It seems that forensic evidence does not deliver the certainty that television and US prosecutors (I wonder if Canadian Crown Attorneys or Crown Counsels concur with their US colleagues?) would have us believe. The US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report (‘Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods‘ 174 pp PDF) on Sept. 20, 2016 that amongst other findings, notes that more scientific rigour needs to be applied to the field of forensic science.
Here’s more from the Sept. 20, 2016 posting by Eric Lander, William Press, S. James Gates, Jr., Susan L. Graham, J. Michael McQuade, and Daniel Schrag, on the White House blog,
The study that led to the report was a response to the President’s question to his PCAST in 2015, as to whether there are additional steps on the scientific side, beyond those already taken by the Administration in the aftermath of a highly critical 2009 National Research Council report on the state of the forensic sciences, that could help ensure the validity of forensic evidence used in the Nation’s legal system.
PCAST concluded that two important gaps warranted the group’s attention: (1) the need for clarity about the scientific standards for the validity and reliability of forensic methods and (2) the need to evaluate specific forensic methods to determine whether they have been scientifically established to be valid and reliable. The study aimed to help close these gaps for a number of forensic “feature-comparison” methods—specifically, methods for comparing DNA samples, bitemarks, latent fingerprints, firearm marks, footwear, and hair.
In the course of its year-long study, PCAST compiled and reviewed a set of more than 2,000 papers from various sources, educated itself on factual matters relating to the interaction between science and the law, and obtained input from forensic scientists and practitioners, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, academic researchers, criminal-justice-reform advocates, and representatives of Federal agencies.
A Sept. 23, 2016 article by Daniel Denvir for Salon.com sums up the responses from some of the institutions affected by this report,
Under fire yet again, law enforcement is fighting back. Facing heavy criticism for misconduct and abuse, prosecutors are protesting a new report from President Obama’s top scientific advisors that documents what has long been clear: much of the forensic evidence used to win convictions, including complex DNA samples and bite mark analysis, is not backed up by credible scientific research.
Although the evidence of this is clear, many in law enforcement seem terrified that keeping pseudoscience out of prosecutions will make them unwinnable. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to accept the report’s recommendations on the admissibility of evidence and the FBI accused the advisors of making “broad, unsupported assertions.” But the National District Attorneys Association, which represents roughly 2,5000 top prosecutors nationwide, went the furthest, taking it upon itself to, in its own words, “slam” the report.
Prosecutors’ actual problem with the report, produced by some of the nation’s leading scientists on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, seems to be unrelated to science. Reached by phone NDAA president-elect Michael O. Freeman could not point to any specific problem with the research and accused the scientists of having an agenda against law enforcement.
“I’m a prosecutor and not a scientist,” Freeman, the County Attorney in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which encompasses Minneapolis, told Salon. “We think that there’s particular bias that exists in the folks who worked on this, and they were being highly critical of the forensic disciplines that we use in investigating and prosecuting cases.”
That response, devoid of any reference to hard science, has prompted some mockery, including from Robert Smith, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, who accused the NDAA of “fighting to turn America’s prosecutors into the Anti-Vaxxers, the Phrenologists, the Earth-Is-Flat Evangelists of the criminal justice world.”
It has also, however, also lent credence to a longstanding criticism that American prosecutors are more concerned with winning than in establishing a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Prosecutors should not be concerned principally with convictions; they should be concerned with justice,” said Daniel S. Medwed, author of “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent” and a professor at Northern University School of Law, told Salon. “Using dodgy science to obtain convictions does not advance justice.”
Denvir’s article is lengthier and worth reading in its entirety.
Assuming there’s an association of forensic scientists, I find it interesting they don’t appear to have responded.
Finally, if there’s one thing you learn while writing about science it’s that there is no real certainty. For example, if you read about the Higgs boson discovery, you’ll note that the scientists involved the research never stated with absolute certainty that it exists but rather they ‘were pretty darn sure’ it does (I believe the scientific term is 5-sigma). There’s more about the Higgs boson and 5-sigma in this July 17, 2012 article by Evelyn Lamb for Scientific American,
In short, five-sigma corresponds to a p-value, or probability, of 3×10-7, or about 1 in 3.5 million. This is not the probability that the Higgs boson does or doesn’t exist; rather, it is the probability that if the particle does not exist, the data that CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory] scientists collected in Geneva, Switzerland, would be at least as extreme as what they observed. “The reason that it’s so annoying is that people want to hear declarative statements, like ‘The probability that there’s a Higgs is 99.9 percent,’ but the real statement has an ‘if’ in there. There’s a conditional. There’s no way to remove the conditional,” says Kyle Cranmer, a physicist at New York University and member of the ATLAS team, one of the two groups that announced the new particle results in Geneva on July 4 .
For the interested, there’s a lot more to Lamb’s article.
Getting back to forensic science, this PCAST report looks like an attempt to bring forensics back into line with the rest of the science world.
What if you could behave like the crew on the Starship Enterprise and teleport yourself home or anywhere else in the world? As a human, you’re probably not going to realize this any time soon; if you’re a photon, you might want to keep reading.
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.
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.”
“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.
City’s accessible dark fibre makes research possible
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.
“The university receives secure access to a small portion of our fibre optic infrastructure and The City may benefit in the future by leveraging the secure encryption keys generated out of the lab’s research to protect our critical infrastructure,” said Andruschak. In order to deliver next-generation services to Calgarians, The City has been increasing its fibre optic footprint, connecting all City buildings, facilities and assets.
Timed to within one millionth of one millionth of a second
As if teleporting a photon wasn’t challenging enough, Tittel and his team encountered a number of other roadblocks along the way.
Due to changes in the outdoor temperature, the transmission time of photons from their creation point to City Hall varied over the course of a day — the time it took the researchers to gather sufficient data to support their claim. This change meant that the two photons would not meet at City Hall.
“The challenge was to keep the photons’ arrival time synchronized to within 10 pico-seconds,” says Tittel. “That is one trillionth, or one millionth of one millionth of a second.”
Secondly, parts of their lab had to be moved to two locations in the city, which as Tittel explains was particularly tricky for the measurement station at City Hall which included state-of-the-art superconducting single-photon detectors developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Since these detectors only work at temperatures less than one degree above absolute zero the equipment also included a compact cryostat,” said Tittel.
