molecules in the sample. We use a database (on the computer attached to the spectrometer) to pattern match the spectra to identify the constituents.

One would have thought ‘game over’ at this point. According to some informal sources, Canada has a very small (almost nonexistent) data bank of information about pigments used in its important paintings. For example, the federal government’s Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) has a very small database of pigments and nothing from Lawren Harris paintings [See the CCI's response in this addendum], so the chances that David Robertson would have been able to find a record of pigments used by Lawren Harris roughly in the same time period that Autumn Harbour seems to have been painted are not good.

Everything changes

In a stunning turn of events and despite the lack of enthusiasm from Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) curator, Ian Thom, on Wednesday, June 4, 2014 the owner of the authenticated Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, relented and brought the painting in for tests.

Here’s what the folks from ProSpect Scientific had to say about the comparison,

Many pigments were evaluated. Good spectra were obtained for blue and white. The blue pigment matched on both paintings, the white didn’t match. We didn’t get useful Raman spectra from other pigments. We had limited time, with more time we might fine tune and get more data.

One might be tempted to say that the results were 50/50 with one matching and the other not, The response from the representative of ProSpect Scientific is more measured,

We noted that the mineral used in the pigment was the same.  Beyond that is interpretation:  Richard offered the view that lapis-lazuli was a typical and characteristic component for blue in that time period (early 1900′s).   We saw different molecules in the whites used in the two paintings, and Richard offered that both were characteristic of the early 1900′s.

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

* ‘ProsPect’ changed to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

 

Art (Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven), science (Raman spectroscopic examinations), and other collisions at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference (part 1 of 4)

One wouldn’t expect the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference held in Vancouver, Canada from  June 1 – 5, 2014 to be an emotional rollercoaster. One would be wrong. Chemists and members of the art scene are not only different from thee and me, they are different from each other.

Setting the scene

It started with a May 30, 2014 Simon Fraser University (SFU) news release,

During the conference, ProSpect Scientific has arranged for an examination of two Canadian oil paintings; one is an original Lawren Harris (Group of Seven) titled “Hurdy Gurdy” while the other is a painting called “Autumn Harbour” that bears many of Harris’s painting techniques. It was found in Bala, Ontario, an area that was known to have been frequented by Harris.

Using Raman Spectroscopy equipment manufactured by Renishaw (Canada), Dr. Richard Bormett will determine whether the paint from both works of art was painted from the same tube of paint.

As it turns out, the news release got it somewhat wrong. Raman spectroscopy testing does not make it possible to* determine whether the paints came from the same tube, the same batch, or even the same brand. Nonetheless, it is an important tool for art authentication, restoration and/or conservation and both paintings were scheduled for testing on Tuesday, June 3, 2014. But that was not to be.

The owner of the authenticated Harris (Hurdy Gurdy) rescinded permission. No one was sure why but the publication of a June 2, 2014 article by Nick Wells for Metro News Vancouver probably didn’t help in a situation that was already somewhat fraught. The print version of the Wells article titled, “A fraud or a find?” showed only one painting “Hurdy Gurdy” and for anyone reading quickly, it might have seemed that the Hurdy Gurdy painting was the one that could be “a fraud or a find.”

The dramatically titled article no longer seems to be online but there is one (also bylined by Nick Wells) dated June 1, 2014 titled, Chemists in Vancouver to use lasers to verify Group of Seven painting. It features (assuming it is still available online) images of both paintings, the purported Harris (Autumn Harbour) and the authenticated Harris (Hurdy Gurdy),

"Autumn Harbour" [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

“Autumn Harbour” [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

Heffel Fine Art Auction

Lawren Harris’‚ Hurdy Gurdy, a depiction of Toronto’s Ward district is shown in this handout image. [downloaded from http://metronews.ca/news/vancouver/1051693/chemists-in-vancouver-to-use-lasers-to-verify-group-of-seven-painting/]

David Robertson who owns the purported Harris (Autumn Harbour) and is an outsider vis à vis the Canadian art world, has been trying to convince people for years that the painting he found in Bala, Ontario is a “Lawren Harris” painting. For anyone unfamiliar with the “Group of Seven” of which Lawren Harris was a founding member, this group is legendary to many Canadians and is the single most recognized name in Canadian art history (although some might argue that status for Emily Carr and/or Tom Thomson; both of whom have been, on occasion, honorarily included in the Group).  Robertson’s incentive to prove “Autumn Harbour” is a Harris could be described as monetary and/or prestige-oriented and/or a desire to make history.

