Monthly Archives: December 2010

Thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene and on the FrogHeart blog

I thought the timing was right for a review of the Canadian science blogging scene. At this point there seems to be about 12 of us. I found 4 new (to me) blogs this year:

  • The Bubble Chamber which is maintained by the History of Science programme students at the University of Toronto. As you might expect, it’s very academic at times. You might find a recent posting, How to pursue science from the humanities, an interesting read.
  • CMBR is maintained by Colin Schultz. He’s a science journalist. I haven’t read it often enough to be able to comment on it although I am intrigued by an item he has about science and the movies.
  • PARS3C is maintained by Elizabeth Lowell, a science journalist and editor. She focuses on space exploration (not a very strong interest of mine). Here’s her profile of Rocket Scientista, a PhD student in astrophysics who discusses, amongst other things,  why she thinks science blogging is important.
  • Nicole Arbour, a science and innovation officer in the UK’s Foreign Office in Ottawa, blogs about the science in Ottawa and in Canada regularly on a site maintained by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. One of her latest is titled, Science Policy in Canada, and features a video of Mehrdad Hariri, Chair of the Canada Science Policy Conference, talking about plans to create a science policy centre in Canada.

Colleagues that have stimulated my thinking and opened new vistas include,

  • Rob Annan on a blog that seems to have changed its name recently (glory halleluiah!) to Researcher Forum. (Rob, I will change my blog roll soon.) It was a blog developed as a consequence of a protest letter written to Stephen Harper’s Conservative government a few years back when science budgets were affected. Months after its inception, Rob Annan was asked to take on the job of blogging regularly. His writing on Canadian science policy is always thoughtful and thought-provoking. Here’s his latest one on innovation in Canada and some of the problems. And, here’s one of my favourites from June 29, 2010, Public has a right to influence research policy. It’s about multiple sclerosis and the ‘surgery cure’ that has excited an enormous amount of interest.
  • The Black Hole is a blog about what happens once you graduate from university. It’s mostly aimed at those who have PhDs or Masters degrees although I think anyone could benefit from the insights that Beth Snow and David Kent provide. They certainly opened my eyes up to some of the issues in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. There’s a very interesting and humourous response to a current discussion taking place about whether or not there are too many people getting doctoral degrees, Professionals in High Demand. They ran a series during the summer about work that graduate students can aspire to and that doesn’t involve becoming a professor at a university.
  • Gregor Wolbring, a professor at the University of Calgary, maintains probably one of the longest-running and well-known Canadian science blogs, Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…. He doesn’t blog that frequently these days; his site biography indicates that he must be screamingly busy. It’s worth taking a look at his blog as he often features material that no one else does.

Strictly speaking these aren’t science blogs as I think of them but this is a review of the ‘scene’ as much as anything else and these blogs definitely contribute,

  • Jeff Sharom maintains the Science Canada blog whose goal “is to highlight science policy issues in Canada’s political arena and media.” He doesn’t offer any commentary so this site functions more as an aggregator or reader but he picks up just about everything on Canadian science policy and it’s definitely worth a look if you want to know about the latest news.
  • RRResearch is maintained by Rosie Redfield at the University of British Columbia. As she notes, “This is a research blog, not a conventional science blog. Most posts are not about published research or science in the public domain, but about my lab’s day-to-day research into the mechanism, function and evolution of DNA uptake by Haemophilus influenzae and other bacteria.” She’s probably best known for her response to a recent science controversy over arsenic and bacteria.

The rest of these are blogs that haven’t been updated for a few months or more or don’t fit easily into the notion of being a Canadian science blog.

  • Je vote pour la science has been maintained by Pascal Lapointe and his colleague, Josée Nadia Drouin. There hasn’t been a new podcast (yes, a Canadian science podcast blog) since May 2010. These are expensive and time-consuming and both Pascal and his colleague work for Agence Science-Presse (which is being kept current). If you do have the French language skills I do encourage you to check out both sites.
  • David Ng is a professor at the University of British Columbia and he is a member of a group blog (his two partners are both from the US).  One of Dr. Ng’s most recent postings at The World’s Fair was titled, Crickets chirping and Collider Whales. There’s more about Dr. Ng and his various projects here.
  • Jay Ingram, co-host of Discovery Planet, maintained a blog , which featured podcasts, until Oct. 2008. I wonder if he will start it up again now that he’s retiring from Discovery Planet.

