Monthly Archives: February 2010

French want more nanotech public debates; British science oral history project

After last month’s post about disturbances (causing at least one cancellation) taking place during a series of nanotechnology public debates in France, it was a surprise to find that at least one French group wants to continue the ‘discussion’. This last series of  events has been completed with a report due in April 2010. According to a news item on Chemical Watch, France Nature Environnement (FNE) is urging more public debates. From Chemical Watch,

The French public debate on nanotechnologies that began in September ended this week. An official summary of the 17 debates will be published at the end of April, but environmental organisation France Nature Environnement (FNE) says in its conclusions that further discussion is needed to decide where the technology is useful for human advancement and where its use is unacceptable.

You can look at the FNE news item here but it is in French and the site doesn’t seem hospitable to Firefox,  so do try another browser.

Meanwhile, the Brits are embarking on an oral history of British science. From the news item on BBC News,

The British Library has begun a project to create a vast, online oral history and archive of British science.

The three-year project will see 200 British scientists interviewed and their recollections recorded for the audio library.

“We have long been painfully aware that there’s a marked absence of significant recordings of scientists,” said Dr Rob Perks, curator of oral history at the British Library.

For instance, said Dr Perks, in the current sound archives there are only two recordings of Ernest Rutherford, none of computer pioneer Alan Turing, hovercraft inventor Christopher Cockerell or AV Hill, a physiologist and Nobel laureate.

A study carried out prior to the project being started found that in the last ten years, 30 leading British scientists including 9 Nobel winners have died leaving little or no archive of their work.

I’m glad to hear that this oral history is being preserved although I do wonder about the recording formats. One of the problems with archiving materials is maintaining to access them afterwards.

Coincidentally, one of the local Vancouver papers (The Georgia Straight) has an article by Rhiannon Coppin (in the Feb. 25 – March 4, 2010 issue) about the City of Vancouver archives and their attempts at digital archiving. From the article,

Every day, Vancouver’s city archivist and director of records and archives runs a rescue operation on our past. Les Mobbs might send out film reels from the ’30s for repair, or he could receive a donation of early-20th-century photographic negatives that need to be catalogued, scanned, and put into cold storage.

Lately, Mobbs has been putting equal consideration into how to preserve our future. More and more of the city’s legal and cultural record is being created in a digital format; in other words, it’s “born digital”, he told the Georgia Straight.

The pitfall in digital archiving is that we’re poor caretakers of electronic file formats. In 50 or 100 years, we’ll know we’ve won the preservation game if we can open and read a computer document created today. But even in 2010, we’re missing out on 20-year-old WordStar files stuck on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. Ironically, it may be safer to keep a paper copy of a document than to store the original computer file.

“We’ve been dealing with paper for 2,000 years,” Mobbs said. “We have a lot of experience with what paper is, what it looks like, and how it’s preserved.”

While acid decay, mould, brittleness, and water damage are formidable but vanquishable foes, machine decay, format obsolescence, and file integrity degradation are virtually unconquerable. The short lifetime of many licensed software formats and the quick deaths of so much hardware (remember LaserDisc?) have posed a particular challenge for archivists like Mobbs.

“How do we preserve material that is, for all intents and purposes, essentially transitory?” he asked.

While this discussion might seem irrelevant on a mostly science-oriented blog, the ‘memristor’ story highlights why information about the past is so important. In 2008, R. Stanley Williams (HP Labs) and his colleagues published two papers, the first proving the existence of a fourth member, a memristor, of electrical engineering’s ‘holy trinity’ of the resistor, capacitor, and inductor and the second paper where they established engineering control over the memristor. Williams  and his team both solved a problem they were experiencing in the lab and made engineering history, in part  by reviewing engineering theories dating back at least 30 years. You can read my post about it here.

Imagine if those theories had been locked into formats that were no longer accessible. That’s one of the major reasons for preserving the past, it can yield important information.

In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked for the City of Vancouver archives.

New media (the social kind) at the Vancouver Olympics, is it cohesive or isolating?

There is a passage in The Diamond Age Or, A Young lady’s Illustrated Primer a 1995 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson that states this,

Now nanotechnology had made nearly anything possible, and so the cultural role in deciding what should be done with it had become far more important than imagining what could be done with it. One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’. (p. 37, Bantam Books, trade paperback, Sept. 2000 reissue)

It’s haunted me since I first read it about three years ago while preparing to write an academic paper I titled Writing Nanotechnology; first investigation where I was linking my nanotechnology interests to my writing and new media interests.

As I followed these interests, I discovered that the period of the Industrial Revolution was, in addition to being a period of tremendous interest and discovery in science and technology, a period of great upheaval amongst purveyors of the written word. For example, Sir Walter Scott, known today as a writer of historical novels such as Ivanhoe, was too embarrassed to have his name published in his first books. At the time, Scott was known foremost as a poet and writing novels was considered beneath a poet’s dignity. From Frankenstein; A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock,

Meanwhile Walter Scott, already revered for poems that sang of his native Scotland was suspected of being the author of Waverley. What a shock if it were true—that a popular poet would descend to write a novel, a new and not altogether respected literary form. (p. 24, 2007, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc, NY & London)

There are some striking parallels between the 19th century, during which much of the Industrial Revolution played itself out and which is also known as the Victorian period, and our own time. We too are obsessed with science and finding new ways to tell stories. Both of which occurred to me during Andy Miah’s session at the Fresh Media Olympics Conference I attended on Feb. 22, 2010 in Vancouver at W2 Culture + Media House.

