Tag Archives: Ariel Schwartz

Alberta’s (Canada) science education gets shout-out from UK’s (United Kingdom) Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss

On July 11, 2013 Elizabeth Truss, UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education (H/T Nassif Ghoussoub’s Piece of Mind), spoke at an International Student Science Fair and cited Alberta’s science education and high performance, along with Singapore’s, in her speech,

So at primary, we want children to get a really solid foundation in the basics of scientific knowledge and language, backed up by more and higher quality practical work and experiments – building on the approaches to science education in high-performing jurisdictions like Singapore and Alberta.

Obviously, Truss is making a case for science and technology education as preparation for the future in a speech that amongst other things emphasizes “non-artificial intelligence,”

As the future comes hurtling towards us, the most important resource any country can boast is not physical, nor technological – but human.

Every leap forward, every flash of insight, relies not on infrastructure, capital or regulatory regimes – important as they are.

But on people. On their brains, their knowledge and their determination to succeed.

On the schoolchildren and students of today – the innovators of tomorrow.

We don’t know yet precisely what skills will be needed in the future.

But as technology transforms the working world – and jobs polarise between the low-skilled and the very high-skilled, highly-educated – we know that the value of high-level skills is growing.

The 21st century will need people who are equally comfortable manipulating numbers, words and lines of computer code; who have the skills and the knowledge to understand both foreign languages and mathematical equations. Rounded individuals who can analyse and think logically, who have mastered both arts and sciences.

Never mind Bitcoin, education is the currency of the future.

International evidence has proved that countries with successful education systems grow more quickly.

Given Truss is speaking at an International Student(s) Science Fair (this is the only site [ ISSF 2012] that seemed to fit the description), it does seem like she’s speaking to the ‘converted’. Students at an international science fair have shown a fair degree of interest and commitment and this speech while inspiring doesn’t address one of the major problems described in a rather interesting UK research project on children’s science attitudes. From my Jan. 31, 2012 posting,

One of the research efforts in the UK is the ASPIRES research project at King’s College London (KCL), which is examining children’s attitudes to science and future careers. Their latest report, Ten Science Facts and Fictions: the case for early education about STEM careers (PDF), is profiled in a Jan. 11, 2012 news item on physorg.com (from the news item),

Professor Archer [Louise Archer, Professor of Sociology of Education at King’s] said: “Children and their parents hold quite complex views of science and scientists and at age 10 or 11 these views are largely positive. The vast majority of children at this age enjoy science at school, have parents who are supportive of them studying science and even undertake science-related activities in their spare time. They associate scientists with important work, such as finding medical cures, and with work that is well paid.

“Nevertheless, less than 17 per cent aspire to a career in science. These positive impressions seem to lead to the perception that science offers only a very limited range of careers, for example doctor, scientist or science teacher. It appears that this positive stereotype is also problematic in that it can lead people to view science as out of reach for many, only for exceptional or clever people, and ‘not for me’.

Professor Archer says the findings indicate that engaging young people in science is not therefore simply a case of making it more interesting or more fun. She said: “There is a disconnect between interest and aspirations. Our research shows that young people’s ambitions are strongly influenced by their social backgrounds – ethnicity, social class and gender – and by family contexts. [emphases mine]

In that 2012 posting, I also featured a US project where researchers developed an intervention for stimulating more adolescent interest in science and technology studies by focusing on the adolescent students’ parents.

Both the UK’s ASPIRES project and the US project suggest getting children to pursue education and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has more to do with family and social culture than is often recognized.

Adding a somewhat ironic wrinkle to this discussion is a finding from a study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program that 20% of all jobs in the US—not 4%-5% of jobs as claimed by the US National Science Foundation—could be described as STEM jobs. From the June 10, 2013 article for Fast Company by Ariel Schwartz,

…, STEM jobs aren’t limited to workers with advanced degrees–50% don’t even require a bachelor’s degree. Many of the more blue-collar STEM jobs are in fields like construction, plant and system operation, and repair (telecommunications equipment, aircraft, computer, office machine, etc.).

