Monthly Archives: October 2009

Is science superior?

In yesterday’s posting (Oct. 29, 2009), I started to dissect a comment from Bruce Alberts’ (keynote speaker) speech at the Canadian Science Policy Conference that’s taking place this week in Toronto (find link to conference in yesterday’s posting). He suggested that more scientists should be double-trained, e.g. as scientist-journalists; scientist-lawyers; etc. He also pointed to China as a shining example of how scientists and engineers can be integrated into the government bureaucracy and their use of scientific methods to run their departments.

Speaking as someone who is fascinated by science, I am taken aback.  Science and scientists have done some wonderful things but they’ve also created some awful problems. The scientific method in and of itself is not perfect and it cannot be applied to all of life’s problems. Let’s take for example, economics. That’s considered a science and given the current state of the world economy, it would seem that this science has failed. The former head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, admitted that in all his figurings he failed to take into account human nature. That’s a problem in economics–all those beautiful algorithms don’t include behaviour as a factor.

Even sciences that study behaviour, social sciences, have a far from perfect understanding of human behaviour. Marketers who draw heavily from the social sciences have yet to find the perfect formula for selling products.

As for China appointing a world-renown molecular biologist (Chen Zhu) as their Minister of Health, I hope he does well but it won’t be because he has applied the techniques and managements skills he’s used successfully in laboratories. In medicine, any clinician will tell you that there’s a big difference between the results from research done in a laboratory (and in controlled human clinical trials) and the outcome when that research is applied to a general population. As for management skills, directing people who have similar training is a lot easier than directing people who have wildly dissimilar educational backgrounds and perspectives. (Professional vocabularies can provide some distinct challenges.)

I guess it’s the lack of humility in the parts of the speech Rob Annan (Don’t leave Canada behind blog) has posted that troubles me. (I’ve been to these types of conferences and have observed this lack on previous occasions and with different speakers.)

As for scientists becoming double-trained, that’s not unreasonable but I think it should go the other way as well. I think science and scientists have something to learn from society. What Alberts is describing is an unequal relationship, where one form of knowledge and thought process is privileged over another.

I’ll get started on Day 2 of this conference (Preston Manning was one of the keynote speakers) on Monday, Nov. 2, 2009.

Canadian science policy conference has started; silver nanoparticles wash off your antibacterial socks

Rob Annan is reporting from the science policy conference taking place in Torontp, Oct. 28-30, 2009. (More info. about the conference here and Rob’s blog here with his comments and links to other commentaries.) From the 2nd keynote speaker’s (Bruce Alberts, scientist and editor-in-chief of Science magazine) speech as Rob reports,

“If you want your government interested in science and technology, send them to China”, he [Alberts] quipped. He pointed out that the Chinese Minister of Health, Chen Zhu, is a world-renowned molecular biologist who is reshaping his country’s health ministry and is employing many of the tools that served him well as a scientist. Alberts suggested that China’s embrace of science and its methods, the number of scientists and engineers in top roles in the Chinese government, and the role science is playing in the emerging Chinese economy, can’t help but convince other countries of its benefits – I’m [Rob Annan] not so sure…

Alberts also argued that to spread science in society, you need to spread scientists. Too few trained scientists – at the PhD level, he argued – enter other areas of society. Only by having trained scientists working as lawyers, journalists, and – especially – in government, can we expect science to play a broader role in society at large.

Alberts seems a bit fevered. I don’t disagree with the principle that it’s a good idea to have people with grounding in both sciences and other specialties. However, there does seem to be an underlying assumption about science and scientists and to make my point I’m going to flip his suggestion. Have the English majors, the social workers, the musicians, the lawyers, etc. take up science so that  society has more of a role in science. I don’t have time today to finish this but I will get back to it tomorrow.

Swiss scientists have published a study about silver nanoparticles being washed off in the laundry. There is a news item here or here.

Nano kerfuffle in Germany; NRC on impact of photonics research in Canada

Thanks to Dexter Johnson who on his IEEE blog, Nanoclast, recently commented on the publication of a German government paper and the resulting international kerfuffle. Apparently a government agency placed a background paper about nanotechnology and its potential risks on their website which was picked up in newspapers that which used alarming headlines (likely to garner readership).  From Johnson’s comments,

The only thing that the UBA [a German government department] has in their favor for covering up their naïve and ill-conceived decision to catalogue a bunch of research that is not even their own on the risk of nanoparticles is that to a large extent the public doesn’t care.

