Monthly Archives: June 2009

Transatlantic nanotechnology, kids learning about nano, and a bit about Playboy bunnies

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) will be hosting an event in September 2009,

Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation: Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC
September 23, 2009

Nanotechnology will impact our lives on a global scale. Over the past year experts from the London School of Economics (LSE), Chatham House, Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies have been examining issues of transatlantic regulatory cooperation.

The main purpose of this event is to discuss recommendations from this research effort that are part of a forthcoming report by LSE and ELI being published by Chatham House. It also is aimed at generating and examining new ideas to enable greater transatlantic cooperation on nanotechnology oversight today and in the future.

The forthcoming report will be launched in the European Union at Chatham House, London UK, September 10 – 11, 2009.

If you can get to PEN’s event in Washington, DC, registration is here. (If you can’t get to Washington, the event will be webcast, live and also archived for later viewing). As for the London event,  you can go here to the London School of Economics for more details. Or you can register for it by emailing: Ms. Carmen Gayoso ([email protected])

I’d heard of the Nano Brothers before but, until this morning, I’d never seen their act. It’s part of a clip from a kid’s PBS series (dragonflytv) where the two hostesses (Ebony and Jasmine) investigate nanotechnology and what the measurement one billionth of a metre actually means.  There’s a transcript and a clip here. alerted me to this tidbit. The Lower Key Marsh rabbit in Florida was declared an endangered species in 1990, today there are fewer than 300 rabbits, which are also known as Playboy Bunnies (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri). They are subspecies of marsh rabbit named to honor Hugh Hefner after his organization donated money to support field research.  There are more details in the media release on here.

credit: Rosanna Tursi (downloaded from

credit: Rosanna Tursi (downloaded from

Good on Hugh Hefner and it was smart of the researchers to find a new way to publicize their bunny’s plight.

Ununbium and ‘The Elements’ and an update of science policy doings in Canada and UK

A new element, ununbium, is being added to the periodic table. There’s more about it here on Nanowerk News. Seeing the media release this morning reminded me of Tom Lehrer’s song, ‘The Elements‘ so I searched and found an animated version of the song here. Just scroll down and pick your connection type (dial-up or broadband).

On the science policy front, there was an announcement that a UK parliamentary  Science and Technology Committee has been approved/reinstated last week on the BBC News (online)

The committee will be made up of the same members as the existing Innovation, Universities, Skills, and Science Committee (IUSS).

Some MPs recently raised concerns that government science policy would be marginalised in the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

I commented on the new department and reporting structure on my blog here earlier this month. This comes at a time when Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, seems to be fading out of the picture. You can read Rob Annan’s post about it here on ‘Don’t leave Canada behind’. As Rob points out, this comes on the heels of the SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humantities Research Council) situation regarding their approved funding for a joint Queen’s University and York University conference titled, ‘Israel/Palestine Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace‘. Goodyear apparently requested that in addition to the peer-review the proposal had already received before being approved that it be subjected to a second peer-review after the fact. There’s more here on Rob’s blog, starting June 10, 2009 and, for another viewpoint, you can check out Jacob T. Levy’s  blog here.

I got a comment from Andrew Maynard where he clarified a statement he made in his screencast and a few things about the Twitter science visuals that he offered in some of his latest postings. Thanks Andrew.

Yeah, that “classic” sort of crept into the screencast – by the time I had made ten botched attempts to record it, I guess the bubble charts were beginning to look a little old!

To be honest, I’m not sure how widespread they are. I used them here because it’s a convenient way to summarize data covering a large span – because the plotted area is related to the data being visualized, it is easier to compare very large with very small numbers.

In this way, I think the display offers some intuitive insight into what might be relevant. But I’m not convinced it provides much of an analytical insight. Which is one reason why it’s useful to have access to multiple visualizations I suspect. And probably more importantly, why I prefer to allow access to the root data.

My comments are in my June 23 and 24, 2009 postings and Andrew’s posts are here.

Friday, June 26, 2009, I got an update and other comments from Victor Jones (consultant and former chair of Nanotech BC) about Environment Canada’s plan to have Canadian businesses report on the nanomaterials they use in their products.

interesting summary on nanomaterials and yes the Canadian plan is working its way through the bureacracy. Similar issues of definitions and classifications make the effort far from simple. If ever there was a case of the devil in the small details – nano materials has it. Remember to to check out for a community dedicated to prototcols for the safe handling of nanomaterials. For an intriguing look at this sub micro world check out

Thanks Victor. I haven’t had a chance to check out Victor’s recommendations for other sources of info. but I will report back on them soon. If you are interested, there is a three part interview with Victor on this site, May 14, 15, and 19, 2009.

