Category Archives: science

FrogHeart goes to the 9th World Congress on alternatives to animal testing

Also known as ‘Humane Science in the 21st Century’, the 9th World Congress on ‘Alternatives to Animal Testing in the Life Sciences‘ is being held next week (Aug. 24 – 28, 2014) and FrogHeart will be reporting on various aspects of the work. These posts are sponsored. I realize some folks don’t approve of the practice, which seems odd given that all writing, ultimately, is paid for and sponsored in one fashion or another. While direct sponsorship of a piece of writing can make objectivity (such as it is) more of challenge; it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Conversely, salaried writers can also become compromised due to friendships and loyalties built up over the years or, possibly, due to graft.

All of the posts generated as a consequence of the sponsorship will be identified with the sponsoring agency (SEURAT-1).

For anyone who wishes analyze and compare the posts for bias, here are a few pieces written prior to any contact about the congress:

  • Reducing animal testing for nanotoxicity—PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) presentation at NanoTox 2014 (April 24, 2014)
  • Nanomaterials, toxicology, and alternatives to animal testing (Aug. 22. 2013)
  • Animal love and nanotechnology (Jan. 12, 2012)
  • Global TV (national edition) and nanotechnology; EPA develops a ‘kinder to animals’ nanomaterials research strategy (Oct. 8, 2009); scroll down 25% of the way)

Should you detect undue bias in any of the sponsored pieces, please do let me know.

Science and the arts: a science rap promotes civil discussion about science and religion; a science movie and a play; and a chemistry article about authenticating a Lawren Harris painting

Canadian-born rapper of science and many other topics, Baba Brinkman sent me an update about his current doings (first mentioned in an Aug. 1, 2014 posting featuring his appearances at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, his Rap Guide to Religion being debuted at the Fringe, and his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the creation of an animated rap album of his news Rap Guide to Religion), Note: Links have been removed,

Greetings from Edinburgh! In the past two and half weeks I’ve done fifteen performances of The Rap Guide to Religion for a steadily building audience here at the Fringe, and we recently had a whole pile of awesome reviews published, which I will excerpt below, but first a funny story.

Yesterday [August 14, 2014] BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] Sunday Morning TV was in to film my performance. They had a scheme to send a right wing conservative Christian to the show and then film us having an argument afterwards. The man they sent certainly has the credentials. Reverend George Hargreaves is a Pentecostal Minister and former leader of the UK Christian Party, as well as a young earth creationist and strong opponent of abortion and homosexuality. He led the protests that got “Jerry Springer the Opera” shut down in London a few years back, and is on record as saying that religion is not an appropriate subject for comedy. Before he converted to Christianity, the man was also a DJ and producer of pop music for the London gay scene, interesting background.

So after an hour of cracking jokes at religion’s expense, declaring myself an unapologetic atheist, and explaining why evolutionary science gives a perfectly satisfying naturalistic account of where religion comes from, I sat down with Reverend George and was gobsmacked when he started the interview with: “I don’t know if we’re going to have anything to debate about… I LOVED your show!” We talked for half an hour with the cameras rolling and at one point George said “I don’t know what we disagree about,” so I asked him: “Do you think one of your ancestors was a fish?” He declared that statement a fishy story and denied it, and then we found much to disagree about.

I honestly thought I had written a hard-hitting, provocative and controversial show, but it turns out the religious are loving it as much as the nonbelievers – and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I asked Reverend George why he wasn’t offended, even though he’s officially against comedy that targets religion, and he told me it’s because I take the religious worldview seriously, instead of lazily dismissing it as delusional. The key word here is “lazily” rather than “delusional” because I don’t pull punches about religion being a series of delusions, but I don’t think those delusions are pointless. I think they have evolved (culturally and genetically) to solve adaptive problems in the past, and for religious people accustomed to atheists being derisive and dismissive that’s a (semi) validating perspective.

To listen to songs from The Rap Guide to Religion, you need to back my Kickstarter campaign so I can raise the money to produce a proper record. To check out what the critics here in Edinburgh have to say about my take on religion, read on. And if you want to help organize a gig somewhere, just let me know. The show is open for bookings.

On Sunday Morning [August 17, 2014 GMT] my segment with Reverend George will air on BBC One, so we’ll see what a million British people think of the debate.

All the best from the religious fringe,


Here’s a link to the BBC One Sunday Morning Live show, where hopefully you’ll be able to catch the segment featuring Baba and Reverend George Hargreaves either livestreamed or shortly thereafter.

A science movie and a science play

Onto the science movie and the play: David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog writes about two upcoming movie biopics featuring Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking respectively, in an Aug. 8, 2014 posting. Having covered the Turing movie here (at length) in a July 22, 2014 posting here’s the new information about the Hawking movie from David’s Aug, 8, 2014 posting,

Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking are noted British scientists, well recognized for their work and for having faced significant challenges in their lives.  While they were in different fields and productive in different parts of the 20th century (Hawking is still with us), their stories will compete in movieplexes (at least in the U.S.) this November.