As for FrogHeart, I had a banner year bloggingwise. January 2010 statistics (AW stats. package) show the site as have 4225 visits in total and this month the site has clocked over 25,000 visits.That’s an increase of over 600%. In fact, FrogHeart consistently showed over 20,000 visits per month in the last quarter.  Based on this data, I’m going to make the claim that as far as I know,  FrogHeart is the largest, independent Canadian science blog.

Nanocrystalline cellulose is the most searched topic on my blog this year. It may not be the top search in every month but it’s consistently in my top 10. I want to thank Peter Julian, Rainer Becker, Charles McGovern, Richard Berry, Forrest H Bennett III, Leon Chua, Blaise Mouttet, Fern Wickson, Betty J. Morris, and Teri W. Odom who kindly provided answers to my questions (some were full length interviews while others were quick e-mail questions).

Please do contact me if I’ve missed something or someone or got something wrong.

I think 2010 was a better year for Canadian science blogging if you consider the addition of a couple new blogs as evidence (and I do). Many of the bloggers are independent, i.e., they self-fund their blogs and that suggests a big commitment.

I think at this point I’d like to highlight a December 28, 2010 article from the Calgary Herald on  how to pour champagne by Tom Spears (from the article),

It took six French scientists and a lot of free samples to prove this, but the official word says you should pour Champagne down the side of a tall glass to preserve the fizz and the flavour.

Bubbles also last longer when your Champagne is really cold — about 4 C.

I wish a great 2011 for everyone and an even more active year for Canadian science blogging.

ETA Jan.19.11: I found another Canadian science blogger: Nassif Ghoussou, a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia. His blog is called Piece of Mind. Thanks to Rob Annan’s blog, Researcher Forum, for this find.

ETA Jan. 24.11: This is great. I found Cool Science today. The blogger, a science communicator and parent located in Ontario,  focuses on something called ‘science parenting.  From the blog’s About page,

This site is about raising a creative rationalist in an age of nonsense. It is about parents getting excited about science, learning and critical thinking. It is about smart parents raising smart kids who can think for themselves, make good decisions and discern the credible from the incredible.

Are there any other Canadian science bloggers I can add to this list? Please, do let me know.

Democracy, participation, and science culture

Should citizens have any input into how science research is funded? Dan Hind in his Dec. 14, 2010 article, Time to democratise science, for New Scientist argues yes persuasively (from the article),

THE natural and social sciences exert a huge influence on the ways our societies develop. At present most of the funding for scientific research is controlled by the state and the private economy. Perhaps it is time to look at their track record and consider an alternative.

Science is not, and can never be, disinterested insofar as its objectives are concerned. Decisions to fund this research instead of that research can never be purely technical. Assessments of what is likely to produce interesting or useful knowledge are inevitably alloyed with the desires of those who control the money to develop particular forms of knowledge and with them new resources of power.

Given the mixed track record of the patrons of science it is surely time to consider an alternative. If we are serious about science as a public good, we should give the public control over the ways in which some – and I stress “some” – of its money is spent.

At the end of the article there is this note about the author,

Dan Hind is author of The Return of the Public (Verso), which argues for a new kind of participatory politics

There does seem to be seem sort of trend towards more participatory science as per citizen science or crowdsourced science projects such as Foldit (my Aug. 6, 2010 posting) and Phylo (my Dec. 3, 2010 posting).I’m not sure how much traction participatory science research funding is going to find. That said, there was a UK project run by EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research) where members of the public were allowed to ‘vote’ on particular projects. You can read more about the project in the May 25, 2009 news item on Nanowerk describing the grants that were chosen. From the news item,

Ten research grants to help solve some of the biggest health problems facing the UK have been awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The projects focus on developing new techniques for screening and treating major public health issues such as cancer, stroke, AIDS, influenza, MRSA and dementia.

The grants, worth £16.5m, have been given by the EPSRC, acting as the lead Research Council in a cross Research Council Programme called “Nanoscience through Engineering to Application.”