The irony is that family members who think that science careers are for other ‘smart and exceptional’ people may themselves have a STEM-based job/career. You can find the Brookings Institute report here. It should be noted this report The Hidden STEM Economy) has a unique definition of STEM, from the Schwartz article,

The Institute explains in a press release: “Previous studies classified workers as STEM only if they worked in a small number of professional occupations, but the Brookings definition classifies occupations according to the level of knowledge in STEM fields that workers need to perform their jobs. As a result, many nonprofessional jobs in manufacturing, health care, construction, and mining industries could be considered STEM jobs.”

Take for example, car mechanics. Today’s mechanics need to know about computers and fairly complex electronics, such as lithium-ion batteries, in addition to standard mechanics. (BTW, In the late 1980s, I had a coop student job at a school board where even then they trying to integrate electronics and information technology into their trades education programmes.)

If you have the time, I do recommend reading Truss’s speech (by following either the link to Nassif’s website or the direct link to the speech) and/or Schwartz’s article.

The importance of science fiction for the future

I started this post in March (2013) but haven’t had time till now (May 7, 2013) to flesh it out. It was a Mar. 28, 2013 posting by Jessica Bland and Lydia Nicholas for the UK Guardian science blogs which inspired me (Note: Links have been removed),

Science fiction and real-world innovation have always fed off each other. The history of the electronic book shows us things are more complicated than fiction predicting fact [.]

Imagine a new future. No, not that tired old vision of hoverboards and robot butlers: something really new and truly strange. It’s hard. It’s harder still to invent the new things that will fill this entirely new world. New ideas that do not fit or that come from unfamiliar places are often ignored. Hedy Lemarr [a major movie sex symbol in her day] and George Antheil’s [musician] frequency-hopping patent was ignored for 20 years because the US Navy could not believe that Hollywood artists could invent a method of secure communication. Many of Nikola Tesla’s inventions and his passionate belief in the importance of renewable energy were ignored by a world that could not imagine a need for them.

Stories open our eyes to the opportunities and hazards of new technologies. By articulating our fears and desires for the future, stories help shape what is to come – informing public debate, influencing regulation and inspiring inventors. And this makes it important that we do not just listen to the loudest voices.

Of course it isn’t as simple as mining mountains of pulp sci-fi for the schematics of the next rocket or the algorithms of the next Google. Arthur C. Clarke, often attributed with the invention of the communication satellite, firmly believed that these satellites would require crews. The pervasive connectivity that defines our world today would never have existed if every satellite needed to be manned.

The Guardian posting was occasioned by the publication of two research papers produced for NESTA. It’s an organization which is not similar to any in Canada or the US (as far as I know). Here’s a little more about NESTA from their FAQs page,

Nesta is an independent charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.

Nesta backs innovation to help bring great ideas to life. We do this by providing investments and grants and mobilising research, networks and skills.

Nesta receives funds from The Nesta Trust, which received the National Lottery endowment from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

The interest from this endowment is used to fund our activities. These activities must be used to promote the charitable objects of both the Nesta Trust and the Nesta charity. We also use the returns from Nesta investments, and income from working in partnership with others, to fund our work.

We don’t receive any ongoing general government funds to support our work.

On 1st April 2012 Nesta ceased being a Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) and became a charity (charity number 1144091).

We maintain our mission to carry out research into innovation and to further education, science, technology, the arts, public services, the voluntary sector and enterprise in various areas by encouraging and supporting innovation.

Nesta’s objectives are now set out in our ‘charitable objects’ which can be viewed here.

Nesta continues to operate at no cost to the Government or the taxpayer using return from the Nesta Trust.

In any event, NESTA commissioned two papers:

Imagining technology
Jon Turney
Nesta Working Paper 13/06
Issued: March 2013

Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation
Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, Georgina Voss
Nesta Working Paper 13/07
Issued: March 2013

For anyone who does not have time to read the NESTA papers, the Guardian’s post by Bland and Nicholas provides a good overview of the thinking which links science fiction with real innovation.