I’m not sure why Johnson is so harsh about the fact that they did not present original research. I expect a background paper to present information that has been previously published and that represents a broad spectrum of opinions and ideas. I would find it disconcerting if original research were to be included.

The whole incident is an interesting example of how anything can take on its own life (something I discussed in my Monday, Oct. 28, 2009 posting discussion of some recent comments by Eric Drexler). You can read one of the English language versions of a ‘kerfuffle’ article here and a ‘damage control’ article here.

According to a news item on Azonano, Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre has released a report suggesting that over the next five years their client firms will generate about $500M.  You can read more about it all here.

Exploding research

One of the hardest (or, as is sometimes preferred, most challenging)  aspects of writing papers and doing research is keeping track of all your reference material. “Where is that quote? In which paper did I read that stereoselectivity is not an important factor in this process?” and on it goes when you’re writing. For a substantive paper you can end up with 50 or more references and I’ve seen some where there are more 100 . For a thesis or a book, you’re looking at hundreds of references.

Since the advent of computers and then the internet, the bar has risen considerably. Finding both the latest and as many references as possible is much easier online than searching library card catalogues and journal indexes manually.  Correspondingly, the expectations are much higher despite the fact that new tools to access references haven’t really kept up. Yes, there are citation management systems but those are an automated version of putting your references on 3″ x 5″ cards and putting them in order (although the automated version will also spit out whichever citation format you request, which is a wonderful thing).

All of this is a preamble to an article, Science enters the age of Web 2.0, by Jason Palmer on BBC News here about some new tools that can help. From the article,

You might think that professional research scientists are at the forefront of what the newest tools of the internet can provide in terms of collaboration and the discovery of knowledge.

After all, they’re frequently plonked down in front of their computers, with all that the web has to offer them easily at hand, right?

Well, sort of.

“Scientists are all about doing new things but actually we’re very conservative about the way that we do them,” said Cameron Neylon, a senior scientist for biomolecular sciences at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Palmer goes on to discuss the new tools and how they help multiple researchers in varying disciplines spread out amongst several timezones to work together as well as answer some of the questions I posed earlier.

Art conservation and nanotechnology; the science of social networks; carbon nanotubes and possible mesothelioma; Eric Drexler has a few words

It looks like nanotechnology innovations in the field of art conservation may help preserve priceless works for longer and with less damage. The problem as articulated in Michael Berger’s article on Nanowerk is,

“Nowadays, one of the most important problems faced during the cleaning of works of art is the removal of organic materials, mainly acrylic polymers, applied in the past as consolidants or protective coatings,” explains Piero Baglioni, a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence. “Unfortunately, their application induces a drastic alteration of the interfacial properties of the artwork and leads to increased degradation. These organic materials must therefore be removed.”

Baglioni and his colleagues at the University of Florence have developed “… a micro-emulsion cleaning agent that is designed to dissolve only the organic molecules on the surface of a painting …”

This is a little off Azonano’s usual beat (and mine too) but Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Army Research Laboratory is launching an interdisciplinary research center for the study of social and cognitive networks.  From the news item,

“Rensselaer offers a unique research environment to lead this important new network science center,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We have assembled an outstanding team of researchers, and built powerful new research platforms. The team will work with one of the largest academic supercomputing centers in the world – the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations – and the leading visualization and simulation capabilities within our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will bring together our world-class scientists in the areas of computer science, cognitive science, physics, Web science, and mathematics in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing and global social climate of today.”

The center will study the fundamentals of social and cognitive networks and their roles in today’s society and organizations, including the U.S. Army. The goal will be to gain a deeper understanding of these networks and build a firm scientific basis in the field of network science. The work will include research on large social networks, with a focus on networks with mobile agents. An example of a mobile agent is someone who is interacting (e.g., communicating, observing, helping, distracting, interrupting, etc.) with others while moving around the environment.