During the discussion about the impact that social media (part & parcel of what is sometimes called new media) is having on the games and the discussion about the games themselves. I’d estimate 40 – 50 people were there, most of them part of the social media/citizen journalist community and/or academics.

Apparently the Vancouver games are becoming known as the Twitter Olympics. Andy Miah, an academic, who has been following and researching the Olympic games since the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia) asked (paraphrased)  if we thought that the social media we use creates ‘silos’. (For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, the word silo in this context means isolated group.  e.g. a business where the engineers exist in their silo and the sales team in their silo with virtually no communication between the two)

I found it to be a thought-provoking question which returned me to the The Diamond Age passage I quoted previously  and that led me to reframe the question this way, Is social media going to be a cohesive force or an isolating force? At this point, I can make a case for both using the information and comments shared at the conference.

Earlier in the conference Andy suggested (paraphrased) that the friction provided by the official games story and the reporters and IOC (International Olympic Committee) structures is useful and necessary for the unofficial games stories and social media as promoted by activists. In this case, social media provides cohesion for the activists and a means of distribution.

Social media can also be isolating. As one participant noted (in another context not meant to support the case I’m building), it is your responsibility to find and develop your networks for information (as opposed to turning on the television or radio at the right time). It seems to me that this responsibility could be a problem when you need to extend past your natural networks.

In real life, extending beyond your personal network can be very difficult. Yes, there are times when it’s easier, i.e., going to a new school, starting a new job, moving to a new place are all situations where this happens naturally or you’re forced to do it. But in the general way once your networks are established there’s not much need to extend past them and it’s not easy to do. Academics tend to know other academics; scientists know other scientists, business owners know other business owners.You may have multiple networks (work, neighbourhood, friends from high school, etc.) but they don’t intersect. These kinds of silos exist in social media too. For example, there’s a Linked In network, a Facebook network, a Twitter network and these all breakdown into every smaller networks within networks. Plus there’s the assumption that you know it exists. How do you connect to network if you don’t know it exists? Or, you suspect there’s something out there but you don’t know how to find it.

Now, I want to add another element to the mix. One of the participants discussed how she uses Twitter and used as an example (as best I can remember) a fire near where she lived. She saw the fire, tweeted the info. and within minutes her followers sent pictures and shared stories about the building that were burning and the people who lived there. The next day, the local paper accorded the incident a single paragraph. What struck me about her story wasn’t difference in what she valued as news as opposed to a traditional outlet valued but rather how individual her experience was and how dependent it was on her network.  Another person with different followers would have had a different news experience and that may or may not be a good thing as suggested in The Diamond Age.

Finally, a comment I registered (but didn’t immediately place in the context of media,  social cohesion and isolation) was made by someone discussing the reasons for why the activist communities in Vancouver have not been more effective at working together (a situation I was unaware of). If the activist groups have not been as effective as they could have been, I wonder whether or not part of the issue (in addition to the suggestions the participant made)  might be the social media used to organize those networks.

I suspect social media  is both cohesive and isolating to a greater degree than the older broadcast media. In some odd way (I am being poetical here), I don’t believe it’s an accident that we are refining our understanding of matter at ever more infinitesimal scales (e.g. micro, nano, femto, and atto scales) and that we seem to be experiencing increasing fragmentation (e.g. tweets are called micro-blogging).

Enough now, I’m off to do some more thinking.

Tomorrow: NSERC gives SFU (Simon Fraser University) some money.

Carbon nanotubes the natural way; weaving carbon nanotubes into heaters; how designers think; robotic skin

Today I’ll be focusing, in a very mild way, on carbon nanotubes. First, a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters (Feb. 2010 issue) titled, The Formation of Graphite Whiskers in the  Primitive Solar Nebula, is where an international team of scientists have shared an intriguing discovery about carbon nanotubes. From the news item on physorg.com,

Space apparently has its own recipe for making carbon nanotubes, one of the most intriguing contributions of nanotechnology here on Earth, and metals are conspicuously missing from the list of ingredients.

[Joesph] Nuth’s team [based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center] describes the modest chemical reaction. Unlike current methods for producing carbon nanotubes—tiny yet strong structures with a range of applications in electronics and, ultimately, perhaps even medicine—the new approach does not need the aid of a metal catalyst. “Instead, nanotubes were produced when graphite dust particles were exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases,” explains Nuth.

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced in these experiments was determined by Yuki Kimura, a materials scientist at Tohoku University, Japan, who examined the samples under a powerful transmission electron microscope. He saw particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, which resemble a stack of Styrofoam cups with the bottoms cut out.

Since metals are used as catalysts for creating carbon nanotubes, this discovery hints at the possibility of a ‘greener’ process. In conjunction with the development at McGill (mentioned on this blog here) for making chemical reactions greener by using new nonmetallic catalysts, there may be some positive environmental impacts due to nanotechnology.

Meanwhile here on earth, there’s another new carbon nanotube development and this time it has to do with the material’s conductivity. From the news item on Nanowerk,

An interesting development using multifilament yarns is a new fabric heater made by weaving CNTEC® conductive yarns from Kuraray Living Co., Ltd. This fabric generates heat homogeneously all over the surface because of its outstanding conductivity and is supposed to be the first commercial use of Baytubes® CNTs from Bayer MaterialScience in the Japanese market.