Segue: As for participatory politics (as per Dan Hind), I’ve noticed a local (Vancouver, Canada) backlash response to the notion of public consultations (city government officials want to increase population densities). Oddly enough, when people take the time to participate in a ‘consultation’ they expect that at least some of their comments will have an impact on the decisions that are being made. I gather some experts find this irksome and a challenge to their professional authority.

Back to the main topic: My impression is that the UK enjoys a science culture that is not to be found in Canada—not yet, anyway. There is discussion about public dialogue and engagement in science not just in the UK but elsewhere too that simply doesn’t exist in Canada. Yes, there are a few fragile attempts at creating a science culture here. I’m thinking of the Café Scientifique groups, Canada’s National Science and Technology Week, and the open houses put on by the universities but there really isn’t much.

The Year of Science (a science culture project) was declared in the province of British Columbia (BC) in the fall of 2010. From my Oct. 14, 2010 posting,

To inspire young minds across the province and foster a culture of research and innovation Premier Gordon Campbell today proclaimed the 2010-2011 school year as the Year of Science in B.C.

It’s good to see these kinds of initiatives, unfortunately this particular one is undercut by news such as this (from the Dec. 2, 2010 article, Teacher blasts cuts to Vancouver school science budgets; School science budgets slashed by 56 per cent compared to last year, by Naiobh O’Connor for the Vancouver Courier),

School science budgets were slashed by 56 per cent compared to last year and the district now allots only $4.61 per student each year to cover expenses—far below what Mike Hengeveld, Templeton secondary’s science department head and teacher, argues is adequate.

Limited budgets mean it’s difficult to replace equipment like broken beakers or to buy new equipment. Hengeveld even worries about buying a dozen eggs for a relatively cheap egg drop experiment or what’s needed to grow crystals for chemistry class.

“If I went and bought iodized salt or de-iodized salt and [students] make a solution by heating stuff in a beaker—which I hope doesn’t break—if I spend 15 bucks on salt at the store, I’ve blown three or four students’ worth of budget for them to learn how to grow crystals. It’s neat, but I can’t do that in a science class every day. I would just completely and totally run out of money and that’s just on cheap stuff,” he said.

I’m not trying to fault the Year of Science initiative just pointing out that the initiative is problematic when the science education budget for schools cannot support even simple research projects.

This is a larger issue that I can adequately cover in this posting but I did want to draw attention to some of the fragilities of the Canadian situation (and our own situation in BC) vis à vis creating a science culture and/or democratizing science.

Meanwhile, I read with some envy a report titled, International Comparison of Public Dialogue on Science and Technology,  from a UK organization, Sciencewise-ERC – the UK’s national centre for public dialogue in policy making involving science and technology issues. Canada is not mentioned and I imagine that’s due to the fact that we don’t have any public dialogue to speak of.

ETA Mar.3.11: I made some minor changes for clarity (added Segue: and Back to the main topic: and removed an extra space.

Experiencing art: the Amy Bessone & Thomas Houseago and Man Ray shows

I saw the Amy Bessone/Thomas Houseago show at the Rennie Collection gallery and the Man Ray exhibit at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (on the University of British Columbia [UBC] campus) within one week (Dec. 16, 2010 and Dec. 22, 2010 respectively) of each other and am still not sure how to describe my reaction to either of the shows.

The Bessone/Houseago show features both paintings (Bessone) and sculptures (Houseago) by a couple of artists who are linked together professionally and personally.

This is the third time I’ve seen a show at the Rennie Collection and this time I was highly conscious of the tour guide who spoke almost continuously for a little over an hour. I unintentionally interrupted the spiel at the beginning of the tour and noticed that no one else got in a word until the tour was almost over. The experience stood in contrast to my last two experiences when the guide paused a few times during the tour to allow time to absorb the impact of the work and also allow time for comments and questions. Until now I hadn’t realized how important it was for me to have moments of quiet during the presentation of the works.

Not everybody feels the way I do about these things; there are lots of folks who like to have a ton of information presented all at once. The quiet time during the tour is important to me. It allows me to have an experience independent of anyone else’s opinions, facts, and ideas being immediately laid over my first moments with the pieces. There is always quiet time after the tour is over, usually about 1/2 hour where you can wander around the pieces pretty much on your own.

