Monthly Archives: December 2014

FrogHeart and 2014: acknowledging active colleagues and saying good-bye to defunct blogs and hello to the new

It’s been quite the year. In Feb. 2014, TED offered me free livestreaming of the event in Vancouver. In March/April 2014, Google tweaked its search function and sometime in September 2014 I decided to publish two pieces per day rather than three with the consequence that the visit numbers for this blog are lower than they might otherwise have been. More about statistics and traffic to this blog will be in the post I usually publish just the new year has started.

On other fronts, I taught two courses (Bioelectronics and Nanotechnology, the next big idea) this year for Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada) in its Continuing Studies (aka Lifelong Learning) programmes. I also attended a World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing in the Life Sciences in Prague. The trip, sponsored by SEURAT-1 (Safety Evaluation Ultimately Replacing Animal Testing), will result in a total of five stories, the first having been recently (Dec. 26, 2014) published. I’m currently preparing a submission for the International Symposium on Electronic Arts being held in Vancouver in August 2015 based on a project I have embarked upon, ‘Steep’. Focused on gold nanoparticles, the project is Raewyn Turner‘s (an artist from New Zealand) brainchild. She has kindly opened up the project in such a way that I too can contribute. There are two other members of the Steep project, Brian Harris, an electrical designer, who works closely with Raewyn on a number of arts projects and there’s Mark Wiesner as our science consultant. Wiesner is a professor of civil and environmental engineering,at Duke University in North Carolina.

There is one other thing which you may have noticed, I placed a ‘Donate’ button on the blog early in 2014.

Acknowledgements, good-byes, and hellos

Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) remains a constant in the nano sector of the blogosphere where he provides his incisive opinions and context for the nano scene.

David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog offers valuable insight into the US science policy scene along with a lively calendar of art/science events and an accounting of the science and technology guests on late night US television.

Andrew Maynard archived his 2020 Science blog in July 2014 but he does continue writing and communication science as director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. Notably, Andrew continues to write, along with other contributors, on the Risk Without Borders blog at the University of Michigan.

Sadly, Cientifica, a emerging technologies business consultancy, where Tim Harper published a number of valuable white papers, reports, and blog postings is no longer with us. Happily, Tim continues with an eponymous website where he blogs and communicates about various business interests, “I’m currently involved in graphene, nanotechnology, construction, heating, and biosensing, working for a UK public company, as well as organisations ranging from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to the World Economic Forum.” Glad to you’re back to blogging Tim. I missed your business savvy approach and occasional cheekiness!

I was delighted to learn of a new nano blog, NanoScéal, this year and relieved to see they’re hanging in. Their approach is curatorial where they present a week of selected nano stories. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much work a curatorial approach requires. Bravo!

Sir Martyn Poliakoff and the Periodic Table of Videos

Just as I was wondering what happened to the Periodic Table of Videos (my April 25, 2011 post offers a description of the project) Grrl Scientist on the Guardian science blog network offers information about one of the moving forces behind the project, Martyn Poliakoff in a Dec. 31, 2014 post,

This morning [Dec. 31, 2014], I was most pleased to learn that Martyn Poliakoff, professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, was awarded a bachelor knighthood by the Queen. So pleased was I that I struggled out of bed (badly wrecked back), my teeth gritted, so I could share this news with you.

Now Professor Poliakoff — who now is more properly known as Professor SIR Martyn Poliakoff — was awarded one of the highest civilian honours in the land, and his continued online presence has played a significant role in this.

“I think it may be the first time that YouTube has been mentioned when somebody has got a knighthood, and so I feel really quite proud about that. And I also really want to thank you YouTube viewers who have made this possible through your enthusiasm for chemistry.”

As for the Periodic Table of Videos, the series continues past the 118 elements currently identified to a include discussions on molecules.

Science Borealis, the Canadian science blog aggregator, which I helped to organize (albeit desultorily), celebrated its first full year of operation. Congratulations to all those who worked to make this project such a success that it welcomed its 100th blog earlier this year. From a Sept. 24, 2014 news item on Yahoo (Note: Links have been removed),

This week the Science Borealis team celebrated the addition of the 100th blog to its roster of Canadian science blog sites! As was recently noted in the Council of Canadian Academies report on Science Culture, science blogging in Canada is a rapidly growing means of science communication. Our digital milestone is one of many initiatives that are bringing to fruition the vision of a rich Canadian online science communication community.

The honour of being syndicated as the 100th blog goes to Spider Bytes, by Catherine Scott, an MSc [Master of Science] student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. …

As always, it’s been a pleasure and privilege writing and publishing this blog. Thank you all for your support whether it comes in the form of reading it, commenting, tweeting,  subscribing, and/or deciding to publish your own blog. May you have a wonderful and rewarding 2015!

Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 3 of 3: where were …?

I did have some major issues with this report. I’ve already touched on the makeup of the Expert Panel in my Feb. 22, 2013 post (Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming). There could have been more women on the panel (also noted in part 2 of this commentary) and they could have included a few culture makers (writers, visual artists, performing artists). Also mentioned in part 2 of this commentary, it would have been nice to have seen a few people from the aboriginal communities and a greater age range represented on the panel or on advisory committees.

In a discussion about science culture, I am somewhat shocked that the Situating Science; Science in Human Contexts research cluster was never mentioned. From the programme’s About Us page,

Created in 2007 with the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant, Situating Science is a seven-year project promoting communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.

A Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) seven-year programme devoted to Canada’s science culture and it wasn’t mentioned??? An oversight or a symptom of a huge disconnection within Canada’s science culture? I vote for disconnection but please do let me know what you think in the comments section.

As for the assessment’s packaging (cover, foreword, and final words), yikes! The theme colour (each CAC assessment has a theme colour; their policing assessment is blue) for Canada’s science culture is red, perhaps evoking the Canadian maple leaf on the flag. The picture on the cover depicts a very sweet, blond(e), white child with glasses too big for his/her face rimmed in thick black. Glasses are a long established symbol for nerds/intellectual people. So, it would seem Canada’s science culture is blond, nerdy, and, given the child’s clothing, likely male, though in this day and age not definitively so. Or perhaps the child’s hair is meant to signify the maple leaf on the flag with a reversed field (the cover) being red and the leaf being white.

The problem here is not a single image of a blond(e) child, the problem is the frequency with which blond(e) children are used to signify Canadians. Thankfully, advertising images are becoming more diverse but there’s still a long way to go.

There are also issues with the beginning and the end of the report. Two scientists bookend the report: both male, both physicists, one from the UK and the other from the US.

C. P. Snow and his 1959 lecture ‘Two Cultures’ about science and society is mentioned by the Expert Panel’s Chair, Arthur Carty (himself from the UK). In his foreword/message, Carty speculates about how C. P. Snow would respond to today’s science culture environment in a fashion that brings to mind William Lyon MacKenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister from December 1921 – June 1926;  September 1926 – August 1930; and October 1935 – November 1948, Mackenzie King regularly communed with the dead. From the Wikipedia entry on William Lyon Mackenzie King (Note: Links have been removed),

Privately, he was highly eccentric, with his preference for communing with spirits, using seances and table-rapping, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his dead mother, his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, and several of his Irish Terrier dogs, all named Pat except for one named Bob. He also claimed to commune with the spirit of the late President Roosevelt. He sought personal reassurance from the spirit world, rather than seeking political advice. Indeed, after his death, one of his mediums said that she had not realized that he was a politician. King asked whether his party would win the 1935 election, one of the few times politics came up during his seances. His occult interests were kept secret during his years in office, and only became publicized later. Historians have seen in his occult activities a penchant for forging unities from antitheses, thus having latent political import. In 1953, Time stated that he owned—and used—both an Ouija board and a crystal ball.

However, historian Charles Perry Stacey, author of the 1976 book A Very Double Life, which examined King’s secret life in detail, with work based on intensive examination of the King diaries, concluded, despite long-running interests in the occult and spiritualism, that King did not allow his beliefs to influence his decisions on political matters. Stacey wrote that King entirely gave up his interests in the occult and spiritualism during World War II.[80]

At the end of the report, Carty quotes Brian Greene, a US physicist,  p. 218 (PDF) thereby neatly framing Canada between the UK and the US,

However, as stated by physicist Brian Greene (2008), one of the simplest reasons for developing a stronger science culture is that doing so helps foster a fuller, richer experience of science itself:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive, and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma, but because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

Couldn’t we have found one Canadian thinker or perhaps a thinker from somewhere else on the globe? Assuming there’s a next time, I hope the approach evolves to something more reflective of Canadian society.

In the meantime there is more, much more in the assessment  including a discussion of science-based policy and including the arts to turn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to STEAM and I encourage you take a look at either the full version, the executive summary, or the abridged version, all of which can be found here.

Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 1 of 3: Canadians are doing pretty well

After almost two years, Science Culture: Where Canada Stands (256 pp. PDF; 222 pp. print) was released in August  2014 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CAC). The assessment as the CAC calls these reports was first mentioned here in a Dec. 19, 2012 post about the questions being asked and with a follow up Feb. 22, 2013 post when its Expert Panel was announced.

I believe this is the first document of its kind, i.e., assessing science culture in Canada, and it is very welcome. I have mixed feelings about the report; there’s some excellent content packaged in a rather unfortunate manner. (BTW, I was chuffed to find that my blog and I were mentioned in it.)

I will start with the good stuff first. The CAC has provided an infographic of how Canada compares to other countries where science culture is concerned,

[downloaded from http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and%20news%20releases/science-culture/coca%20rankings-cmyk.jpg]

[downloaded from http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and%20news%20releases/science-culture/coca%20rankings-cmyk.jpg]

It’s encouraging to see how well we’re doing globally although the report does note that some countries don’t have data for comparison and other countries’ may have older data (Canadian data gathered for this report is relatively recent as per one of the excerpts [further in this post] from Ivan Semeniuk’s August 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article) so the rankings may not reflect a truly accurate global ranking.

Here’s another infographic; this one describing Canadians’ attitudes towards and beliefs about science and technology,

[downloaded from http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and%20news%20releases/science-culture/coca%20national%20percentages%20infographic-cmyk.jpg]

[downloaded from http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and%20news%20releases/science-culture/coca%20national%20percentages%20infographic-cmyk.jpg]

As encouraging as these infographics are, Ivan Semeniuk (also namechecked in the report) notes some of the concerns broached in the assessment in his Aug, 28, 2014 Globe and Mail article,

From knowing what a molecule is to endorsing government support for basic research, Canadians as a whole display a clearer understanding of and a more positive attitude toward science than people in most other developed countries.