The fabric heater is lightweight and thin, compact and shows a long-lasting bending resistance. It can be used for instance for car seats, household electrical appliances, for heating of clothes and as an anti-freezing material. Tests revealed that it may for example be installed in the water storage tank of JR Hokkaido’s “Ryuhyo-Norokko” train. Inside this train the temperature drops to around -20 °C in wintertime, because so far no heating devices other than potbelly stoves are available. According to JR Hokkaido railway company the fabric heater performed well in preventing the water from freezing. A seat heating application of the fabric heater is still on trial on another JR Hokkaido train line. It is anticipated that the aqueous dispersions might as well be suitable for the compounding of various kinds of materials.

I sometimes suspect that these kinds of nanotechnology-enabled applications are going to change the world in such a fashion that our ancestors (assuming we survive disasters) will be able to understand us only dimly. The closest analogy I have is with Chaucer. An English-speaker trying to read The Canterbury Tales in the language that Chaucer used to write, Middle English, needs to learn an unfamiliar language.

On a completely different topic, Cliff Kuang at Fast Company has written an item on designers and the Myer-Briggs personality test (industrial designer Michael Roller’s website with his data),

Designers love to debate about what personality type makes for the best designer. So Michael Roller took the extra step of getting a bunch of designers to take the Myers Briggs personality test, and published the results …

In other words, designers are less akin to the stereotypical touchy-feely artist, and more like engineers who always keep the big picture in mind.

This reminds me of a piece I wrote up on Kevin Dunbar (here) and his work investigating how scientists think. He came to the conclusion that when they use metaphors and analogies to describe their work to scientists in specialties not identical to their own, new insights and breakthroughs can occur. (Note: he takes a more nuanced approach than I’m able to use in a single, descriptive sentence.) What strikes me is that scientists often need to take a more ‘artistic and intuitive’ [my words] approach to convey information if they are to experience true breakthroughs.

My last bit is an item about more tactile robotic skin. From the news item on the Azonano website,

Peratech Limited, the leader in new materials designed for touch technology solutions, has announced that they have been commissioned by the MIT Media Lab to develop a new type of electronic ‘skin’ that enables robotic devices to detect not only that they have been touched but also where and how hard the touch was.

The key to the sensing technology is Peratech’s patented ‘QTC’ materials. QTC’s, or Quantum Tunnelling Composites, are a unique new material type which provides a measured response to force and/or touch by changing its electrical resistance – much as a dimmer light switch controls a light bulb. This enables a simple electronic circuit within the robot to determine touch. Being easily formed into unique shapes – including being ‘draped’ over an object much like a garment might, QTC’s provide a metaphor [emphasis mine] for how human skin works to detect touch.

Yes, I found another reference to metaphors although this metaphor is being used to convey information to a nontechnical audience. As for the ‘graphite whiskers’ in the title for the article which opened this posting, it is another metaphor and here, I suspect, it’s being used to describe something to other scientists who have specialties that are not identical to the researchers’ (as per Kevin Dunbar’s work).

Australian government makes an unexpected nano announcement; San Diego, the Olympics of Science, and the AAAS; Manitoba high school student discusses copyright

Late last week I wrote about a new report, Nanotechnology in Australia: Trends, Applications and Collaborative Opportunities, that was supposed to be launched today. The news article which originated the story was by Cheryl Jones of The Australian, who noted,

THE number of Australian companies in a nanotechnology market likely to be worth trillions of dollars within a decade has plummeted, according to an Australian Academy of Science report.

Federal government reports previously put at about 80 the number of companies engaged in the technology underlying a burgeoning global market.

But now there are only 55 to 60, say nanotechnology experts cited in the academy report, to be released next week.

Little work has moved from the benchtop to the market, the report says, and one obstacle to commercialisation is “often dysfunctional” university intellectual property services.

I checked and this item from the Government of Australia was announced instead (from the Azo Materials site),

The Rudd Government is introducing a comprehensive national framework to guide the safe development of new technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology as part of a $38.2 million National Enabling Technologies Strategy released today.

“Technologies like nanotechnology and biotechnology have enormous potential, but we can only realise that potential with the community’s support,” said Innovation Minister, Senator Kim Carr.

“Health, safety and environmental protection are paramount for the Government. This strategy is about ensuring we meet the highest standards while at the same time maximising opportunities to develop these cutting-edge technologies.

I’m not sure what happened to the report but this announcement was a bit of a surprise. Given the material cited in Jones’ story, I would have expected the government to pull back rather than invest more heavily. It seems the government has recognized the barriers noted in the report (which has yet to be released or even seen by anyone other than Cheryl Jones [see my posting here] ETA: my apologies to Ms. Jones, I did find the report days later here at a location I failed to check, for penance I will leave my original wrong-headed and now embarrassing comment) and decided to address the issues head on.

Meanwhile, the ‘Olympics of Science’ is finishing today in San Diego (Feb. 18-22, 2010), the 176th annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). From the AAAS site,

The 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting is coming to San Diego for the first time, bringing cutting-edge research and a host of free events for the public in its role as the United States’ largest general scientific conference.

Described in The Times Higher Education Supplement as “the Olympics of science conferences,” the Annual Meeting has long been known as the premier multidisciplinary science gathering in the United States. This year, it will continue its evolution to a prime international affair: When the 176th meeting of the society convenes from 18-22 February, scientists, journalists, and educators from more than 50 nations will be there.

Under the banner “Bridging Science and Society,” top researchers will discuss their findings in the context of global challenges in the environment, economy, health, and education. Attendees can explore research in the neurosciences, energy, astrobiology, public health, and environmental change, and learn how these advances directly affect courtroom trials, care for the elderly, sustainable cities, border security, and other public concerns.

As part of an unprecedented effort to share the excitement of scientific discovery with the public, AAAS’s Family Science Days and other free events offer a chance at hands-on learning for students of all ages.

