Category Archives: book review

Science, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes

GrrlScientist (Guardian science blogs) has written a review of a Sherlock Holmes book published last year in her Jan. 22, 2014 posting (Note: Links have been removed),

Breathless with anticipation, I breezed through a fun little treatise by James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics [Oxford University Press, 2013; …]. This book is an absorbing and scholarly exploration of the history of the science and forensics described in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were written more than 100 years ago by Scottish physician and writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Written by an avid “Sherlockian” and emeritus chemistry professor from Missouri State University, this book shows that the fictional Sherlock Holmes characters, their stories and their crime-solving methods are all based in reality. …

….

I particularly enjoyed the history of using fingerprints to identify individuals, how fingerprint analysis became a science and how this new science inspired and informed the development of searchable databases containing millions of individual fingerprints. According to the author, this database provided investigators with the evidence — sometimes within seconds — necessary to resolve cases that had lingered for many years. Professor O’Brien also places fingerprint technology into its historical context, mentioning that fingerprints were recognised as unique identifiers as early as 3000 BC by the ancient Chinese and by the Babylonians in 2000 BC. …

The chapter on chemistry — Holmes’ first love — was, of course, quite good. Amongst the topics covered, the author examines the reference materials that were available during Holmes’s lifetime to specifically address the accusation by chemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that Holmes was “a blundering chemist”. The author concludes that Holmes was neither as bad as Asimov argued, nor as good as originally claimed by Dr Watson, his crime-solving colleague …

While GrrlScientist enjoyed the book she does note this,

Overall, I thought this book was more heavily focused upon exploring the history of science and forensics than clarifying the details of Holmes’s scientific methodologies.

Matthew Hutson had this to say in his Jan. 11, 2013 book review for the Wall Street Journal,

Arthur Conan Doyle draws readers into the process of detection with what his biographer John Dickson Carr called “enigmatic clues.” Holmes signposts a piece of evidence as significant but doesn’t immediately reveal its use, leaving it as an exercise for the reader. “The creator of Sherlock Holmes invented it,” Carr wrote in 1949, “and nobody . . . has ever done it half so well.” In one of the most celebrated examples, Sherlock Holmes quizzes a client about the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” the man says. “That was the curious incident,” remarks Holmes.

Holmes’s supreme rationality is of a piece with his interest in science. “The Scientific Sherlock Holmes,” by James O’Brien, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, explores the forensic methods and scientific content in the Holmes canon as well as his creator’s own scientific background. Born in 1859, Conan Doyle took to books at the encouragement of his mother. Frustrated by the rigidity of his Catholic schooling, he moved toward science. At 17, he began medical school in Edinburgh. There his mentor was Dr. Joseph Bell, a man with sharpened diagnostic abilities who would serve as a model for Holmes. In one instance, Bell gleaned that a woman who had come in with her child was from the town of Burntisland (her accent), had traveled via Iverleith Row (red clay on shoes), had another child (a too-large jacket on the one present) and worked at a linoleum factory (dermatitis on fingers).

Hutson knows a lot about Conan Doyle and, thankfully he’s not shy about sharing;. Although he does mention O’Brien’s book, he seems not all that interested in it,

Mr. O’Brien spends most of his slim book, a volume most suitable for those already fond of Sherlock and not afraid of section titles with catchy names like “Section 4.2,” exploring the various fields that Holmes draws on—principally chemistry, with a little biology and physics. We learn about the use of coal-tar derivatives and handwriting identification in both Holmes’s world and ours. Some techniques, such as fingerprinting, appeared in the stories even before they were widely adopted by real police.

His real passion seems to be about thought processes,

Another look at the cogs under the deerstalker is offered by “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” by Maria Konnikova, a psychology graduate student at Columbia University. Following Holmes’s metaphor of the “brain attic,” she describes how Holmes stocks his attic (observation), explores it (creativity), navigates it (deduction) and maintains it (continuing education and practice). In the process, she lays out the habits of mind—both the techniques Holmes employs and the errors he avoids—that we might usefully emulate.

If you want to get a feel for how James (Jim) O’Brien, the author of ‘Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics’ writes,  you can check out his Jan. 25, 2013 posting about his book on the Huffington Post.