Nanocosmetics, interactive maps, Norway’s nanomaterials reporting initiative, and a little dash of poetry

I found a new nano website this week for a group called the Nanotechnology Citizen Engagement Organization, located in Wisconsin, US. I was directed to their nanocosmetics page by a local (Vancouver, BC-based) hairdresser and salon owner, Urs Eichenberger. He’s found what looks to be an excellent site if you’re interested in researching potential nanomaterials risks. The nanocosmetics page provides an overview which they seem to keep up-to-date. The article they list on zinc oxide particles (found in sun screens and other products) damaging mouse stem cells shows that these particles can pose a danger and more research is needed.

Urs has long followed  the nanocosmetics and beauty products debates in Europe and has adopted a precautionary principle with regard to his own product lines. In short, none of the products that he uses or sells at his Vancouver salon Strands have any nanomaterials. If you’re interested, you can find Strands hair salon website here or you can follow Urs on Twitter here.

Courtesy of Rob Annan, I’ve found an interactive map for Knowledge Infrastructure Projects across Canada. (The map is still being developed by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada so you may notice a few errors or inconsistencies.)  A visual representation of where the funding has been or is being distributed across Canada, the map is in keeping with this week’s theme about both visualizing information and adopting more multimodal means of conveying it.

The government of Norway has just announced a reporting scheme for companies using nanomaterials. From the media release on Nanowerk News,

The scheme is not strictly mandatory. …
First, it is unclear what should be regarded a nanomaterial. One example is nanoparticles manufactured from natural minerals. A company can then assume that the nanoparticles are equal to the mother substance, and do not reward special attention or a new entry to the Product Register.
A legal commitment to declare a product arises only if a significant risk has been identified. Few nanomaterials will qualify under this criterion in the short term.

This reminds me a little of the Environment Canada initiative which requires a one time only mandatory report from companies. I posted about this initiative Feb.3, 2009 here. The Canadian plan is not about risks per se but seems to be an attempt to establish an inventory of companies and the nanomaterials currently in use. I haven’t heard about the Environment Canada initiative since, has anyone else? Please do let me know. The Norway plan is related to other nanotechnology initiatives taking place in Europe which is discussed further in the media release.

At last, the poetry. Heather Haley (yes if you go to her site, she really is that gorgeous) is going to be featured in a writer’s event on Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC. Details:

AURAL Heather @ the Write On Bowen Festival

AURAL Heather @ the Write On Bowen Festival
AURAL Heather is the new weather, a unique, sublime fusion of song and spoken word by firey iconoclast-poet-vocalist Heather Haley and dazzling guitarist-producer, Roderick Shoolbraid.
Friday, July 10, 2009
7:30pm – 11:00pm
Cates Hill Chapel
Bowen Island, BC
[email protected]

Bowen Island has been inspiring writers for almost a century. Maybe it’s the beautiful natural surroundings or maybe it’s the welcoming community that gets the creative juices flowing. Either way (or both!), Bowen Island is the place to be for aspiring and experienced writers on the weekend of July 10 to 12. Come spend the day or the whole weekend! All you need to bring is your notebook and your imagination!

Get here the fast, easy and fun way, on the Bowen Express from Granville Island:
Sponsored by the Bowen Island Arts Council, Write on Bowen! kicks off at 7:30pm on Friday, July 10 at Cates Hill Chapel with an intense and exciting evening of readings and performances featuring Bowen’s own Spider Robinson, Pauline LeBel, AURAL Heather (with Heather Haley and Roderick Shoolbraid), Keath Fraser, Susanna Braund, and Nick Faragher.
Bowen Island Arts Council

Have a nice weekend!

Sensing, nanotechnology and multimodal discourse analysis

Michael Berger has an interesting article on carbon nanotubes and how the act of observing them may cause damage. It’s part of the Nanowerk Spotlight series here,

A few days ago we ran a Nanowerk Spotlight (“Nanotechnology structuring of materials with atomic precision”) on a nanostructuring technique that uses an extremely narrow electron beam to knock individual carbon atoms from carbon nanotubes with atomic precision, a technique that could potentially be used to change the properties of the nanotubes. In contrast to this deliberately created defect, researchers are concerned about unintentional defects created by electron beams during examination of carbon nanomaterials with transmission electron microscopes like a high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM)

The concern is that that electrons in the beam will accidentally knock an atom out of place. It was believed that slowing the beam to 80 kV would address the problem but new research suggests that’s not the case.