The owner of the authenticated Harris “Hurdy Gurdy” could also be described as an outsider of sorts [unconfirmed at the time of publication; a June 26, 2014 query is outstanding], gaining entry to that select group of people who own a ‘Group of Seven’ painting at a record-setting price in 2012 with the purchase of a piece that has a provenance as close to unimpeachable as you can get. From a Nov. 22, 2012 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

Hurdy Gurdy, one of the finest urban landscapes ever painted by Lawren Harris, sold for $1,082,250, a price that includes a 17 per cent buyer’s premium. The pre-sale estimate suggested it could go for $400,000 to $600,000 including the premium.

The Group of Seven founder kept the impressionistic painting of a former Toronto district known as the Ward in his own collection before bequeathing it to his daughter. It has remained in the family ever since.

Occasionally, Harris “would come and say, ‘I need to borrow this back for an exhibition,’ and sometimes she wouldn’t see [the paintings] again,” Heffel vice-president Robert Heffel said. “Harris asked to have this painting back for a show…and she said ‘No, dad. Not this one.’ It was a painting that was very, very dear to her.”

It had been a coup to get access to an authenticated Harris for comparison testing so Hurdy Gurdy’s absence was a major disappointment. Nonetheless, Robertson went through with the scheduled June 3, 2014 testing of his ‘Autumn Harbour’.

Chemistry, spectroscopy, the Raman system, and the experts

Primarily focused on a technical process, the chemists (from ProSpect* Scientific and Renishaw) were unprepared for the drama and excitement that anyone associated with the Canadian art scene might have predicted.  From the chemists’ perspective, it was an opportunity to examine a fabled piece of Canadian art (Hurdy Gurdy) and, possibly, play a minor role in making Canadian art history.

The technique the chemists used to examine the purported Harris, Autumn Harbour, is called Raman spectroscopy and its beginnings as a practical technique date back to the 1920s. (You can get more details about Raman spectroscopy in this Wikiipedia entry then will be given here after the spectroscopy description.)

Spectroscopy (borrowing heavily from this Wikipedia entry) is the process where one studies the interaction between matter and radiated energy and which can be measured as frequencies and/or wavelengths. Raman spectroscopy systems can be used to examine radiated energy with low frequency emissions as per this description in the Raman spectroscopy Wikipedia entry,

Raman spectroscopy (/ˈrɑːmən/; named after Sir C. V. Raman) is a spectroscopic technique used to observe vibrational, rotational, and other low-frequency modes in a system.[1] It relies on inelastic scattering, or Raman scattering, of monochromatic light, usually from a laser in the visible, near infrared, or near ultraviolet range. The laser light interacts with molecular vibrations, phonons or other excitations in the system, resulting in the energy of the laser photons being shifted up or down.

The reason for using Raman spectroscopy for art authentication, conservation, and/or restoration purposes is that the technique, as noted earlier, can specify the specific chemical composition of the pigments used to create the painting. It is a technique used in many fields as a representative from ProSpect Scientific notes,

Raman spectroscopy is a vital tool for minerologists, forensic investigators, surface science development, nanotechnology research, pharmaceutical research and other applications.  Most graduate level university labs have this technology today, as do many government and industry researchers.  Raman spectroscopy is now increasingly available in single purpose hand held units that can identify the presence of a small number of target substances with ease-of-use appropriate for field work by law enforcers, first responders or researchers in the field.

About the chemists and ProSpect Scientific and Renishaw

There were two technical experts attending the June 3, 2014 test for the purported Harris painting, Autumn Harbour, Dr. Richard Bormett of Renishaw and Dr. Kelly Akers of ProSpect Scientific.

Dr. Kelly Akers founded ProSpect Scientific in 1996. Her company represents Renishaw Raman spectroscopy systems for the most part although other products are also represented throughout North America. Akers’ company is located in Orangeville, Ontario. Renishaw, a company based in the UK. offers a wide line of products including Raman spectroscopes. (There is a Renishaw Canada Ltd., headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario, representing products other than Raman spectroscopes.)

ProSpect Scientific runs Raman spectroscopy workshops, at the Canadian Chemistry Conferences as a regular occurrence, often in conjunction with Renishaw’s Bormett,. David Robertson, on learning the company would be at the 2014 Canadian Chemistry Conference in Vancouver, contacted Akers and arranged to have his purported Harris and Hurdy Gurdy, the authenticated Harris, tested at the conference.