Around the same time I stumbled across the Bland/Nicholas post I also stumbled on a science fiction conference that is regularly held at the University of California Riverside.

The Eaton Science Fiction Conference was held Apr. 11 – 14, 2013 and the theme was “Science Fiction Media. It’s a little late for this year but perhaps you want to start planning for next year.  Here’s the Eaton Science Fiction Conference website. For those who’d like to get a feel for this conference, here’s a little more from the Mar. 27, 2013 news release by Bettye Miller,

… the 2013 conference will be largest in the 34-year history of the conference, said Melissa Conway, head of Special Collections and Archives of the UCR Libraries and conference co-organizer. It also is the first time the UCR Libraries and College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences have partnered with the Science Fiction Research Association, the largest and most prestigious scholarly organization in the field, to present the event.

Among the science fiction writers who will be presenting on different panels are: Larry Niven, author of “Ringworld” and a five-time winner of the Hugo Award and a Nebula; Gregory Benford, astrophysicist and winner of a Nebula Award and a United Nations Medal in Literature; David Brin, astrophysicist and two-time winner of the Hugo Award; Audre Bormanis, writer/producer for “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “Threshold,” “Eleventh Hour,” “Legend of the Seeker” and “Tron: Uprising”; Kevin Grazier, science adviser for “Battlestar Galactica,” “Defiance,” “Eureka” and “Falling Skies”; and James Gunn, winner of a Hugo Award and the 2007 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master, presented for lifetime achievement as a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

As for the impetus for this conference in Riverside, California, from the news release,

UCR is the home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world. The collection embraces every branch of science fiction, fantasy, horror and utopian/dystopian fiction.

The collection, which attracts scholars from around the world, holds more than 300,000 items including English-language science fiction, fantasy and horror published in the 20th century and a wide range of works in Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German, and a dozen other languages; fanzines; comic books; anime; manga; science fiction films and television series; shooting scripts; archives of science fiction writers; and science fiction collectibles and memorabilia.

In one of those odd coincidences we all experience from time to time, Ray Harryhausen, creator of a type of stop-motion model animation known as Dynamation and well loved for his work in special effects and who was recognized with a life time achievement at the 2013 conference, died today (May 7, 2013; Wikipedia essay).

The item which moved me to publish today (May 7, 2013), Can Science Fiction Writers Inspire The World To Save Itself?, by Ariel Schwartz concerns the Hieroglyph project at Arizona State University,

Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.

If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things–Stephenson believes it can–then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future. Hence the Hieroglyph experiment, launched this month as a collaborative website for researchers and writers. Many of the stories created on the platform will go into a HarperCollins anthology of fiction and non-fiction, set to be published in 2014.

Here’s more about the Hieroglyph project from the About page,

Inspiration is a small but essential part of innovation, and science fiction stories have been a seminal source of inspiration for innovators over many decades. In his article entitled “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson calls for a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction. That call resonated with so many and so deeply that Project Hieroglyph was born shortly thereafter.

The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs” – Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

While the mission of Project Hieroglyph begins with creative inspiration, our hope is that many of us will be genuinely inspired towards realization.

This project is an initiative of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination.

It’s great seeing this confluence of thinking about science fiction, innovation, and science. I’m pretty sure we knew this in the 19th century (and probably before that too) and I just hope we don’t forget it again.

Plants that glow in the dark; Kickstarter campaign or public relations campaign?

Synthetic biologists have set up a Kickstarter campaign, Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity, designed to raise funds for a specific project and enthusiasm for  synthetic biology in the form of plants that glow in the dark. As of this morning (May 7, 2013, 9:50 am PDT), the campaign has raised $248, 600. They’ve met their initial goal of $60,000 and are now working towards their stretch goal of $400,000 with 30 days left.

Glowing Arabidopsis

Glowing Arabidopsis

Ariel Schwartz in her May 7, 2013 article for Fast Company describes the project this way,

Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promises backers that they’ll receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home. If the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available.