The Theory of Everything is scheduled for release on November 7 and focuses on the early career and life of Hawking.  He’s portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, and the film is directed by James Marsh.  Marsh has several documentaries to his credit, including the Oscar-winning Man on Wire.  Theory is the third film project on Hawking since 2004, but the first to get much attention outside of the United Kingdom (this might explain why it won’t debut in the U.K. until New Year’s Day).  It premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month [Sept. 2014].

David features some trailers for both movies and additional information.

Interestingly the science play focuses on the friendship between a female UK scientist and her former student, Margaret Thatcher (a UK Prime Minister). From an Aug. 13, 2014 Alice Bell posting on the Guardian science blog network (Note: Links have been removed),

Adam Ganz’s new play – The Chemistry Between Them, to be broadcast on Radio 4 this month – explores one of the most intriguing friendships in the history of science and politics: Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin.

As well as winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering scientific work on the structures of proteins, Hodgkin was a left-wing peace campaigner who was awarded the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Order of Lenin. Hardly Thatcher’s type, you might think. But Hodgkin was Thatcher’s tutor at university, and the relationships between science, politics and women in high office are anything but straightforward.

I spoke to Ganz about his interest in the subject, and started by asking him to tell us more about the play.

… they stayed friends throughout Dorothy’s life. Margaret Thatcher apparently had a photo of Dorothy Hodgkin in Downing Street, and they maintained a kind of warm relationship. The play happens in two timescales – one is a meeting in 1983 in Chequers where Dorothy came to plead with Margaret to take nuclear disarmament more seriously at a time when Cruise missiles and SS20s were being stationed in Europe. In fact I’ve set it – I’m not sure of the exact date – shortly after the Korean airliner was shot down, when the Russians feared Nato were possibly planning a first strike. And that is intercut with the time when Margaret is studying chemistry and looking at her journey; what she learned at Somerville, but especially what she learned from Dorothy.

Here’s a link to the BBC 4 webpage for The Chemistry Between Them. I gather the broadcast will be Weds., Aug. 20, 2014 at 1415 hours GMT.

Chemistry and authentication of a Lawren Harris painting

The final item for this posting concerns Canadian art, chemistry, and the quest to prove the authenticity of a painting. Roberta Staley, editor of Canadian Chemical News (ACCN), has written a concise technical story about David Robertson’s quest to authenticate a painting he purchased some years ago,

Fourteen years ago, David Robertson of Delta, British Columbia was holidaying in Ontario when he stopped at a small antique shop in the community of Bala, two hours north of Toronto in cottage country. An unsigned 1912 oil painting caught his attention. Thinking it evocative of a Group of Seven painting, Robertson paid the asking price of $280 and took it home to hang above his fireplace.

Roberta has very kindly made it available as a PDF: ChemistryNews_Art.Mystery.Group.7. It will also be available online at the Canadian Chemical News website soon. (It’s not in the July/August 2014 issue.)

For anyone who might recognize the topic, I wrote a sprawling five-part series (over 5000 words) on the story starting with part one. Roberta’s piece is 800 words and offers her  account of the tests for both Autumn Harbour and the authentic Harris painting, Hurdy Gurdy. I was able to attend only one of them (Autumn Harbour).

David William Robertson, Autumn Harbour’s owner has recently (I received a notice on Aug. 13, 2014) updated his website with all of the scientific material and points of authentication that he feels prove his case.

Have a very nice weekend!

Colombia, copyright, and sharing a science thesis

You’d think that posting a thesis online while giving full attribution to the author would be considered laudable. Apparently, there’s one person in Colombia that disagrees. And, since many educational institutions ask for copies of a student’s thesis for inclusion in their academic libraries you might believe the making said thesis more widely available (most students would be thrilled at the attention to their work) wouldn’t pose a problem. Apparently the Colombia legal system disagrees as it is preparing to take a student to court (and possible to jail) for sharing scientific information.

While the story seems to be popping up everywhere, this Aug. 1, 2014 article by Kerry Gren for The Scientist acted as my first notice (Note: Links have been removed),

Three years ago, Diego Gómez, a conservation biology student at the University of Quindío in Colombia, posted another scientist’s graduate thesis online. “I thought it was something that could be of interested [sic] for other groups, so I shared it on the web,” Gómez wrote on the website of Fundación Karisma, an education advocacy group in Colombia. “I never imagined that this activity could be considered a crime.”

But the author of the thesis disagreed, and last year complained to the Colombian police about the posting. Gómez now faces up to eight years in jail and at least $6,000 in fines for violating copyright. His case highlights the plight of scientists in certain parts of the world who are less able to access and share scientific information.

