Monthly Archives: September 2008

What does the public (US) know about nanotech and synthetic biology?

I listened to the live webcast this am from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) which featured the results of a poll and focus group research on awareness of nanotechnology and of synthetic biology. Two speakers from Peter D. Hart Research Associates and David Rejeski, PEN’s executive director.  presented the results from a national survey of 1003 adults conducted from August 25 – 28, 2008. According to the results 75% of adults know little or nothing about nanotechnology with 89% for synthetic biology.

Before receiving notices about the webcast I hadn’t heard of synthetic biology either although I have come across similar research (e.g. my July 8 and 9, 2008 postings ‘Nano, proteins, and Dr. Hongbin Li’).

The research pollsters defined synthetic biology this way, “Synthetic biology is the use of advanced science and engineering to make or redesign living organisms, such as bacteria, so that they can carry out specific functions. Synthetic biology involves making new genetic code, also known as DNA, that does not already exist in nature.”

They also ran clips from focus group work where discussions centered on synthetic biology. Unfortunately, the quality wasn’t great so I didn’t catch much from the clips.

My favourite question was the one about the wording for the description of synthetic biology. You’ll notice that they used the words “make or redesign living organisms” as they told the audience they’d purposefully steered away from the word “create” or any other words which might set people off.

I don’t believe they’ve posted the webcast yet but you can get a copy of the powerpoint presentation from here and, likely, the webcast in a few days.

Canada, India, and nanotechnology Part 2

Darren Frew, Executive Director for the Nanotech BC, kindly answered some questions about the Aug. 10 – 11, 2008 meeting held between Indian scientists and Canadian scientists at the [Canada] National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton. Here is the second half of the interview (first half was posted on Friday, Sept. 26, 2008).

You organized the Cascadia Nano Symposium in March this year and I’m wondering if you’re thinking of inviting some Indian scientists to the next one (assuming you are organizing another one).

The Indian scientists I met in August will be invited to the 2009 Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium, which will be held in late April or early May, 2009

Are there any similarities in the nanotech funding situation between Canada and India? (I’ve seen reports that India spends between $7M and $10M per year on nanotechnology funding. I haven’t seen any information about Canadian spending other than the odd report about a specific grant.)

There are similarities between the funding situation for nanotech in India and Alberta in that both jurisdictions are making strategic investments of several million dollars

How does the research approach to nanotechnology differ between Canadian and Indian nanoscientists? Or are the approaches similar?

There is a much more of a nationally co-ordinated research effort in India.  For example, the Indian Institute of Technology co-ordinates the overall nanotech research effort at the several office it has throughout the country. There is no such national coordination in Canada.

What are the advantages to a collaboration between Canadian and Indian nanoscientists?

Many Canadian  researchers and business people are form India or have roots there, so collaborations with India are both desirable and easy for them.  Also, much of the research being undertaken in India is complimentary to R&D being conducted here in Canada.

Thanks Darren and It sounds like  the 2009 Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium holds some exciting potential. It’s a bit surprising that the scientists didn’t have a stop in BC since (as Darren points out albeit in a different context) there are many connections between BC and India.

I still haven’t received any confirmation of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies webcast (Nanotechnology? Synthetic Biology? Hey, What’s That?) which is supposed to take place tomorrow. I’ll update the blog if I get a confirmation or cancellation notice. (update) They now list tomorrow’s webcast on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website.

Canada, India, and nanotechnology Part 1

I mentioned a while back that there was a meeting with scientists from India and Canada at the National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton, Alberta on Aug. 10 and 11, 2008. It was the one meeting they had in the west and Darren Frew, Nanotech BC‘s Executive Director, kindly answered questions about the meeting.

Did I get the following right?

Canada and India have a nanotech agreement to work together on some projects (recently announced)…there is funding available for this…based on this agreement, a group of Indian scientists came on a country-wide tour of Canada and met some of our nanoscientists…it was a 10 day trip with most of the stops in Eastern Canada…there was one meeting in Western Canada, held Aug. 10-11, 2008 in Edmonton at the [Canada] National Institute of Nanotechnology…

There is a working agreement on science & technology in general, not nanotech specifically

Here are the questions

Who was at the Edmonton meeting?