Milestone towards a global quantum Internet
This demonstration is arguably one of the most striking manifestations of a puzzling prediction of quantum mechanics, but it also opens the path to building a future quantum internet, the long-term goal of the Tittel group.
The Urban Alliance is a strategic research partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary, created in 2007 to encourage and co-ordinate the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between the university and The City of Calgary for the benefit of all our communities. The Urban Alliance is a prime example and vehicle for one of the three foundational commitments of the University of Calgary’s Eyes High vision to fully integrate the university with the community. The City sees the Alliance as playing a key role in realizing its long-term priorities and the imagineCALGARY vision.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Quantum teleportation across a metropolitan fibre network by Raju Valivarthi, Marcel.li Grimau Puigibert, Qiang Zhou, Gabriel H. Aguilar, Varun B. Verma, Francesco Marsili, Matthew D. Shaw, Sae Woo Nam, Daniel Oblak, & Wolfgang Tittel. Nature Photonics (2016) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2016.180 Published online 19 September 2016
This paper is behind a paywall.
I’m 99% certain this is the paper from the Chinese researchers (referred to in the University of Calgary news release),
Thanks to David Bruggeman’s Aug. 20, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for this tidbit from Marvel Comics (Note: A link has been removed),
This week Marvel announced that several of its titles will have STEAM-themed variant covers. Readers are likely familiar with the STEM acronym – science, technology, engineering and math. STEAM adds art to the acronym, and can be favored by some advocates (who are generally objecting to the crowding out of many subjects in American education).
In November  Marvel will issue variant covers for five of its titles, each one corresponding to a category in STEAM. …
An Aug. 19, 2016 article by Xavier Harding for Popular Science provides more information and preview images for the covers,
Marvel heroes are no strangers to science. Characters like Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Reed Richards and many more all have ties in science as either part-time, or full-time, scientists. Keeping with their science-based roots, Marvel’s latest crop of characters are engaging in the science fun as well.
In an attempt to spark interest in math and the sciences amongst readers, Marvel will introduce STEAM variant covers. Each cover will represent one of the themes relating to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. The education-themed Marvel covers will hit stands November 2016.
In a statement issued by Marvel, senior vice president of sales & marketing David Gabriel mentions how Marvel’s characters have inspired fans for ages. “With our new STEAM variants, we plan to continue to motivate our fans to explore their passions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math,” said Gabriel, “and present these disciplines through some of our favorite young heroes who are doing just that – following their dreams and preparing for the challenges that await them ahead.”
Moon Girl: Science
The Moon Girl, Lunella Lafayette, covers Marvel’s STEAM-branded issue.
*Iron*-Man Cover: Engineering
Invincible Iron Man
Riri Williams will be know known as Ironheart
Champions Cover: Arts
Marvel STEAM branded cover
Starring Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Nova, Incredible Hulk, Viv and teenage Cyclops, this cover offers the Arts in STEAM.
I miss the days when you could find comic books at drugstores. In order to find these, I’ll have to make a special effort.
An Aug. 17, 2016 news item on Nanowerk reveals the latest about attoscience and femtochemistry (Note: A link has been removed),
Attosecond Science is a new exciting frontier in contemporary physics, aimed at time-resolving the motion of electrons in atoms, molecules and solids on their natural timescale. Electronic dynamics derives from the creation and evolution of coherence between different electronic states and proceeds on sub-femtosecond timescales. In contrast, chemical dynamics involves position changes of atomic centers and functional groups and typically proceeds on a slower, femtosecond timescale inherent to nuclear motion.
Nonetheless, there are exciting ways in which chemistry can hugely benefit from the technological developments pushed forward in the vibrant field of Attosecond Science. This was exploited in the work recently published by Lorenz Drescher and coworkers (“XUV transient absorption spectroscopy of iodomethane and iodobenzene photodissociation”).
Attosecond pulses are generated in the process of High Harmonic Generation (HHG), in which infrared photons are upconverted to the extreme ultraviolet (XUV) frequency domain in a highly non-linear interaction of intense coherent light and matter. The short duration of attosecond pulses implies a frequency spectrum with photon energies spanning from a few electron volts (eV) to hundreds of eV. Such broad and continuous frequency spectra are ideally suited for core shell absorption measurements in molecules.
Core shell to valence shell transitions are a unique probe of molecular structure and dynamics. Core-to-valence transitions are element specific, due to the highly localized nature of core orbitals on specific atoms. On the other hand the intramolecular local environment of specific atomic sites is encoded, since an electron is lifted from a core orbital to a hole in the valence shell, affected by chemical bonding (…). Importantly, these transitions typically correspond to very short lifetimes of only a few femtoseconds. The use of ultrashort XUV pulses hence gives a new twist to the ultrafast studies of chemistry: It allows to probe chemical dynamics, initiated by a UV pump laser pulse, from the perspective of different reporter atoms within a molecule in an XUV transient absorption experiment. This is now beginning to be explored by a number of groups around the world.
In the experiment carried out by Drescher and coworkers at the MBI, photodissociation of iodomethane (CH3I) and iodobenzene (C6H5I) was studied with time-resolved XUV transient absorption spectroscopy at the iodine pre-N4,5 edge, using femtosecond UV pump pulses and XUV probe pulses from HHG (…). For both molecules the molecular core-to-valence absorption lines were found to fade immediately, within the pump-probe time-resolution. Absorption lines converging to the atomic iodine product however emerge promptly in CH3I but are time-delayed in C6H5I. In CH3I, we interpret this observation as the creation of an instantaneous new target state for XUV absorption by the UV pump pulse, which is then subject to relaxation of the excited valence shell as the molecule dissociates. This relaxation shows in a continuous shift in energy of the emerging atomic absorption lines in CH3I, which we measured in the experiment. In contrast, the delayed appearance of the absorption lines in C6H5I is indicative of a UV created vacancy, which within the molecule is initially spatially distant from the iodine reporter atom and has to first travel intramolecular before being observed. This behaviour is attributed to the dominant π → σ* UV excitation in iodobenzene, which involves the π orbital of the phenyl moiety.