Two books: Science Ruining Everything and Nanoparticles before nanotechnology

With 20 days left of its Kickstarter campaign, the SCIENCE: Ruining Everything Since 1543 (an SMBC [Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal] Collection) has amassed $184, 562 for a project with a goal of $20,000.  Some of the more expensive incentives have been snapped but there are still lots of choices. From the campaign page,

SMBC (short for “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”) is a daily-updated comic strip about all sorts of topics. Its author, Zach Weinersmith, is a giant dork who also has many other geeky projects such as producing SMBC Theater, writing for Snowflakes, his science blog the Weinerworks, and his science-themed podcast The Weekly Weinersmith (which he co-hosts with his wife, the parasitologist Kelly Weinersmith).

So it will come as no huge surprise that this, the third SMBC printed collection, is a compendium of his finest science-related strips.

Phil Plait in a Jan. 23, 2013 article for Slate.com describes the project and his involvement,

Today, Zach [Weiner] announced a new and exciting project: He’s collecting his science comics into a single compendium which he’s calling “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543”. And it’s not just old comics; he’s also written some new ones for the book. He’s creating this book as a Kickstarter project. Give him money, and when it’s done he’ll send you the book.

And there’s more, too: He asked some well-known scientists on the web to send him a personal story about science in their lives, regaling how it’s affected them, and Zach will draw them up as a comic to put in the book. And guess who he asked? Well, the only one he told me about is me, but he assures me there are others. So I sent him an All-True Tale of Bad Astronomy Past, and he created a multi-panel comic about it.

Here’s a representative image of the artwork,

Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. It's true. Image credit: Zach Weiner [downloaded from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/23/saturday_morning_breakfast_cereal_new_science_book_of_web_comics.html]

Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. It’s true.
Image credit: Zach Weiner [downloaded from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/01/23/saturday_morning_breakfast_cereal_new_science_book_of_web_comics.html]

If you go to Phil Plait’s article , you can will find some panels from the collection or you can visit the Science: Ruining Everything campaign page to view a video presentation and learn more about the various incentives.

Meanwhile, the folks at the Nanowiki website have published their third book, Nanoparticles Before Nanotechnology. From the Nanowiki introduction page,

This year we chose the subject of Nanoparticles Before Nanotechnology simply because we were suspicious that nanoparticles are too often, in scientific and non-scientific circles, perceived as invented, while we think they should be understood as discovered.

Nanomaterials are claimed to be so new that people become scared. However, before nanotechnology, one can find nanoparticles in the works of both nature and Man, although they passed unnoticed by us until recently. The origin of nanoparticles in nature is basically i) biogenic, ii) geogenic (and also at the bio-inorganic interface), or iii) cosmogenic, while the nanoparticles produced by men come unintentionally from origins as burning wood and oil or unnoticed in crafted stuff such as cosmetics and colored glass and ceramics.

Additionally, to bring nano closer to society, following the same demystifying aims, we present a set of experiments, Hands On, in which some basics and useful nanoscale phenomena can be easily observed, such as preparing photonic crystals that look like opals, disinfecting water, or harvesting energy.

You can find many options (paper and various e-pub choices)  for getting the book if you follow the link provided previously or you can access the low res web version here as I did. Gorgeous images festoon the book and I wish they’d listed the sources or credits for them. They are truly stunning, even in low res. As for the text, I think they’ve provided a thoughtful compilation of information and organized it very well (I scanned the book quickly). I particularly appreciate having links so I can easily check out the sources for myself and I found a few things I didn’t know about, always a thrill.

In common with most emerging technology topics, knowledge about nanoparticles and other aspects of nanotechnology can change quickly as new data extends or contradicts what was previously believed. Within that context, this is one of the best resources I’ve seen and I’m thankful these folks took the time to pull this book together.

Get your question to Neal Stephenson asked at April 17, 2012 event at MIT

After reading Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Prime; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future), I have never been able to steel myself to read another Neal Stephenson book. In the last 1/3 of the book, the plot fell to pieces so none of the previously established narrative threads were addressed and the character development, such as it was, ceased to make sense. However, it seems I am in the minority as Stephenson and his work are widely and critically lauded.

April 17, 2012, Stephenson will be appearing in an event which features a live interview by Technology Review editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From Stephen Cass’s April 3, 2012 article for Technology Review,

With assistance from the the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, if you’re in the Boston area, you can see Neal Stephenson in person at MIT on April 17. Technology Review‘s editor-in-chief, Jason Pontin, will publicly interview Stephenson for the 2012 issue of TRSF, our annual science fiction anthology. Topics on the table include the state and future of hard science fiction, and how digital publishing is affecting novels.