If you go to Nanowerk to read more about this, you’ll find some images of what’s going on at the nanoscale. The images you see are not pictures per se. They are visual representations based on data that is being sensed at the nanoscale. The microscopes used to gather the data are not optical. As I understand it, these microscopes are haptic as the sensing is done by touch, not by sight. (If someone knows differently, please do correct me.) Scientists even have a term for interpreting this data, blobology.

I’ve been reading up on these things and it’s gotten me to thinking about how we understand and interpret not just the macroworld that our senses let us explore but the micro/nano/pico/xxx scale worlds which we cannot sense directly. In that light, the work that Kay O’Halloran, an associate professor in English Language and Literature and the Director of the Multimodal Analysis Lab at the National University of Singapore, is doing in the area of multimodal discourse analysis looks promising. From her article in Visual Communication, vol. 7 (4),

Mathematics and science, for example, produce a new space of interpretance through mixed-mode semiosis, i.e. the use of language, visual imagery, and mathematical symbolism to create a new world view which extends beyond the possible using language. (p. 454)

Nano bubbles and other bubbles laced with salt

I’ve not heard of nanobubbles before but apparently it is possible to form them from conventional microbubbles. Researchers in Japan have figured out how to make the nanobubbles more stable by using salt. Nanowerk has the media release, which includes a pretty graphic, here.  Applications for nanobubbles have much potential for preventing arteriosclerosis, better food preservation, and as cleaning agents.

Researchers have discovered that salt can be stretched physically. (That’s not what my science teachers told me!) The unexpected discovery may help researchers better understand sea salt aerosols which have been implicated in ozone depletion, smog formation, and as triggers for asthma. The full media release can be read here on Nanowerk News.

I mentioned the bubble charts on Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog yesterday and noted that I have some difficulty fully understanding the information they convey. I’m much more comfortable with standard bar charts. I know how to read them and can tell if the information is being manipulated.

I noted that in Maynard’s screen cast he describes them as “classic” bubble charts. I haven’t come across them before but that doesn’t preclude their use in sectors that are not familiar to me. At any rate, it got me to thinking about a paper I just wrote called, ‘Nanotechnology, storytelling, sensing, and materiality‘. In it I suggest that we will need modes other than the purely visual to understand nanotechnology (or science at quantum scales) and implied that we rely too much on the visual. Then yesterday I posted here that I think visual data will become increasingly important. My suspicion is that both are somewhat true and I think the answer lies in a multimodal approach. More about that tomorrow.

Nanotechnology metaphors and understanding visual data

I found a typesetting metaphor today in a media release titled, ‘Molecular typesetting — proofreading without a proofreader‘.  The number of publishing, writing, and reading metaphors associated with nanotechnology has always startled me.  As for the article, it is about how proteins are built with a minimal number of errors in a process that researchers compare to typesetting. If you want to read more, you can go here to Nanowerk News.

I looked at Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog and found a posting that presents some visual data about science twittering. He has three spheres made of bubbles or smaller spheres representing the number of followers that science twittering attracts. He’s done this before and I’m still not sure how to interpret the data and I mean that from two perspectives. I don’t understand the visual data being presented very well (Maynard does provide an explanation in a screencast) and while I find the whole Twitter scene interesting I’m waiting to see if it becomes something more substantive (which seems to be Maynard’s stance as well).

With regard to visual data, I think this will become increasingly important and it was one of the reasons I was so interested in Kay O’Halloran’s talk at the 2009 Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences about mathematics and using visual data to communicate about it. Unfortunately, the organizers were not able to arrange a webcast but I’ll  see if I can dig up so more information about what she’s doing.

As for the Twitter phenomenon, it seems interesting to me that MySpace has just downsized itself (more here) as I can recall when it was as a big trend as Twitter is now. I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from the popularity of any social networking phenomenon. I think it is clear that people are interested in each other (and sometimes for the oddest of reasons) as for anything else I need more data.