Overall, the report’s message is a positive one for Canada. “Canadians rank quite highly when it comes to science knowledge, attitudes and engagement in comparison with other countries in the world,” said Arthur Carty, chair of the panel that produced the report and a former national science adviser.

But despite high levels of interest, the report also reveals that in practical terms, most Canadians have an arm’s-length relationship with science. [emphasis mine] Only 20 per cent of first university degrees in Canada are awarded in science and engineering fields and only 30 per cent of employed Canadians work at science and technology related jobs – fewer than in the majority of other countries with a comparable standard of living.

It seems Semeniuk and the expert panel subscribe to the notion that formal science education is the only true measure of a ;close’ relationship with science. Neither party seems to take much comfort in the fact that Canadians keep up with science once their formal education (scientific or otherwise) is over (from Semeniuk’s article,

Among the most striking results from the survey is that Canada ranks first in science literacy, with 42 per cent of Canadians able to read and understand newspaper stories detailing scientific findings.

The comparatively high interest in science that Canadians express suggests they may be doing better than most at keeping up with the discoveries that have come along since their formal education ended. [emphasis mine] An emphasis on lifelong learning is important for cultivating a national science culture, the report’s authors say, because the leading edge of research is driven by knowledge that was not available 10 or 20 years ago.

The comparatively recent Canadian data, as mentioned earlier, may not provide a true picture of Canada’s ranking (from Semeniuk’s article),

But ongoing research by Dr. Miller [Jon Miller, a panel member and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan] and others suggest that science literacy is on the rise everywhere, and therefore Canada’s high ranking could also be a function of how recently it was surveyed relative to other countries. Whatever the reason, the report’s numbers suggest there is more to be learned about precisely how Canadians are relating to science and how that is changing, says broadcaster and author Jay Ingram, who was also on the panel.

Getting on to the report/assessment proper, I do like the note of skepticism about the impact a strong science culture has on society given the somewhat hysterical claims made by some adherents to this philosophy,

Many claims have been advanced about the impacts of a strong science culture. Such claims are often plausible given the extent to which science and technology feature in most aspects of individual and social life. However, there is limited empirical evidence to substantiate these claims, and in some cases that evidence points to more complexity in the way these impacts are manifested than is typically acknowledged. Much of this evidence suggests that, while a stronger science culture may contribute to a range of personal or social benefits, it is not always in itself sufficient to ensure the realization of those benefits.(p. 24 PDF; p. xxii print]

It’s a thoughtfulness I very much appreciate.

The report offers a definition of science that could include social science but, given a rather egregious omission (more about that in part 3 of this commentary), does not appear to do so,

Science is a systematic means of discovery and exploration that enriches our collective understanding of the world and universe around us. It is a fundamental part of Canadian culture and society, implicated in nearly every aspect of individual and social life. (p. 34 PDF; p. 2 print)

I was intrigued to learn the term ‘science culture’ is specific to Canada,

One of the first challenges faced by the Panel was to define science culture. While often used in Canadian discussions of science and technology policy, the term is rarely defined with precision. It is most frequently used to convey the degree to which society and the public are broadly engaged in, and supportive of, science. For example, at the launch of Canada’s National Science and Technology Week in 1990, the then Minister for Science, William Winegard, stated that “a science culture means a society that embraces science, involves itself in the development, application and use of new technologies, and celebrates national achievements [in science] with pride and enthusiasm” (National Science and Technology Week, 1990).

The use of this term in Canada partly reflects Canada’s bilingual heritage. In other English-speaking countries, terms such as science literacy, public understanding of science, public engagement in science, and public communication of science are more common (Durant, 1993). These terms are not synonymous with each other, or with science culture. However, they are related concepts, representing a range of perspectives that have been applied to the study of how the public relates to, interacts with, and develops views about science and technology. Patterns in the use of these terms in the literature over time also reflect an evolution in the way in which scholars, scientists, and policy-makers discuss science and society issues (Bauer, 2009). In French, the preferred term is generally la culture scientifique or la culture scientifique et technique, and the use of these terms in Quebec may have contributed to the use of the English science culture throughout Canada.

Compared with science literacy or public understanding of science, science culture is a more expansive concept, encompassing different aspects of the relationship between society and science. (p. 39 PDF; p, 7 print)

Globally, discussions about science are necessary,

Public discussions about the role of science in society are now dominated by a number of critical issues. Debates about nuclear power, climate change, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and stem cells are common across many countries and have been frequently the source of both national and international studies. For example, concern about anthropogenic global warming has generated a significant amount of research on public perception and attitudes related to science and technology. … The global reach of many of these issues requires international policy responses involving coordination and alignment of many governments. Both government actions and media coverage of these issues can have an impact on public perception of science and technology on an international scale.