My suspicion is that the real goal for the work is to exploit the data for military advantage, if possible. Any other benefits would be incidental. Of course, a fair chunk of the technology we enjoy today (for example, tv and the internet) was investigated by the military first.

I’ve mentioned carbon nanotubes and possible toxicology before. Specifically, some carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers and pilot studies have suggested they may behave the same way when ingested by one means or another  into the body. There is a new confirmation of this hypothesis with a study where mice inhaled carbon nanotubes. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Using mice in an animal model study, the researchers set out to determine what happens when multi-walled carbon nanotubes are inhaled. Specifically, researchers wanted to determine whether the nanotubes would be able to reach the pleura, which is the tissue that lines the outside of the lungs and is affected by exposure to certain types of asbestos fibers which cause the cancer mesothelioma. The researchers used inhalation exposure and found that inhaled nanotubes do reach the pleura and cause health effects.

This was one exposure and the mice recovered after three months. More studies will be needed to determine the effects of repeated exposure. This study (Inhaled Carbon Nanotubes Reach the Sub-Pleural Tissue in Mice by Dr. James Bonner, Dr. Jessica Ryman-Rasmussen, Dr. Arnold Brody, et. al.) can be found in the Oct. 25, 2009 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

On Friday (Oct. 23, 2009) I mentioned an essay by Chris Toumey on the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s seminal talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. Today I found a response to the essay by Eric Drexler.  From Drexler’s essay on Nanowerk,

Unfortunately, yesterday’s backward-looking guest article in Nanowerk reinforces the widespread but quite mistaken idea that my views are essentially the opposite of what I’ve stated above, and that those perverse ideas are also those of the Foresight Institute. I cannot speak for that organization, or vice versa, because I left it years ago. Contrary to what the article may suggest, I have no affiliation with the organization whatsoever. Regarding terminology, it is of course entirely appropriate to use the term “nanotechnology” to describe nanoscale technologies. The idea that there is a conflict between progress in the field and future applications of that progress is puzzling. This idea appears to stem from a strange episode that came to a head during the political push for the bill that established and funded the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, an episode in which some leading science spokesmen quite properly rejected a collection of popular fantasies, but quite improperly attributed those fantasies to me. Reading claims by confused enthusiasts and the press that “Drexler says this” or “Drexler says that” is no substitute for reading my journal articles, or the technical analysis in my book, Nanosystems, and in my MIT dissertation). The failure of these leaders to do their homework has had substantial and lingering toxic effects.

(My own focus was on the ‘origin’ story for nanotechnology and not on Drexler’s theories.) If I understand the situation rightly, much of the controversy has its roots in Drexler’s popular book, Engines of Creation. It was written over 20 years ago and struck a note which reverberates to this day. The irony is that there are writers who’d trade places with Drexler in a nano second. Imagine having that kind of impact on society and culture (in the US primarily). The downside as Drexler has discovered is that the idea or story has taken on its own life. For a similar example, take Mary Shelley’s book where Frankenstein is not the monster’s name, it’s the scientist’s name. However, the character took its own life and name.

Plenty of Room at the Bottom’s 50th anniversary; new advance in nanoassembly; satirizing the copyright wars; China’s social media map

There’s plenty of room at the bottom, Richard Feynman’s December 29, 1959 talk for the American Physical Society is considered to be the starting point or origin for nanotechnology and this December marks its 50th anniversary. Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of South Carolina NanoCenter, has an interesting commentary about it (on Nanowerk) and he poses the question, would nanotechnology have existed without Richard Feynman’s talk? Toumey answers yes. You can read the commentary here.

In contrast to Toumey’s speculations, there’s  Colin Milburn (professor at University of California, Davis) who in his essay, Nanotechnology in the Age of Posthuman Engineering: Science Fiction as Science, suggests that nanotechnology originated in science fiction. You can read more about Milburn, find the citations for the essay I’ve mentioned, and/or download three of his other essays from here.

Ting Xu and her colleagues at the US Dept. of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a new technique for self-assembling nanoparticles. From the news item on,

“Bring together the right basic components – nanoparticles, polymers and small molecules – stimulate the mix with a combination of heat, light or some other factors, and these components will assemble into sophisticated structures or patterns,” says Xu. “It is not dissimilar from how nature does it.”