One brief note, I had occasion to email Andrew Maynard last week and during the exhange I asked him why the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is having fewer events. (I figured their Chief Science Advisor would know why.) He says there is a reorganization taking place.

Marketing, safety, and nanotechnology plus there’s another Synthetic Bio event

There’s a new study that suggests that scientists and the general public (in the US) have differing attitudes to nanotechnology. The study conducted by Dietram Scheufele and Elizathe Corley (professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arizona State University, respectively) shows that scientists are focusing on potential risks and economic values while the public is focusing on potential benefits when asked about regulating nanotechnology. More details about the study and where it’s been published can be found here on Azonano.

This information provides an interesting contrast to a media release about a conference in Brussels (June 10, 2009) where Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnolgies, expressed concern that companies in Europe are beginning to drop the mention of nanotechnologies on product labels.

“We have seen some companies drop the ‘nano’ claim while continuing to use nanotechnology. This suggests nanotechnology is going underground,” [Maynard]said.

Harald Throne, researcher at the National Institute for Consumer Research in Norway, echoed concerns that companies may be becoming less inclined to highlight nanomaterials.

He searched a website run by a major international cosmetics company, using keywords like ‘nanotechnology’ and ‘nano’, to estimate how many products contain nanotechnology. Throne’s search turned up 29 products in 2007, but when he repeated the same exercise recently, there were zero hits.

This, he said, suggests that companies may now view ‘nano’ as a negative label rather than an added value.

You can read more about it here on the Euractiv website. I couldn’t find the Brussels conference they mention but maybe you’ll have better luck.

These contrasting reports would suggest that attitudes in Europe differ from attitudes in the US where we’re discussing the general public. I make this inference from the fact that companies in Europe are not making the nanotechnology claim and presumably that is because they are concerned about the public’s attitude.  It should be noted that a European industry representative quoted in the media release claims that the problem lies with the difficulty of actually defining a nanomaterial. The representative does have  a point of sorts. Still, I do wonder why companies were able to make the nanotechnology claim in 2007 despite the lack of definitions.

There’s a synthetic biology event coming up this Wednesday, June 24, 2009, 9:30 am. to 10:30 am PST.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009, 12:30-1:30 PM (light lunch available at 12 noon)
Erik Parens, Senior Research Scholar, The Hastings Center
Gregory Kaebnick, Research Scholar, The Hastings Center
David Rejeski, Moderator, Director, Synthetic Biology Project
The emerging field of synthetic biology will allow researchers to create biological systems that do not occur naturally as well as to re-engineer existing biological systems to perform novel and beneficial tasks. Synthetic biology promises significant advances in areas such as biofuels, specialty chemicals, agriculture, and medicine but also poses potential risks. As the science and its applications develop, a comprehensive approach to addressing ethical and social issues of emerging technologies as a whole is called for if scarce intellectual resources are to be used optimally, according to a new report authored by Erik Parens, Josephine Johnston, and Jacob Moses of The Hastings Center.
In Ethical Issues in Synthetic Biology: An Overview of the Debates, the authors examine how the ethical issues raised by a variety of emerging technologies are often similar and familiar.  They find that these similarities are abundant enough to justify an effort to develop an ethical framework that cuts across emerging and converging technologies.  Indeed, rather than stovepiping ethical questions into the hyphenated areas of bio-ethics, nano-ethics, neuro-ethics and so on, it is time to begin speaking about the ethics of emerging technologies as a whole.
On June 24, Erik Parens will discuss the report’s findings, exploring the differences between physical and non-physical harms and pro-actionary and pre-cautionary frameworks, in an effort to better define the ethical issues around synthetic biology.  Gregory Kaebnick, also of The Hastings Center, will describe the Center’s new, multi-year project that will examine the ethical issues raised in the report in greater depth.

Cascio thoughts on augmenting intelligence and some other odds and sods

It’s Jamais Cascio time … again! He’s got an article here in the Atlantic (July/August 2009 issue) about humans surviving because we get smarter. In the past this has been a passive, reactive response to changing environmental conditions but now we’re evolving ourselves in a proactive fashion. From the article,

Yet in one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as “exo­cortical technology,” but you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable:

Cascio goes on to describe curent and potential augmentations and possibilities. My biggest reservations centre around his enthusiasm for using drugs to augment intelligence. Specifically, he extolls the virtues of modafinil (trade name Provigil) which, according to Cascio, is widely used in the tech community for its intelligence enhancing capabilities and for the fact that you will need to sleep less. Have you ever looked at a Compendium of Pharmaceuticals? It’s a comprehensive listing of drugs that doctors and pharamacists use to see what kinds of side effects and problems a drug can cause? I haven’t looked up this drug but I have done it for others and I’m willing to bet that there are any number of unpleasant side effects possible. As to what impact, long term (decades long?) regular use might have … who knows?