There were 10 visiting scientists from India, most of who are affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology, approximately 20 people from NINT, The University of Alberta (U of A), The Alberta government and companies that have spun off from the U of A. Dr. Peyman Servati from UBC (University of British Columbia) and I were the only BC reps.

Was there some solid discussion about collaborating on future project or was it more a ‘getting to know you’ situation for everyone involved?

There was very sound discussion regarding collaboration, in fact, an agreement was signed between the National Physics Laboratory in New Delhi and one of the Edmonton-based ‘spinoff’ companies.

What kinds of projects will come out of the Aug. 10-11, 2008 meeting? or if there weren’t any specific commitments made, what areas do you see as having the most potential for future collaboration?

See above

Will there be future visits from Indian scientists?

Almost certainly

Is there a possibility they’ll come to BC on their next official Canada tour (if there is one)?


On Monday I’ll have the rest of the Q & A including some info. about the 2009 Cascadia Nanotech Symposium and the differences and similarities between nanotech funding in Canada and India.

Continue reading

Green nano and too much intellectual property

US Congress approved the reauthorization of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Act in June 2008. First approved in 2003, this new version of the act includes, for the first time, provisions for “a proactive research plan to account for environmental, health, and safety issues involved in nanotechnology research.” There’s more from the news release here. Jim Hutchison, a chemistry professor from the University of Oregon, is one of the leaders in ‘green’ nanotechnology and one the prime advocates for the new inclusion to the act. There’s an interview with Jim Hutchision here.  The Senate was supposed to be considering the revised bill now (during September 2008) but, given the financial services and structure situation in the US, I would imagine that this bill will be set aside for a time.

There’s a new report from the The Innovation Partnership (based in Canada) suggesting that intellectual property laws are stifling innovation and cutting off whole areas of research. The discussion centers largely around biotechnology but the freezing of innovation is felt everywhere not just in the sciences. There are more details in an article (which mentions nanotechnology at the end) here and in the report here. I gather that the report is advising that a new model for intellectual property law be adopted.

The entertainment industry (music, movies, books, etc.) is engaged in huge fights over intellectual property issues. (1) JK Rowling (Harry Potter books) just won her case against a publisher who was producing a Harry Potter lexicon. I gather that from a legal perspective (even with the current intellectual property laws in place) she shouldn’t have won and would likely lose on appeal. Of course, does the publisher have enough money to continue with an appeals process?  (2) The Canadian government introduced a draconian Copyright Act or revision to the current act which would make keeping a copy of an old tv programme illegal after a period of time. In other words, if you videotaped Buffy the Vampire Slayer eight years ago when it was on tv and you still have a copy, you’d be in violation of the new act. The proposed Act would create any number of new legal violations and I gather these new provisions were heavily influenced by some US-based lobby group.  From the writer’s perspective, I’m torn. I’m happy to share my work but I wouldn’t be happy to have someone copy my work and subsequently make a fortune from it.  I guess it’s a question of being fairly compensated for my work and getting acknowledgment of my contribution.

Getting back to JK Rowling and the lexicon, she’s gotten more than adequate compensation for her work from various sources and the lexicon attributes the work to her. The author of the lexicon has gone through the books and created a reference for anyone who reads Rowling’s books. Arguably the lexicon assists sales of her books because now a reader can look up a reference to a character in Book 5 who was first introduced in Book 2 and not mentioned since. The lexicon makes things easier for the reader.

Nano, the arts, and the future

In New York state, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is  opening, on October 3, 2008, a new performance/high tech/research space called the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center or EMPAC. The whole thing is being powered by Rensselaer’s Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations and despite its name the center is supposed to bring together artists and scientists. In other words, the general public may go there for a performance, artists can collaborate virtually, or scientists can “immerse themselves in data and fly through a breaking wave or inspect the kinks in a DNA molecule.” There’s more in the NY Times article titled ‘Art and Science, Virtual and Real, Under one Big Roof’ here.