More details are available here.

TechDirt featured a clip from This hour has 22 minutes, a satirical Canadian comedy tv programme, which pokes fun at the scaremongering which features mightily in discussions about copyright. You can find the clip here on YouTube.

I’ve been meaning to mention this tiny item from Fast Company (by Noah Robischon) about China’s social media. From the news bit,

The major players in the U.S. social media world can be counted on one hand: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn. Not so in China, where the country’s 300 million online users have a panoply of popular social networks to choose from–and Facebook doesn’t even crack the top 10.

Go here to see the infographic illustrating China’s social media landscape.

Happy weekend!

Nanotechnology and biocompatibility; carbon nanotubes in agriculture; venture capital for nanotechnology

One of the big nanotechnology toxicity issues centers around the question of its biocompatibility i.e. what effect do the particles have on cells in human bodies, plants, and other biological organisms? Right now, the results are mixed. Two studies have recently been published which suggest that there are neutral or even positive responses to nanoparticles.

Researchers at Lund University (Sweden) have conducted tests of nanowires, which they are hoping could be used as electrodes in the future, showing that microglial cells break down the nanowires and almost completely clean them away over a period of weeks. You can read more about the work here on Nanowerk. I would expect they’ll need to do more studies confirming these results as well more tests establishing what happens to the nanowire debris over longer periods of time and what problems, if any, emerge when electrodes are introduced in succession (i.e. how many times can you implant nanowires and have them ‘mostly’ cleaned away?).

The other biocompatibility story centers on food stuffs. Apparently carbon nanotubes can have a positive effect on crops. According to researchers in Arkansaa, Mariya Khodakovskaya, Alexandru Biris, and their colleagues, the treated seeds (tomato) sprouted twice as fast and grew more than twice as much as their untreated neighbours. The news item is here on Nanowerk and there is a more in-depth article about agriculture and nanotechnology here in Nanowerk Spotlight. (Note: I have checked and both of the papers have been published although I believe they’re both behind paywalls.)

It seems be to a Nanowerk day as I’m featuring the site again for this item. They have made a guide to finding venture capital for startup nanotechnology companies available on their site. From the item,

To help potential nanotechnology start-up founders with shaping their plans, Nanowerk, the leading nanotechnology information service, and Nanostart, the world’s leading nanotechnology venture capital company, have teamed up to provide this useful guide which particularly addresses the funding aspects of nanotechnology start-ups, along with answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

You can read more here.

Nanotechnology and the European Economy; Nokia and IBM’s augmented reality meetings; Don Eigler hypes nanotechnology; physical/virtual/augmented reality meetings with IBM and Nokia

In keeping with my belief that the developments I’m observing are threads in a complex conversation (as per yesterday’s [Oct.20.09] posting), I’m back to highlighting various news items that hint at possible trends.

The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research has published a call for proposals to study the economic impact of nanotechnology and nanosciences. You can get more details here on Azonano or view the call here.

There’s an interview with Don Eigler, the IBM scientist who’s known for moving Xenon atoms individually so they spell out IBM, in New Scientist here. Interestingly, Mr. Eigler does not have any concerns with regard to health fears related to nanotechnology. He’s aware of toxicology issues but he thinks that if we get it right, there’ll be very few problems, if any.

Following on my ‘nature of reality’ kick, this item about IBM and Nokia developing software that allows virtual reality/augmented reality meetings in physical space caught my attention.From the news item on

With support from IBM Research and Nokia Research Center, the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland created an experimental system that enables people in multiple locations to interact and collaborate with avatars and objects in a single, virtual meeting . Objects and avatars are located in a “virtual” space that mirrors the corresponding physical room.

There is a video included with the story and it looked like the meeting was taking place in three spaces, two of them were physical and one was virtual. One office (physical) had two people who were interacting with virtual objects while simultaneously meeting in a virtual meeting room with their avatars and the same virtual objects they’d been interacting with in the physical space. A third person (in a geographically removed physical office) joined them in the virtual meeting. Do take a look.