I mention it not just because I’m currently experiencing Vancouver’s Winter Olympics but because, in 2012, the AAAS  will be hosting its annual meeting in Vancouver.  To get a better idea of what this means, I’ve excerpted parts of a story by Maggie Koerth-Baker on Boing, Boing about attending some of the presentations at the AAAS 2010 San Diego Meeting. First an excerpt from a nanotechnology presentation,

[David] Cahill [University of Illinois] is part of a team working to improve thermal insulation with nanotechnology. His goal: Create some kind of new material that will disrupt the transfer of heat energy between two objects. Getting it right would have big implications. For instance, we could drastically improve our ability to capture the waste heat from electrical generation and put it to use in other ways.One possible solution is silicon nanowires. These structures are normally baby-butt smooth, but as you make their surfaces more and more rough, the nanowires conduct less and less thermal energy. Right now, it’s not exactly clear why that trick works. But understanding it could put Cahill’s team on the right path.

He’s not the only one taking energy technology nano. Another researcher on the same panel, Yi Cui, Ph.D., of Stanford, is applying nanostructures to energy storage, in hopes of developing smaller batteries that can hold more power.

In fact, according to Cui, nanotech is absolutely essential to any future progress with batteries. Storage capacity for size has plateaued, he explained. To go further, we have to start making electrodes out of completely different—and probably completely new—materials.

Note: I’ve mentioned Cui and his work at Stanford University here. More from Koerth-Baker, this time it’s from a science history presentation on measurements and averages,

Before that [1761], obviously, scientists still made mistakes. Multiple measurements or experiments still yielded varying results. But they dealt with the variation in a very different way—they picked the answer they thought represented their best work.

To modern ears, that sounds like cheating—”You just randomly decided on the number you liked best? That’s science?” But, at the time, it was perfectly logical. Historically, scientists viewed themselves as craftsmen,[Jeff]  Buchwald said. If you were building a piece of fine furniture, you wouldn’t make a bunch and pick the average to display. You’d choose the finished version that was the best, and best displayed your woodworking skill.

Intriguing, eh? If you want to find out who introduced the concept of averaging scientific measurements and why he was too embarrassed to publish this in his first research, do read Koerth-Baker’s piece.

For my last bit, I’m back on the copyright trail and thanks to Techdirt for alerting me to this essay on file-sharing and morality written by a grade 12 student at Balmoral Hall School (all girls) in Winnipeg,Manitoba. Kamal Dhillon won the 2010 Glassen Ethics competition,

This year’s essay topic was: “Is it OK to download music, movies and games without paying?” There were about 80 entries from high schools in Winnipeg and across the province. The contest, held annually since 2007, is jointly sponsored by The Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics and The Department of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. The winner receives $1,000. The Winnipeg Free Press publishes the winning essay.

From the Winnipeg Free Press (Feb.13, 2010 edition), an excerpt from Dhillon’s essay,

MILLIONS of people, mostly but not all young, engage in file sharing.

The multinational corporations who make and sell the material are not happy with this development. Their profits are threatened and they, in turn, are threatening to sue, for huge amounts of money, individuals who engage in file sharing.

I support the act of file sharing and argue that the free sharing of these forms of intellectual property would likely produce, overall, more good than harm for society.

It’s a thoughtful piece and well worth reading.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 3 of 3)

Today is the last of the series on Cheryl Geisler and the new Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (Burnby, Vancouver, Surrey, Canada):

In addition to factors such as the global economy and faculty politics (used not pejoratively but in its most general sense), Geisler and her colleagues have to contend with an increasing emphasis from the tri-council funding agencies (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC], Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC]) on open-access to research and on proving to the public that the funded research has value.

From the recent Conference Board of Canada report on trademarks, patents, and copyright, Intellectual Property in the 21st Century by Ruth Corbin (as quoted by Michael Geist on his blog here),

In discussing the tabling of a new copyright bill, it notes:

Simultaneous support for “open-access” initiatives, where appropriate – such as facilitation of the use of government data with suitable safeguards, and readier access to publicly funded research – would help to unlock tremendous stores of knowledge and balance out the resources being expended on protection of rights.

From the SSHRC report, Framing our Direction, here,

Systematic evidence about the multiple short and long-term benefits of research in the social sciences and humanities will provide a solid foundation for decisions about levels of investment. In other words, our ability to enhance research activities is closely linked with our collective efforts to demonstrate the impact and value of social sciences and humanities research to society. For this reason, we will update our programs and policies to include a more complete accounting of research results. (final para. on p. 12 in print version, p. 14 on PDF)

The SSHRC report makes it quite clear that the quantity of funding it receives is liable to be affected by how the agency and its grant recipients are able to “[demonstrate] the impact and value of social science and humanities research to society.” No doubt the other members of the tri-Council are feeling the same pressures.

In responding to a question about how FCAT will make its research more easily accessible, Geisler drew on her experience as the head of the Language, Literature and Communication Department at Rensselaear, the oldest technological university in the US. “There certainly was the desire at the National Science Foundation and other federal programmes in the US for research to be more widely disseminated and to try to incorporate outreach activities and for the same reasons [as here in Canada].

For example, the School of Contemporary Arts will move into Woodward’s [Downtown Eastside] in the fall [2010] so now we’re planning for how we will partner with the community, what kinds of non-credit programmes we’ll offer, and [the] residencies [we’ll offer] for artists in the community. We also have 3 or 4 faculty members that work with policy leaders in the area of culture to try to understand how to manage cultural resources and growth and make them a greater social benefit.” She also pointed out that there are plans to situate the Surrey City Hall near SIAT as part of an initiative to create a new city centre in that municipality. All of this is in stark contrast with SFU’s main campus, built in 1965, and situated on a mountain top.