I didn’t find the experience with this show quite as rich as the previous two and I’m not sure if it was due to not getting my quiet time, my ignorance about art suddenly coming into stronger play than usual, or the way the works interacted in the space.

In the last two shows (Mona Hatoum and Richard Jackson), the works seemed to reference each other in the space they occupied. Hatoum’s ‘geographies’ were placed in relationship to each other. Jackson actually nailed a piece to the wall in one room and later referenced, with various pieces, ‘high art’, the Centre Pompidou, and Seurat in another room.

Plus, I missed the basement. Both Hatoum and Jackson used the basement room for a piece but, I don’t know if there wasn’t time to show us during the tour, neither Bessone or Houseago seemed to have used the basement.

For me, the two most interesting of Bessone’s pieces were Bound and Unbound and I don’t think either would be as interesting without the other. Bound is the first piece you see and it shows a female nude and what appears to be bondage gear painted over top of the female; she’s not wearing the gear, it’s laid over top. Unbound is on the second floor and it reminded strongly of Gauguin. I’m not entire sure why as I’ve never paid much attention to his work (I’m not a fan). In any event, it intrigued me as the colour palette was different, darker and moodier than the other pieces or perhaps it was an unintentional (or intentional) literary reference (I was reminded of Prometheus Unbound).

For those who can’t recall, Prometheus, according to Greek mythology, brought fire to humanity for which he was punished. There are two plays (I looked this up on Wikipedia) Prometheus Bound (by Aeschylus) and Prometheus Unbound (by Percy Bysshe Shelley). Bessone does make another reference to Greek mythology in one of her ‘figurine’ paintings, which is called ‘No. 5 aka Atlas’. Several of the paintings she has in the show are paintings of female figurines.

The first piece you see from Houseago is a giant (8 ft high or more?) white spoon. Every other of his sculptures that you will see in this show features a human figure. I wonder if there is a kind of pun at play. Houseago with his human figures and Bessone with her figurines?

It’s a little difficult to identify Houseago’s pieces as he has a very anonymous naming convention, e.g. reclining figure. He has more than one reclining figure in the show and the only way to distinguish them (other than looking at them) is by date. The most interesting of the pieces brought in for the show is a reclining figure whose arm also could be described as a penis. The closest I can come to describing it is ‘Escher-like’. It’s an arm that extends into a penis that bends over and becomes a shoulder (I think).

I have long loved the Houseago piece that is permanently (?) on the roof. It’s a giant metal man. I’m not sure if it’s the scale, the fact that the metal is greenish, or if it’s the placement on the green grass of  the roof with a city backdrop but I find it compelling for reasons I really cannot articulate.

This show provided an interesting contrast to the Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens show at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. I should have realized but did not that the show is primarily a photography exhibit. As far as I’m aware there are no tours for this show. They seem to have decided that it would be a good idea to write as much text as possible explaining each photograph. It’s a little bit like reading a thesis and I think since I’d come in expecting a curated show I misunderstood the purpose. This is really more an examination of the documentation of various collections and shows that took place in the 1930′s. (Weirdly, one of Bessone’s figurine paintings had very much reminded me of Marlene Dietrich as she looked in the 1930s.)

There are a few objects in the display that you can contrast with the images that were taken of it. The bulk of the show is photography and unfortunately they simple hung the images in a line around the walls. There are not groupings and no changes of levels. It’s a little bit like pulling the pages out of a book and lining them up beside each other. There are some movies and videos in the show. There’s a Cocteau movie which is projected into the corner of a wall and, in part, onto a floor. It’s a little hard to see it as the contrast isn’t very strong but it is intriguing. There is also one room that where you can see a series of films and that is darkened so you can see them more clearly.

I don’t regret going and I’m not sure if my expectations led me astray but I would have like to see a little more variation in the way the images were displayed.

To close, I’m going with Bettye Lavette. It’s a complete change of pace. Lavette performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 and took the place down. What shocked everyone is that no one knew who she was. The song is Love Reign O’er Me by Pete *Townshend (one of the honorees that year) of The Who.

As of 2010, she was 64. The performance is a reminder of why we go to shows (visual/performing arts/or otherwise).

