Monthly Archives: November 2011

SiO2: The Science of Glass; glassblowing and glory holes

The SiO2: The Science of Glass traveling exhibit from the Montreal Science Centre opened at the Canada Science and Technology Museum on Nov. 5, 2011 and can be seen until April 9, 2012.

I wonder if there’s any chance the exhibit will travel to the West Coast? I have a longstanding interest in glass and notice the images from the Montreal Science Centre website look quite interesting. Here’s a sample,

Glass from the Libyan Desert (Verre du désert Libyen) © Denis Farley

Here’s a synopsis of the show from the Montreal Science Centre website,

Discover the origins and surprising physical and chemical properties of glass. SiO2: The Science of Glass tells us about the various types of glass, their properties, and about the many methods used in producing glass on an industrial scale. It also explains the role glass has played in the history of civilisation and reminds us of its daily uses. From its production at an industrial scale to its leading-edge innovations, glass will shine through its ubiquitous brilliance and contrasts.

In a Nov. 1, 2010 posting I featured an essay about glass (Heavenly illumination: The science and magic of stained glass [link to original essay on Guardian science blog]) by Andy Connelly, here’s an excerpt about the science of glass from my posting which includes a comment from me,

So what is a glass? Why can we see through it when other materials are opaque? Glasses exist in a poorly understood state somewhere between solids and liquids. [If I ever knew that interesting fact, I’ve long since forgotten it.] In general, when a liquid is cooled there is a temperature at which it will “freeze”, becoming a crystalline solid (eg. water into ice at 0C). Most solid inorganic materials are crystalline and are made up of many millions of crystals, each having an atomic structure which is highly ordered, with atomic units tessellating throughout. The shape of these units can be observed in the shape of single crystals (eg. hexagonal quartz crystals).

Glass is different: it is not crystalline but made up of a continuous network of atoms that are not ordered but irregular and liquid-like. This difference in atomic structure occurs because the liquid glass is cooled so quickly that the atoms do not have time to arrange themselves into regular, crystal-like patterns.

If cooled fast enough almost any liquid can form glass, even water. However, the rate of cooling must be very fast. Fortunately for us, liquids composed primarily of silicon oxide [SiO2] can be cooled slowly and still form a glass.

A few months later I found a brief bit accompanied by  a video about glass on the Guardian science blogs, this time about scientific and art glass blowing, from the news bit by Alex Rappaport and Kiva Ford highlighting Ford’s video of his work,

Aside from Mr Ford’s pastime of creating miniature distillation vessels and delicately curlicued glass jewelry, his day job is as a scientific glassblower, creating extractors, reactors, condensers, and a variety of custom flasks. The vessels used in chemical research cannot be mass produced; each piece has been meticulously handcrafted for thousands of years.

Here’s the video,

I found the information about the decline of science glass blowing a little saddening although Ford seems to feel that there’ll always be a demand for custom work. Amazingly, he works during the day as a scientific glass blower and then goes home to create art glass. I loved his animal series (the detail is amazing).

Years ago, I came across a new media piece about glass and the glory hole. I gather it’s a furnace where you finish your glass. The term exerts a fascination for me and I found this video about glass and glory holes (there is a commercial at the beginning but if you persist I think you’ll find the video amusing),

Happy Weekend!

Grey water and a short story from a GG winner

I mentioned Kate Pullinger when she won Canada’s 2009 Governor General’s (GG) award for fiction (Nov. 20, 2009 posting) and it seems a GG winner never gets to rest on her laurels. Last summer she was asked to write a short story celebrating the 75th anniversary of the GG awards. From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Canada Writes web space (from the Nov. 24, 2011 posting about Kate Pullinger’s story, Grey Water Lady),

Last summer, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Governor General’s Awards and the CBC, we asked ten GG-winning authors write a story about winter.

Kate Pullinger tells the story of a jet-lagged and heartbroken waste-water specialist who seeks to inject some colour back in her life.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Kate’s story,

Domestic grey water – the recycling of waste water from the bath, sink, shower, washing machine, etc – had become her area of expertise almost by default. In the industry she was known as Grey Water Lady. Fondly.  But still. She’d been flown over by the government to have a look at Melbourne’s controversial desalination plant project, but as soon as she got off the plane she realised the clothes she’d packed were completely inappropriate and that she’d have to wear everything in her suitcase all at the same time in order to stay warm.