Regardless of its mountain top status, SFU has long made an effort to reach out to its various communities through its non-credit continuing studies programmes in Vancouver at Harbour Centre, the programmes at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, and its longstanding presence in the Downtown Eastside through various School of the Contemporary Arts courses (Note: The school is slated to make a wholsale move into the area, Fall 2010). Unfortunately, many of these efforts fall short of reaching any community that is not in some way affiliated with the university

Geisler acknowledges that more could be done, “You have to give the public ways to option in, or to find out things or to give more clear access. That’s a good problem to work on.”

As for why she came to SFU, “I’ve always done interdisciplinary work and I led a department that had many of the same components that I saw here. In a way, I thought this was the perfect next step for me. There was no other department like mine and there’s no other faculty like [this one]. I had a sense that at FCAT there was a lot of potential and desire to interact across disciplinary boundaries and do exciting new work and I thought that’s [what] I would want to lead.”

The next and last question begged to be asked. Do you have any dreams, any fantasies about where it [FCAT] might go?

“What people do is very interdisciplinary in the sciences, in art practice, and in design practice but the academic structure is much more reified and rigid so that students’ curricular experience often doesn’t mirror what’s going on in professional practice and in knowledge generation. Also, I think one of the consequences [of curricular rigidity] is that the public is often alienated from the university because it’s cut off from what makes academics excited.

There’s a real potential for creating new processes and faculty structures that can be responsive and be reflective of more problem-based or opportunity-based alignments [that exist] for a few years to get [a] project done. [As opposed to] ‘we all do biology here and we always do it; and a hundred years from now there’s going to be a biology dept. Departments are structured ‘as if they will always be there’ because they reflect the way the world is. I’d like to see a more exciting, project-based [approach]. I don’t know exactly how to do that but I thought this would be a place to figure [it] out.”

Thank you to Dr. Geisler for the insights and your time.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Introduction, Part 1, Part 2

Happy Weekend!

Australia sees shrinkage in nanotechnology business sector?; Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 2 of 3)

There is a new report, Nanotechnology in Australia: Trends, Applications and Collaborative Opportunities, to be released Monday, February 22, 2010, which, apparently, claims that the number of Australian companies in the nanotechnology market has “plummeted.” Dexter Johnson, Nanoclast blog, on the IEEE website wrote the first item I read about this report which is being produced by the Australian Academy of Science and will be launched by the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister, Kim Carr on Monday.

From Nanoclast,

The Australian Academy of Sciences in a soon-to-be-released report indicates that the number of nanotechnology companies in Australia is declining from an estimate of about 80 to around 55, and that the technology is simply not finding its way into commercial products.

According to the report, one of the key obstacles to this commercialization is “often dysfunctional” university intellectual property offices. I have covered this problem of poor tech transfer offices before when discussing a Cientifica report that came out late last year that recommended the following in order to start making money from nanotechnology: “Fire 90% of university tech transfer people and replace them with people who understand how small businesses and science based innovation actually works.”

Cientifica, mentioned in the excerpt from Nanoclast, is a company that’s been mentioned here before. Tim Harper, the principal, writes a blog (TNTlog) and has commented on the forthcoming report. From TNTlog,

My colleague Dexter Johnson (aka the Nanoclast) highlights a forthcoming report about the decline in the number of Australian nanotech companies, but it’s hardly surprising. Before anyone heralds the death of anything consider this:

* The global economy has resulted in a reduction of the number of companies in just about every sector of the economy. High streets where a third of the shops have closed are now common outside London, and everyone from estate agents to Starbucks have been rationalising, downsizing or going bust.

* As I mentioned back in 2001, most nanomaterials companies will go bust, some sooner, some later, but there is almost no way that anyone apart from large diversified chemical and materials companies can create a sustainable business in that sector. Of course if you told your VCs that nanotubes were the new gold you probably got closed down five years ago.

* Nanotech has been subject to a large amount of M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity, Singular ID being snapped up by Bilicare for example, thereby disappearing from the Singapore register of nanotech companies and joining the Indian pharmaceutical industry.

* Most nanotech companies were start ups, and most start ups don’t survive too long, whatever the sector.

* I can think of plenty of companies making use of nanotechnologies that no one would consider being nanotech companies, so how a nanotech company is defined is also part of the problem.

I can’t believe I’m doing this but I agree with Harper on each and every point he makes in this excerpt. (For contrast, you can read my critique of one of Harper’s reports here in my July 24, 2008 post.) As for the rest of his post, I bow to his superior knowledge of the market reports and hype.

The original story was written by Cheryl Jones for The Australian. I’ve not been able to find a reference to the forthcoming report on  the Australian Academy of Science website.

As Harper points out the economy is global and affects everyone including Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Burnaby & Surrey, Canada) where I interviewed Cheryl Geisler, Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 2)

Arriving at SFU on the heels of one of the largest economic meltdowns in decades and presiding over a new faculty during what is still considered a shaky economic recovery. Geisler is dealing with budgetary cuts and restraints. “Oh yeah, there were budgetary cuts this year across SFU, it was about 3%. [At the point] I think we’re pretty much flat in terms of the budget over the next three years but since salaries will not be flat that means other non-salary items have to suffer some re-organization.”