This wouldn’t have gone far in a US court at all,” said Michael Carroll, the director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University’s Washington School of Law. [emphasis mine] “I’m really upset about this case,” he added. “It bothers me when copyright law gets in the way of scientists doing their science.” [emphasis mine]

While I too am bothered by copyright law being used to subvert science or, in this case, science sharing, Carroll’s comment about US courts (an indirect reference to US law) seems ironic after reading Tim Cushing’s July 28, 2014 Techdirt posting on the case (Note: Links have been removed),

Upload a document to Scribd, go to prison for at least four years. Ridiculous and more than a bit frightening, but in a case that has some obvious parallels with Aaron Swartz’s prosecution, that’s the reality Colombian student Diego Gomez is facing. In the course of his research, he came across a paper integral to his research. In order to ensure others could follow his line of thinking, Gomez uploaded this document for others to view.

According to Gomez, this was a common citation practice among Colombian students …

To be clear, Gomez did not try to profit from the paper. He also wasn’t acting as some sort of indiscriminate distributor of infringing works. But under Colombian law, none of that matters. But to really see who’s to blame here for this ridiculous level of rights enforcement, you have to look past the local laws, past the paper’s author and directly at the US government.

[Gomez] is being sued under a criminal law that was reformed in 2006, following the conclusion of a free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. The new law was meant to fulfill the trade agreement’s restrictive copyright standards, and it expanded criminal penalties for copyright infringement, increasing possible prison sentences and monetary fines.

More details on the awfulness of Colombia’s law (spurred on by US special interests) are available in the EFF’s [Electronic Frontier Federation] earlier coverage. Colombia gave the US copyright industry everything it wanted in order to secure this free trade agreement… and then it just kept going. …

This bill was hastily passed as a welcoming gift for President Obama, shoved through the legislative process in order to get out ahead of the administration’s appearance at a Colombia-hosted conference. This deference to the US government could cost Gomez at least four years of his life.

While Colombia seemed very eager to take the worst parts of US copyright law (and make them even more terrible), it was less inclined to take any of the good. …

Beneath all of this lies the ugly reality of the academic research market. Just as in the US, plenty of useful information is locked up and inaccessible to anyone unable to afford the frequently exorbitant fees charged by various gatekeepers. Copyright’s original intent — “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts” — isn’t served by this behavior. …

Erik Stokstad’s July 31, 2014 article for ScienceInsider offers more details such as these,

In 2011, Gómez came across a master’s thesis, completed at the National University of Colombia in 2006, that would be useful for identifying amphibians he had seen in protected areas. He posted the thesis on Scribd to allow it to be easily downloaded by other researchers and students. At the time, the downloads were free. When Scribd started charging unregistered users $5 per download, Gómez removed the thesis.

The author of the thesis, a Colombian herpetologist, however, had already notified police that it had been posted without his permission. After being contacted by police, Gómez cooperated with the investigation. In April 2013, a criminal complaint was filed. This past fall, he learned that the office of the attorney general was going to bring the case to trial. Gómez “was in a panic,” says Carolina Botero, an attorney at Fundación Karisma, a digital rights advocacy organization in Bogotá, which is advocating on his behalf.

The Electronic Frontier Federation’s July 23, 2014 posting by Maira Sutton places this incident within an international context and outlines Colombia’s legal framework as it pertains to this case.

Diego Gomez has written about his situation (English language version and Spanish language version) as per some July 2014 postings.

As for Aaron Swartz mentioned in the excerpt from Tim Cushing’s Techdirt post, anyone unfamiliar with the case can find all the information they might want in this Wikipedia entry.

Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), the Royal Society, and men

Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, has had an extraordinary impact in Canada, the US, and many other parts of the world. The 1962 publication of the book effectively launched the environmental movement.

Carson died two years after publication with the consequences that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death. Britain’s The Royal Society in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature is marking this anniversary with a public lecture and panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 (6:30 – 7:30 pm at The Royal Society, London). This is an astonishing event for reasons to be discussed after reading a description: Writing Wrongs,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, the American conservationist responsible for putting the environment on the political agenda. When her masterpiece Silent Spring was published in 1962, she was attacked as savagely as Darwin on the publication of The Origin of the Species, but the book spurred a reversal in US pesticide policy and led to a ban on DDT and other pesticides. But does Silent Spring persuade because of the strength of its arguments, or the beauty of its language? And have Carson’s warnings been sufficiently heeded? John Burnside FRSL is a prize-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist. A passionate environmentalist, he contributes a regular nature column to the New Scientist. Professor John Pickett FRS is Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology at Rothampstead Research, and a world authority on pest control. In a conversation chaired by Damian Carrington, Head of Environment at the Guardian, they will discuss the complementary roles of literature and science in saving the planet.

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 6pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Speech-to-text interpretation will be provided at this event.

If you require British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation please contact the events team no later than 2 weeks prior to the event and we would be happy to arrange an interpreter.

A live video will be available on this page when the event starts and a recorded video will be available a few days afterwards.