The event is free and you can get a ticket here. For anyone who can’t get to Boston for the event, you can ask your question here in the comments section.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

Henry Petroski, The Essential Engineer explaining why scientists need engineers to solve the world’s problems

The Pasco Phronesis blog (David Bruggeman) featured, in his Oct. 6, 2010 posting, some author videos from the 2010 US National Book Festival. From Pasco Phronesis,

Since there’s several hundred videos to wade through, here are the links to the four authors I saw on September 25. I strongly recommend you watch the Petroski video, though anyone familiar with the work of the other authors should enjoy listening to them. You’ll need RealPlayer to view.

* Edward O. Wilson

* Henry Petroski

* Richard Rhodes

* Harold Varmus

Since David strongly recommended the Petroski video, I searched for and found it on Youtube (didn’t want to bother with the RealPlayer plugin),

Petroski is an engineer who’s specialty is failure and he’s talking about his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010).

Mongoliad launch

I made mention of the Mongoliad writing project when it was first announced in late spring (my May 31, 2010 posting). The project features Neal Stepheonson and Greg Bear, both well known science fiction writers (in fact, both have written novels that incorporate nanotechnology), amongst a cast of other writers, artists, techno types, and others. They’re forging into 21st century publishing with a model that is lifted in part from the 19th century, stories produced serially and available by subscription, but made available with contemporary technology, the interrnet. I guess you could call it ‘steam punk publishing’.

Last week, a free preview was made available and registration was opened. Here’s the view from Andrew Leonard at Salon.com,

Behold the power of branding! Chapter I of “The Mongoliad” launched online this week, and I plunked down $9.99 for a year’s subscription, sight unseen, simply because Neal Stephenson’s name was attached. …

But after spending some time with the site and reading the first chapter, it is not exactly clear to me exactly how much Stephenson is baked into this project. He is the co-founder and chairman of Subutai, the start-up that is producing “The Mongoliad.” But the content-creation is a group effort. This serial digital novel is being produced online by a team of writers , artists, hackers and sword-fighting geeks — another big name involved is Greg Bear, also a veteran science fiction author. …

“The Mongoliad” is supposed to be more than “just” a book. Eventually the intention is to incorporate multimedia offerings, along with the hypertext-branching contributions of a user community extending far beyond the core team.

Leonard goes on to express his hope that Mongoliad will be a grand adventure. He really is a Stephenson fan and seems to be genuinely looking forward to reading this experiment in publishing/social media enhancing/serializing a novel. Kit Eaton at Fast Company (Neal Stephenson’s Novel-Redefining Novel, “The Mongoliad,” Launches, Online)  is another fan,

Ghengis Khan shook up the world in the 12th Century, and now in the 21st Century Neal Stephenson’s novel about him may shake up the publishing world: It’s partly interactive, partly social media, and wholly digital.

The Mongoliad promises to be unlike any other book ever written. For starters it’s written, in part, by Neal Stephenson, whose ideas in earlier novels like Snow Crash and The Diamond Age have contributed to many modern marvels like Google Earth and augmented reality. When you learn sci-fi writer Greg Bear is contributing to the team effort too, it makes the whole thing even more promising.

The innovation in The Mongoliad isn’t in its team writing effort, however: It’s in the entire concept of a serialized, dynamic, digital “book” that includes video, imagery, music, and background articles among the text of the storyline and comes with a social media companion, with which fans/readers can comment and interact.

In fact it looks as if they are incorporating fan fiction into their overall plan. If you go to the Mongoliad website, you are encouraged to add your stories and artwork to the site.  This is from their ‘terms of service’,

Contributor Submissions

1. Policy. We welcome the submission of text, stories, vignettes, paragraphs, concepts, characters, ideas, poems, songs, images, animations, or interactive features submitted by registered contributors for potential publication on the Site (“Contributor Submissions”). Subutai grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable and revocable license to modify, broadcast, and transmit Content solely in order to create and submit Contributor Submissions to Subutai.

You understand that whether or not such Contributor Submissions are published, Subutai cannot guarantee proper attribution with respect to any submissions because of the interactive nature of the Site.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not this works purely from the perspective of its business model. As for the story itself, I’m not loving it so far.  First, a précis. It’s the thirteenth century in Europe and the Mongolians have a conquered a chunk of it. (Apparently, they did conquer a good chunk by 1241 and were about to conquer the rest when Ögedei Khan, then current Mongol ruler, died and their general,  Subitai, according to custom had to return to Mongolis.  See: Wikipedia essay)

In Mongoliad, there is no withdrawal of the Mongol forces and they are poised to sweep Europe meanwhile a small band of European knights gather to fight (from the Mongoliad Welcome page),

It’s spring of 1241, and the West is shitting its pants (that’s “bewraying its kecks” for you medieval time-travelers).