When pressed for more information, Geisler noted, “In the first instances you look for things that people are doing that they don’t really care about any more. Obviously, those can go [and that’s what we] more or less did this year. I always think it’s a bad idea to [say] we’ve got to cut, that’s a very demoralizing kind of goal. I’d rather think—ok—what can we create that’s new within the kinds of incentives, resources, and interests that we have. We might not be able to do everything we want but we can make sure that what we’re doing is what we really want to do.”

In looking at what any component of FCAT may want to achieve, it might be useful to cast an eye backward at each component’s history. The School for the Contemporary Arts started as a non credit cluster of courses in 1965 at SFU’s founding. By 1975 the programme had become an academic unit in the Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies. In 1989 the centre was renamed a school, a name it retains to this day. No mention is made as to membership in any faculty other than interdisciplinary studies. (More details can be found here on their web page or here in the faculty’s wikipedia entry although there doesn’t seem to have been an update noting the school’s new home faculty). NOTE: I received the wikipedia information (never occurred to me to look there) after I posted part 1. Thanks Livleen! The entry also gives information that I’ll use to update contextual details about this interview that I posted on Feb.16.10)

Memory (mine) will have to serve for an abbreviated history of FCAT’s other components.

  • The School of Communication was an outgrowth from the Sociology/Anthropology Dept. It seems to have achieved departmental status by sometime in the late 1970s, presumably in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. At some point in the 1980s, the department of communication became a member of the Faculty of Applied Sciences.
  • The School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) got its start in the late 1990s as part of the Technical University in Surrey, BC. The university was absorbed by SFU sometime in the early 2000s where it resided in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.
  • The Master’s of Publishing Programme was instituted in the late 1980s and was an outgrowth of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing which, itself, was at one time affiliated with or housed in the Department of Communication and, presumably, in the Faculty of Applied Sciences.
  • The Masters of Digital Media came about as an initiative from the consortium (University of British Columbia, British Columbia Institute of Technology, Emily Carr University of Art + Design) which manages the Great Northern Way Campus facility in Vancouver. The programme was instituted in 2007 and has not been anchored in a faculty.

(If you have more accurate historical or other information, please do let me know.)

The discussion about faculties is not purely academic (pun intended) as there has been an impact for SIAT, at least. “Yes, both schools (Interactive Arts & Technology and Communication) were in the Faculty of Applied Sciences but if you look at the research programmes for most of the [faculty members in Communication] there’s a strong critical analysis of media component which is more in line with the Humanities. Really, the move from Applied Sciences is affecting SIAT more. One of the consequences is that the students who are applying are not as technically literate. SIAT has a mix of Humanities and Art Practice and Science so they need to make sure they maintain and nurture that kind of mix even though there’s always a potential for drift towards design and they’re not [associated as closely] with the Computer Science Department [through their membership] in Applied Sciences anymore.”

I’m moving fast today so may have to make some changes when I review this post later. Tomorrow: part 3 where we discuss access to research, public outreach, and Cheryl Geisler’s ‘dreams’.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Introduction, Part 1, Part 3

Tokyo’s nano tech 2010; McGill Nanotech discovery could make chemistry greener; Vancouver Olympics and technology; Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 1 of 3)

I’m looking forward to posting (as promised) my piece about the new dean at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. Dr. Cheryl Geisler. First though, I’ll be noting some of the nanotechnology news.

Mentioned here earlier this month in a piece featuring varnish that ‘sings’, Tokyo’s nano tech 2010 International Nanotechnology Exhibition and Conference opens today, Feb. 17 and runs until Feb. 19. I believe this show and conference is one of the oldest and biggest of its type. For those who don’t know, Japan has long been a leader in nanotechnology. In fact, the term was coined by Norio Taniguchi in 1974 in his paper for the Japan Society for Precision Engineering. (Btw, if you’re interested in ‘singing’ varnish, you can read about it here in my posting of Feb. 3, 2010. It is towards the end of the post.)

On a completely other note, there’s a  news item on physorg.com highlighting a new nanotechnology-enabled process, discovered by researchers at McGill University in Montréal, for using catalysts in chemical reactions so they are ‘greener’. From the news item,

A new nanotech catalyst developed by McGill University Chemists Chao-Jun Li, Audrey Moores and their colleagues offers industry an opportunity to reduce the use of expensive and toxic heavy metals. Catalysts are substances used to facilitate and drive chemical reactions. Although chemists have long been aware of the ecological and economic impact of traditional chemical catalysts and do attempt to reuse their materials, it is generally difficult to separate the catalyzing chemicals from the finished product. The team’s discovery does away with this chemical process altogether.

Li neatly describes the new catalyst as “use a magnet and pull them out!” The technology is known as nanomagnetics and involves nanoparticles of a simple iron magnet

Congratulations to the researchers at McGill.

While it’s not nanotech specific it builds on yesterday’s (Feb.16.10) piece about science at the Vancouver Olympics and provides a tidy segue to the Geisler interview.  I’ve found an article about technology and the Vancouver Olympics on Fast Company by Dan Nosowitz. From the article,

The Vancouver Olympics is especially exciting because it combines all of our favorite things: Twitter, Facebook, Google Street View, recycled computer guts, iPhone apps, and mind-controlled light shows. Oh, right, and sports, I guess.

The Medals

Vancouver’s gold, silver, and bronze medals are all constructed partly of metal collected from discarded circuit boards. Teck Resources, a Canadian mining company, supplied the Royal Canadian Mint with recycled gold, silver, and copper (there’s not much bronze in computer parts, apparently) from which these particularly beautiful medals are made. Each medal is laser-etched with a unique design, and the medals are all wavy, meant to simulate the topographic diversity of Vancouver.

