Monthly Archives: December 2009

Science shenanigans made visible; a surprising (or not) appointment to CIHR; announcing a wee holiday

Human nature, even scientists have it. They recently reasserted their human nature with the climate change controversy over possibly suppressed and/or distorted data. According to the Globe and Mail article by Doug Saunders (Breach in the global-warming bunker rattles climate science at the worst time), even scientists who agreed with the group at the University of East Anglia were not given access let alone people who were perceived as hostile to the cause. Note that word, cause.  From the article,

Unusually, even sympathetic scientists and some activists have concluded that the credibility of climate science has been seriously harmed.

“We should not underestimate the damage caused by what has happened, either for the science or for the politics of climate change, and potentially it could have some very far-reaching consequences,” said Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at East Anglia whose e-mails were among those included in the pirated files and who has been critical of the secrecy and lack of impartiality in his colleagues’ work.

Independent scientists are quick to point out that the actions described in the e-mails do not describe anything like a fabrication of global-warming evidence, and that two other major sets of historical data drawn from the same sources, both held by NASA institutions in the United States, also show a historical warming trend.

While such insinuations of poor scientific practice have drawn the most attention, more damaging for climate scientists are e-mails which reveal the hostile, partisan, bunker-like atmosphere at the lab, which goes to ridiculous lengths to prevent even moderate critics from seeing any of the raw data.

In one e-mail, Prof. Jones [head of the CRU] wrote that climate skeptics “have been after the CRU [Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia] station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send it to anyone.”

Jones demonstrates the kind of behaviour and communication (or lack of) that we associate with a wrongdoer trying to cover something up or with a fanatic determined to convince you at all costs. Unfortunately, human beings, even with the best of intentions, can take a wrong turn and it would seem that Jones stopped being a scientist and became a true believer.

Some of what’s being discussed in view of the public eye is the usual back and forth amongst scientists as they dispute each other’s findings in sometimes less than genteel tones and cast aspersions on each other’s methodologies. The more high profile the work, the more bitter the fight.

Very quickly, I want to direct you to Rob Annan’s latest postings on a CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research] appointment, a representative from Pfizer, to their governing council and science policy in Europe. If you’re interested in science policy and the implications of some of the new decisions being made and/or taking view of science policy discussions elsewhere, please do check these postings out. Plus I just (5 minutes ago at 9:45 am PST) received this email from the folks who organized the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference,

We have just made the entire content of the CSPC publicly available for all Canadians at our website (, including:

  • video of keynote addresses and plenaries
  • audio of all conference sessions
  • video interviews with opinion leaders, conducted on-site at the CSPC by The Mark News
  • written report of all sessions

We are working towards the production of a comprehensive evaluation of CSPC 2009, including detailed performance measures and outcomes of the conference. To that end, we would greatly appreciate your input.

I look forward to viewing the material from the conference (thank you, organizers) when I settle down a bit. I am currently in the throes of a major transition and may not be blogging again until Dec. 17, 2009 or after.

Nanotechnology dieting; snowflakes; nano haiku

It’s a bit disconcerting to read about a new drug delivery system using silicon, a substance I strongly associate with computers. From the news item on Azonano,

Different types of drug molecules can be bound to the porous structure of silicon, thereby making it possible to alter their properties and control their behaviour within the body.

Porous silicon can be produced as both micro- and nanoparticles, which facilitates the introduction of the material through different dosing routes – orally, as injections or subcutaneous applications. Furthermore, biodegradable nanoparticles can be used for drug targeting.

Scientists in Finland are working on this project and possible applications include dieting. Apparently peptides which control appetite can be targeted with this new delivery system. I suspect that if this is possible there will be a stampede to use silicon drug delivery systems and public concerns about risk will be left far behind as people chase the dream of dieting without effort.

The NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Network has included some timely information about snowflakes and nanotechnology it its latest newsletter. The downloadable  education programme is here. The snowflake images are supplied by Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech and you can see more of those here. The haiku in this month’s newsletter is,

Nano, oh nano
With surface area so
Small, but big impact

This week will be short as I’m not sure if I’ll be posting after tomorrow. Changes are afoot.

Mona Hatoum and the Rennie Collection

I’m not writing about nano today instead I’m focussing on the show of Mona Hatoum’s work at the new gallery in Vancouver, the Rennie Collection. A local developer/realtor, Bob Rennie, has amassed a substantive modern art collection which he’s showcasing in his own gallery in a restored heritage building in Chinatown. You can read more about the gallery and its opening here in an article by John Mackie in the Vancouver Sun (Oct. 24, 2009). There’s also an in-depth profile written by Matt O’Grady in Vancouver Magazine (April 2009 [corrected 12:50 pm PST, Dec.4.09]) here.