In addition to writing a story, Kate was asked to do something else,

We asked Kate to recommend a writer who she thinks is not as well known as they deserve to be. Come back on Tuesday [Nov. 29, 2011] to find out who she has chosen as her writer to watch.

As for Canada Writes, here’s more from the About Us page,

Canada Writes is Canada’s home for original writing of all kinds, including the CBC Literary Prizes. It’s a meeting place for writers- a place where you come to showcase your work through an ongoing series of writing challenges and competitions, and a resource to help you connect with other writers across the country. We also feature original stories from writers across the country, editorials, writing news and recommendations and writing workshops.

It is also home to the CBC Short Story Prize, the CBC Poetry Prize and the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Kate now lives in the UK but was born in British Columbia and grew up on Vancouver Island.

Brits go for the graphene gusto in Warsaw but where are the Swedes?

The Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, and Lancaster (all in the UK) have launched an exhibition extolling graphene in Warsaw (Poland). From the Nov. 25, 2011 news item on,

The European programme for research into graphene, for which the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Lancaster are leading the technology roadmap, today unveiled an exhibition and new videos communicating the potential for the material that could revolutionise the electronics industries. [emphasis mine]

I’m a little confused as I thought the Swedish partner was either the leader or one of the lead partners.

I found this Nov. 24, 2011 news release from the University of Cambridge where the announcement was made,

An exhibition has been launched in Warsaw today highlighting the development and future of graphene, the ‘wonder substance’ set to change the face of electronics manufacturing, as part of the Graphene Flagship Pilot (GFP), aimed at developing the proposal for a 1 billion European programme conducting research and development on graphene, for which the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Lancaster are leading the technology roadmap.

The exhibition covers the development of the material, the present research and the vast potential for future applications. The GFP also released two videos aimed at introducing this extraordinary material to a wider audience, ranging from stakeholders and politicians to the general public. The videos also convey the mission and vision of the graphene initiative.

“Our mission is to take graphene and related layered materials from a state of raw potential to a point where they can revolutionise multiple industries – from flexible, wearable and transparent electronics to high performance computing and spintronics” says Professor Andrea Ferrari, Head of the Nanomaterials and Spectroscopy Group.

“This material will bring a new dimension to future technology – a faster, thinner, stronger, flexible, and broadband revolution. Our program will put Europe firmly at the heart of the process, with a manifold return on the investment of 1 billion Euros, both in terms of technological innovation and economic exploitation.”

Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms, could prove to be the most versatile substance available to mankind. Stronger than diamond, yet lightweight and flexible, graphene enables electrons to flow much faster than silicon. It is also a transparent conductor, combining electrical and optical functionalities in an exceptional way.

This is connected to the European Union’s FET11 flagship projects initiative (described at more length in my June 13, 2011 graphene roundup posting) where six different research areas have been funded in preparation for a major funding round in late 2012 when two research projects will  be selected for a prize of 1B Euros each.

I find the communications strategy mildly confusing since the original project team listed Jari Kinaret of Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden (as highlighted in my Nov. 9, 2011 posting about funding for the Swedish effort with no mention of the other partners). The flagship group appears to be working both cooperatively and separately on the same project.

I did get a little curious as to the membership for this graphene research group (consortium) and found this,





5  AMO GMBH, Germany



8  NOKIA OYJ, Finland


You can find more information about the Graphene Flagship Project here although they don’t appear to update the information very frequently.

European science adviser

In fact, Dr. Anne Glover has been tipped as the European Union’s new Chief Science Adviser (CSA). She, when the formal announcement is made, will be the first incumbent. David Bruggeman’s Nov. 22, 2011 posting at his Pasco Phronesis blog was my first inkling about this development,

While the European Union and Dr. Anne Glover have been mum on the subject, but Nature News is reporting that Dr. Glover, currently Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for Scotland, will soon become the first CSA for the European Union (technically the European Commission). …

…  The search for this new position has lasted years. Glover’s term in Scotland ends next month, and the Commission may be waiting for an Innovation event scheduled for early December to make things official.