While in the current work only a simplistic independent particle model was used to rationalize the observed experimental findings, MBI with its newly created theory department provides unique opportunities for joint experimental and theory studies on XUV transient absorption of photochemical processes. This will involve a new theoretical approach developed recently by researchers from MBI together with colleagues in Canada, the UK and Switzerland, which was recently submitted as a publication.
An all woman expedition set sail on Aug. 20, 2016 for a journey across the five Great Lakes in search of plastic debris according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,
Female scientists from the U.S. and Canada will set sail Aug. 20  on all five Great Lakes and connecting waterways to sample plastic debris pollution and to raise public awareness about the issue.
Event organizers say eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 will include the largest number of simultaneous samplings for aquatic plastic debris in history. [emphasis mine] The all-female crew members on the seven lead research vessels also aim to inspire young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.
Teams of researchers will collect plastic debris on the five Great Lakes, as well Lake St. Clair-Detroit River and the Saint Lawrence River. Data collected will contribute to growing open-source databases documenting plastic and toxic pollution and their impacts on biodiversity and waterway health, according to event organizers.
Two University of Michigan faculty members, biologist Melissa Duhaime and Laura Alford of the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, will lead the Lake St. Clair-Detroit River team, aboard a 30-foot sailboat.
The crew of up to eight people will include an Ann Arbor middle school teacher, an artist and student at the Great Lakes Boat Building School, and girls from Detroit-area schools. Onboard activities will include water sampling and trawling for plastic debris using protocols developed by the 5 Gyres Institute.
“There is a place for scientists in this type of public outreach, and it is a complement to the research that we do,” said Duhaime, an assistant research scientist in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“In a single day through an event like this, we can potentially reach orders of magnitude more people than we do when we publish our scientific papers, which are read mainly by other scientists. And greater public awareness about this topic, rooted in rigorously collected and interpreted data, can certainly lead to changed behavior in our relationships with plastics.”
Duhaime’s lab studies the sources of Great Lakes plastics, as well as how they are transported within the lakes and where they end up. The work has involved a summer on three of the Great Lakes, trips to Detroit-area wastewater treatment plants, and the sampling of fish and mussels.
The group’s first Great Lakes project included multiple U-M labs, one of which analyzed the stomach contents of fish and mussels, looking for tiny plastic beads, fibers and fragments. They found no plastic “microbeads”—spheres typically less than 1 millimeter in diameter—but plastic fibers were present in a third of the zebra and quagga mussels and at various levels in all the fish species they checked: 15 percent of emerald shiners and bloaters, 20 percent of round gobies, and 26 percent of rainbow smelt, according to Duhaime.
The stomach-content study, which will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was based on work done in lakes Erie and Huron and was led by Larissa Sano, who is now at U-M’s Sweetland Center for Writing.
For years, plastic microbeads were added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. But the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 28, bans the manufacture of microbeads beginning next year.
Sources of tiny plastic fibers that make it into the Great Lakes include fleece jackets and other types of synthetic clothing. These microfibers are released during laundering, then slip through wastewater treatment plants and into waterways. Fibers found in common household textiles such as carpets, upholstered furniture and curtains also make their way into the environment and can end up in the lakes.
“Microbeads were just the tip of the iceberg,” Duhaime said. “I think fibers are the future of this research and a much more important issue than microbeads, because of the prevalence and the pervasiveness of these plastic textiles in our lives.”
Researchers like Duhaime are also investigating the possibility that tiny bits of Great Lakes plastics can transfer toxic pollutants from the water into fish and other aquatic organisms. It is unclear what level of human health risk, if any, these microplastics pose to people who eat Great Lakes fish; it is a topic of active research.
On Aug. 20 , the team led by Duhaime and Alford will sail up the Detroit River to Lake St. Clair, sampling water and trawling for plastics along the way. Throughout the day at Detroit’s Belle Isle, members of their team will host a beach cleanup and data collection. In addition, a free public-awareness event will be held throughout the day outside Belle Isle Aquarium, followed by a plastic-free community picnic with live music.
Members of the general public are also encouraged to collect Great Lakes water samples and to participate in shoreline cleanup events on the 20th [Aug. 20, 2016].
The mission leaders for eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event are two women who met during an all-female voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 2014. Jennifer Pate is a filmmaker, and Elaine McKinnon is a clinical neuropsychologist. Pate plans to use video footage and photographs gathered during the Aug. 20  event to create a film called “Love Your Greats.”
“In parts of the Great Lakes, we have a higher density of microplastics than in any of the ocean gyres,” Pate said. “So the problem isn’t just out there in the oceans. It’s right here in our backyard, in our lakes and on our dinner plates.
“We are all a part of the problem, but that means we are also all part of the solution. That’s why we are holding this event, to give people an opportunity to change the story and create a healthier future.”
Partners in the eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event include Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in Canada and the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program in the United States.
What a great idea! I wonder if this might inspire an annual event.
Part 1 concerned the soon-to-be-released movie, Hidden Figures and a film which has yet to start production, Photograph 51 (about Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the double helix structure DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]). Now for Part 2:
A matter of blood, Theranos, and Elizabeth Holmes
A few months ago, a friend asked me if I’d heard of Theranos. Given that I have featured various kinds of cutting edge diagnostic tests here, it was a fair enough question. Some of my first questions to her were about the science. My friend had read about the situation in The Economist where the focus of the story (which I later read) was about venture capital. I got back to my friend and said that if they hadn’t published any scientific papers, I most likely would not have stumbled across them. Since then I’ve heard much more about Theranos but it seems there’s not much scientific information to be had from the company.
Reportedly, US film star Jennifer Lawrence is set to star, from a June 10, 2016 posting by Lainey (at Lainey Gossip; Note: A link has been removed),
Deadline reported yesterday [June 9, 2016] that Jennifer Lawrence will star in Adam McKay’s upcoming film about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes was basically the Jennifer Lawrence of Silicon Valley after inventing what she claimed to be a revolutionary blood testing system. Instead of submitting full vials of blood for limited testing, her product promised more efficiency and quicker results with just a pinprick. You can imagine how that would change the health care industry.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal investigated the viability of Theranos’s business plan, exposing major problems in the company’s infrastructure. Elizabeth Holmes went from being called the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, the millennial in a turtleneck, to a possible fraud. It’s a fascinating story. …
FIRST they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, and then all of the sudden you change the world,” said Elizabeth Holmes as troubles mounted for her blood-testing startup, Theranos, last year. Things look ever less likely to go beyond the fighting stage.