Interestingly some of the enhancements that Cascio attributes to the drug are also described by sages as a consquence of something called awakening,

… I noticed a much greater capacity for clarity and simplicity. My mind became a more subtle tool, a more powerful tool; it coud be used in a very precise way, like a laser. Before this transformation happened, I wouldn’t say my mind operated on that level, so there was some sort of a transformation that led to a new sense of clarity and focus. (pp. 121-2) The End of Your World; uncensored straight talk on the nature of enlightenment by Adyashanti.

For another take on Cascio’s article, go to the Foresight Institute here.

If you are interested in a roundup of Nanotechnology News this week, you can visit the blog ‘This Week in Nanotechnologyhere. Also, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to an event at the Smithsonian. It doesn’t look like there will be a webcast but if you’re in Washington, DC (Wednesday, July 8, 2009, 10 am to 11 am at the Woodrow Wilson Center),

Secretary [of the Smithsonian] Wayne Clough explains how the Smithsonian Institution can make major contributions on issues of national and international concern, particularly global warming and biodiversity, education, and issues of national identity. He discusses how the Institution is connecting in new ways with new audiences.

If you can attend, contact: [email protected].

Have a nice weekend!

Geo engineering and climate change

I just finished reading an article by Jamais Cascio in the Wall Street Journal on geoengineering. I was directed there from Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog and while this isn’t my usual thing it’s one of those ideas that’s both intriguing and deeply disturbing to me.

I’ve read other pieces by Cascio and find him to be a very thoughtful writer so I’m inclined to pay attention when he writes about something. From what I can gather after reading his article, geoengineering needs to be seriously considered now that climate change is rapidly approaching a crisis/tipping point. (Others may disagree with whether or not we are having a crisis but that’s another discussion.) We have not sufficiently decreased the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere thereby allowing us to reverse the changes currently taking place. Cascio is proposing that we consider geoengineering not as a solution to too much carbon being released but as a stopgap (breathing space) while we seriously address the issues. You can read Cascio’s article here and you can read Andrew Maynard’s comments about it here.

The most feasible solutions as described by Cascio make me very nervous (either pump sulfates or seawater up into the atmosphere) but he presents a persuasive case for a geoengineering solution coupled with serious efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The end of nanotechnology blogs?

I’ve noticed a bit of an information slowdown lately but I assumed that had to with my aggregator. However, Dexter Johnson on his IEEE tech talk blog (June 16, 2009 posting) suggests that the number of nano focused blogs is shrinking. He makes a good case for the disappearance or the morphing into other topic areas of English language nano blogs in the US and UK. I’m not sure whether this is a temporary lull or an indication that nanotechnology is the process of being accepted without too much concern.

Last week, I noticed that Richard Jones (Soft Machines blog) has accepted a new position at Sheffield University and won’t be so involved with nanotechnology issues. In fact, it seems that he won’t have much time for blogging at all. I’m sorry to see that as he offered interesting insights although I wasn’t always able to follow some of his more technical points easily. In his comments to his latest (possibly last?) blog posting he offers some commentary about the UK government moving the Science portfolio. (You’ll note he describes the portfolio as becoming part of a business ministry or business super portfolio.)

Richard Jones says:

The big issue for UK science in the next few years is simply the fact that the public finances are in such a mess (partly from the cost of bailing out the banks, but more because the UK government got used to receiving large revenues from the financial sector which, in retrospect, weren’t based on real wealth creation). A minor side-effect of the recent political shenanigans is that control of the science budget has been seized by Peter Mandelson, who is keen to push a program of industrial activism, and is clearly now the second most powerful figure in the UK government. I suspect science will do better in this environment than it would with a Conservative government with a primary focus on reducing government expenditure, though either way there’s going to be an even greater emphasis on looking for research with demonstrable economic impact.

As for Jones’ new job,

… n my new role at Sheffield – as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation I’ll be responsible for the health of research right across the University.

I think that does it for today.