You’ll note that this is an all male panel, which is astonishing, given the number of female scientists working in the fields of environmental science and female writers of all stripes, especially in light of the raw sexism Carson was subjected to at the time her book was published. Victoria Johnson in her Aug. 7, 2014 posting on the Guardian science blog network supplies some context for concern not only about this particular event but others too (Note Links have been removed),

The problem is, Writing Wrongs has an all-male panel.

Debates about gender-balanced panels at conferences and public events are not new. In 2009 the group Feminist Philosophers set up a Gendered Conference Campaign, challenging the prevalence of all-male conferences in their field. In 2011, a group of gender equality advocates and activists pledged to boycott events with all-male panels. Then, in early 2013, journalist Rebecca Rosen took the rather novel step of asking men to sign a pledge to refuse speaking at or moderating events dominated by male contributors. More than 300 people signed the online pledge. But, within hours, it had to be anonymised because of the torrent of abusive comments.

Johnson then focuses specifically on Writing Wrongs event (Note: A link has been removed),

Earlier this week I wrote to the Royal Society asking why Writing Wrongs had an all-male panel. I even offered some suggestions for female speakers they might like to ask. My argument was that Carson is not only the most famous environmentalist and nature writer of the 20th century; she was also a female scientist who faced gender-based slurs from the mainstream media and naturally, vested interests, on the publication of Silent Spring. Keen to discredit the conclusions of her detailed analysis they dismissed her as a hysterical woman, unable to conduct objective research.

Not only was it strange to see an all-male panel, especially when I knew plenty of female science writers, academics and environmental journalists who would have been equally qualified to speak, it seemed entirely inappropriate given who had apparently inspired this event.

The Royal Society responded to my email. They’d asked a female chair, but she was unavailable. I was then told they were looking into other female speakers, but had needed to proceed with promotion of the event. Is it really that hard to find a female science writer or a leading academic working on pesticides? Not if you live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet, write an email or operate a phone. I was then reassured, that sometimes; the Royal Society does have female representation on at important events. This was followed by some blurb and a link to their Equality and Diversity policy. Unfortunately, whenever I have challenged other event organisers on the lack of gender-balance, I have pretty much had the same response.

To get a sense for the quality of the vituperation that Carson experienced in 1962, there’s this from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring expected fierce criticism. They were particularly concerned about the possibility of being sued for libel. Carson was also undergoing radiation therapy to combat her spreading cancer, and expected to have little energy to devote to defending her work and responding to critics. In preparation for the anticipated attacks, Carson and her agent attempted to amass as many prominent supporters as possible before the book’s release.[54]

Most of the book’s scientific chapters were reviewed by scientists with relevant expertise, among whom Carson found strong support. …

American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson’s analysis of DDT.[60] According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”[61] Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her personal character. White-Stevens labeled her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”,[62] while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson—in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower—reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”[63] [emphasis mine]

Many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides. Yet Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem.[64]  …

In the US (and elsewhere), an accusation of being a ‘communist’ particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s could destroy your career.

Getting back to the modern day, having organized panels in the past, I appreciate how very challenging it is to get a diverse set of people on a panel but as Johnson notes, it shouldn’t be all that difficult in 2014.

Abandoning the effort to find a female speaker after what was apparently a single attempt seems a bit chicken-hearted. Were the event organizers concerned about avoiding rejection? If so, they should perhaps consider other job or volunteer activities as rejections are pretty common when trying to attract panel members.

Should the organizers try again, I have some advice: “Try to get more than one female speaker on your panel as cancellations are also common in these endeavours.” Of course, the organizers may end up with an female panel in the end as bizarre things can happen at the last minute to your carefully planned panel. I wish the event organizers good luck!

It’s an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world where a particle can be separated from its properties

In a joint research project, French, Austrians, and American researchers have achieved a state described in Lewis Carroll’s well loved story, Alice in Wonderland. (Three of the four institutions involved have issued news releases, as this is the only one to feature a quote from Alice in Wonderland describing the state, it gets mentioned first.) From a July 29, 2014 Chapman University news release on EurekAlert,

… “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice in Wonderland, “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” Alice’s surprise stems from her experience that an object and its property cannot exist independently. It seems to be impossible to find a grin without a cat. However, the strange laws of quantum mechanics (the theory which governs the microscopic world of atoms; and the most successful theory in history) tell us that it is indeed possible to separate a particle from its properties—a phenomenon which is strikingly analogous to the Cheshire Cat story. The quantum Cheshire Cat is the latest example of how strange quantum mechanics becomes when viewed through the lens of one of Aharonov’s fundamental discoveries called the “weak measurement.”

Modesty does not favour contemporary research and educational institutions and, as is common in situations where there’s significant scientific excitement with a number of collaborators, the cooperating institutions are angling to establish the importance of their institutions and/or researchers’ contributions.