Bormett, based in Chicago, Illinois, is Renishaw’s business manager for the Spectroscopy Products Division in North America (Canada, US, & Mexico).  His expertise as a spectroscopist has led him to work with many customers throughout the Americas and, as such, has worked with several art institutions and museums on important and valuable artifacts.  He has wide empirical knowledge of Raman spectra for many things, including pigments, but does not claim expertise in art or art authentication. You can hear him speak at a 2013 US Library of Congress panel discussion titled, “Advances in Raman Spectroscopy for Analysis of Cultural Heritage Materials,” part of the Library of Congress’s Topics in Preservation Series (TOPS), here on the Library of Congress website or here on YouTube. The discussion runs some 130 minutes.

Bormett has a PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. Akers has a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Toronto and is well known in the Raman spectroscopy field having published in many refereed journals including “Science” and the “Journal of Physical Chemistry.”  She expanded her knowledge of industrial applications of Raman spectroscopy substantive post doctoral work in Devon, Alberta at the CANMET Laboratory (Natural Resources Canada).

About Renishaw InVia Reflex Raman Spectrometers

The Raman spectroscopy system used for the examination, a Renishaw InVia Reflex Raman Spectrometer, had

  • two lasers (using 785nm [nanometres] and 532nm lasers for this application),
  • two cameras,
    (ProSpect Scientific provided this description of the cameras: The system has one CCD [Charged Coupled Device] camera that collects the scattered laser light to produce Raman spectra [very sensitive and expensive]. The system also has a viewing camera mounted on the microscope to allow the user to visually see what the target spot on the sample looks like. This camera shows on the computer what is visible through the eyepieces of the microscope.)
  • a microscope,
  • and a computer with a screen,

all of which fit on a tabletop, albeit a rather large one.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term CCD (charged coupled device), it is a sensor used in cameras to capture light and convert it to digital data for capture by the camera. (You can find out more here at TechTerms.com on the CCD webpage.)

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

* ‘to’ added to sentence on June 27, 2014 at 1340 hours (PDT). ‘ProsPect’ corrected to ‘ProSpect’ on June 30, 2014.

ETA July 14, 2014 at 1300 hours PDT: There is now an addendum to this series, which features a reply from the Canadian Conservation Institute to a query about art pigments used by Canadian artists and access to a database of information about them.

Lawren Harris (Group of Seven), art authentication, and the Canadian Conservation Insitute (addendum to four-part series)

The relationship between Valyrian steel (from Game of Thrones), Damascus steel, and nuclear nanotechnology

There’s a very interesting June 20, 2014 posting by Charles Day on his Dayside blog (located on the Physics Today website). Day manages to relate the Game of Thrones tv series to nuclear power and nanotechnology,

The military technology of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, is medieval with an admixture of the supernatural. Dragons aside, among the most prized weapons are swords made from Valyrian steel, which are lighter, stronger, and sharper than ordinary steel swords.

Like many of the features in the rich world of the novels and their TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, Valyrian steel has a historical inspiration. Sometime before 300 BC, metalworkers in Southern India discovered a way to make small cakes of high-carbon steel known as wootz. Thanks to black wavy bands of Fe3C particles that pervade the metal, wootz steel was already strong. …

Perhaps because the properties of wootz and Damascus steels depended, in part, on a particular kind of iron ore, the ability of metallurgists to make the alloys was lost sometime in the 18th century. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the plot plays out during an era in which making Valyrian steel is a long-lost art.

Martin’s knowledge of metallurgy is perhaps shaky. …

Interestingly, the comments on the blog posting largely concern themselves with whether George RR Martin knows anything about metallurgy. The consensus being that he does and that the problems in the Game of Thrones version of metallurgy lie with the series writers.

I first came across the Damascus steel, wootz, and carbon nanotube story in 2008 and provided a concise description on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki Middle Ages page,

Damascus steel blades were first made in the 8th century CE when they acquired a legendary status as unlike other blades they were able to cut through bone and stone while remaining sharp enough to cut a piece of silk. They were also flexible which meant they didn’t break off easily in a sword fight. The secret for making the blades died (history does not record how) about 1700 CE and there hasn’t been a new blade since.