Specific events abroad can also have a major impact on science culture around the world. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, for example, caused widespread concern over nuclear safety across many countries and significantly affected public perception of the safety of these technologies (Kim et al., 2013). In Canada this event precipitated a review of all major nuclear facilities and the development of a four-year action plan to strengthen the safety of the nuclear industry (Canadian Nuclear Association, 2012; Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, 2012) (pp. 46/7 PDF; pp. 14/5 print)

In a description of how new technologies are changing society and affecting the practice of science, the expert panel introduces the notion of ‘citizen science’ (Note: I agree with the notion and have a category for citizen science on this blog),

One such impact concerns how the public can participate in and contribute to scientific work. Canadian physicist Michael Nielsen argues that new possibilities for large-scale scientific collaboration resulting from web-based platforms can potentially transform the practice of science due to changes in how scientists collaborate, and to the development of online platforms for engaging the public in scientific research (Nielsen, 2012). “Citizen science” initiatives allow the public to contribute to many kinds of scientific activity, often through collaborative, web-based platforms … (p. 47 PDF; p. 15 print)

I was pleased to see that the influence of popular culture was also mentioned although I did feel it was a bit lacking,

First, popular culture can influence attitudes towards science and technology and perceptions of scientists and their role in society. The foundation of science is the acquisition of knowledge. Ungar (2000) argues that in some segments of society, attaining highly specialized knowledge is viewed as elitist. [emphasis mine] As such, it is sometimes popular to denigrate intellectualism in favour of a more egalitarian and conversational ethos, which may devalue the contributions of scientists. In a review of U.S. children’s educational science programs, Long and Steinke (1996) report that images of science have emphasized characteristics such as truth, fun, accessibility, and ubiquity. Scientists were portrayed through several stereotypes in these shows, ranging from being omniscient and elite to eccentric and antisocial. (p. 51 PDF; p. 19 print)

The panel adopted a rather interesting approach to a fairly complex topic and, in my view, gave it shorter shrift than it deserved. Frankly, the view that the science community is elitist has some merit. How do you like someone using the term ‘dumbing down’ in your presence?

Getting back to the assessment, I was happy to see that Québec was more or less given its due,

As the only Canadian province with a predominantly French-speaking population, Quebec has its own organizations dedicated to the promotion of science in the public (e.g., Association francophone pour le savoir); its own set of French- language science media organizations and programs (e.g., Agence Science-Presse, “Découverte,” “Le Code Chastenay”); French-language science museums and centres (e.g., Centre des sciences de Montréal); science festivals (e.g., Festival Eurêka!); and many other organizations and programs involved in supporting science culture and communication for the Francophone population. The formal science education and training system also differs in Quebec, given the role of institutions such as the collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP). The historical development of science culture in Quebec is also distinct from that of Anglophone Canada, more firmly rooted in French and European discourses about science, culture, and cultural policies (Chartrand et al., 1987; Schiele et al., 1994). As a result of these differences, past inquiries into science culture in Canada have often treated Quebec as separate from the rest of Canada, and the Quebec government has sponsored its own investigations into science culture in the province (e.g., CST, 2002a). (p. 53 PDF; p. 21 print)

I believe it’s the province with the most support of any for science culture and it cannot be an accident that Seed (a former Canadian and once successful English language science magazine and enterprise) was founded in Montréal, Québec.

The report also notes Aboriginal contributions to Canadian science culture,

Canada’s Aboriginal cultures also play a role in defining the science culture landscape in Canada, both through their own knowledge traditions and their impacts on science education and outreach. Aboriginal knowledge has also been incorporated into some provincial science curricula, and some science textbooks now teach students about both scientific and Aboriginal knowledge systems, as a result of the collaboration between ministries of education, Aboriginal Elders, and one Canadian publisher (Aikenhead & Elliott, 2010). Aboriginal knowledge and traditions have also had impacts on scientific research in Canada, with biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and geologists incorporating Aboriginal knowledge in their research in a number of ways … (pp. 53/4 PDF; pp. 21/2 print)

It would have been nice to know if any experts of Aboriginal origin were included in the expert panel and/or in the group of reviewers as it would have been nice to see more women in those groups. If you’re going to discuss diversity and opening things up then perhaps you should consider ‘being the change’ rather than simply discussing it.

The report also mentioned Canada’s ageing population never once suggesting there might be ways to integrate that population into the larger science culture. The report’s bias was definitely youthful. Again on the subject of ‘being the change’, it might have been interesting to include youth and seniors in an advisory capacity to the panel.

On to part 2 and part 3.

Water purification, Italy, Romania, and graphene

I’m hauling some of the material out of my backlog for publication as I clear the decks for 2015 including this Dec. 17, 2014 news item on Nanowerk about water remediation,

Graphene Plus materials have an amazing capacity for adsorbing organic pollutants such as hydrocarbons from water, soils and air. Directa Plus has already certified the removal capacity of Graphene Plus for floating oils in water and has obtained the approval of the Italian Environmental Ministry for the use these products in oil spills clean-up activities. Graphene Plus is also object of GEnIuS (Graphene Eco Innovative Sorbent), a Directa Plus’ project co-founded by European Union within the Eco-Innovation initiative. The project aims to launch into real markets an innovative solution for water treatment based on graphene.

A Dec. 17, 2014 Directa Plus press release, which originated the news item, describes how a Romanian company has tested the effectiveness of Graphene Plus for water remediation,

Directa Plus has found in SetCar – a Romanian company with fourteen years of activity in decontamination and disposal of hazardous waste – an ideal partner for testing environmental applications of Graphene Plus materials, especially in environmental remediation.

Since summer 2014, SetCar has tested on laboratory scale Graphene Plus materials as adsorbents for different type of organic pollutants. The most impressive laboratory results have been obtained with Grafysorber™ and have encouraged pilot test in hydrocarbons removal from contaminated waters.

The first treatment project started on 14th October, 2014, inside a Romanian former refinery site, containing a basin with about 16 500 m3 of water contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons. The initial hydrocarbons concentration in water was about 56 ppm (3 drops of oil inside 1 litre of water), which means more than 1 tonne of pollutants that must be removed. The hydrocarbons maximum concentration necessary for the discharge of treated water into superficial aquatic ecosystems is 5 ppm.