The gallery is a first for Vancouver in that you have to make an appointment to view the show. It’s open one day a week on Thursday and there are three guided showings. I went yesterday having booked almost 1 month ago. They say that they allow 10 people in a showing but we had 11 so I guess they do make exceptions which surprises me since the experience is highly controlled.

I’ve never before had to sign a release to view art work. According to that piece of paper, I cannot sue them if I trip and fall and I’m not allowed to touch the artwork nor am I allowed to take pictures or videos. Oh, and I was given a sticker with the Rennie Collection brand to wear on my coat. I have no idea why we were given stickers. There was no need to identify us  as we were the only visitors in the gallery. I even had to check in and I’m not sure but I may have failed to check out when I left. (drat)

The only time I’ve gone through more security checks was when I visited a local high tech company that had contracts with the US Dept. of Defense.

Given Hatoum’s work, the Rennie Collection security experience was perfect. Before I launch off into my impressions, I don’t have an art history degree or an intimate knowledge of the art scene. Basically I look at stuff and then I describe it in standard English. I don’t use ‘art speak’ although I may use some of the same words. (e.g. When I was teaching I used to talk about ‘techno English’. Terms that are used in standard English but mean something different in the technology community.)

Mona Hatoum works conceptually. Most of her work seem to centre around concepts such as the fragility of life, pain, alienation, and rootlessness.

Thankfully, the guide helped to provide context (stories) for the pieces. There were a couple pieces that have me wondering how this stuff could possibly be described as art. For example, she hung a mirror up on a wall so you could see yourself in it. I don’t care how many times someone declares this to be art, I’m not buying it. (pun! Obviously Bob Rennie did as these pieces are from his collection)

The two pieces that were most exciting to me were Hot Spot and Projection. The first is a tilted 8-foot high (or more) globe with the continents outlined in red neon. The globe looks like a rounded cage or grid (you see a lot of cages in Hatoum’s work). The neon which outlines the continents is powered by electric outlets and cords which are plainly visible through the bands of metal that form the globe. As Hatoum sees it, the entire world is a hot spot.

Just across from the hot spot is a map of the world called Projection. The map is not the standard Mercator map that many of us know but the Peters map which is a more accurate representation of the landmasses and oceans on the planet Earth. The North American and European continents have been distorted on the Mercator map to seem larger than they are and the Peters map redresses that distortion.

Looking from ‘Hot Spot’ where she’s used the Mecator map and viewing it in relationship to ‘Projection’ with its Peters map, is disorienting. This state lends itself to new perceptions and ideas and it was for me the richest and most exciting part of the show. The rest ranged from laughable (the mirror) to somewhat intriguing.

There’s also some work on the roof but those are other artists and I’m running out of time today. Do visit the collection if you don’t mind signing releases, booking weeks ahead of time, and wearing the Rennie brand (I kept the unpeeled sticker in my hand).

Is self-healing paint nanotech-enabled?; intellectual property in science fiction and in science; global nanotech regulation database

Ariel Schwartz has a news item on Fast Company about Japanese cell phones and self-healing paint. It seems to me that this is likely nanotech-enabled technology and an example of how we are more and more able to exploit the properties of matter at the nano scale. But, I couldn’t find any information to confirm my suspicion. More about the paint from the news item,

Nissan recently licensed its Scratch Shield paint, which is scratch resistant and even repairs fine scratches, to Japanese cell phone company NTT DoCoMo. The paint has been used on select Nissan and Infiniti cars worldwide since 1995, but this is the first time it will be used outside of the vehicle market. Unlike the vehicle paint, cell-phone scratch-proof paint will only be available in Japan for now. But considering the wear and tear that most cell phones see, demand for the product will almost certainly expand to a worldwide market.

I did check out the Nissan website which offers a few more pictures than the news item does but not much more information.