Here’s more from the Chapman  University news release where it establishes its claim to the theory,

The idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat was first discovered by Chapman’s Prof. Yakir Aharonov and first published by Aharonov’s collaborator, Prof. Jeff Tollaksen (also at Chapman University), in 2001. Aharonov’s team, including Sandu Popescu (University of Bristol and Chapman’s Institute for Quantum Studies) and Daniel Rorhlich (Ben Gurion University), continued to develop the Cheshire Cat theory in more recent publications.

A July 29, 2014 Vienna University of Technology news release on EurekAlert provides this description and its claim to inventing the technique used in the latest experimental work,

According to the law of quantum physics, particles can be in different physical states at the same time. If, for example, a beam of neutrons is divided into two beams using a silicon crystal, it can be shown that the individual neutrons do not have to decide which of the two possible paths they choose. Instead, they can travel along both paths at the same time in a quantum superposition.

“This experimental technique is called neutron interferometry”, says Professor Yuji Hasegawa from the Vienna University of Technology. “It was invented here at our institute in the 1970s, and it has turned out to be the perfect tool to investigate fundamental quantum mechanics.”

A July 29, 2014 Institut Laue-Langevin (international research institute located in Grenoble, France) news release on EurekAlert establishes its claim as the location for the experimental work,

Researchers from the Vienna University of Technology have performed the first separation of a particle from one of its properties. The study, carried out at the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) and published in Nature Communications, showed that in an interferometer a neutron’s magnetic moment could be measured independently of the neutron itself, thereby marking the first experimental observation of a new quantum paradox known as the ‘Cheshire Cat’. The new technique, which can be applied to any property of any quantum object, could be used to remove disturbance and improve the resolution of high precision measurements.

The fourth collaborating institution (l’Université de Cergy-Pontoise) does not seem to have issued a news release in either French or English as per my August 8, 2014 searches.

The research itself is quite fascinating and it’s worth reading all three news releases for additional nuggets information hidden amongst the repetitive bits. Here’s a description you’ll find in both the Vienna University of Technology and Chapman University news releases,

Neutrons are not electrically charged, but they carry a magnetic moment. They have a magnetic direction, the neutron spin, which can be influenced by external magnetic fields.

First, a neutron beam is split into two parts in a neutron interferometer. Then the spins of the two beams are shifted into different directions: The upper neutron beam has a spin parallel to the neutrons’ trajectory, the spin of the lower beam points into the opposite direction. After the two beams have been recombined, only those neutrons are chosen, which have a spin parallel to their direction of motion. All the others are just ignored. “This is called postselection”, says Hermann Geppert. “The beam contains neutrons of both spin directions, but we only analyse part of the neutrons.”

These neutrons, which are found to have a spin parallel to its direction of motion, must clearly have travelled along the upper path – only there, the neutrons have this spin state. This can be shown in the experiment. If the lower beam is sent through a filter which absorbs some of the neutrons, then the number of the neutrons with spin parallel to their trajectory stays the same. If the upper beam is sent through a filter, than the number of these neutrons is reduced.

Things get tricky, when the system is used to measure where the neutron spin is located: the spin can be slightly changed using a magnetic field. When the two beams are recombined appropriately, they can amplify or cancel each other. This is exactly what can be seen in the measurement, if the magnetic field is applied at the lower beam – but that is the path which the neutrons considered in the experiment are actually never supposed to take. A magnetic field applied to the upper beam, on the other hand, does not have any effect.

“By preparing the neurons in a special initial state and then postselecting another state, we can achieve a situation in which both the possible paths in the interferometer are important for the experiment, but in very different ways”, says Tobias Denkmayr. “Along one of the paths, the particles themselves couple to our measurement device, but only the other path is sensitive to magnetic spin coupling. The system behaves as if the particles were spatially separated from their properties.”

Here’s an illustration the researchers have provided,

Caption: The basic idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat: In an interferometer, an object is separated from one if its properties -- like a cat, moving on a different path than its own grin. Credit: TU Vienna / Leon Filter

Caption: The basic idea of the Quantum Cheshire Cat: In an interferometer, an object is separated from one if its properties — like a cat, moving on a different path than its own grin.
Credit: TU Vienna / Leon Filter

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

Observation of a quantum Cheshire Cat in a matter-wave interferometer experiment by Tobias Denkmayr, Hermann Geppert, Stephan Sponar, Hartmut Lemmel, Alexandre Matzkin, Jeff Tollaksen, & Yuji Hasegawa. Nature Communications 5 Article number: 4492 doi:10.1038/ncomms5492 Published 29 July 2014

This is an open access paper.