“5 g/m3 of Grafysorber™ were able to bring the hydrocarbons concentration down to 1 ppm or lower and in only 10 minutes of contacts with the contaminated water! – says Eng. Covaci Melchisedec, Technical Manager of SetCar SA – We worked with a flow rate of 16 m3/h (daily flow rate of 360 -390 m3) in 2 consecutive batches of 4 m3. The total quantity of Grafysorber™ used in this project, which is now concluded, was 80 kg. In next projects, we have planned to implement the productivity of our treatment plant for low concentration hydrocarbons removal till 50 m3/h.”

Giulio Cesareo, President and CEO of Directa Plus shows his satisfaction for this collaboration and says “Our company needs partners such as SetCar SA. Setcar SA has a solid experience in decontamination field but, at the same time, a consolidate team of more than 50 engineers. Thanks to SetCar pilot test we obtained the real evidence that Grafysorber™ is an effective solution for decontamination of water containing hydrocarbons at low concentration”.

The Commercial Director of SetCar SA, Sandu Balan adds “We want to explore Graphene Plus potentiality in removing different type of pollutants from real contaminated water, soils and air and use it in other international projects of decontamination”.

Directa Plus, founded in 2005 and with headquarters in the ComoNext Science and Technology Park in Lomazzo (CO), is a technology company pursuing the development and marketing innovative manufacturing processes for the production of a new generation of nanomaterials targeting existing global markets. On June 23rd, 2014, Directa Plus opened its “Graphene Factory”, a new industrial centre distinguished for being the largest production plant in Europe of pristine graphene nanoplatelets, based on a patented and granted technology and designed according to a modular, replicable and exportable logic. The first module has 30-tonnes per year production capacity. To date, Directa Plus holds 26 granted patents and 19 patents pending. …

Setcar S.A. Established in 1994 as a joint stock company with entirely Rumanian private capital, the company is been developing since 2000 the range of services aimed to solve the environment issues, having as permanent concern the supply of a complete range of services, from chemical analyses for waste identification or, by creating new technologies, up to hazardous waste disposal or bringing the contaminated site to initial condition. …

You can find out more about Directa Plus here and about SetCar here (you will need your Romanian language skills as I cannot find an English language version of the site).

Belated Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings

Thanks to Jennifer Crusie’s Dec. 25, 2014 post on her Argh Ink blog I found this delightful Chrismas card/ song,


Here’s more about the cartoonist and the singers,

Uploaded on Nov 7, 2007

Sung by The Drifters. Cartoon by Joshua Held.
Featuring Bill Pinkney on lead bass and Clyde McPhatter on tenor.
An animated Christmas Card, and a homage to a great song, a great band, and a great Holiday.

This cartoon’s official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/White-…

More me on: http://www.joshuaheld.com

From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for reading this blog today and any and every other day you’ve cared to do so. II wish you the best of the season and for the coming year.

Gummy bears and an antiparticle story

Gummy bear on the experimental set-up – To avoid influences of the colour, the scientists only examined red gummy bears using positrons. Photo: Wenzel Schürmann / TUM

Gummy bear on the experimental set-up – To avoid influences of the colour, the scientists only examined red gummy bears using positrons. Photo: Wenzel Schürmann / TUM

Gelatin is commonly used as a delivery system for drugs. It’s particularly effective for timed release of medications, in part, due to tiny pores. According to a Dec. 29, 2014 news item on Nanowerk, researchers at the Technische Universität München (TUM) have found a way to measure these pores using gummy bears in a bid to improve gelatin’s effectiveness as a delivery system (Note: A link has been removed),

Gelatin is used in the pharmaceutical industry to encapsulate active agents. It protects against oxidation and overly quick release. Nanopores in the material have a significant influence on this, yet they are difficult to investigate. In experiments on gummy bears, researchers at Technische Universität München (TUM) have now transferred a methodology to determine the free volume of gelatin preparations (“The Free Volume in Dried and H2O-Loaded Biopolymers Studied by Positron Lifetime Measurements”).

A Dec. ??, 2014 TUM press release, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Custom-tailored gelatin preparations are widely used in the pharmaceutical industry. Medications that do not taste good can be packed into gelatin capsules, making them easier to swallow. Gelatin also protects sensitive active agents from oxidation. Often the goal is to release the medication gradually. In these cases slowly dissolving gelatin is used.

Nanopores in the material play a significant role in all of these applications. “The larger the free volume, the easier it is for oxygen to penetrate it and harm the medication, but also the less brittle the gelatin,” says PD Dr. Christoph Hugenschmidt, a physicist at TU München.

However, characterizing the size and distribution of these free spaces in the unordered biopolymer is difficult. A methodology adapted by the Garching physicists Christoph Hugenschmidt and Hubert Ceeh provides relief. “Using positrons as highly mobile probes, the volume of the nanopores can be determined, especially also in unordered systems like netted gelatins,” says Christoph Hugenschmidt.

Positrons are the antiparticles corresponding to electrons. They can be produced in the laboratory in small quantities, as in this experiment, or in large volumes at the Heinz Maier Leibnitz Research Neutron Source (FRM II) of the TU München. If a positron encounters an electron they briefly form an exotic particle, the so-called positronium. Shortly after it annihilates to a flash of light.