* Corrected the spelling of Townshend’s name from Townsend on Oct. 25, 2013.

Cutting carbon nanotubes

I’ve been meaning to get to this news item about cutting carbon nanotubes for a few days. From the Dec. 17, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

“We can now design the cutting rate and the diameters we want to cut,” said Kyung-Suk Kim, professor of engineering in the School of Engineering at Brown and the corresponding author on the paper.

The basics of carbon nanotube manufacturing are known. Single-atom thin graphene sheets are immersed in solution (usually water), causing them to look like a plate of tangled spaghetti. The jumbled bundle of nanotubes is then blasted by high-intensity sound waves that create cavities (or partial vacuums) in the solution. The bubbles that arise from these cavities expand and collapse so violently that the heat in each bubble’s core can reach more than 5,000 degrees Kelvin, close to the temperature on the surface of the sun. Meanwhile, each bubble compresses at an acceleration 100 billion times greater than gravity. Considering the terrific energy involved, it’s hardly surprising that the tubes come out at random lengths. Technicians use sieves to get tubes of the desired length. The technique is inexact partly because no one was sure what caused the tubes to fracture.

German researchers had hypothesized that the tube fractures were due to the action of sonic boomlets yanking the tubes apart violently (like taking hold of the two opposite ends of a rope and pulling the rope apart from each end so that it breaks somewhere along its length). Apparently, this was not the case,

They [researchers from Brown University and Korea Institute of Science and Technology] found that rather than being pulled apart, as the German researchers had thought, the tubes were being compressed mightily from both ends. This caused a buckling in a roughly five-nanometer section along the tubes called the compression-concentration zone. In that zone, the tube is twisted into alternating 90-degree-angle folds, so that it fairly resembles a helix.

That discovery still did not explain fully how the tubes are cut. Through more computerized simulations, the group learned the mighty force exerted by the bubbles’ sonic booms caused atoms to be shot off the tube’s lattice-like foundation like bullets from a machine gun.

“It’s almost as if an orange is being squeezed, and the liquid is shooting out sideways,” Kim said. “This kind of fracture by compressive atom ejection has never been observed before in any kind of materials.”

Here’s where the paper was published and why they hope this is an important discovery,

In a paper published this month in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, researchers at Brown University and in Korea document for the first time how single-walled carbon nanotubes are cut, a finding that could lead to producing more precise, higher-quality nanotubes. Such manufacturing improvements likely would make the nanotubes more attractive for use in automotive, biomedicine, electronics, energy, optics and many other fields.

I didn’t see any projections for when these “more precise, higher-quality nanotubes” might reach the marketplace. It seems to me that they aren’t that sure about the prospects.

Nanomaterial definitions in Australia

Australia announced a nanomaterials definition in a Dec. 18, 2010 news item on Nanowerk. The definition will be effective as of Jan. 1, 2011. From the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) document, GUIDANCE ON NEW CHEMICAL REQUIREMENTS FOR NOTIFICATION OF INDUSTRIAL NANOMATERIALS,

NICNAS WORKING DEFINITION1 OF INDUSTRIAL NANOMATERIAL

… industrial materials intentionally produced, manufactured or engineered to have unique properties or specific composition at the nanoscale, that is a size range typically between 1 nm and 100 nm, and is either a nano-object (i.e. that is confined in one, two, or three dimensions at the nanoscale) or is nanostructured (i.e. having an internal or surface structure at the nanoscale)”

[Notes to the working definition:

• intentionally produced, manufactured or engineered materials are distinct from accidentally produced materials

• ‘unique properties’ refers to chemical and/or physical properties that are different because of its nanoscale features as compared to the same material without nanoscale features, and result in unique phenomena (e.g. increased strength, chemical reactivity or conductivity) that enable novel applications.

• aggregates and agglomerates are considered to be nanostructured substances

• where a material includes 10% or more number of particles that meet the above definition (size, unique properties, intentionally produced) NICNAS will consider this to be a nanomaterial.]

The document is 15 pages long and goes into details about various categories including exceptions, permit categories, certificate categories, and more. I notice that the 1 to 100 nm range is the standard for this definition. I have never found a good explanation for why this particular range sets the standard. Why not .1 to 150 nm?