The Mongol takeover of Europe is almost complete. The hordes commanded by the sons of Genghis Khan have swept out of their immense grassy plains and ravaged Russia, Poland, and Hungary… and now seem poised to sweep west to Paris and south to Rome. King and pope and peasant alike face a bleak future—until a small band of warriors, inheritors of a millennium-old secret tradition, set out to probe the enemy.

Their leader, the greatest knight of their order, will set his small group of specially trained warriors on a perilous eastern journey. They will be guided by an agile, elusive, and sharp-witted adolescent girl, who believes the master’s plan is insane. But this small band is the West’s last, best hope to turn aside the floodtide of the violent genius of the Steppes kingdoms.

In the preview chapter (which is free), we meet Haakon who’s obviously one of the small band of warriors fighting for Europe. At this point,  he’s engaging in some sort of sword fighting duel in a Mongol arena while the crowds roar for blood.  We never learn much more about him or any of the other characters we’re introduced to as the preview is designed to draw us into buying a subscription so we can find out more.  I’m not a big fan of the writing that I see in the preview,

Haakon wanted to roar with anger, but it came out as a strangled laugh. “I am about to do battle with a demon,” he complained, “and you want me to–”

“It’s no demon,” Brother Rutger said, and spat on the loose ocher ground that had been tracked down the tunnel on the boots of surviving combatants. “It’s a man dressed as one.” He rammed the helm down onto Haakon’s head and slapped him on the ass. Even through surcoat, chain mail, gambeson, and drawers, the impact came through solidly. “Oh yes,” he added, “and the Red Veil. We would also like to know what is on the other side.”

Haakon grunted as he adjusted the helmet to suit him. The mysterious Veil. He might have seen it several weeks ago when a group led by the physician Raphael had been sent to retrieve Illarion, the ailing Ruthenian.

Now, their party had divided again, and Feronantus and his team were off on their secret mission–while Haakon and the rest of the Shield-Brethren remained to compete against the champions of the Mongol Empire.

Rutger put his hand on Haakon’s shoulder. They regarded each other silently. Saying goodbye would be worse than useless, since Rutger and the others would see it as a premature admission of defeat, and it might demoralize them. Haakon knew he would be back among them in less time than it took to run out to the gutter and take a shit.

I also have some questions about the politics of it all. Here are a couple pictures from the site, Haakon first,

Art by Jamie Jones (from Mongoliad site)

And here’s one of the two Mongolian thug images currently available,

Concept art from Aleksi Briclot (from Mongoliad site)

This is just the beginning of the series and I’m hoping they head away from seems to be a pretty standard storyline where pretty, blond, white people struggle and eventually turn the tide against a demonic, dark-haired and darker-skinned people.

Happy Canada Day 2010 and a comment about Wonder Woman’s makeover

I wish everyone a delightful Canada Day. As for the Wonder Woman makeover, why did they make the costume so dreary?

DC Comics: Wonder Woman: pre- and post-makeover (from Salon.com article)

The earlier version is bright which signals optimism; this new version is sombre signaling a dystopic view of the world. I miss the brighter, more optimistic super heroes. Their numbers are shrinking and I miss the important counterbalance they provided to the more pessimistic, sombre or even anti-super heroes that we’re being graced with now.

(I have chased down a few other commentaries one at Salon.com [where I found the image] by Mary Elizabeth Williams and here’s another by Jen Doll at the Village Voice.)

Sure, the character was a little heavy on the flag waving (she even wears it) but the reference to ancient Greece (she’s an Amazon woman) and ideals was an important part of her mythology. Yes, they’ve changed her mythology too. As per the New York Times article by George Gene Gustines,

In the reimagining of her story, Wonder Woman, instead of growing up on Paradise Island with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters, is smuggled out as a baby when unknown forces destroy her home and slaughter its inhabitants.

Apparently the new Wonder Woman doesn’t really remember her past. For anyone who’s familiar with the series,  that past in Paradise Island featured heavily in some stories and was often referenced in others (the ones I read as a child).

I hope the creative team (Jim Lee and J. Michael Straczynski) reconsiders the sombre colours they’ve used to clothe our heroine and return at least a little of her brightness and optimism.