Perhaps in response to concerns about the importance of theoretical physics, Chapman University’s Jeff Tollaksen offers this about possible applications  (from the Chapman University news release),

Co-Director of the Institute for Quantum Studies, Prof. Jeff Tollaksen has said: “Theoretical physics has yielded the most significant benefits for our society at the lowest costs. Discoveries in fundamental physics often lead to new industries: from electricity to smartphones to satellites. Quantum physics resulted in technological advances that drive our economy, such as the entire computer revolution, electronics, and the nuclear power industry. In addition, it impacts many other disciplines such as genetics, medicine and mathematics. Experts therefore estimate that nearly half the wealth created in the 20th century arose from quantum physics. At the Institute, we’re committed to producing the next generation of breakthroughs which will lead to the technology of the 21st century. Similarly, I’m sure this breakthrough will lead to many new applications including revised intuitions which can then serve as a guide to finding novel quantum effects.” This “Quantum Cheshire Cat” could be used for practical applications. For example, it could be used to make high precision measurements less sensitive to external perturbations. The measurements which now have been published in Nature Communications are the first experimental proof of this phenomenon.

By contrast the Europeans offer this,

With their landmark observation suitably vindicated, questions turn to the potential impact of their fundamental discovery. One application might high precision measurements of quantum systems which are often affected by disturbance.  [from the Institut Laue-Langevin news release]

Or, there’s this,

This counter intuitive effect is very interesting for high precision measurements, which are very often based on the principle of quantum interference. “When the quantum system has a property you want to measure and another property which makes the system prone to perturbations, the two can be separated using a Quantum Cheshire Cat, and possibly the perturbation can be minimized”, says Stephan Sponar. [from the Vienna University of Technology news release]

The contrast is certainly interesting.

Bioluminscent sharks and their photon hunting abilities

This is the eye of a velvet belly lanternshark. Credit: Dr. J. Mallefet (FNRS/UCL); CC-BY

This is the eye of a velvet belly lanternshark.
Credit: Dr. J. Mallefet (FNRS/UCL); CC-BY

The velvet belly is a bioluminscent shark, i.e., it projects some light. Here’s a description from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The velvet belly lanternshark (or simply velvet belly, Etmopterus spinax) is a species of dogfish shark in the family Etmopteridae. One of the most common deepwater sharks in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, the velvet belly is found from Iceland and Norway to Gabon and South Africa at a depth of 70–2,490 m (230–8,170 ft). A small shark generally no more than 45 cm (18 in) long, the velvet belly is so named because its black underside is abruptly distinct from the brown coloration on the rest of its body. … Like other lanternsharks, the velvet belly is bioluminescent, with light-emitting photophores forming a species-specific pattern over its flanks and abdomen. These photophores are thought to function in counter-illumination, which camouflages the shark against predators. They may also play a role in social interactions.

An Aug. 6, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily highlights some recent featuring the velvet belly,

The eyes of deep-sea bioluminescent sharks have a higher rod density when compared to non-bioluminescent sharks, according to a study published August 6, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Julien M. Claes, postdoctoral researcher from the FNRS at Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium), and colleagues. This adaptation is one of many these sharks use to produce and perceive bioluminescent light in order to communicate, find prey, and camouflage themselves against predators.

An Aug. 6, 2014 news item on elucidates further,

The mesopelagic twilight zone, or about 200-1000 meters deep in the sea, is a vast, dim habitat, where, with increasing depth, sunlight is progressively replaced by point-like bioluminescent emissions. To better understand strategies used by bioluminescent predators inhabiting this region that help optimize photon capture, the authors of this study analyzed the eye shape, structure, and retinal cell mapping in the visual systems of five deep-sea bioluminescent sharks, including four Lanternsharks (Etmopteridae) and one kitefin shark (Dalatiidae).

The researchers found that the sharks’ eyes contained a translucent area present in the upper eye orbit of the lantern sharks, which might aid in adjusting counter-illumination, or in using bioluminescence to camouflage the fish. They also found several ocular specializations, such as a gap between the lens and iris that allows extra light to the retina, which was previously unknown in sharks. Comparisons with previous data on non-bioluminescent sharks reveals that bioluminescent sharks possess higher rod densities in their eyes, which might provide them with improved temporal resolution, particularly useful for bioluminescent communication during social interactions.

“Every bioluminescent signal needs to reach a target photoreceptor to be ecologically efficient. Here, we clearly found evidence that the visual system of bioluminescent sharks has co-evolved with their light-producing capability, even though more work is needed to understand the full story,” said Dr. Claes.

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

Photon Hunting in the Twilight Zone: Visual Features of Mesopelagic Bioluminescent Sharks by Julien M. Claes, Julian C. Partridge, Nathan S. Hart, Eduardo Garza-Gisholt, Hsuan-Ching Ho, Jérôme Mallefet, and Shaun P. Collin. PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0104213 Published: August 06, 2014

This study is open access as is the journal where it appears, PLOS (Public Library of Science) ONE.

Licking your way to new ice cream: a physicist’s ice cream changes colour when licked

Bob Yirkas in a July 20, 2014 article for describes a new twist on ice cream,

Spanish physicist, engineer, professor and ice cream lover Manuel Linares has together with a couple of colleagues created an ice cream that changes colors when it’s licked—in a cone. Not content with the life of a physics professor, Linares signed up for training with Asociación Empresarial Nacional de Elaboradores Artesanos y Comerciantes de Helados y Horchatas—a craftsmen and businessmen association in Spain that offers mentored coursework.