In searching for a little more information I found a Nov. 22, 2011 article by Martin Enserink for the Science Insider,

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso first announced his plan to hire a high-profile science adviser—akin to similar posts at the White House and in the British government—in a speech in 2009, but the actual appointment has been delayed several times. In the new post, Glover would report directly to Barroso; her salary reportedly would be close to €200,000.

Natasha Gilbert’s Nov. 21, 2011 article for Nature kicked off this latest round of speculation,

The appointment comes more than two years after José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, pledged on 15 September 2009 to create the post. …

The details of the CSA role — including how much power and freedom the incumbent will have in providing scientific advice and influencing policy-making — are still unclear. It is also unclear which European institute the post will be situated in and whom the incumbent will report to. For example, the CSA could be part of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, which provides high-level in-house policy advice to the Commission, or in the Commission’s research directorate.

Glover, a microbiologist, became Scotland’s Chief Science Adviser in 2006 and they are advertising for a replacement as she is due to end her appointment on Dec. 21, 2011.

Manning innovation award

I’ve been seeing quite a few ads on television for the Manning Innovation Awards. From the How to Apply page on the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation’s website,

The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation has been recognizing and encouraging innovation in Canada since 1982. By means of a nomination, Canadian resident citizens, who have demonstrated recent innovative talent in developing and successfully marketing a new concept, process or procedure, may be eligible for one of these awards: Principal Award ($100,000), Award of Distinction ($25,000), Innovation Awards (2 at $10,000).

The deadline for this year’s nominations is Dec. 1, 2011.

The Foundation seems to have a very liberal view as to what constitutes innovation. The 2011 winners represented a diversity of accomplishments, from the Oct. 6, 2011 news release,

The 2011 Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation award recipients are:

– Dr. Philip G. Hill, Vancouver, BC for developing a technology to use clean-burning natural gas in diesel engines; ($100,000 Encana Principal Award);

– Mary P. Gordon, Toronto, ON for developing a social innovation in which a baby teaches children about parenting, neuroscience and caring for one another; ($25,000 David E. Mitchell Award of Distinction); [emphasis mine]

– Randal (Randy) J. Marsden, Edmonton for developing a wipe-able computer keyboard that is easy-to disinfect, button-less, and is touch-and tap-sensitive; ($10,000 Manning Innovation Award);

– Mark J. Morin, Restoule, ON for developing aerodynamic mud flaps that reduce spray and drag and improve airflow around vehicle wheels; ($10,000 Manning Innovation Award);

– David Pellerin, 18, Sherbrooke, QC for his organic light emitting diodes (OLED) project in which he developed luminescent components from organic polymer compounds; ($4,000 Young Canadian Award);

– Shayla Larson, 16 and Adam Noble 17, Lakefield, ON for their research addressing the potential hazards associated with widespread use of nanosilver, an increasingly common commercial and industrial antimicrobial agent; ($4,000 Young Canadian Award); [emphasis mine]

– Christopher Chopcian, a grade 11 student, Sarnia, ON for developing a miniature computer-controlled heart assist pump that improves the quality of life for people waiting for a heart transplant; ($4,000 Young Canadian Award);

– Charlotte Donaldson and Megan Smith, two grade 11 students, Chignecto West, NS for developing an aquatic rescue spinal board that significantly improves immobilization, particularly for children ($4,000 Young Canadian Award);

In announcing the ten 2011 winners, Foundation President David B. Mitchell said, “There is a critical need for more innovation in Canada. Canadians need to create and commercialize innovations to compete in the global economy. We want to support, celebrate and draw attention to Canadian innovators and, young Canadians showing potential to become future innovators, who have the imagination to innovate and the stamina to succeed.”

I’m glad to see social innovation included; congratulations to the 2011 winners; and good luck to the 2012 nominees.