To model gelatin capsules that slowly dissolve in the stomach, the scientists bombarded red gummy bears in various drying stages with positrons. Their measurements showed, that in dry gummy bears the positroniums survive only 1.2 nanoseconds on average while in soaked gummy bears it takes 1.9 nanoseconds before they are annihilated. From the lifetime of the positroniums the scientists can deduce the number and size of nanopores in the material.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Free Volume in Dried and H2O-Loaded Biopolymers Studied by Positron Lifetime Measurements by Christoph Hugenschmidt and Hubert Ceeh. J. Phys. Chem. B, 2014, 118 (31), pp 9356–9360 DOI: 10.1021/jp504504p Publication Date (Web): July 21, 2014
Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall but there is another, freely available, undated paper on the topic (Note: the July 2014 published paper is cited there).

Drying Gummi Bears Reduce Anti-Matter Lifetime by Christoph Hugenschmidt und Hubert Ceeh.

Enjoy!

An effective, affordable bedbug (detection and monitoring) solution from Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada)

According to the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Dec. 22, 2014 news release (on EurekAlert but dated as Dec. 23, 2014 and on ScienceDaily as a Dec. 24, 2014 news item) a new solution for detecting and monitoring bedbugs will be on the market next year (2015) and I imagine that if it’s as effective and affordable as they claim huge sighs of relief and much shouting of joy will accompany the product launch (Note: Links have been removed),

The world owes a debt of gratitude to Simon Fraser University biologist Regine Gries. Her arms have provided a blood meal for more than a thousand bedbugs each week for five years while she and her husband, biology professor Gerhard Gries, searched for a way to conquer the global bedbug epidemic.

Working with SFU chemist Robert Britton and a team of students, they have finally found the solution—a set of chemical attractants, or pheromones, that lure the bedbugs into traps, and keep them there.

This month, after a series of successful trials in bedbug-infested apartments in Metro Vancouver, they have published their research, Bedbug aggregation pheromone finally identified, in Angewandte Chemie, a leading general chemistry journal.

They’re working with Victoria-based Contech Enterprises Inc. to develop the first effective and affordable bait and trap for detecting and monitoring bedbug infestations. They expect it to be commercially available next year.

The news release describes the research issues in more detail,

“The biggest challenge in dealing with bedbugs is to detect the infestation at an early stage,” says Gerhard, who holds an NSERC-Industrial Research Chair in Multimodal Animal Communication Ecology.

“This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly. It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment’s effectiveness.”

It’s a solution the world has been waiting for.

Over the last two decades the common bedbug (Cimex lectularius), once thought eradicated in industrialized countries, has reappeared as a global scourge. These nasty insects are infesting not just low-income housing but also expensive hotels and apartments, and public venues such as stores, movie theatres, libraries and even public transit.

And while these blood-sucking pests were previously not considered a carrier of disease, scientists have recently discovered they can transmit the pathogen that causes Chagas disease, which is prevalent in Central and South America. Yet until now, tools for detecting and monitoring these pests have been expensive and technically challenging to use.

The news release also provides a backgrounder describing the research process,

The Gries’ began their research eight years ago when Gerhard, who is internationally renowned for his pioneering work in chemical and bioacoustic communication between insects, began searching for pheromones that could lure and trap bedbugs.

Regine worked with him, running all of the lab and field experiments and, just as importantly, enduring 180,000 bedbug bites in order to feed the large bedbug colony required for their research. She became the unintentional “host” because, unlike Gerhard, she is immune to the bites, suffering only a slight rash instead of the ferocious itching and swelling most people suffer.

The Gries’ and their students initially found a pheromone blend that attracted bedbugs in lab experiments, but not in bedbug-infested apartments. “We realized that a highly unusual component must be missing—one that we couldn’t find using our regular gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric tools,” says Gerhard.

That’s when they teamed up with Britton, an expert in isolating and solving the structure of natural products, and then synthesizing them in the lab. He used SFU’s state-of-the-art NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] spectrometers to study the infinitesimal amounts of chemicals Regine had isolated from shed bedbug skin, looking for the chemical clues as to why the bedbugs find the presence of skin so appealing in a shelter.

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

After two years of frustrating false leads, Britton, his students and the Gries duo finally discovered that histamine, a molecule with unusual properties that eluded identification through traditional methods, signals “safe shelter” to bedbugs. Importantly, once in contact with the histamine, the bedbugs staid put whether or not they have recently fed on a human host.

Yet, to everyone’s disbelief, neither histamine alone nor in combination with the previously identified pheromone components effectively attracted and trapped bedbugs in infested apartments. So Regine began analyzing airborne volatile compounds from bedbug faeces as an alternate source of the missing components.

Five months and 35 experiments later, she had found three new volatiles that had never before been reported for bedbugs. These three components, together with two components from their earlier research and, of course, histamine, became the highly effective lure they were seeking.

Their research isn’t over yet, however. They continue to work with Contech Enterprises to finalize development of the commercial lure—which means Regine is still feeding the bedbugs every week. “I’m not too thrilled about this,” admits Regine, “but knowing how much this technology will benefit so many people, it’s all worth it.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Bed Bug Aggregation Pheromone Finally Identified by Regine Gries, Prof. Robert Britton, Michael Holmes, Huimin Zhai, Jason Draper, and Prof. Gerhard Gries. Angewandte Chemie International Edition DOI: 10.1002/anie.201409890 Article first published online: 21 DEC 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

For anyone curious about Contech (this project’s industry partner), here’s more from the company’s About Contech page,

Contech was founded in 1987 as a small, Canadian company dedicated to designing, manufacturing, and marketing innovative and environmentally-friendly products for the pet and garden industries. Over the years, we have grown our selection – through acquisitions and mergers with like-minded organizations – to add a range of products for Christmas, forestry, agriculture and pest management markets.