Linares pursued what he has described as a “Masters Diploma in Creating Artisan Ice Cream.” Intrigued by the ice that changes color under fluorescent lights, created by Charlie Francis, Linares set his sights on figuring out a way to create a type of ice cream that would change color in response to temperature changes and acids found in the human mouth. He enlisted the assistance of a couple of unnamed buddies and they all got to work in a lab that Linares put together with his own funds. Linares has told the press that it took the three of them just one week to come up with the color changing ice cream. The final product, which reportedly has a similar taste to tutti-frutti, has been named Xamaleón.

Mariella Moon’s July 30, 2014 article for Engadget reveals more about Linares’ iice cream confection and his future plans,

He [Linares] calls it the Xamaleón, a play on the Spanish word for chameleon, and it originally starts as a periwinkle blue frozen treat until it’s spritzed with Linares’ “love elixir,” a super secret mixture he concocted himself. This mixture reacts to changes in temperature and saliva, causing the tutti-frutti-flavored ice cream to turn into purple, then into pink as you lick.

As unusual as it sounds, this is just the beginning of Linares’ foray into the color-changing ice cream business: he also plans to whip up ice cream that turns from white to pink, and another one that glows under ultraviolet light. You can only get a scoop of this chameleon ice cream from one [of] the creator’s shops in Spain right now, …

The earliest version of this story that I can find is a July 16, 2014 article by Carme Gasull for Cocinatis. You will need Spanish language skills to read it but luckily, this photograph included in the article speaks for itself,

Xamaleón [downloaded from]

Xamaleón [downloaded from]

This is Xamaleón’s pre-love elixir spritz periwinkle blue. You can find more pictures (and a video too) of the ice cream in various stages of its colourful transformation by following this posting’s links to other articles or, if you choose, to search, there’s a lot of material as this has been a very popular topic. BTW, July was National Ice Cream Month as per this July 1, 2014 posting by Anthony Selden for

A dog’s intimate understanding of chemical communication: sniffing butts

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has made available a video which answers a question almost everyone has asked at one time or another, why do dogs sniff each other’s bottoms?

Here’s how a July 28, 2014 ACS news release describes this line of inquiry,

Here at Reactions, we ask the tough questions to get to the bottom of the biggest scientific quandaries. In that spirit, this week’s video explains why dogs sniff each other’s butts. It’s a somewhat silly question with a surprisingly complex answer. This behavior is just one of many interesting forms of chemical communication in the animal kingdom

Without more ado, the video,

You can find more videos in ACS’s Reactions series here. (This series was formerly known as Bitesize Science.)

Paths of desire: quantum style

Shortcuts are also called paths of desire (and other terms too) by those who loathe them. It turns that humans and other animals are not the only ones who use shortcuts. From a July 30, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Groundskeepers and landscapers hate them, but there is no fighting them. Called desire paths, social trails or goat tracks, they are the unofficial shortcuts people create between two locations when the purpose-built path doesn’t take them where they want to go.

There’s a similar concept in classical physics called the “path of least action.” If you throw a softball to a friend, the ball traces a parabola through space. It doesn’t follow a serpentine path or loop the loop because those paths have higher “actions” than the true path.

A July 30, 2014 Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri, US) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Diana Lutz, which originated the news item, describes the issues associated with undertaking this research,

Quantum particles can exist in a superposition of states, yet as soon as quantum particles are “touched” by the outside world, they lose this quantum strangeness and collapse to a classically permitted state. Because of this evasiveness, it wasn’t possible until recently to observe them in their quantum state.

But in the past 20 years, physicists have devised devices that isolate quantum systems from the environment and allow them to be probed so gently that they don’t immediately collapse. With these devices, scientists can at long last follow quantum systems into quantum territory, or state space.

Kater Murch, PhD, an assistant professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, and collaborators Steven Weber and Irfan Siddiqui of the Quantum Nanoelectronics Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, have used a superconducting quantum device to continuously record the tremulous paths a quantum system took between a superposition of states to one of two classically permitted states.

Because even gentle probing makes each quantum trajectory noisy, Murch’s team repeated the experiment a million times and examined which paths were most common. The quantum equivalent of the classical “least action” path — or the quantum device’s path of desire — emerged from the resulting cobweb of many paths, just as pedestrian desire paths gradually emerge after new sod is laid.

The experiments, the first continuous measurements of the trajectories of a quantum system between two points, are described in the cover article of the July 31 [2014] issue of Nature.

“We are working with the simplest possible quantum system,” Murch said. “But the understanding of quantum interactions we are gaining might eventually be useful for the quantum control of biological and chemical systems.

“Chemistry at its most basic level is described by quantum mechanics,” he said. “In the past 20 years, chemists have developed a technique called quantum control, where shaped laser pulses are used to drive chemical reactions — that is, to drive them between two quantum states. The chemists control the quantum field from the laser, and that field controls the dynamics of a reaction,” he said.