As for the Canadian scene, there’s been no final word about the Interim Policy Statement on Health Canada’s Working Definition for Nanomaterials since the public consultation closed in Aug. 2010.

The latest invisibility cloak

Fractal Antenna Systems Inc. has released a video which demonstrates an invisibility cloak. From the Dec. 20, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

The video conclusively shows that invisibility science has taken a huge leap with fractal design. Fractals are geometric patterns that have complex structure built from scaled repetition of a simple pattern. Fractals make up the cloak and its ‘object’ layer, producing a wideband invisibility that slipstreams microwaves around obstacles. The other side appears with good fidelity, without the detectable presence of the obstacle. Although a proof-of-concept of an invisibility cloak was shown in 2006 at Duke University, such non-fractal efforts had limitations. The Duke cloak worked in one narrow band, had many more cloaking layers, possessed a discernable shadow, and required the obstacle to already be hiding behind a mirror. All of those obstacles have been solved using fractals, in grids called fractal metamaterial, as the firm’s cloak reveals.

I located the 2006 video from Duke University,

It’s Fractal Antenna System’s ability to project a wideband invisibility cloak that distinguishes this effort from Duke’s (from the news item),

Notes the firm’s CEO and chief inventor Nathan Cohen: “In 2008, Chinese researchers said it was impossible to make a wideband invisibility cloak. We not only did it, but reduced the number of cloak layers, and, most importantly, made a cloak you can see out of. That means a sensor, for example, can be made to disappear into the background over a wideband, but still be able to see what’s outside. These attributes are really the ‘holy grail’ of cloak designs, and strongly point towards a bright future for invisibility science.”

The fractal cloak works at microwaves; radio waves used by cell phones and wireless devices. The technology directly applies to infrared, and with technology advances in nanotechnology, can be made to make visual light invisibility cloaks, although Cohen cautions that it will be many years before visual light invisibility cloaks are perfected. “Other researchers are still hiding objects behind mirrors. What’s the point of a cloak if you are already hiding behind a mirror?” asked Cohen.

As best as I can tell, the objects that are being cloaked are not visible to the human eye as they are measurable at the nanoscale. Here’s the Fractal Antenna Systems video (from YouTube),

The narrator seems to have some an unfortunate vocal habit, he overmodulates so some parts are a bit ‘sing-song’.

Cadmium nanomaterials and biomagnification in the food chain

Given the recent uproar over cadmium in our local (British Columbia) oysters, this new study about nanoparticles formed from cadmium selenide and their possible absorption into the aquatic food chain caught my attention. From the Dec. 20, 2010 news item on physorg.com,

“We already knew that the bacteria were internalizing these nanoparticles from our previous study,” Holden [Patricia] said. “And we also knew that Ed (Orias) and Rebecca (Werlin) were working with a protozoan called Tetrahymena and nanoparticles. So we approached them and asked if they would be interested in a collaboration to evaluate how the protozoan predator is affected by the accumulated nanoparticles inside a bacterial prey.” Orias and Werlin credit their interest in nanoparticle toxicity to earlier funding from and participation in the University of California Toxic Substance Research & Training Program.

The scientists repeated the growth of the bacteria with quantum dots in the new study and and coupled it to a trophic transfer study –– the study of the transfer of a compound from a lower to a higher level in a food chain by predation. “We looked at the difference to the predator as it was growing at the expense of different prey types –– ‘control’ prey without any metals, prey that had been grown with a dissolved cadmium salt, and prey that had been grown with cadmium selenide quantum dots,” Holden said.

What they found was that the concentration of cadmium increased in the transfer from bacteria to protozoa and, in the process of increasing concentration, the nanoparticles were substantially intact, with very little degradation. “We were able to measure the ratio of the cadmium to the selenium in particles that were inside the protozoa and see that it was substantially the same as in the original nanoparticles that had been used to feed the bacteria,” Orias said.

The fact that the ratio of cadmium and selenide was preserved throughout the course of the study indicates that the nanoparticles were themselves biomagnified. “Biomagnification –– the increase in concentration of cadmium as the tracer for nanoparticles from prey into predator –– this is the first time this has been reported for nanomaterials in an aquatic environment, and furthermore involving microscopic life forms, which comprise the base of all food webs,” Holden said.