On July 7th  a government regulator, the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said Ms Holmes would be barred from owning or running a laboratory for two years. It will also revoke her company’s licence to operate one of two laboratories where it conducts tests. As The Economist went to press the firm was due to reply to a letter from Congress, which asked how, exactly, Theranos is going to handle the tens of thousands of patients who were given incorrect test results. Even so, Ms Holmes looks set to remain in position even as the situation deteriorates around a firm that once commanded a multi-billion-dollar valuation.
These may be some of the last twists in a story which will be turned into a Hollywood film by the director of “The Big Short”.
For anyone wondering how a movie could be made when the story has come to any kind of resolution, there’s this from a June 24, 2016 posting by David Bruggeman for his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),
Since last I wrote about a possible film about the medical device/testing company Theranos, a studio has successfully bid on the project. Legendary Studios won an auction on the film rights, beating out 9 other offers on the project, which has Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Adam McKay would write the script and direct the project, duplicating his roles on the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short. The film now has a preliminary title of Bad Blood. It is certainly too early to tell if the Taylor Swift song of the same name will be used in the movie.
While getting a studio offer is important to the film getting produced, what is perhaps as interesting to our readers is that a book is connected to the film deal. Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning writer John Carreyrou, who has written extensively on Theranos in The Wall Street Journal, will be writing a book that (presumably) serves as the basis for the script. This follows the development arc for The Big Short, for which McKay shares an Adapted Screenplay Oscar (in addition to his nomination for directing the film)
Theranos once promised to revolutionize the blood testing industry. But its methodology remains secretive, despite calls for transparency from the scientific community. Now, it is facing federal investigations, private litigation, voided tests, and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, is banned from operating a lab for two years.
But all that was entirely glossed over today at the company’s much-awaited first presentation to the scientific community at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry’s conference in Philadelphia.
In an hour-long presentation (you can review the slides here), Holmes failed to discuss the fate of the company’s proprietary blood-testing technology, Edison, or address any of the controversy. Instead, she skipped right to pitching a new product, dubbed the MiniLab.
In fairness to Theranos, this was a positive step as the company did provide some internal data to show that the company could perform a small number of tests. But despite that, many took to social media to protest its failure to address and acknowledge its shortcomings before moving on to a new product.
“Clearly, the scientific and medical community was hoping for a data-driven discussion today, and instead got a new product announcement,” says John Torous, a psychiatrist and clinical informatics fellow at Harvard Medical School.
In an emailed response to Fast Company, a Theranos company spokesperson did not say whether components of Edison would be used in the miniLAB, but instead stressed that it’s one early iteration of the technology. “The miniLab is the latest iteration of the company’s testing platform and an evolution of Theranos’ technology,” they said.
Farr describes the MiniLab and notes that it is entering a competitive market,
The new product, the MiniLab, essentially takes equipment used in a standard lab and puts it in a single box. Holmes refers to this technique as “decentralizing the lab,” as in theory, clinicians could use this as an alternative to sending samples to a centralized facility and awaiting results. “Think of it as being a huge diagnostics lab that has been condensed down to the size of a microwave,” the company’s website explains.
But scientists are questioning whether the MiniLab technology is a breakthrough. The current market is already fairly saturated: Abbott’s iStat system, for instance, is a handheld device for clinicians to test patients for a plethora of common tests. Roche just received FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] clearance for its Cobas device, which can test for ailments like the flu and some strep infections in under 20 minutes. And Theranos competitors Quest and Labcorp already operate versions of this type of equipment in their own labs.
“I can’t imagine why they’re wasting their time,” says MIT-trained material scientist and biotech entrepreneur Kaveh Milaninia by phone. …
I recommend reading Farr’s article in its entirety as she provides more detail and analysis as to just how competitive the market Theranos proposes entering with its MiniLab actually is.
Theranos is withdrawing its bid for FDA approval of a diagnostic test for Zika that they announced earlier in August, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.
Theranos confirmed to Business Insider that the test has been withdrawn, but said the company has plans to resubmit it.
John Carreyrou and Christopher Weaver report that an FDA inspection found that, as part of a study to validate the new test, the company had collected some data without a patient safety plan in place that was approved by an institutional review board.
“We hope that our decision to withdraw the Zika submission voluntarily is further evidence of our commitment to engage positively with the agency. We are confident in the Zika tests and will resubmit it,” Theranos vice president of regulatory and quality Dave Wurtz said in a statement emailed to Business Insider. Wurtz joined the company in July .
Getting back to the point of my story at the beginning of this piece, it seems that Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes have not been as forthcoming with scientific data as is common in the biotech field. Interestingly, I read somewhere that the top 10 venture capitalists in the biotech field had not invested a penny in Theranos. The money had come from venture capitalists expert in other fields. (If you can confirm or know differently, please let me know in the comments section.)
In its favour, the company does appear to be attempting to address its shortcomings.
In any event, all these goings on should make for an interesting script writing challenge.
Bits and bobs of science and movies (The Man Who Knew Infinity, Ghostbusters, and Imagine Science Films)
The Man Who Knew Infinity had its debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. I haven’t seen it at any movie houses here (Vancouver, Canada) yet but a film trailer featuring its star, Dev Patel, was released in Feb. 2016,
Ramanujan must have been quite the mathematician, given the tenor of the times. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a 2015 British biographical drama film based on the 1991 book of the same name by Robert Kanigel. The film stars Dev Patel as the real-life Srinivasa Ramanujan, a mathematician who after growing up poor in Madras, India, earns admittance to Cambridge University during World War I, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories with the guidance of his professor, G. H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons despite Hardy being only 10 years older than Ramanujan).
Filming began in August 2014 at Trinity College, Cambridge. The film had its world premiere as a gala presentation at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and was selected as the opening gala of the 2015 Zurich Film Festival. It also played other film festivals including Singapore International Film Festival and Dubai International Film Festival.
Distinguished mathematicians Manjul Bhargava and Ken Ono are Associate Producers of the film. Ono, the mathematics consultant, is a Guggenheim Fellow, and Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal.