Cyborg insects and trust

I first mentioned insect cyborgs in a July 27, 2009 posting,

One last thing, I’ve concentrated on people but animals are also being augmented. There was an opinion piece [no longer available on the Courier website] by Geoff Olson (July 24, 2009) in the Vancouver Courier, a community paper, about robotic insects. According to Olson’s research (and I don’t doubt it), scientists are fusing insects with machines so they can be used to sniff out drugs, find survivors after disasters,  and perform surveillance. [emphasis mine]

Today, Nov. 23, 2011, a little over two years later, I caught this news item on Nanowerk, Insect cyborgs may become first responders, search and monitor hazardous environs,

“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” Najafi [Professor Khalil Najafi] said. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”

The original Nov. 22, 2011 news release by Matt Nixon for the University of Michigan describes some of the technology,

The principal idea is to harvest the insect’s biological energy from either its body heat or movements. The device converts the kinetic energy from wing movements of the insect into electricity, thus prolonging the battery life. The battery can be used to power small sensors implanted on the insect (such as a small camera, a microphone or a gas sensor) in order to gather vital information from hazardous environments.

A spiral piezoelectric generator was designed to maximize the power output by employing a compliant structure in a limited area. The technology developed to fabricate this prototype includes a process to machine high-aspect ratio devices from bulk piezoelectric substrates with minimum damage to the material using a femtosecond laser.

Here’s a model of a cyborg insect,

Through a device invented at the University of Michigan, an insect's wing movements can generate enough electricity to power small sensors such as a tiny camera, microphone or gas sensor. (Credit: Erkan Aktakka)

This project is another example of work being funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). (I most recently mentioned the agency in this Nov. 22, 2011 posting which features innovation, DARPA, excerpts from an interview with Regina Dugan, DARPA’s Director, and nanotherapeutics.)

There are many cyborgs around us already. Anybody who’s received a pacemaker, deep brain stimulator, hip replacement, etc. can be considered a cyborg. Just after finding the news item about the insect cyborg, I came across a Nov. 23, 2011 posting by Torie Bosch about cyborgs for Slate Magazine,

Though the word cyborg conjures up images of exoskeletons and computers welded to bodies, the reality is far more mundane: Anyone who has a cochlear implant, for one, could be termed a cyborg.  So is the resourceful fellow who made his prosthetic finger into a USB drive. In the coming decades, we’ll see more of these subtle marriages of technology and body, creating new ethical questions.

At the blog Cyborgology, P.J. Rey, a graduate student who writes about emerging technologies, examines the trust relationships we have with the technologies—and the people who develop them—that become engrained with our daily lives. [emphasis mine]

From P. J. Rey’s Nov. 23, 2011 posting about trust and technology on Cyborgology,

In this essay, I want to continue the discussion about our relationship with the technology we use. Adapting and extending Anthony Giddens’ Consequences of Modernity, I will argue that an essential part of the cyborganic transformation we experience when we equip Modern, sophisticated technology is deeply tied to trust in expert systems. It is no longer feasible to fully comprehend the inner workings of the innumerable devices that we depend on; rather, we are forced to trust that the institutions that deliver these devices to us have designed, tested, and maintained the devices properly. This bargain—trading certainty for convenience—however, means that the Modern cyborg finds herself ever more deeply integrated into the social circuit. In fact, the cyborg’s connection to technology makes her increasingly socially dependent because the technological facets of her being require expert knowledge from others.

It’s a fascinating essay and I encourage you to read it as Rey goes on to explore social dependency, trust, and technology. On a related note, trust and/or dependency issues are likely the source of various technology panics and opposition campaigns, e.g. nuclear, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), telephone, telegraph, electricity, writing, etc.

It’s hard to understand now that literacy is so common but in a society where it is less common, the written word is not necessarily to be trusted. After all, if only one person in the room can read (or claims they can), how do you know they’re telling the truth about what’s written?

As for cyborgs, I think we’re going to have some very interesting discussions about them and these discussions may not all occur in the sanctified halls of academe or in quiet conference rooms stuffed with bureaucrats. As I’ve noted before there is a whole discussion taking place about emerging technologies in the realm of popular culture where our greatest hopes and fears are reflected and, sometimes, intensified.

New nanotechnology standards: ISO/TS 80004-4:2011 and ISO/TS 80004-5:2011

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has released two new standards for terms and definitions. From the Nov. 23, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

ISO/TS 80004-4:2011 gives terms and definitions for materials in the field of nanotechnologies where one or more components are nanoscale regions and the materials exhibit properties attributable to the presence of those nanoscale regions. It is intended to facilitate communications between organizations and individuals in industry and those who interact with them.