“Eventually, we’ll be able to control the dynamics of chemical reactions with lasers instead of just mixing reactant 1 with reactant 2 and letting the reaction evolve on its own,” he said.

An artificial atom The device Murch uses to explore quantum space is a simple superconducting circuit. Because it has quantized energy levels, or states, like an atom, it is sometimes called an artificial atom. Murch’s team uses the bottom two energy levels, the ground state and an excited state, as their model quantum system.

Between these two states, there are an infinite number of quantum states that are superpositions, or combinations, of the ground and excited states. In the past, these states would have been invisible to physicists because attempts to measure them would have caused the system to immediately collapse.

But Murch’s device allows the system’s state to be probed many times before it becomes an effectively classical system. The quantum state of the circuit is detected by putting it inside a microwave box. A very small number of microwave photons are sent into the box where their quantum fields interact with the superconducting circuit.

The microwaves are so far off resonance with the circuit that they cannot drive it between its ground and its excited state. So instead of being absorbed, they leave the box bearing information about the quantum system in the form of a phase shift (the position of the troughs and peaks of the photons’ wavefunctions).

Although there is information about the quantum system in the exiting microwaves, it is only a small amount of information.

“Every time we nudge the system, something different happens,” Murch said. “That’s because the photons we use to measure the quantum system are quantum mechanical as well and exhibit quantum fluctuations. So it takes many of these measurements to distinguish the system’s signal from the quantum fluctuations of the photons probing it.” Or, as physicists put it, these are weak measurements.

Murch compares these experiments to soccer matches, which are ultimately experiments to determine which team is better. But because so few goals are scored in soccer, and these are often lucky shots, the less skilled team has a good chance of winning. Or as Murch might put it, one soccer match is such a weak measurement of a team’s skill that it can’t be used to draw a statistically reliable conclusion about which team is more skilled.

Each time a team scores a goal, it becomes somewhat more likely that that team is the better team, but the teams would have to play many games or play for a very long time to know for sure. These fluctuations are what make soccer matches so exciting.

Murch is in essence able to observe millions of these matches, and from all the matches where team B wins, he can determine the most likely way a game that ends with a victory for team B will develop.

Despite the difficulties, the team did establish a path of desire,

“Before we started this experiment,” Murch said, ” I asked everybody in the lab what they thought the most likely path between quantum states would be. I drew a couple of options on the board: a straight line, a convex curve, a concave curve, a squiggly line . . . I took a poll, and we all guessed different options. Here we were, a bunch of quantum experts, and we had absolutely no intuition about the most likely path.”

Andrew N. Jordan of the University of Rochester and his students Areeya Chantasri and Justin Dressel inspired the study by devising a theory to predict the likely path. Their theory predicted that a convex curve Murch had drawn on the white board would be the correct path.

“When we looked at the data, we saw that the theorists were right. Our very clever collaborators had devised a ‘principle of least action’ that works in the quantum case,” Murch said.

They had found the quantum system’s line of desire mathematically and by calculation before many microwave photons trampled out the path in Murch’s lab.

Here’s an illustrated quantum path of desire’s experimental data,

Caption: A path of desire emerging from many trajectories between two points in quantum state space. Credit: Murch Lab/WUSTL

Caption: A path of desire emerging from many trajectories between two points in quantum state space.
Credit: Murch Lab/WUSTL

The University of Rochester, a collaborating institution on this research, issued a July 30, 2014 news release (also on EurekAlert) featuring this poetic allusion from one of the theorists,

Jordan [Andrew N. Jordan, professor of physics at the University of Rochester] compares the experiment to watching butterflies make their way one by one from a cage to nearby trees. “Each butterfly’s path is like a single run of the experiment,” said Jordan. “They are all starting from the same cage, the initial state, and ending in one of the trees, each being a different end state.” By watching the quantum equivalent of a million butterflies make the journey from cage to tree, the researchers were in effect able to predict the most likely path a butterfly took by observing which tree it landed on (known as post-selection in quantum physics measurements), despite the presence of a wind, or any disturbance that affects how it flies (which is similar to the effect measuring has on the system).

The theorists provided this illustration of the theory,

Caption: Measurement data showing the comparison with the 'most likely' path (in red) between initial and final quantum states (black dots). The measurements are shown on a representation referred to as a Bloch sphere. Credit: Areeya Chantasri Courtesy: University of Rochester

Caption: Measurement data showing the comparison with the ‘most likely’ path (in red) between initial and final quantum states (black dots). The measurements are shown on a representation referred to as a Bloch sphere.
Credit: Areeya Chantasri Courtesy: University of Rochester

The research study can be found here,

Mapping the optimal route between two quantum states by S. J. Weber, A. Chantasri, J. Dressel, A. N. Jordan, K. W. Murch & I. Siddiqi. Nature 511, 570–573 (31 July 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13559 Published online 30 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.