Next up, Ghostbusters, the all woman edition. While it hasn’t become the blockbuster some were hoping for, I have some hope that it will become a quiet blockbuster over time. As I wait there is this information about how Ghostbuster: The All Woman Edition was grounded in real science. From a July 18, 2016 news item on phys.org,
Janet Conrad and Lindley Winslow, colleagues in the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Department of Physics and researchers in MIT’s Lab for Nuclear Science, were key consultants for the all-female reboot of the classic 1984 supernatural comedy that is opening in theaters today. And the creative side of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—will be on full display.
Kristin Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, a no-nonsense physicist at Columbia University, is all the more convincing because of Conrad’s toys. Her office features demos and other actual trappings from Conrad’s workspace: books, posters, and scientific models. She even created detailed academic papers and grant applications for use as desk props.
“I loved the original ‘Ghostbusters,’” says Conrad. “And I thought the switch to four women, the girl-power concept, was a great way to change it up for the reboot. Plus I love all of the stuff in my office. I was happy to have my books become stars.”
Conrad developed an affection for MIT while absorbing another piece of pop culture: “Doonesbury.” She remembers one cartoon strip featuring a girl doing Psets. She is discouraged until a robot comes to her door and beeps. All is right with the world again. The exchange made an impression. “Only at MIT do robots come by your door to cheer you up,” she thought.
Like her colleague, Winslow describes mainstream role models as powerful, particularly when fantasy elements in film and television enhance their childhood appeal. She, too, loved “Ghostbusters” as a kid. “I watched the original many times,” she recalls. “And my sister had a stuffed Slimer.”
Winslow jokes that she “probably put in too much time” helping with the remake. Indeed, Wired magazine recently detailed that: “In one scene in the movie, Wiig’s Gilbert stands in front of a lecture hall, speaking on challenges of reconciling quantum mechanics with Einstein’s gravity. On the whiteboards, behind her, a series of equations tells the same story: a self-contained narrative, written by Winslow and later transcribed on set, illustrating the failure of a once-promising physics theory called SU(5).”
Movie reviewers have been floored by the level of set detail. Also deserving of serious credit is James Maxwell, a postdoc at the Lab for Nuclear Science during the period he worked on “Ghostbusters.” He is now a staff scientist at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.
Maxwell crafted realistic schematics of how proton packs, ghost traps, and other paranormal equipment might work. “I recalled myself as a kid, poring over the technical schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers. I wanted to be sure that boys and especially girls of today could pore over my schematics, plug the components into Wikipedia, and find out about real tools that experimental physicists use to study the workings of the universe.”
He too hopes this behind-the-scenes MIT link with a Hollywood blockbuster will get people thinking. “I hope that it shows a little bit of the giddy side of science and of MIT; the laughs that can come with a spectacular experimental failure or an unexpected break-through.”
The movie depicts the worlds of science and engineering, as drawn from MIT, with remarkable conviction, says Maxwell. “So much of the feel of the movie, and to a great degree the personalities of the characters, is conveyed by the props,” he says.
Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, an eccentric engineer, is nearly inseparable from, as Maxwell says, “a mess of wires and magnets and lasers” — a pile of equipment replicated from his MIT lab. When she talks proton packs, her lines are drawn from his work.
Keep an eye out for treasures hidden in the props. For instance, Wiig’s character is the recipient of the Maria Goeppert Mayer “MGM Award” from the American Physical Society, which hangs on her office wall. Conrad and Winslow say the honor holds a special place in their hearts.
“We both think MGM was inspirational. She did amazing things at a time when it was tough for women to do anything in physics,” says Conrad. “She is one of our favorite women in physics,” adds Winslow. Clearly, some of the film’s props and scientific details reflect their personal predilections but Hollywood — and the nation — is also getting a real taste of MIT.
Finally and strictly speaking not a movie but it is an online magazine about science-based movies according to David Bruggeman’s Aug. 6, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),
LaboCine is an online film magazine from the people behind Imagine Science Films. The films in each issue come from artists and scientists from around the world. They are not restricted to documentary films, and mix live-action, animated and computer film styles.
The first issue of LaboCine is now online, so you can view the short films, which are organized around a common theme. For August the theme is Model Organisms. …
In the last few years, there’s been a veritable plethora of movies (and television shows in Canada and the US) that are about science and technology or have a significant component or investigate the social impact. The trend does not seem to be slowing.
This first of two parts features the film, *Hidden* Figures, and a play being turned into a film, Photograph 51. The second part features the evolving Theranos story and plans to turn it into a film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, a film about an Indian mathematician, the science of the recent all woman Ghostbusters, and an ezine devoted to science films.
For the following movie tidbits, I have David Bruggeman to thank.
From David’s June 21, 2016 post on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: A link has been removed),
Hidden Figures is a fictionalized treatment of the book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly (and underwritten by the Sloan Foundation). Neither the book nor the film are released yet. The book is scheduled for a September release, and the film currently has a January release date in the U.S.
Both the film and the book focus on the story of African American women who worked as computers for the government at the Langley National Aeronautic Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. The women served as human computers, making the calculations NASA needed during the Space Race. While the book features four women, the film is focused on three: Katherine Johnson (recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. They are played by, respectively, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae. Other actors in the film include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Aldis Hodge, and Jim Parsons. The film is directed by Theodore Melfi, and the script is by Allison Schroeder.
According to imdb.com, the movie’s release date is Dec. 25, 2016 (this could change again).
The history for ‘human computers’ stretches back to the 17th century, at least. From the Human Computer entry in Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),
The term “computer”, in use from the early 17th century (the first known written reference dates from 1613), meant “one who computes”: a person performing mathematical calculations, before electronic computers became commercially available. “The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail.” (Turing, 1950) Teams of people were frequently used to undertake long and often tedious calculations; the work was divided so that this could be done in parallel.
Prior to NASA, a team of women in the 19th century in the US were known as Harvard Computers (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
Edward Charles Pickering (director of the Harvard Observatory from 1877 to 1919) decided to hire women as skilled workers to process astronomical data. Among these women were Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Antonia Maury. This staff came to be known as “Pickering’s Harem” or, more respectfully, as the Harvard Computers. This was an example of what has been identified as the “harem effect” in the history and sociology of science.
It seems that several factors contributed to Pickering’s decision to hire women instead of men. Among them was the fact that men were paid much more than women, so he could employ more staff with the same budget. This was relevant in a time when the amount of astronomical data was surpassing the capacity of the Observatories to process it.