ISO/TS 80004-5:2011 lists terms and definitions related to the interface between nanomaterials and biology. It is intended to facilitate communications between scientists, engineers, technologists, designers, manufacturers, regulators, NGOs, consumer organizations, members of the public and others …

ISO/TS 80004-4:2011 can be purchased for 58 Swiss Francs while ISO/TS 80004-5:2011 can be purchased for 50 Swiss Francs.

Evolutionary blogging contest

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is sponsoring a contest for the best evolution-themed blog post. There are two prizes, travel awards to the ScienceOnline 2012 conference (Jan. 19-21, 2012) in North Carolina.

Here’s more about NESCent (from the About page),

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is a nonprofit science center dedicated to cross-disciplinary research in evolution. NESCent is jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, and is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


NESCent promotes the synthesis of information, concepts and knowledge to address significant, emerging, or novel questions in evolutionary science and its applications. NESCent achieves this by supporting research and education across disciplinary, institutional, geographic, and demographic boundaries.

Here’s more about the contest and the travel awards (from the Submit Your Post page),

The awards offer the opportunity to travel to North Carolina to meet with several hundred researchers, writers, editors and educators to explore how online tools are changing the way science is done and communicated to the public. Each winner will receive $750 to cover travel and lodging expenses to attend the conference. …

To apply for an award, writers should submit a blog post that highlights current or emerging evolutionary research. In order to be valid, posts must deal with research appearing in the peer-reviewed literature within the last five years. Posts should be 500-1000 words, and must mention the NESCent contest. Two recipients will be chosen by a panel of judges from both NESCent and the science blogging community.

The application deadline is Dec. 1, 2012. You may want to give this a try especially since there aren’t all that many submissions, so far (from the 2011 Entries page).

  • Byte Size Biology:  The oxygen rush:  Late January, all of February and a day in November
  • Nothing in Biology Makes Sense:  Double, double toil and trouble:  A tale of two infections
  • Butterflies and Science:  Zombie caterpillars lurch through forest canopy, infecting their brethren
  • Socera:  Cajun culture wars:  Another victory for LouSEA science education
  • The Biology Files:  If God has a plan for you, why do you pray?
  • Ideonexus:  Archeological narratives that enchant the imagination
  • BEACON Researchers at Work:  The “mating” game
  • Science Meets Religion:  Evolution right before our eyes
  • LABGIRLwrites:  What we’re up against
  • Inkfish:  Hell hath no fury like a hermaphrodite shrimp

Oddly, the deadline listed on the 2011 Entries page is Dec. 15, 2011. In any event, you can submit your blog posting by emailing your name, contact information, the title and date of your blog post, and a URL to

Good luck!

Pretty nanopicture from Ireland

'The Hive', taken by Dr David McGovern at Trinity's Nanoscience Institute, CRANN.

The Hive was named the Research Image of the Year for 2011 by the Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI). From the Nov. 22, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

The SFI Research Image competition offers SFI-funded researchers the opportunity to submit digital images created during the course of their research. The winning image was taken by Dr. David McGovern under supervision by Professor John Boland, CRANN’s [Center for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices] Director and Principal Investigator from TCD’s [Trinity College of Dublin] School of Chemistry.

The image is of a porous surface of the polymer polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA).  From the Nov. 18,  2011 news release on the Trinity College website,

Porous polymers have the potential to deliver new biocompatible nanodevices or nanotemplates for medical applications and are of significance not only in the biomedical industry but also for materials science.  CRANN’s research on porous polymers, during which the image was taken, has the potential to enable a wide variety of applications including therapeutic devices such as in implants, sutures, prosthetic devices and for drug delivery and wound care.

The image was produced using the Zeiss Auriga Focused Ion Beam (FIB) in CRANN’s Advanced Microscopy Laboratory (AML). The Auriga FIB is the only system in Europe and has the narrowest beam width of any such instrument on the market, enabling image resolution of less than 3 nanometres, approximately 30,000 times smaller than the width of one human hair.

Congratulations Dr. McGovern.