I occasionally mention intellectual property (IP) as the current turmoil over copyrights, patents, and trademarks have an impact on writing. It’s with some dismay that I found an item on Techdirt about a science fiction movie that’s being sued for patent infringement. Yes, a fictional device has been patented. Given that lots of items that we take for granted, cell phones/mobiles for example, are based on devices found in fiction first, this lawsuit does not bode well. Coincidentally (on the same day), I saw another item onTechdirt, Yet Another Nobel Prize Winner Says That Intellectual Property Law Is Harming Science. From the item,

For science to continue to flourish, it is necessary that the knowledge it generates be made freely and widely available. IP rights have the tendency to stifle access to knowledge and the free exchange of ideas that is essential to science. So, far from stimulating innovation and the dissemination of the benefits of science, IP all too often hampers scientific progress and restricts access to its products.

If this issue interests you, the item on Techdirt offers more links. Btw, the scientist speaking out is Sir John Sulston (a prize-winning biologist).

Thoughts of intellectual property led me to thoughts about lawyers, which is why the news item on Nanowerk about a global nanotechnology regulation database caught my eye.  From the news item,

A global database of government documents on nanotechnology is being launched by three law professors at Arizona State University who, with their colleagues in Australia and Belgium, have corralled and organized a massive number of regulatory documents dealing with the rapidly advancing technology. The Nanotech Regulatory Document Archive is a free resource built and maintained by the Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Over the past year, Gary Marchant, the center’s executive director, and center Faculty Fellows Douglas Sylvester and Kenneth Abbott, developed the database as part of a multiyear grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Genomic Science Program.

I am intrigued to see that the project is being funded though a sort of genome programme being run by the US Dept. of Energy. I find this to be an unusual conflation but I suspect that’s largely due to my ignorance. I’ve certainly noticed the talk about bio-nano so a genome project being run by an energy department is not entirely out of the question but it hints at the idea that the gap between living and nonliving is being bridged. More about that when I’ve had time to think about it.

Idle thought: I wonder how long this free tool will remain free.

How to become a futurist; organic technology; clean water with carbon nanotubes

I’ve always wondered how futurists look into the future (and how do they get their jobs?). At last I’ve found the answer to my first question in an article by Jamais Cascio in Fast Company.

In this entry in the occasional series, we’ll take a look at gathering useful data.Like the first step, Asking the Question, Scanning the World seems like it would be easier than it really is. In my opinion, it may actually be the hardest step of all, because you have to navigate two seemingly contradictory demands:

  • You need to expand the horizons of your exploration, because the factors shaping how the future of the dilemma in question will manifest go far beyond the narrow confines of that issue.
  • You need to focus your attention on the elements critical to the dilemma, and not get lost in the overwhelming amount of information out there.

You should recognize up front that the first few times you do this, you’ll miss quite a few of the key drivers; even experienced futurists end up missing a some important aspects of a dilemma. It’s the nature of the endeavor: We can’t predict the future, but we can try to spot important signifiers of changes that will affect the future. We won’t spot them all, but the more we catch, the more useful our forecasts.

The process of opening up and narrowing simultaneously sounds similar to how any kind of research is done, that is, if it’s going to be groundbreaking.

There’s an announcement from India about a new energy-efficient single treatment water purification process. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Minister of Rural Water Supply, Hon. Minister Viswarup and other leaders in Hyderabad, India today. Initial tests, performed at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, confirmed that the majority of the drinking water available in India contains toxins that can be extremely hazardous to human health. The technology developed in collaboration with IIT Kanpur and North Carolina-based Cnanoz can remove harmful pathogens and toxic ingredients, such as Arsenic, Fluoride, Lead, Cadmium, DDT, hydrocarbon wastes and nitrates in an eco-friendly and economical way. Drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals over an extended period of time can promote harmful gene mutations that can cause neurological disorders, mental and physical disabilities. The preventive aspect of the filtration system can have a significant positive impact to improve public health survival and reduce health care costs.

No word on health and safety or environmental issues or any details about the technology can be found in the announcement so I looked on the website for the company (Cnanoz) that developed the product. Nothing much there either but it is slick and easily navigable.

I’ve gotten more interested in the interplay between organic and  inorganic materials and this research is quite intriguing to me. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Single crystals of the mineral calcite — the chief material in limestone — are predictable, homogeneous and, well, a little boring. But scientists have long marveled at how biological crystals of calcite grow together with other organic materials to form, for example, shells and sea urchin spines. Biologists and materials scientists would love to know exactly how to re-create such natural composites in the lab.

“We knew the organics were in there, but what no one had been able to do up until now was actually see what that organic-inorganic interface looked like,” said [Lara] Estroff [assistant professor of materials science and engineering], whose lab focuses on the synthesis and characterization of bio-inspired materials.

That’s it for today.