Dr. Andy Miah (University of the West of Scotland) is launching (on October 30, 2008 in Liverpool, UK) a new book with a symposium both of which are called, Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty. The book looks exciting. I notice that Richard Jones has a chapter in it and I loved Jones’s nanotechnology book, ‘Soft Machines’.  It’s not obvious from the title but the book does discuss science, technology, and ethics in relation to art and our futures.  Wish I could attend. More  information about the book and symposium here.

A few weeks ago, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies announced an event for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. It’s called: Nanotechnology? Synthetic Biology? Hey, What’s That? The details aren’t up on their website yet but according to the press release the talk will focus on the results of an opinion poll that was run in August 2008, asking people if they’d heard of nanotechnology or synthetic biology (“An emerging area of research that uses advanced science and engineering to make or redesign living organisms, such as bacteria, so that they can carry out specific functions”). Two representatives from the polling company and David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies will be speaking from 12:30 – 1:30 pm ET next week, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008. you can attend by webcast (I’ll put up a link when the site has the webcast set up). If you’re attending the live event, please rsvp here.

Vancouver as a literary city

Back in April 2008 there was a big noise about Vancouver applying to UNESCO for designation as a UNESCO Literary City. Alma Lee who founded the Vancouver International Writers Festival was leading the effort. I haven’t heard much about it since but it turns out that Melbourne (Australia) just received their designation in August 2008. They were second city to receive it after Edinburgh. Somewhere in my internet travels, I saw that there are currently three other cities (in addition to Vancouver) with applications: Kolkata, Iowa City,  and Dublin (I can’t confirm this last one).

Further investigation showed that the Literary Cities are part of something bigger, the Creative Cities Network. Apparently UNESCO has a whole series of designations, Cities of Design, Cities of Music, Cities of Gastronomy, etc.

The April publicity was in aid of a public meeting to garner support locally. At the same time, city council was asked to support the effort. These were the last steps for completing the application. So far, there’s no word as to Vancouver’s current status.

Meanwhile, the Word on the Street (WOTS) festival is coming up on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2008. Heather Haley (her website is here) will be appearing at the Poetry Tent on Homer St. and Georgia St. at 2 pm. For more on the festival, go here.

The Nanotech Mysteries wiki is now open

I’ve done all the tagging and tweaking that I needed to make this working version similar (and maybe even better) than the version for my student submission (my dissertation project for an MA in Creative Writing and New Media from De Montfort University through their Institute of Creative Technology). Even better, it can now be expanded and changed around. So for anyone who’s curious, The Nanotech Mysteries: an initiation in the science and the technology is here.

Plus I found something interesting on the I’d rather be writing blog about Floss Manuals. It’s a wiki site where you and/or your team can create technical documentation collectively and, if you wish, print it up as a book. It also offers a PDF option.  If you want to check out Floss directly, go here. The link should open up a page listing released manuals.

ISTP Canada, China, and your nanotech ambitions

ISTP Canada is the International Science and Technology Partnership [programme]. It’s a not-for-profit organization which somehow acts as an intermediary for collaborative economic efforts with India, China, and Brazil.  Short story: they have announced their 2008 Canada-China Call for Proposals for R&D Collaborations. It’s open to all Science & Technology projects but they are especially interested in: Agriculture Foods and Bio-products; Energy; Environment; and Health & Life Sciences/Biotechnology. Expressions of interest (EOI) have to be delivered by Monday, Sept. 15, 2008.  For more details, go here.

The whole approach is oriented to commercial applications and economic benefits. Their website mentions Brazil as the 3rd country of interest (initiatives of some type are slated for 2008/2009). Weirdly, there’s an Israeli flag at the top of the website pages, beside the China and India flags. There’s nothing on the home page or the About page or the Partners page that explains the presence of the Israeli flag. Intriguing, non?