“We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects,” explains project co-founder Antony Evans. …

Kickstarter backers will get seeds created using particle bombardment. Gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct developed by the team are fired at plant cells at a high-velocity. A small number of those particles make it into the Arabidopsis plant cells, where they’re absorbed into the plant chromosomes.

Arabidopsis was chosen for a number of reasons: it’s not native to the U.S., so there is little risk of cross-pollination; it doesn’t survive well in the wild (again, reducing risk of cross-pollination), it self-pollinates, and up until recently, it was thought to have the shortest genome of any plant. That means the protocols for Arabidopsis plant transformation work are well-established. Roses (the stretch goal plant) have also been studied extensively, and they carry little risk of cross-pollination, according to Evans.

As Schwartz notes, the project has potential for future applications,

In the meantime, Evans and his team plan on spending the next year on the campaign. Eventually, Evans imagines that the Glowing Plants creators will work on bigger glowing plant species, so one day they could even be used for street lighting.

Here’s more about the team behind this Kickstarter campaign (from the project page, click on Antony Evans),

Omri Amirav-Drory, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Genome Compiler, a synthetic biology venture. Prior to starting his company, Omri was a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine and HHMI, performing neuroscience research using structural and synthetic biology methods. Omri received his PhD in biochemistry from Tel-Aviv University for biochemical and structural studies of membrane protein complexes involved in bio-energetics.

Antony Evans has an MBA with Distinction from INSEAD, an MA in Maths from the University of Cambridge and is a graduate of Singularity University’s GSP program. He is both a Louis Frank and Oppidan scholar and worked for six years as a management consultant and project manager at Oliver Wyman and Bain & Company. Prior to this project he co-founded the world’s first pure mobile microfinance bank in the Philippines and launched a mobile app in partnership with Harvard Medical School.

Kyle Taylor was born and raised in the great state of Kansas, where his love of plants evolved out of an interest in the agriculture all around him. This lead him to major in Agriculture Biochemistry and minor in Agronomy at Iowa State University and then pursue a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at Stanford University. Not too bad for a rural country boy! Since a lot of people helped him get to this point, he’s driven to share his passion and excitement by making what he does more accessible. Kyle teaches Introduction to Molecular Cell Biology at Biocurious and is our resident plant expert.

This project reminded me of artist Eduardo Kac (pronounced Katz) and his transgenic bunny, Alba. She glows/ed green in the dark. Here’s more from Kac’s ‘transgenic bunny’ webpage,

My transgenic artwork “GFP Bunny” comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. “GFP Bunny” was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France. Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere [1], is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

Alba, the fluorescent bunny. Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

Alba, the fluorescent bunny. Photo: Chrystelle Fontaine

She never looks quite real to me. Under a standard light, she’s a white rabbit but glows when illuminated by a blue  light.  From Kac’s transgenic bunny page,

She was created with EGFP, an enhanced version (i.e., a synthetic mutation) of the original wild-type green fluorescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria. EGFP gives about two orders of magnitude greater fluorescence in mammalian cells (including human cells) than the original jellyfish gene

I don’t know if she still lives but Kac was creating work based on her up until 2011. You can find more here.

ETA June 12, 2013:  Anya Kamenetz has written a followup June 12, 2013 article for Fast Company about this Kickstarter project (Note: A link has been removed),

Though the project is technically legal, its sheer hubris has kickstarted some serious from scientists and environmental groups that object to the release of these seeds to the public, with the chance that the DNA will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences. An anti-synthetic bio group called ETC has started a fundraising drive of their own, dubbed a “Kickstopper.”

There’s also an online petition according to Kamenetz. One comment, her description of ‘ETC’ as an anti-synthetic bio group doesn’t quite convey the group’s scope or depth. It’s name is the ETC Group (Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) and its tag line is ‘monitoring power, tracking technology, strengthening diversity.

Engineering toys for girls

Ariel Schwartz in her Dec. 6, 2012 article for Fast Company’s Co-Design website describes three engineering toys, two of which are explicitly designed for girls while the other one is of interest to any child who might want to build a robot. From the article (Note: I have removed links),

Devised by Debbie Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer, GoldieBlox is a brand new series of construction toys and books for girls that focuses on a young blond girl named Goldie who lives in what Sterling described to us as a “crazy engineering house,” chock full of moving parts and gears.