The acquisitions of Pherotech International in 2008 and green pest management pioneer, Tanglefoot in 2009, helped to solidify our commitment to providing unique and convenient products to the growing non-toxic pest management market.  In 2011, we purchased three additional companies:  G&B Pet Products, Christmas Mountain Manufacturing and Rainforest Sprinklers, adding additional pet products, Christmas tree stands and accessories, and a water-saving line of sprinklers to the mix.

While still headquartered in Victoria, British Columbia (BC), our growing company oversees an amazing science and innovation team at its Vancouver, BC location, a world-class operations and production group at the original Tanglefoot building in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Christmas products production facility in Perth Andover, New Brunswick and a pet sales office in Vista, California.

Through our growth, Contech has maintained a dedication to serving the needs of our customers at all levels of our organization. Our customer service team (made up of real people) responds to phone and online enquiries in real time, our in-house marketing professionals are committed to helping grow the businesses of our retail partners, and our sales representative are the direct link to retailers and distributors.

Deux Seurats: one (was an artist) and one (is an inquiry into scientifically sound alternatives to animal testing)

It must have been a moment of artistic madness which led to naming one of the European Union’s biggest projects dedicated to finding alternatives to animal testing, SEURAT-1. (Note: [1] All references used for this post are listed at the end. [2] There is a full disclosure statement after the references.)

Georges Seurat, a French post-impressionist painter, left no record that he was ever concerned with animal testing although he could be considered the ‘patron saint of pixels’ due to paintings which consist of dots rather than strokes.

Le Cirque (1891) by Georges Seurat in the Musée d'Orsay [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH; downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges_Seurat_019.jpg

Le Cirque (1891) by Georges Seurat in the Musée d’Orsay [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH; downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges_Seurat_019.jpg

Still, the idea of painstakingly constructing a picture dot by dot seems curiously similar to the scientific process where years of incremental gains in knowledge and understanding lead to new perspectives on the world around us. In this case, the change of perspective concerns the use of animals in testing for toxicological effects of medications, cosmetics, and other chemical goods intended for humans.

Animal testing dates back to back to the third and fourth centuries BCE (before the common era) although the father of vivisection, Galen, a Greek physician, doesn’t make an appearance until 2nd-century CE in Rome. More recently, we have an Arab physician, Avenzoar (Ibn Zuhr), in 12th-century Moorish Spain to thank for introducing animal experimentation as a means of testing surgical procedures.

The millenia-old practice of animal testing, surgical or otherwise, has presented a cruel conundrum. The tests have been our best attempt to save human lives and reduce human misery, albeit, at the cost of the animals used in the tests.

Social discomfort over animal-testing is rising internationally and thankfully, it looks like animal testing is in decline as alternatives and improvements (animal physiology is not perfectly equivalent to human physiology) are adopted. Alternatives and improvements have made possible actions such as the

  • European Union’s (EU) March 2013 ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics from anywhere in the world; there was an earlier 2009 ban on the sale of animal-tested cosmetics from anywhere in the EU,
  • China’s July 2014 announcement that animal-testing for cosmetics produced domestically is no longer required,
  • Israel’s 2013 ban on importing and marketing of cosmetics tested on animals,
  • India’s bans on cruel animal testing in India’s laboratories (2013) and on importing animal-tested cosmetics (Oct. 2014)

There are also a number of outstanding (as of December 2014) legislative proposals regarding animal-testing and cosmetics in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Taiwan, New Zealand, and the US.

However, cosmetics are only one product type among many, many chemical products. For example, medications, which rely on animal-testing for safety certification. Despite recent victories, the process of dismantling the animal-testing systems in place is massive, complex, and difficult even with support and encouragement from various government agencies, civil society groups, scientists, and various international organizations.

Well-entrenched national and international regulatory frameworks make animal testing mandatory prior to releasing a product into the marketplace. Careful thought, assurances to policy makers and the general public, and confidence that replacement regimes will be equivalent to the old system to the old system of animal-testing are necessary.

Strangely, assuring even sophisticated thinkers can prove surprisingly difficult, David Ropeik, a former Director of Communications for Harvard University’s Center for Risk Analysis and currently an international consultant and speaker on risk analysis, wrote in a Sept. 2014 post for The Big Think about the EU’s 2013 ban on cosmetics testing on animals,

But people use lotions and toothpastes and deodorants and perfumes repeatedly. We  expose ourselves everyday to hundreds of human-made chemicals, and some of those substances, which also fall under the European ban on animal testing for cosmetics, have the potential to do deeper damage, like cancer, or reproductive damage to the developing fetus. And there are no reliable replacement tests for those serious outcomes.

This now-banned animal testing for the systemic risks from repeated exposure to these everyday products was also a source of important information on the health effects of industrial chemicals generally. Results from cosmetic testing become part of the library of what we know about how industrial chemicals might harm us, no matter what products they’re in.