The scientists involved with the study are also associated with the University of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (UC CEIN).

As for the local oyster/cadmium situation (from a Dec. 14, 2010 article by Larry Pynn, Postmedia News on Canada.com),

Bendell [Leah Bendell, professor specializing in ecotoxicology at Simon Fraser University, BC] said the Canadian consumption advice barely meets international standards and does not take into account that cadmium levels are higher in “hot spots” in popular B.C. oyster-growing areas such as Baynes Sound near Denman Island, Desolation Sound north of Powell River, and Effingham Inlet at Barkley Sound.

One study in 2000 found B.C. oysters reached levels as high as 4.9 parts per million, while a 2004-05 study found levels of up to 3.57 parts per million. A workshop sponsored by Simon Fraser University in May estimated current cadmium levels in B.C. oysters at one to four parts per million.

Europe does not allow the importation of oysters containing more than one part per million of cadmium; Hong Kong’s limit is two parts per million.

The BC Centre for Disease Control states that “levels of cadmium are much lower in oysters elsewhere in the world.”

They are advising local oyster lovers to exercise moderation with regard to eating them.

As for biomagnification and cadmium nanoparticles, here’s what the lead scientist suggested,

“In this context, one might argue that if you could ‘design out’ whatever property of the quantum dots causes them to enter bacteria, then we could avoid this potential consequence,” Holden said. “That would be a positive way of viewing a study like this. Now scientists can look back and say, ‘How do we prevent this from happening?’ ” [emphasis mine]

Canadians and ‘smart’ Christmas trees

This isn’t my usual kind of thing but since it does involve Christmas trees, some science, and Canadians, why not? David Zax in his article, Scientists Build “Smart” Christmas Tree With Long-Lasting Needles and Fragrance (on the Fast Company website) writes,

We live in the era of smart grids, smart phones, smart entrepreneurs, and all other manners of smartness. It may be no surprise to learn, then, that we’re on our way towards having a “smart” Christmas tree–one capable of retaining its needles for twice the normal length of time.

That’s according to Dr. Raj Lada [Dr. Rajasekaran Lada], a plant physiologist at the Christmas Tree Research Centre at Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro. “The cutting edge is that we should have to have a tree,” Dr. Lada said on NPR, “which I call a smart tree.”

The idea came a few years ago when a devastated small-business owner called on Lada. The man was ruined: his entire crop of Christmas trees had already lost their needles. As Lada began to investigate, he learned that it wasn’t a blight or a disease that was likely to have caused this crop’s loss. Rather, it was a disorder common to many Christmas tree producers: trees often shed their needles quickly, and there was no consensus over how to fix the problem.

You can find the original interview (audio and transcript) on US National Public Radio here. From the transcript of the interview,

FLATOW [Ira Flatow, Science Friday, radio program host]: Raj, you have a new study that’s out now in the journal Trees, where you were able to make trees keep their needles twice as long as usual. How did you do that?

Dr. LADA: That’s true. We started with – I think the problem itself is widespread, basically. Some people talk about it, some people don’t. And it started with the producer, who sent a shipment of trees to Vancouver, B.C., and turned out to be all the needless dropped, and he has not even paid the check. So that is a severe problem.

And we looked at it as a scientific approach. And any of these physiological things now, any of these abscission or flowering, everything is regulated by hormonal changes in plants or trees, basically. And this is one of it, basically. But nobody knows about it. We didn’t even know that there is such a regulatory process.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. LADA: We from our other herbaceous plants, like cotton and cut flowers and banana ripening, we know that there is a hormone that triggers and – that ages the cell and triggers the hormone level. And once the hormone level reaches to a certain point, that induces the organ shed, basically, the leaves or the fruits or flower petals or whatever it is that can abscise from their tree or plant.

FLATOW: So this is a natural hormone in the tree that sort of signals the tree to shed its needles.

Dr. LADA: Exactly. This is a natural hormone. We just call it the gaseous hormone. It’s (unintelligible) natural gaseous hormone that is produced by the plant cells, basically, in response to various factors. It could be environment. It could be physical, mechanical manipulations, or any abuse, basically.