A triad of women who studied mechanical engineering, neuroscience, and electrical engineering created Roominate, a modular hacker dollhouse that comes with connectable circuits. Alice Brooks, one of the designers, told Co.Design: “We started with a toy that girls already love, and added educational components that make the toy even more engaging.”

Slightly older girls (11 and up) might enjoy the $199 Hummingbird robotics kit, created by BirdBrain Technologies (a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University). The kit comes with four sub-kits: a light and vibration set with 10 multi-colored LEDs and two vibration motors; a control set that comes with an auxiliary motor power supply, a USB cable, and a screwdriver; a motion that includes DC motors and servos; and a sensing kit that contains sound, temperature, distance, light sensors along with a rotary knob; basically, anything you would need to build the robot of your dreams. [emphases mine]

You won’t be able to get GoldieBlox in time for Christmas as it doesn’t ship until April 2013. By the way, GoldieBlox was a successful Kickstarter project raising over $285,000 when the goal was $150,000. Here’s an image from their campaign,

GoldieBlox (image from http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/16029337/goldieblox-the-engineering-toy-for-girls)

You can find GoldieBlox here and you will find that a little more culture diversity is being introduced.

Roominate looks like great fun and you can get that kit in time for Christmas, assuming they don’t run out of stock,

“A cooling fan that I wired myself!”

And then there’s this,

“A spinning dog for my pet shop!”

There’s one more picture from the home page and I must say I heartily agree with the sentiments,

“Every airport needs a cupcake shop and an aquarium!”

Personally, I’m particularly interested in the robotics kit from BirdBrain Technologies. Schwartz notes in her article that a group of eighth graders used the kit to build a scene from Carl Sandberg’s poem Sand. Here’s a video from inventor (it’s geeky),

Batteries made of wood and the mechanical properties of plants

According to Ariel Schwartz in an Aug. 14, 2012 (?) article for Fast Company’s Co.Exist website, batteries made from wood waste may be in our future (Note: I have removed a link),

Researchers from Poznan University of Technology in Poland and Linköping University in Sweden have figured out how to combine lignin with polypyrrole (a conductive polymer) to create a battery cathode that could one day be used in energy storage. The lignin acts as an insulator, while the polypyrrole holds an electric charge.

The discovery is a potential boon for the renewable energy world. As the researchers explain in the journal Science, “Widespread application of electrical power storage may require more abundant materials than those available in inorganics (which often require rare metals), and at a lower cost. Materials for charge storage are desired from easily accessible and renewable sources. Combining cellulose materials and conjugated polymers for charge storage has … attracted attention.”

For anyone (like me) who’s heard the word lignin but doesn’t know the precise meaning, here’s a definition from a Wikipedia essay (Note: I have removed links and footnotes),

Lignin or lignen is a complex chemical compound most commonly derived from wood, and an integral part of the secondary cell walls of plants and some algae. The term was introduced in 1819 by de Candolle and is derived from the Latin word lignum, meaning wood. It is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, exceeded only by cellulose, employing 30% of non-fossil organic carbon, and constituting from a quarter to a third of the dry mass of wood.

This next item also mentions lignin but in reference to mechanical properties that engineers are observing in plant cells.  From the Aug. 14, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

From an engineer’s perspective, plants such as palm trees, bamboo, maples and even potatoes are examples of precise engineering on a microscopic scale. Like wooden beams reinforcing a house, cell walls make up the structural supports of all plants. Depending on how the cell walls are arranged, and what they are made of, a plant can be as flimsy as a reed, or as sturdy as an oak.

An MIT researcher has compiled data on the microstructures of a number of different plants, from apples and potatoes to willow and spruce trees, and has found that plants exhibit an enormous range of mechanical properties, depending on the arrangement of a cell wall’s four main building blocks: cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin and pectin.