The first woman hired was Williamina Fleming, who was working as a maid for Pickering. It seems that Pickering was increasingly frustrated with his male assistants and declared that even his maid could do a better job. Apparently he was not mistaken, as Fleming undertook her assigned chores efficiently. When the Harvard Observatory received in 1886 a generous donation from the widow of Henry Draper, Pickering decided to hire more female staff and put Fleming in charge of them.
While it’s not thrilling to find out that Pickering was content to exploit the women he was hiring, he deserves kudos for recognizing that women could do excellent work and acting on that recognition. When you consider the times, Pickering’s was an extraordinary act.
Getting back to Hidden Figures, an Aug.15, 2016 posting by Kathleen for Lainey Gossip celebrates the then newly released trailer for the movie,
If you’ve been watching the Olympics [Rio 2016], you know how much the past 10 days have been an epic display of #BlackGirlMagic. Fittingly, the trailer for Hidden Figures was released last night during Sunday’s Olympic coverage. It’s the story of three brilliant African American women, played by Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, who made history by serving as the brains behind the NASA launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962.
Three black women helped launch a dude into space in the 60s. AT NASA. Think about how America treated black women in the 60s. As Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P Henson, jokes in the trailer, they were still sitting at the back of the bus. In 1962 Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, the most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” These women had to face that truth every day and they still rose to greatness. I’m obsessed with this story.
Overall, the trailer is good. I like the pace and the performances look strong. …
I’m most excited for Hidden Figures (as Lainey pointed out, this title is THE WORST) because black girls are being celebrated for their brains on screen. That is rare. When the trailer aired, my brother Sam texted me, “WHOA, a smart black girl movie!”
*ETA Sept. 5, 2016: Aran Shetterly contacted me to say this:
What you may not know is that the term “Hidden Figures” is a specific reference to flight science. It tested a pilot’s ability to pick out a simple figure from a set of more complex, difficult to see images. http://www.militaryaptitudetests.com/afoqt/
Thank you Mr. Shetterly!
Photograph 51 (the Rosalind Franklin story)
Also in David’s June 21, 2016 post is a mention of Photograph 51, a play and soon-to-be film about Rosalind Franklin, the discovery of the double helix, and a science controversy. I first wrote about Photograph 51 in a Jan. 16, 2012 posting (scroll down about 50% of the way) regarding an international script writing competition being held in Dublin, Ireland. At the time, I noted that Anna Ziegler’s play, Photograph 51 had won a previous competition cycle of the screenwriting competition. I wrote again about the play in a Sept. 2, 2015 posting about its London production (Sept. 5 – Nov. 21, 2015) featuring actress Nicole Kidman.
The versions of the Franklin story with which I’m familiar paint her as the wronged party, ignored and unacknowledged by the scientists (Francis, Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins) who got all the glory and the Nobel Prize. Stephen Curry in a Sept. 16, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blogs suggests the story may not be quite as simple as that (Note: A link has been removed),
Ziegler [Anna Ziegler, playwright] is up front in admitting that she has rearranged facts to suit the drama. This creates some oddities of chronology and motive for those familiar with the history. I know of no suggestion of romantic interest in Franklin from Wilkins, or of a separation of Crick from his wife in the aftermath of his triumph with Watson in solving the DNA structure. There is no mention in the play of the fact that Franklin published her work (and the famous photograph 51) in the journal Nature alongside Watson and Crick’s paper and one by Wilkins. Nor does the audience hear of the international recognition that Franklin enjoyed in her own right between 1953 and her untimely death in 1958, not just for her involvement in DNA, but also for her work on the structure of coal and of viruses.
Published long after her death, The Double Helix is widely thought to treat Franklin unfairly. In the minds of many she remains the wronged woman whose pioneering results were taken by others to solve DNA and win the Nobel prize. But the real story – many elements of which come across strongly in the play – is more complex*.
Franklin is a gifted experimentalist. Her key contributions to the discovery were in improving methods for taking X-ray pictures of and discovering the distinct A and B conformations of DNA. But it becomes clear that her methodical, meticulous approach to data analysis – much to Wilkins’ impotent frustration – eventually allows the Kings ‘team’ to be overtaken by the bolder, intuitive stratagem of Watson and Crick.
Curry’s piece is a good read and provides insight into the ways temperament affects how science is practiced.
Interestingly, there was a 1987 dramatization of the ‘double helix or life story’ (from the Life Story entry on Wikipedia; Note: Links have been removed),
The film tells the story of the rivalries of the two teams of scientists attempting to discover the structure of DNA. Francis Crick and James D. Watson at Cambridge University and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London.
The film manages to convey the loneliness and competitiveness of scientific research but also educates the viewer as to how the structure of DNA was discovered. In particular, it explores the tension between the patient, dedicated laboratory work of Franklin and the sometimes uninformed intuitive leaps of Watson and Crick, all played against a background of institutional turf wars, personality conflicts and sexism. In the film Watson jokes, plugging the path of intuition: “Blessed are they who believed before there was any evidence.” The film also shows why Watson and Crick made their discovery, overtaking their competitors in part by reasoning from genetic function to predict chemical structure, thus helping to establish the then still-nascent field of molecular biology.
In addition to Life Story, the dramatization is also sometimes titled as ‘The Race for the Double Helix’ or the ‘Double Helix’.
Getting back to Photograph 51 (the film), Michael Grandage who directed the stage play will also direct the film. Grandage just made his debut as a film director with ‘Genius’ starring Colin Firth and Jude Law. According to this June 23, 2016 review by Sarah on Laineygossip.com, he stumbled a bit by casting British and Australian actors as Americans,
The first hurdle to clear with Genius, the feature film debut of English theater director Michael Grandage, is that everyone is played by Brits and Aussies, and by “everyone” I mean some of the most towering figures of American literature. You cast the best actor for the role and a good actor can convince you they’re anyone, so it shouldn’t really matter, but there is something profoundly odd about watching a parade of Lit 101 All Stars appear on screen and struggle with American accents. …
That kind of casting should not be a problem with Photograph 51 where the action takes place with British personalities.