I agree, the medals are gorgeous and, in their way, an extraordinary expression of science, technology, and art.  (You can see images of the medals if you click through to the Fast Company article.)

I could wax on longer about how art, science, technology and more are interconnected but I’d rather post the piece I’ve written after interviewing Cheryl Geisler earlier this month. One note before proceeding, I have preserved the flavour of Geisler’s speech as much as possible. This was a stylistic choice as I prefer to ‘hear’ the interview and a standard Q & A style would not have worked well given the volume of contextual information that I wanted to include.

Off the deep end: interview with Cheryl Geisler (part 1 of 3)

The new Dean (since August 2009 when she arrived from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State), Dr. Cheryl Geisler, of the new Faculty (since April 2009) of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) administers three schools

  • Communication,
  • Contemporary Arts and
  • Interactive Arts and Technology

and two components

  • Master of Publishing and
  • under a not yet finalised special arrangement, Masters [sic] of Digital Media

that occupy (or will in Sept.2011 when the School for the Contemporary Arts moves to its new location at Woodward’s in Vancouver’s downtown eastside) five different physical locations in three different Metro Vancouver (Canada) municipalities. (Geisler has managed, as she pledged, to spend time (i.e., roughly a day) at each location if not weekly certainly on a regular basis. This is an impressive achievement when you consider that the Burnaby campus is 20 k from Surrey and 10 k from Vancouver (you can check those distances on this chart). It becomes more impressive when you realize how awkward the routing is if you’re traveling by car or public transit.)

Describing FCAT is a challenge since it hasn’t achieved a stable form (assuming that stability will be possible given the subject areas the faculty represents). Now, imagine trying to get a grasp of the situation when you’ve moved from the east coast of one country to the west coast of a new country, albeit on the same continent. Then add a move from a privately funded postsecondary institution which is an older one, Rensselaer was founded in 1828, to a publicly funded, comparatively new university, SFU was founded in 1965. All of this on top of dealing with a fluid faculty that has a local but wide-flung geography.

“You know, whenever I see something different I always say that I don’t know if this is SFU or the Canadian university system or if it’s Vancouver. I have no way to sort it out,” says Geisler in response to a question about whether or not she’d encountered any surprises after starting her new job. “Some of the reasons that I chose to come here were because of the greater social engagement with the community [that SFU is known for] and a greater emphasis on collegial decision-making processes. In the private university that I came from, we got things done quickly but not always with a lot of input. Now, I’m coming to a system where things don’t get done particularly quickly but there’s always a lot of consultation, so my challenge is to try and marry those two.”

Geisler brings a little more to the job than her past experience as Head of the Department of Language, Literature and Communication at Rensselaer (you can get more details about Geisler’s CV in yesterday’s posting). She was the leader for a project (RAMP Up! Reforming Advancement Processes through University Professions) funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF). While much of the focus was specifically on women, the overarching project goals can be applied to other situations. From the project website,

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NSF-funded project for institutional transformation stands for Reforming Advancement Processes through University Professions.  One of the major goals of the RAMP-Up project is institutional reform using mechanisms of professional self-regulation as a means for controlling advancement through faculty ranks.

Unlike reforms aimed at top-down policy initiatives, this type of self-regulatory reform cannot be mandated, but is achieved only by rethinking faculty-to-faculty processes such as networking, mentoring, and peer review. The kind of change necessary for effective institutional reform will come about as a transformation of culture at all levels of the institute, particularly within departments, which are the hubs of faculty work.

Geisler does anticipate bringing some RAMP Up! (so to speak) to SFU. “Yes, [the project] focused on bottom-up cultural transformations of big university/academic processes and I have a big commitment to bottom-up processes which I brought to that project [and had reinforced as I worked on it]. A big emphasis for me now is to create connections between the various components of FCAT and not consider them as separate entities but to try mixing [them] up and see what the synergies could be.”

Similar to a successful RAMP Up! initiative which went through three rounds of funding, Geisler has proposals on her desk to introduce a type of career campaign award to faculty members for working with a mentor and developing a plan for career advancement. “We’ve had a lot of interest from the junior faculty and I believe it’s really one of the first mentoring initiatives at SFU,” says Geisler.

Tomorrow: budget cuts and history.

Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Introduction, Part 2, Part 3

Nano valentine; Owning the podium and science at the Olympics in French; Introduction to three part interview with Cheryl Geisler

Yesterday, I meant to post about the nano Valentine’s Day card that scientists at Birmingham University’s Nanoscale Physics Research Lab made out of pure palladium. From the university’s  news release (thanks to Azonano where I first spotted this item),

Making the card was also a work of love; clusters of palladium atoms bonded together on the surface of carbon and spontaneously arranged themselves into the world’s smallest heart.

Here’s the card,

Palladium Valentine, 8 nm in size, from Birmingham University's Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory

Now on to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, “Own the Podium” or “À nous le podium” and science in a very illuminating podcast (French language) on Je vote pour la science.

I first heard about the “Own the Podium” government sports/science initiative, although not by that name, early last week from a friend in England where it was being discussed in the media. I saw nothing here until the Globe and Mail (G&M) article, Is Canada a Spoilsport? (pp. F1 & F6) by Ian Brown in the Feb. 13, 2010 edition, but I assumed that’s because I don’t follow sports closely. After listening to the Josée Nadia Drouin and Pascal Lapointe (both of Quebec’s Agence Science-Presse) podcast on Je vote pour la science, I realized that the programme has been kept somewhat quiet until lately.