The news item was originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Jennifer Chu’s Aug. 14, 2012 news release,

Lorna Gibson, the [researcher] at MIT, says understanding plants’ microscopic organization may help engineers design new, bio-inspired materials.

“If you look at engineering materials, we have lots of different types, thousands of materials that have more or less the same range of properties as plants,” Gibson says. “But here the plants are, doing it arranging just four basic constituents. So maybe there’s something you can learn about the design of engineered materials.”

A paper detailing Gibson’s findings has been published this month [freely accessible] in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

To Gibson, a cell wall’s components bear a close resemblance to certain manmade materials. For example, cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin can be as stiff and strong as manufactured polymers. A plant’s cellular arrangement can also have engineering parallels: cells in woods, for instance, are aligned, similar to engineering honeycombs, while polyhedral cell configurations, such as those found in apples, resemble some industrial foams.

To explore plants’ natural mechanics, Gibson focused on three main plant materials: woods, such as cedar and oak; parenchyma cells, which are found in fruits and root vegetables; and arborescent palm stems, such as coconut trees. She compiled data from her own and other groups’ experiments and analyzed two main mechanical properties in each plant: stiffness and strength.

Among all plants, Gibson observed wide variety in both properties. Fruits and vegetables such as apples and potatoes were the least stiff, while the densest palms were 100,000 times stiffer. Likewise, apples and potatoes fell on the lower end of the strength scale, while palms were 1,000 times stronger.

“There are plants with properties over that whole range,” Gibson says. “So it’s not like potatoes are down here, and wood is over there, and there’s nothing in between. There are plants with properties spanning that whole huge range. And it’s interesting how the plants do that.”

Since I’m always interested in trees, from Chu’s news release,

In trees such as maples and oaks, cells grow and multiply in the cambium layer, just below the bark, increasing the diameter of the trees. The cell walls in wood are composed of a primary layer with cellulose fibers randomly spread throughout it. Three secondary layers lie underneath, each with varying compositions of lignin and cellulose that wind helically through each layer.

Taken together, the cell walls occupy a large portion of a cell, providing structural support. The cells in woods are organized in a honeycomb pattern — a geometric arrangement that gives wood its stiffness and strength.

Parenchyma cells, found in fruits and root vegetables, are much less stiff and strong than wood. The cell walls of apples, potatoes and carrots are much thinner than in wood cells, and made up of only one layer. Cellulose fibers run randomly throughout this layer, reinforcing a matrix of hemicellulose and pectin. Parenchyma cells have no lignin; combined with their thin walls and the random arrangement of their cellulose fibers, Gibson says, this may explain their cell walls’ low stiffness. The cells in each plant are densely packed together, similar to industrial foams used in mattresses and packaging.

Unlike woody trees that grow in diameter over time, the stems of arborescent palms such as coconut trees maintain similar diameters throughout their lifetimes. Instead, as the stem grows taller, palms support this extra weight by increasing the thickness of their cell walls. A cell wall’s thickness depends on where it is along a given palm stem: Cell walls are thicker at the base and periphery of stems, where bending stresses are greatest.

There’s even a nanotechnology slant to this story, from Chu’s news release,

Gibson sees plant mechanics as a valuable resource for engineers designing new materials. For instance, she says, researchers have developed a wide array of materials, from soft elastomers to stiff, strong alloys. Carbon nanotubes have been used to reinforce composite materials, and engineers have made honeycomb-patterned materials with cells as small as a few millimeters wide. But researchers have been unable to fabricate cellular composite materials with the level of control that plants have perfected.

“Plants are multifunctional,” Gibson says. “They have to satisfy a number of requirements: mechanical ones, but also growth, surface area for sunlight and transport of fluids. The microstructures plants have developed satisfy all these requirements. With the development of nanotechnology, I think there is potential to develop multifunctional engineering materials inspired by plant microstructures.”

Given the problems with the forestry sector, these developments (wooden batteries and engineering materials inspired by plant cell walls) should excite some interest.

Diagnostics on a credit card?