The questions that spring to my mind are these: are all the spaces real? Is one space more real than the others and why? Some might argue that the virtual space is less real because it isn’t physical but then neither are your emotions. Also in the postings here about perception and quantum realities (Oct. 16, 19, and 20, 2009), I noted that our perceptions of reality at the macro level do not coincide with the realities of the quantum world which occasions this questions, What is the nature of reality?

Quantum realities and perceptions (part 3 of 3); call for economic analyses of nano in Europe; Don Eigler hypes nano

I’m not much inclined to discuss philosophy or the nature of reality  as I often find myself tangled up in my own words and ideas. Consequently, I don’t have any grand conclusions about quantum realities and perceptions other than to say that how we approach the nature of reality is a collective exercise. I don’t mean that we all agree to some particular version rather, we engage with each other in various and, at times competing, ‘conversations’ out of which emerges a complex worldview which is forever dynamic. A little bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In a very simplified form, it is impossible to measure  both a particle’s position and its momentum  with any accuracy. The more information you have about one of these properties, the less you know about the other.  There is an addition to this principle called the Copenhagen Interpretation which suggests that you can know the past position and momentum of a particle but not the present position and momentum.

The discussion about nanotechnology is really part of the larger discussion of science and technology, which in turn, is contained in a discussion about the nature of reality, perception, and our relationships with each other and this planet. As for that dynamic conversation I mentioned earlier, it includes business people , activists, scientists, writers (fiction and nonfiction), pop culture purveyors (movies, etc.), government policy makers, the general public, and others. As well, individuals may be members of more than one of these groups.

It is possible to look into the past and determine world views for distinct regional areas but trying to determine a single over-arching worldview for the planet is not possible. It may exist but it is impossible for the observer to know it.

Quantum realities and perceptions (part 2)

To sum up Friday’s posting: I discussed the nature of reality (both quantum and macro) and its relationship to our perceptions while examining a Buddhist perspective on science. Today, I’m adding a recently published (Nature Nanotechnology) paper, Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies, by Terre Satterfield [University of British Columbia, Canada], Milind Kandlikar, Christian E. H. Beaudrie, Joseph Conti and Barbara Herr-Harthorn to the mix.

It’s a meta-analysis of a number of public surveys on nanotechnology and perceptions of risk. From the paper,

Perception is critical [] for a number of reasons: because human behaviour is derivative of what we believe or perceive to be true [emphasis mine]; because perceptions and biases are not easily amenable to change with new knowledge1 [ ] and because risk perceptions are said to be, at least in part, the result of social and psychological factors and not a ‘knowledge deficit’ about risks per se []. [Note: I can't figure out how to reproduce the numbered notes in superscripted form as my WordPress installation is still problematic. Please read the article if you are interested in them.] p. 1 of the PDF.

Although the authors of the paper are not concerned with the ultimate nature of reality, the words I’ve emphasized struck home because it touches on the notion of relationships. From Peter McKnight’s article about Buddhism and science,

In other words, how we define the objects of our knowledge — in this case, particles — depends on the capacity we have to know about them. This instrumentalist view has a deeply Kantian flavour: Kant taught that our knowledge of phenomena is a product of the relation between things and our ways of knowing about them, rather than about things themselves.

… [Mathieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and former geneticist speaking]

“All properties, all observable phenomena, appear in relationship with each other and dependent on each other. This view of interdependence — one thing arising in dependence on another, and their relationship — actually defines what appear to us as objects. So relations and interdependence are the basic fabric of reality. We participate in that interdependence with our consciousness; we crystallize some aspect of it that appears to us as objects.”

At the base, it’s our perception that governs our behaviour which in turn governs our relationships. Richard Jones in his book (2004), Soft Machines, had this to say,

Issues that concern the nature of life are particularly prone to lead to such a reaction–hence the gulf that has opened up between many scientists and many of the public about the rights and wrongs of genetic modification. These very profound issues about the proper relationship between man and nature are likely to become very urgent as bionanotechnology develops. p. 217

It seems that Jones is not alone, from the Satterfield, et al. paper,

More broadly as applications move as predicted towards more complex domains where bioinformation and nanotechnologies converge, the nature of the risks involved will move beyond the immediate concerns relation to toxicity and enter into contentious moral and ethical terrains. p. 6 of PDF

For me, the whole thing resembles a very complex conversation. More tomorrow.