On that note, Happy Canada Day!

Comments on the Alberta’s Nanotechnology Assets Map in booklet form

I hope this is the first of more editions for Alberta’s Nanotechnology Asset Map booklet in print/PDF versions as it provides one of the very few overviews of the nanotechnology scene in Canada even if it is confined to one province. The only other comparable document (that I know of) was the BC Nanotechnology Asset Map which was distributed in March 2008 by Nanotech BC (now defunct).

I expect nanoAlberta can rely on provincial government support given that (from the booklet),

Recognizing Alberta’s opportunities, the Government of Alberta launched a strategy in 2007 to create $20 billion in new nanotechnology-enabled commerce by the year 2020. Under the strategy, the provincial government has committed to provide $130 million over five years to expand research and development of new commercial applications that support Alberta’s traditional economic strengths and spur economic growth. (p. 2 of the executive summary in the print version, p. 7 of PDF)

The booklet is 118 pages in PDF or 73 pages in print (for some reason the pages for the executive summary are counted separately from the report resulting in the large count disparity between the PDF and print versions).

The report itself includes a listing of nanotechnology researchers in Alberta along with their areas of specialization, an overview of the research institutions, a listing of various agencies designed to support commercialization. a list of current nanotechnology businesses located in Alberta, and more. The interactive map produced by nanoAlberta is available here and includes a link to each company’s website.

I was relieved to see mention of nanotechnology in relation to social issues as per the reference to this team at Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT),

NE3LS – Nanotechnology, Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social Issues

The overarching goal of NE3LS research is to focus attention on the broader issues that nanotechnology raises and to inspire the responsible and ethical translation of nanotechnology to society. NE3LS researchers focus on understanding the development of nanoscience and technology within a broader societal and transnational context. Current and ongoing research is focused on the development of a deeper understanding of issues related to the environment, human health and safety, law, policy and ethics, public opinion, commercialization and the development of a socio-historical analysis of the growth of nanoscience and technology. (p. 69 in PDF and p. 35 in print version)

Interestingly, the researchers for the NE3LS group are not named in the researchers’ listing. I don’t know what the standard international take is on including social researchers and their ilk as part of the nanotechnology research scene but this exclusion reminded me of something. There’s a void to be found in Canada where there have been very few attempts to study and/or discuss social impacts that nanotechnology could have on society generally and in Canada relative to the activity I observe in the US, UK, and Europe. Anyway, I hope one day to see social science and humanities researchers included in lists of nanotechnology researchers in Canada regardless of what is done internationally.

From a navigational perspective, I would have appreciated a table of contents for the full booklet rather than than one for each section (although strangely they didn’t offer a table of contents for the  executive summary which was 20 pp.) of the booklet and an index might have been nice too. I’m not sure why the pagination was not consistent throughout the book since there was no need to exclude the executive summary from the page count.

Overall this is a very welcome first effort.

Site remediation and nano materials; perspectives on risk assessment; Leonardo’s call for nano and art; a new nano art/science book

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) is holding an event on site remediation on Feb. 4, 2010 (12:30 pm to 1:30 pm EST). From the news release,

A new review article appearing in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) co-authored by Dr. Todd Kuiken, Research Associate for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), Dr. Barbara Karn, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Marti Otto, Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency focuses on the use of nanomaterials for environmental cleanup. It provides an overview of current practices; research findings; societal issues; potential environment, health, and safety implications; and possible future directions for nanoremediation. The authors conclude that the technology could be an effective and economically viable alternative for some current site cleanup practices, but potential risks remain poorly understood.

PEN’s Contaminated Site Remediation: Are Nanomaterials the Answer? features the EHN article’s authors  Kulken, Karn, and Otto on a panel with David Rejeski, PEN’s executive director moderating. PEN also has a map detailing almost 60 sites (mostly in the US, 2  in Canada, 4 in Europe, and 1 in Taiwan) where nanomaterials are being used for remediation.  More from the news release,

According to Dr. Kuiken, “Despite the potentially high performance and low cost of nanoremediation, more research is needed to understand and prevent any potential adverse environmental impacts, particularly studies on full-scale ecosystem-wide impacts. To date, little research has been done.”

In its 2004 report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering recommended that the use of free manufactured nanoparticles be prohibited for environmental applications such as remediation until further research on potential risks and benefits had been conducted. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) called for further risk research in 2005 while acknowledging environmental remediation technology as one of nanotechnology’s potential benefits.