I may be getting an interview with Martha Cook Piper whose appointment to the [Canada] National Institute of Nanotechnology was announced in April 2008.

Nanocoating on fighter planes and a fresh nanotechnology/synthetic biology webcast

There was a big announcement yesterday from Canada’s Minister of Industry,  Jim Prentice, that the federal government was investing $4.6M in R&D for  “next-generation nanotechnology-based coatings for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.” The JSF is a US-led international programme although I didn’t see mention of any countries other than Canada and the US. There aren’t any specifics about the materials or the science of it all, presumably those would fall under the category of military secrets. You can go here for some general details about the company (Integran) that will be getting the money and the university (Univ. of Toronto) involvement.

I got an invitation for an event that the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is holding on Sept. 30, 2008. It’s called  Results of Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology Public Opinion Poll? The opinion poll is fresh as it was held in August 2008.  You do need to rsvp if you’re planning to attend the live event in Washington or you can view the live webcast without an rsvp. The event will take place from 12:30 to 1:30 pm Eastern Time. I will post about this again closer to the date. On a side note, they still have not managed to reschedule the L’Oreal event where there was going to be a discussion about cosmetics, nanotechnology, risk, and the precautionary principle.

Interview with Troy McConaghy (part of the Nano Lands team)

The Nano Lands project is the UK’s National Plysical Laboratory’s (NPL) Second Life Nanotechnology project. It’s a virtual environment where they’ve developed a whole series of nano displays and experiences. Troy McConaghy who helped to construct Nano Lands very kindly answered some questions about himself and the project,

What you do: I do projects in the virtual world Second Life.

Where are you located: (Ontario?) Yes, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

[How did you get the job?] I knew a guy working at NPL from our involvement with the International Spaceflight Museum, among other things.  He wanted to hire me to do this job and I accepted the offer.

Did you know much about nanotech before you started? A little bit.

What did you learn about nanotech from working on this project? I learned a lot about nanotech, from the exhibits and events that happened while I was on that project: how MOSFETs are built, how AFMs work, the history of nanotubes, how the University of Waterloo set up the first undergraduate program in nanotechnology and much more.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to vast Nano Lands? Do you mean visit? You can visit them today – just open the “Map” in Second Life and look for “Nanotechnology” – it’s the name of the sim. Then teleport there.

What advantages does a virtual environment offer for someone wanting to find out about nanotech? You can see models and simulations that would either be impossible or very expensive in the physical world.

Is there anything you’d like to add? One should really be careful to distinguish nanoscience from nanotechnology. Science is not technology.

(Interview Edited [October 25, 2010] to change font size and increase readibility.) More about Troy McConaghy here.  For those not familiar with the abbreviation AFM, that’s an atomic force microscope, which is often used when working at the nanoscale. I had to look up MOSFET and according to Wikipedia, it’s a metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect-transistor, which is used to amplify or switch electronic signals. My guess is that they use this device at the NPL and decided to reproduce it in Second Life.

That last comment of McConaghy’s about science and technology is interesting for a number of reasons. Nanotechnology in particular has a problem. While the idea was more or less defined by Richard Feynman, a physicist, in a talk he gave in 1959 (there’s some debate about where it really starts by literary theorists), The idea was named ‘nanotechnology’ by Norio Taniguchi, an engineer, in 1974. It then got popularized by another engineer, K. Erci Drexler in his 1986 book, ‘Engines of Creation’. I have more about the origins story on my wiki. (if you want to check it out, go to and either use the origins tag or View all pages and check out the ‘Storytellers create nano’ and the ‘Modern Times’ pages.

Back to science and technology, I think the genie is out of the bottle where nanotechnology is concerned. Personally, I don’t like the conflation and I don’t think the increasing pressure that scientists of all stripes are under to do only work that has commercial applications (the sooner, the better) is good for us as a society.  We need the dreams and we need the ideas not just because they might be useful some day in the future but because it enriches us all in some indefinable, unquantifiable fashion.