For the second time in a row, Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique is at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W. Pender), which is hosting the upcoming August 2016 Café Scientifique talk. From the August 24, 2016 notice received via email,
Our next café will happen on Tuesday August 30th, 7:30pm in the back room at Yagger’s Downtown (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Greg Bole, from the Department of Zoology at UBC. The title of his talk is:
Titans of the Ice Age—Rise of the Megafauna
The talk will introduce people to some of the biggest members of the Pleistocene megafauna and discuss their evolutionary radiation, including why they were so big, as well as their extinction and possible de-extinction!
This holds the distinction of being the most succinct description of a Café Scientifique talk that I’ve seen.
I imagine since the 2016 Olympic Games are over that athletes and their coaches will soon start training for the 2020 Games. Researchers at Bielefeld University (Germany) have developed a new technique for helping swimmers improve their technique (Note: The following video is German language with English language subtitles),
Since 1896, swimming has been an event in the Olympic games. Back then it was the swimmer’s physical condition that was decisive in securing a win, but today it is mostly technique that determines who takes home the title of world champion. Researchers at Bielefeld University have developed a system that professional swimmers can use to optimize their swimming technique. The system expands the athlete’s perception and feel for the water by enabling them to hear, in real time, how the pressure of the water flows created by the swimmer changes with their movements. This gives the swimmer an advantage over his competitors because he can refine the execution of his technique. This “Swimming Sonification” system was developed at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) of Bielefeld University. In a video, Bielefeld University’s own “research_tv” reports on the new system.
“Swimmers see the movements of their hands. They also feel how the water glides over their hands, and they sense how quickly they are moving forwards. However, the majority of swimmers are not very aware of one significant factor: how the pressure exerted by the flow of the water on their bodies changes,” says Dr. Thomas Hermann of the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). The sound researcher is working on converting data into sounds that can be used to benefit the listener. This is called sonification, a process in which measured data values are systematically turned into audible sounds and noises. “In this project, we are using the pressure from water flows as the data source,” says Hermann, who heads CITEC research group Ambient Intelligence. “We convert into sound how the pressure of water flows changes while swimming – in real time. We play the sounds to the swimmer over headphones so that they can then adjust their movements based on what they hear,” explains Hermann.
For this research project on swimming sonification, Dr. Hermann is working together with Dr. Bodo Ungerechts of the Faculty of Psychology and Sports Science. As a biomechanist, Dr. Ungerechts deals with how human beings control their movements, particularly with swimming. “If a swimmer registers how the flow pressure changes by hearing, he can better judge, for instance, how he can produce more thrust at similar energy costs. This give the swimmer a more encompassing perception for his movements in the water,” says Dr. Ungerechts. The researcher even tested the system out for himself. “I was surprised at just how well the sonification and the effects of the water flow, which I felt myself, corresponded with one another,” he says. The system is intuitive and easy to use. “You immediately starts playing with the sounds to hear, for example, what tonal effect spreading your fingers apart or changing the position of your hand has,” says Ungerechts. The new system should open up new training possibilities for athletes. “By using this system, swimmers develop a harmony – a kind of melody. If a swimmer very quickly masters a lap, they can use the recording of the melody to mentally re-imagine and retrace the successful execution of this lap. This mental training can also help athletes perform successfully in competitions.” To this, Thomas Hermann adds “the ear is great at perceiving rhythm and changes in rhythm. In this way, swimmers can find their own rhythm and use this to orient themselves in the water.”
This system includes two gloves with thin tube ends that serve as pressure sensors and are fixed between the fingers. The swimmer wears these gloves during practice. The tubes are linked to a measuring instrument, which is currently connected to the swimmer via a line while he or she is swimming. The measuring device transmits data about water flow pressure to a laptop. A custom-made software then sonifies the data, meaning that it turns the information into sound. “During repeated hand actions, for instance, the system can make rising and sinking flow pressure audible as increasing or decreasing tonal pitches,” says Thomas Hermann. Other settings that sonify features such as symmetry or steadiness can also be activated as needed.
The sounds are transmitted to the swimmer in real time over headphones. When the swimmer modifies a movement, he hears live how this also changes the sound. With the sonification of aquatic flow pressure, the swimmer can now practice the front crawl in way that, for instance, both hands displace the water masses with the same water flow form – to do this, the swimmer just has make sure that he generates the same sound pattern with each hand. Because the coach also hears the sounds over speakers, he can base the instructions he gives to the swimmer not only on the movements he observes, but also on the sounds generated by the swimmer and their rhythm (e.g. “Move your hands so that the tonal pitch increases faster”).
For this sonification project, Thomas Hermann and Bodo Ungerechts are working with Daniel Cesarini, Ph.D., a researcher from the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy. Dr. Cesarini developed the measuring device that analyzes the aquatic flow pressure data.
In a practical workshop held in September 2015, professional swimmers tested the system out and confirmed that it indeed helped them to optimize their swimming technique. Of the 10 swimmers who participated, three of them qualify for international competitions, and one of the female swimmers is competing this year at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The workshop was funded by the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC). In addition to this, swim teams at the PSV Eindhoven (Philips Sports Union Eindhoven) in the Netherlands tested the new system out for two months, using it as part of their technique training sessions. The PSV swim club competes in the top swimming league in the Netherlands.
“It is advantageous for swimmers to receive immediate feedback on their swimming form,” says Thomas Hermann. “People learn more quickly when they get direct feedback because they can immediately test how the feedback – in this case, the sound – changes when they try out something new.”
The researchers want to continue developing their current prototype. “We are planning to develop a wearable system that can be used independently by the user, without the help of others,” says Thomas Hermann. In addition to this, the new sonification method is planned to be incorporated into long-term training programs in cooperation with swim clubs.
Rebecca Morelle’s Aug. 4, 2016 article for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) News online describes an intriguing piece of research into artists and how they work,
A hidden portrait by the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas has been revealed by scientists.
Researchers in Australia used powerful X-rays to bring to light the painting of a young woman concealed beneath a work called Portrait of a Woman.
The researchers believe the subject is Emma Dobigny, who appeared in other Degas paintings.
Dr Daryl Howard, a co-author of the study, told BBC News: “I think what is really exciting is that we have now been able to add one more Degas artwork for the world to see.”
Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de Femme), c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937. (a) Visible light image. The boxed region highlights the XRF scan area. (b) X-radiograph. The obscured portrait is rotated 180 degrees relative to the upper portrait. The face and ear of the obscured sitter are the primary source of contrast. (c) Reflected infrared image (detail). A partial outline of the obscured sitter’s face is indicated with a dotted line. The extensive use of highly infrared-absorbing black paint in the final composition provides a limited view of the underlying figure. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Morelle describes how the second portrait deteriorated such that a previous painting on the canvas was becoming perceptible and how scientists were able to ‘peel’ back the original to see what lay beneath,
It had long been known that Degas’ portrait of a woman wearing a black bonnet and dress, which he painted in the late 1870s, covered an earlier painting.
A ghostly impression of the composition appears as a dark stain on the sitter’s face, and over the years has become more prominent as the oil paint thinned.
Conventional X-rays revealed the outline of another image was lurking beneath, but without scraping away the outer painting, the researchers required a much more powerful technique to show any detail.
For that, they used the Australian Synchrotron, a huge accelerator that generates more powerful X-rays, to peer beneath the top layers of paint.
They were able to detect the metallic elements in the pigments that Degas had used in his underlying artwork.
Dr Howard, from the Australian Synchrotron, said: “Each element has its own unique signature, and so that gets collected.
“And what we do is analyse that data and build up these ‘elemental maps’. And that allows us to image all the different pigments used in the painting.”
Through this they were able to see in colour and in remarkable detail Degas’ hidden work: a portrait of a woman with auburn hair.
False colour reconstruction of Degas’ hidden portrait (detail). The image was created from the X-ray fluorescence microscopy elemental maps. (Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917, Portrait of a Woman (Portrait de femme) c. 1876–80, oil on canvas, 46.3 × 38.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1937).
Apparently, Degas had a tendency, in his early paintings, to give his models pixie-like (longish and pointed) ears. Unusually, he has incorporated some of the features of the first painting into the second painting.
Getting back to the science, the technique used to ‘uncover’ the first painting is nondestructive (many techniques used in conservation are destructive as scrapings are required) and more powerful than previous x-ray techniques used to uncover artists’ secrets.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
A Hidden Portrait by Edgar Degas by David Thurrowgood, David Paterson, Martin D. de Jonge, Robin Kirkham, Saul Thurrowgood, & Daryl L. Howard. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 29594 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep29594 Published online: 04 August 2016
This paper is open access but for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read it, here’s a bit from the paper’s Discussion section (Note: Links have been removed),
We are not aware of any other current analytical technique that could have achieved such an imaging outcome for this painting. The data generated by this study has provided a better understanding of the artist’s technique. The 60 μm [micrometre] spatial resolution allows us to observe with confidence that a majority of the hidden sitter’s face has been achieved as one action. However the disproportionate and blurred form of the ears is indicative of several attempts to achieve the final proportions and features. Degas is reported as having painted “pixie” like ears at about this period46. By examining single elemental maps of the painting it is possible to observe such a “pixie” like ear shape (e.g., Mn and Fe, Fig. 3) which appears to have been reworked to a more conventional form (e.g., Co and Hg, Fig. 3). Careful study of the data reveals numerous intricacies of painting technique and brush stroke direction of the underpainting. It reveals stylistic information and elemental composition information that is unlikely to be reproducible by persons attempting to copy a work, and the technique has strong potential for application in authentication studies4,5.
Consideration has been given to the properties of synchrotron radiation, and the research group used visible and chemical observation to look for radiation-induced change in preliminary experiments. Pigment binder matrices were studied by Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy before and after extended X-ray exposure at the XFM beamline, and spectroscopic changes were not detected. No evidence for any chemical or physical change was observed for radiation doses 10,000 times that reported for this study, which is in accord with recent findings by other research groups using intense radiation sources47,48.
This study has successfully demonstrated a virtual reconstruction of a hidden portrait by Edgar Degas and has delivered a better understanding of his work and artistic practices. The authors propose that the unfolding technological developments for examining artwork using synchrotron radiation-based techniques will significantly impact the ways cultural heritage is studied for authentication, preservation and scholarly purposes. We anticipate that the high quality outcome presented here and the propagation of the rapid-scanning XRF detector technology used will further stimulate growing interest in the better understanding of our cultural assets. Parallel work using portable XRF systems7 is demonstrating that a version of the technique is becoming viable (at substantially reduced spatial resolution and increased data collection time) outside of a synchrotron facility, raising a strong likelihood that precedents being set at synchrotron facilities will directly influence emerging field-based technologies. Until recently XRF large area scanning facilities were built in-house, and this had limited the technique’s availability. With the introduction of commercial large scanning area instruments on the market49, the technique has the potential to expand rapidly.
And here’s just a bit from the paper’s Methods section (Note: Links have been removed),
The scanning XRF mapping of the painting Portrait of a Woman was performed at the X-ray fluorescence microscopy (XFM) beamline of the Australian Synchrotron31. The X-ray fluorescence was acquired with the Maia 384A detector array, which integrates the sample stage motion with continuous fly scanning, leading to zero data readout overhead50,51. An incident excitation beam energy of 12.6 keV was used to circumvent intense fluorescence from the Pb L absorption edges, which would originate primarily from the painting’s Pb-based ground layer and thereby limit detection sensitivity to other elements in the pictorial paint layers. The low-energy sensitivity of the detector is limited to approximately 4 keV, thus Pb-M fluorescence (~2.3 keV) was not detectable for example. The energy resolution of the detector is 375 eV at Mn Kα.
The artwork was fitted to a custom manufactured cradle for scanning. The painting was placed approximately 13 mm from Maia detector rather than the optimal distance of 10 mm, since the painting was not perfectly flat. The painting is shown mounted at the XFM beamline in Supplementary Material Fig. S1. A 426 × 267 mm2 area was raster-scanned at 16.4 mm s−1, providing a dwell time of approximately 3.7 ms per 60 × 60 μm2 pixel and yielded a 31.6 megapixel data set in 33 h. Given the 10 × 10 μm2 incident beam size used, the average time an area of the painting was in the beam was 0.6 ms. The average incident flux on the painting was 1.5 × 109 photons s−1.
For art historians, conservationists, scientists, and people like me (the curious), this is pretty exciting stuff.
I recommend reading Morelle’s piece for anyone who finds the science a little hard going as she does an excellent job of describing the science and the art.