So the European community has eliminated a way for science to study the risk of industrial chemicals…because it feels right to consider the rights of animals. [emphasis mine] We have done what feels right, but in the process, without realizing it, we have made it harder to figure out how to keep ourselves safe.

Ropeik doesn’t substantiate his comment about the EU community acting from ‘feelings’ or discuss how current alternatives are inferior to animal testing or offer data about how this ban has made the earth a more dangerous place for humans. Meanwhile, more jurisdictions are limiting or eliminating testing of cosmetics on animals while an international competition which has already developed new techniques is underway to find yet more alternatives. SEURAT-1 the main European Union project, designed to carry out a set of scientific inquiries to facilitate the transition to animal testing alternatives where possible. It is organized around seven interlinked projects (or borrowing from Georges, seven dots):

  •  SCR&Tox (Stem Cells for Relevant efficient extended and normalized TOXicology): Stem cell differentiation for providing human-based organ specific target cells to assay toxicity pathways in vitro
  • Hepatic Microfluidic Bioreactor (HeMiBio): Developing a hepatic microfluidic bioreactor to mimick the complex structure and function of the human liver (liver-on-a-chip)
  • Detection of endpoints and biomarkers for repeated dose toxicity using in vitro systems (DETECTIVE): Identifying and investigating human biomarkers in cellular models for repeated dose in vitro testing
  • Integrated In Silico Models for the Prediction of Human Repeated Dose Toxicity of COSMetics to Optimise Safety’ (COSMOS): Integrating and delivering of a suite of computational tools to predict the effects of long-term exposure to chemicals in humans based on in silico calculations
  • Predicting long term toxic effects using computer models based on systems characterization of organotypic cultures (NOTOX): Developing systems biological tools for organotypic human cell cultures suitable for long term toxicity testing and the identification and analysis of pathways of toxicological relevance
  • Supporting Integrated Data Analysis and Servicing of Alternative Testing Methods in Toxicology (ToxBank): Data management, cell and tissue banking, selection of “reference compounds” and chemical repository
  • Coordination of projects on new approaches to replace current repeated dose systemic toxicity testing of cosmetics and chemicals (COACH): Cluster level coordinating and support action or this could be called, Administration

As SEURAT-1 nears its sunset date in 2015 (it is a five-year, 50M Euro project started in 2011), there are successes to celebrate. For example, Emma Davies in her article titled, Alternative test data publicly available; ToxBank data warehouse (Sept. 4, 2014 for Chemical Watch) notes that ToxBank, includes data from SEURAT-1’s “gold” standard reference compounds which have documented liver, kidney, and cardio toxicity. As well, data sets from a comprehensive 2012 liver toxicity study supplied by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (the EU’s research hub and laboratory) have been added. ToxBank has also negotiated with Open TG-Gates, a Japanese toxicogenomics data resource and with ToxCast and Tox21, two US high-throughput screening programmes to add their data to the ToxBank data warehouse. Meanwhile, the warehouse’s data is publicly available on request.

COSMOS, the other data-oriented member of the SEURAT-1 cluster, should provide a good starting point for in silico studies (computer simulations) as it now boasts information on some 19,000 cosmetics-related substances, including toxicity data for more than 12,000 studies according to Davies’ article, Critical toxicity pathways at heart of Seurat-1 follow on (Sept. 11, 2014 for Chemical Watch).

While we can take Ropeik’s point that animal testing has been an important element in ensuring drug and chemical safety, the move to limit or ban animal testing for cosmetics has been over 50 years in the making and this current wave of regulatory changes has been approached cautiously. There may be some unforeseen consequences both good and bad to these bans on animal testing but to remain mired in the procedures and processes of the past is to deny an improved future for humans and the animals we have used for testing.

References

Pointillism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointillism

History of animal testing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternatives_to_animal_testing

2013 EU ban ban on animal testing for cosmetics

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-21740745

http://ec.europa.eu/consumers/archive/sectors/cosmetics/animal-testing/index_en.htm

More legislation on cosmetics testing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testing_cosmetics_on_animals

India ban

http://www.hsi.org/news/press_releases/2014/10/animal-tested-cosmetics-import-ban-india-101414.html

China ban

http://www.care2.com/causes/its-official-china-ends-mandatory-animal-testing-for-cosmetics.html

EU 2013 one year later

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/monica-engebretson/celebrating-the-first-ann_b_4994028.html

David Ropeik’s credentials and resistance to eliminating animal-testing

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Ropeik

http://utility.prod.bigthink.com/risk-reason-and-reality/the-ban-on-animal-testing-morally-right-emotionally-appealing-but-dangerous

SEURAT-1

http://www.seurat-1.eu/

Cluster projects

http://www.seurat-1.eu/pages/cluster-projects.php

Emma Davies, Sept. 4, 2014 article (not behind a paywall)

http://chemicalwatch.com/21061/alternative-test-data-publicly-available

Emma Davies, Sept. 11, 2014 article  (behind a paywall)

http://chemicalwatch.com/register?o=21147&productID=1

Reference to cosmetics ban being over 50 years in the making

https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/the-3rs

The principles of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) were developed over 50 years ago as a framework for humane animal research.

Johns Hopkins Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT)

Resource list (http://caat.jhsph.edu/resources/) includes (and more):

Full disclosure: (1) SEURAT-1 paid for my flight, lodging, and attendance at WC9, the 9th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences. (2) I have written about alternatives to animal testing prior to any knowledge of SEURAT-1.