 The blades were generally made from metal ingots prepared in India using special recipes which probably put just the right amount of carbon and other impurities into the iron. By following these recipes and following specific forging techniques craftsmen ended up making nanotubes … When these blades were nearly finished, blacksmiths would etch them with acid. This brought out the wavy light and dark lines that make Damascus swords easy to recognize.3

 It turns out part of the secret to the blade is nanotechnology. Scientists discovered this by looking at a Damascus steel blade from 1700 under an electron microscope. It seems those unknown smiths were somehow encasing cementite nanowires in carbon nanotubes then forging them into the steel blades giving them their legendary strength and flexibility.

The reference information I used then seems to be no longer available online but there is this more than acceptable alternative, a Sept. 27, 2008 postiing by Ed Yong from his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog (on ScienceBlogs.com; Note: A link has been removed),

In medieval times, crusading Christian knights cut a swathe through the Middle East in an attempt to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Muslims in turn cut through the invaders using a very special type of sword, which quickly gained a mythical reputation among the Europeans. These ‘Damascus blades‘ were extraordinarily strong, but still flexible enough to bend from hilt to tip. And they were reputedly so sharp that they could cleave a silk scarf floating to the ground, just as readily as a knight’s body.

They were superlative weapons that gave the Muslims a great advantage, and their blacksmiths carefully guarded the secret to their manufacture. The secret eventually died out in the eighteenth century and no European smith was able to fully reproduce their method.

Two years ago, Marianne Reibold and colleagues from the University of Dresden uncovered the extraordinary secret of Damascus steel – carbon nanotubes. The smiths of old were inadvertently using nanotechnology.

Getting back to Day, he goes on to explain the Damascus/Valyrian steel connection to nuclear power (Note: Links have been removed),

Valyrian and Damascus steels were on my mind earlier this week when I attended a session at TechConnect World on the use of nanotechnology in the nuclear power industry.

Scott Anderson of Lockheed Martin gave the introductory talk. Before the Fukushima disaster, Anderson pointed out, the principal materials science challenge in the nuclear industry lay in extending the lifetime of fuel rods. Now the focus has shifted to accident-tolerant fuels and safer, more durable equipment.

Among the other speakers was MIT’s Ju Li, who described his group’s experiments with incorporating carbon nanotubes (CNTs) in aluminum to boost the metal’s resistance to radiation damage. In a reactor core, neutrons and other ionizing particles penetrate vessels, walls, and other structures, where they knock atoms off lattice sites. The cumulative effect of those displacements is to create voids and other defects that weaken the structures.

Li isn’t sure yet how the CNTs resist irradiation and toughen the aluminum, but at the end of his talk he recalled their appearance in another metal, steel.

In 2006 Peter Paufler of Dresden University of Technology and his collaborators used high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to examine the physical and chemical microstructure of a sample of Damascus steel from the 17th century.

The saber from which the sample was taken was forged in Isfahan, Persia, by the famed blacksmith Assad Ullah. As part of their experiment, Paufler and his colleagues washed the sample in hydrochloric acid to remove Fe3C particles. A second look with TEM revealed the presence of CNTs.

There’s still active interest in researching Damascus steel blades as not all the secrets behind the blade’s extraordinary qualities have been revealed yet. There is a March 13, 2014 posting here which describes a research project where Chinese researchers are attempting (using computational software) to uncover the reason for the blade’s unique patterns,

It seems that while researchers were able to answer some questions about the blade’s qualities, researchers in China believe they may have answered the question about the blade’s unique patterns, from a March 12, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

Blacksmiths and metallurgists in the West have been puzzled for centuries as to how the unique patterns on the famous Damascus steel blades were formed. Different mechanisms for the formation of the patterns and many methods for making the swords have been suggested and attempted, but none has produced blades with patterns matching those of the Damascus swords in the museums. The debate over the mechanism of formation of the Damascus patterns is still ongoing today. Using modern metallurgical computational software (Thermo-Calc, Stockholm, Sweden), Professor Haiwen Luo of the Central Iron and Steel Research Institute in Beijing, together with his collaborator, have analyzed the relevant published data relevant to the Damascus blades, and present a new explanation that is different from other proposed mechanisms.

At the time the researchers were hoping to have someone donate a piece of genuine Damascus steel blade. From my March 13, 2014 posting,

Note from the authors: It would be much appreciated if anyone would like to donate a piece of genuine Damascus blade for our research.

Corresponding Author:

LUO Haiwen
Email: [email protected]

Perhaps researchers will manage to solve the puzzle of how medieval craftsman were once able to create extraordinary steel blades.