My French comprehension is spotty but I gathered from the podcast that the government devoted some $117M for sports in preparation for the Olympics, from the G&M article that athletes were given a stipend of $18,000 for living expenses (doesn’t sound like much to me), and from the podcast, again, that money was given to 55 Centres of Excellence in 7 universities for scientific research supporting athletic efforts.

I do think that we should better support our athletes but I abhor the programme name,  Own the Podium, which suggests that winning is the prime motive for competing. This is noxious when you consider the intent of the Olympics as expressed by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, (from Wikipedia here citing Christopher R. Hill’s 1996 book Olympic Politics)

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

As for the Olympics and science, Lapointe and Drouin also focused on surveillance. Unfortunately for me, their correspondent was on a poor telephone line and that combined with my French comprehension skills means I got very little data but the conflation of science, surveillance, and sporting events gave me an expanded perspective.

For my final bit today, I’m introducing Dr. Cheryl Geisler, the new dean for the new Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT) at Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, Canada). She very kindly gave me an interview in early February about her new faculty and her plans.

I’m providing some background before posting the interview. From the SFU website, the university has approximately 32,000 students and 900 faculty as of the 20007 annual report which contrasts somewhat with Geisler’s previous home institution, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (located in Troy, NY with approximately 7700 students and 450 faculty as of Fall 2009. from their website).

I did encounter some difficulty finding numbers of students, faculty and administrative staff for individual departments and faculties (FCAT has five admin staff) at both universities and am not sure if this is innocence (nobody has considered making the information available) or strategy (i.e., universities prefer to keep the information discreet although it can be obtained if you’re willing  [spelling corrected Feb.17.10] to dig deep enough). ETA (Feb.17.10): I was kindly provided with a link to FCAT’s wikipedia entry where I found that there are 1861 undergraduate students and 208 graduate students for a total of 2069 students with 79 continuing full time faculty members. According to the wikipedia entry, this information is available at the SFU website on this page in a category titled Headcounts. It is part of the SFU website which belongs to Institutional Research and Planning.

As for Dr. Geisler herself, she holds a PhD in Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University (main campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), an MS in Reading from Western Illinois University, and a BA in English from Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). Prior to her move, she had been affiliated with Rensselaer in one fashion or another since 1986.

The most exotic thing on her CV (obtained from the Rensselaer website in October 2009) is a two year stint in Jerusalem as a teacher of English as a foreign language. She has some experience with Canada as an outside reviewer for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2000 for their Valuing Literacy in Canada programme.

Taken as a whole, her CV is an impressive document. At Rensselaer, she taught courses such as Techniques for the Analysis of Verbal Data; Proposing and Persuading; and the Literacy Seminar: Theories of Mediation, Technology and Text. She has written widely and (along with partners) holds two patents in addition to administering federal government grants for a number of different projects.

I cherrypicked, there’s a lot more to Dr. Geisler’s CV but I think the point has been made. Tomorrow (Feb. 17, 2010), I start a three part series, Off the deep end: an interview with Cheryl Geisler Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Textiles used as batteries at UC Berkeley; University of Calgary, quantum entanglement and building blocks; Raymor Industries has a nano problem with its shareholders?

There seems to be a race to get our clothes electrified so we can become portable recharging devices. From the news item on Azonano,

In research that gives literal meaning to the term “power suit,” University of California, Berkeley, engineers have created energy-scavenging nanofibers that could one day be woven into clothing and textiles.

These nano-sized generators have “piezoelectric” properties that allow them to convert into electricity the energy created through mechanical stress, stretches and twists.

“This technology could eventually lead to wearable ‘smart clothes’ that can power hand-held electronics through ordinary body movements,” said Liwei Lin, UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering and head of the international research team that developed the fiber nanogenerators.

This announcement is on the heels of a similar announcement (noted in my posting of Jan.22.10 here)  from researchers at the University of Stanford in California.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Calgary are playing with construction toys (they use the lego metaphor, which seems quite popular right now). From the news release on the University of Calgary website (thanks to Azonano where I first found notice of the item),

While many of us enjoyed constructing little houses out of toy bricks, this task is much more difficult if the bricks are elementary particles. It is even harder if these are particles of light—photons—which can only exist while flying at an incredible speed and vanish if they touch anything.

Yet a team at the University of Calgary has accomplished exactly that. By manipulating a mysterious quantum property of light known as entanglement, they are able to mount up to two photons on top of one another to construct a variety of quantum states of light—that is, build two-story quantum toy houses of any style and architecture.

The research has just (yesterday, Feb.14.10) been published in Nature Photonics. You can read the abstract (here after you scroll down) but the rest of the article is behind a paywall.

I found something rather odd this morning about Raymor Industries. It’s a Canadian nanotechnology company (their products are based on single-walled carbon nanotubes) traded on the TSX that is currently experiencing difficulty with, at least some, shareholders. From the item on PRNewsWire,

RAYMOR INDUSTRIES INC. (TSX Venture RAR, RAYRF) is a leading Canadian developer of high technology and a producer of advanced materials and nanomaterials for high value-added applications. Raymor holds the exclusive rights to more than 20 patents throughout the world, with other patents pending. Shareholders have formed a group to fight to protect our shareholder rights and prevent the current board of directors from delisting and the eliminating the common shares of the corporation.  The group is called The Raymor Investors Special Action Group.  The group is sending out this communication to get the attention of the 8000 shareholders and advise them that an appeal to the recent January 27, 2010 court ruling has been launched and is underway.  A strong and reasonable chance exists that the appeal can be won.

If you’re curious about the company and its products, you can read more here at their website, although they offer no additional information about the contretemps.