If you wish to attend in person (i.e. you are in Washington, DC), you are asked to RSVP here (they provide a light lunch starting at 12 pm) or you can watch the webcast (no RSVP necessary and I will put up a link to the webcast closer to the date).

On the topic of risk, Michael Berger has written an in depth piece about a recently published article, Redefining research risk priorities for nanomaterials, in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. From Berger’s piece,

While research in quantitative risk characterization of nanomaterials is crucially important, and no one advocates abandoning this approach, scientists and policy makers must face the reality that many of these knowledge gaps cannot be expected to be closed for many years to come – and decision making will need to continue under conditions of uncertainty. At the same time, current chemical-based research efforts are mainly directed at establishing toxicological and ecotoxicological and exposure data for nanomaterials, with comparatively little research undertaken on the tools or approaches that may facilitate near-term decisions.

In other words, there’s a big lag between developing new products using nanomaterials and the research needed to determine the health and environmental risks associated both with the production and use of these new materials. The precautionary principle suggests that we not produce or adopt these products until we are certain about risks and how to ameliorate and/or eliminate them. That’s an impossible position as we can never anticipate with any certainty what will happen when something is released to the general public or into the environment at large.  From Berger’s piece,

In their article, [Khara Deanna] Grieger [PhD student at Technical University of Denmark (DTU)], Anders Baun, who heads DTU’s Department of Environmental Engineering, and Richard Owens from the Policy Studies Institute in the UK, argue that there has not yet been a significant amount of attention dedicated to the field of timely and informed decision making for near term decisions. “We see this as the central issue for the responsible emergence of nanotechnologies” says Grieger.

Getting back to site remediation using nanomaterials, since it’s already in use as per the map and the authors state that there hasn’t been enough research into risks, do we pull back and adopt the precautionary principle or do we proceed as intelligently as possible in an area where uncertainty rules? That’s a question I will continue to explore as I get my hands on more information.

On a completely different nano front, the Leonardo magazine has issued a call for papers on nano and art,

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry! To celebrate Leonardo is seeking to publish papers and artworks on the intersections of chemistry,
nanotechnology and art for our on-going special section on nanotechnology and the arts. Since its inception nanotech/science has been intimately connected to chemistry; fullerenes, nanoputians, molecular machines, nano-inorganics and self-assembling molecular systems all spring from the minds and labs of chemists, biochemists and chemical engineers. If you’re a nano-oriented chemist who is serious about art, an artist working on the molecular level, or a chemical educator exploring the mysteries of nano through the arts we are especially seeking submissions from you.

You can send proposals, queries, and/or manuscripts to the Leonardo editorial office: [email protected] You can read more about the call for papers here at Leblogducorps or you can go here to the Leonardo online journal.

Meanwhile, Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science is posting about a new book which integrates art work in an attempt to explain nanotechnology without ever mentioning it. From Andrew’s posting,

How do you write a book about something few people have heard off, and less seem interested in?  The answer, it seems, is to write about something else.

Felice Frankel and George Whitesides have clearly taken this lesson to heart. Judged by the cover alone, their new book “No Small Matter:  Science at the Nanoscale” is all about science in the Twilight zone of the nanoscale

– where stuff doesn’t behave in the way intuition says it should.

Drat! I can’t make the indent go away. At any rate, do visit 2020 as Andrew to read more from this posting and at least one other where he has gotten permission to excerpt parts of the book (text and images).

Trying to understand nano

Just finished a book by Richard Jones called Soft Machines (blog here)…it’s been very helpful…he describes ideas and concepts that help to clarify some of what I’ve been reading online (I got Bloglines to perform a nanotech search) which I read on an almost daily basis…but everything is mixed together so you get very technical scientific information mixed with nano opinion makers, a fair chunk of nonsense, and business style (pretty puffy on occasion) info…anyway, it’s been tough trying to tease out what it all means or might mean when I’m missing some of the basic science concepts and that’s where Soft Machines came in very handy…he does make a few assumptions e.g. that you’ve heard of James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday…(well, I knew one name but couldn’t quite remember why)…thankfully it’s not a big problem, you can understand what he’s talking about from the context…I just wish that my copy had an index and the Recommended Reading listed in the Table of Contents…I guess even the Oxford University Press makes the odd mistake…oh and Jones is funny too…not all the time, it’s not a humour book but just enough to keep it lively…

As for the Canadian nanotechnology scene…apparently nothing happened yesterday…