FLATOW: What’s the name of the hormone?

Dr. LADA: It’s called ethylene.

The interview is quite interesting but the work has yet to move from the laboratory into the field, i.e., you can’t get a ‘smart’ Christmas tree this year. Still, Dr. Lada does have a tip for this year’s Christmas trees,

FLATOW: I see. And you have studied the effect of Christmas lights on trees?

Dr. LADA: Exactly. And that’s another very interesting story to tell about, especially in the Christmas time. The lights, what we used, you know, people think – sometimes, we turn off the lights, and we put on all kinds of lights, sometimes incandescent lights and sometimes fluorescent lights just on top, sometimes halogen lights beaming on the trees. It looks great, but they – each one of those light spectrum is so different physiologically, and they could alter these metabolic functions critically.

So what we identified was we tried to use the recent technology, which is the LED technology, which people use it on Christmas trees all the time. We tested different spectrums – white, blue, red spectrums. And also, we had a control, which were sitting in dark, and also one other control, which were sitting in the gentle, fluorescent light and incandescent light situations.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. LADA: And we found that the white light has got nearly 30, 35 days better needle retention capacity compared to the dark-retained ones, or the controls with the normal lighting.

FLATOW: Wow. So did you get a whole extra month?

Dr. LADA: Oh, we have a whole extra month, basically. Significant…

FLATOW: With the white – with white – would that be like a full-spectrum light?

Dr. LADA: It is a full-spectrum LED, I would say

FLATOW: Wow. And that’s the is that part of the lights you would string on the trees?

Dr. LADA: That’s important to spring, keep that white light in there, basically, especially from the LEDs. You should put more of the white lights in there, basically, rather than the other spectrum.

FLATOW: And so…

Dr. LADA: In fact, the worst performer in our experiment was the blue.

FLATOW: Wow. And so that would seem to say to me that you don’t want to turn your lights off at night. You want to keep them…

Dr. LADA: Absolutely. You should not turn your lights off at night, basically. Because the reason why I’m suggesting is, as you keep them in dark, it started respiring more. And then it’ll use all its carbohydrates that are in the trees, basically. And then it’s – it can be starved to death, (unintelligible).

There you have it.

Celebrating science and some nano Haiku too

There’s a special pre-conference for people involved in science events and festivals  just prior to the 2011 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting. The special pre-conference meeting is the 2011 International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC) from Feb. 16-17, 2011. Both the IPSEC and AAAS conferences are taking place in Washington, DC.

From the 2011 IPSEC conference website,

This February the first ever International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC) convenes for two days in Washington DC. From multi-million dollar citywide festivals, to intimate cafe meetings at the corner pub, new public science events are popping up across the globe. Join professionals from around the world to trade ideas and inspiration, forge new collaborations, and consider what is next for this rapidly growing field. And it is all timed to lead into the annual meeting of the world’s largest general scientific society: the AAAS.

Registration is free and there are a limited number of places.

I got my December issue of the NISE Net (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) newsletter a few weeks so the information isn’t quite as timely as it could but here we go,

There’s a NISE Net Content Map available. Now, I was expecting something along the lines of a map with visual representations of data that I would click on for a text description. This map is a text document with (from the newsletter),

key ideas for our educational experiences, including programs, exhibits, and media experiences for informal science education settings. It presents key content knowledge for engaging the public in learning about nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. The document was created by the network’s content steering group, with input from many people throughout the network, as well as a group of external advisors and reviewers.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry (IYC)! You can find out more about that here. They provide a world map that features local representatives. Naturally, I looked for the Canadian ones. Information about your own local representatives are available from the map or in a standard list format. Here’s the portion of the map that features IYC Canadian representatives.

Finally, the monthly nano Haiku, or, in this case, Haikus:

From the future
Evil nanoscientist
Will he conquer us?

by Keith Ostfeld of the Children’s Museum of Houston. This Haiku was inspired by the play Attack of the Nanoscientist which can be found in the NISE Net Catalog.

Inspired by the consumerism surrounding the holidays, Luke Donev submitted the following Haikus about branding nano:

Oh nano branding:
we seek to educate but
compete with Apple

It’s NaNoWriMo!
(National Novel Writing
Month) More brand Nano.