Diagnostic equipment keeps getting smaller with the latest being the size of a credit card (more or less). It’s called an ‘mChip’ and can be used to diagnose either HIV or syphillis. From the August 2, 2011 article by Ariel Schwartz on Fast Company,

If you were concerned you had HIV (and lived in America), it would be easy enough to get some blood drawn at a clinic near your house, and wait a few days (or even hours) for the results. But in Africa, many clinics and hospitals have to send out blood samples to a national lab. It’s a process that can take weeks, and patients in remote areas sometimes don’t even bother to make the trek back to the clinic to get results. On a continent with a rampant HIV epidemic, this is a big problem. But Columbia University researchers have a partial solution–a $1 plastic chip that can diagnose HIV and syphilis in 15 minutes.

The “mChip”, a credit-card-sized piece of plastic that is produced using a plastic injection molding process, tests for multiple diseases with just one pinprick of blood.

The international team working on this project was led by professor of bioengineering at Columbia University, Samuel Sia. Field testing of the mChip took place in Rwanda. GrrlScientist in her August 3, 2011 posting (at the Guardian Science blogs site) offers more technical details,

“The microfluidic design is very simple”, said Dr Sia. “It’s essentially a .. linear channel that’s been looped around in various ways.”

… This credit card-sized cassette is manufactured from plastic and each mChip cassette can test seven samples (one per channel), and requires no moving parts, electricity or external instrumentation. Instead, it has small holes moulded into the plastic so reagent-loaded tubes can be attached. …

The principles for how the mChip work are well known, straightforward and, quite frankly, beautiful.

The mChip can be used for other diagnostic tests. A prostate cancer testing mChip has already been approved for use and other tests are being developed as well.

Sia’s team is not the only one working on faster, cheaper, more reliable diagnostic tests. A team at the University of Georgia (US)  has just published research about their flu detection test (from the August 3, 2011 news item on Nanowerk),

A new detection method developed at the University of Georgia and detailed in the August edition of the journal Analyst (“One-step assay for detecting influenza virus using dynamic light scattering and gold nanoparticles”), however, offers the best of both worlds. By coating gold nanoparticles with antibodies that bind to specific strains of the flu virus and then measuring how the particles scatter laser light, the technology can detect influenza in minutes at a cost of only a fraction of a penny per exam.

“We’ve known for a long time that you can use antibodies to capture viruses and that nanoparticles have different traits based on their size,” said study co-author Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Vaccine Development in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine. “What we’ve done is combine the two to create a diagnostic test that is rapid and highly sensitive.”

Sia’s team seems to have worked on both the test and diagnostic device whereas some teams like the one in Georgia focus on tests or like the team at Stanford (mentioned in my March 1, 2011 posting about their nanoLAB) focus on the device.

Not all of these new handheld diagnostic tools and tests are designed for disease identification. Argento (mentioned in my February 15, 2011 posting) is being used by UK Sport to assist their elite athletes prior to the 2012 Olympics.  Locally, i.e., in Vancouver, there’s a team at St. Paul’s Hospital, PROOF (mentioned in my Feb. 15, 2011 posting), working on a test that would eliminate the need for monthly biopsies for patients who have received kidney transplants.

Vive Nano and the American Chemistry Council Award and a philosphy of awards

Vive Nano recently received a 2011 Responsible Care Performance Award from the American Chemistry Council. From the May 11, 2011 news release,

The Responsible Care Performance Award recognizes those member companies who excelled at helping ACC meet industry-wide safety and product stewardship targets. ACC Responsible Care award winners qualify based on exemplary performance, and are selected by an external expert committee. Other award winners this year include Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, Nova Chemicals and Honeywell.

At this point I want to make a distinction between Vive Nano’s acceptance of the award and the award’s credibility and to make a personal confession. First the confession, I don’t probe too deeply when I win award and I probably should. Now onto the issue of an award’s credibility. Something in the news release caught my attention,

“Responsible Care is the chemical industry’s commitment to sustainability, enabling us to enhance environmental protection and public health, as well as improve worker safety and plant security,” said Greg Babe, chair of ACC’s Board Committee on Responsible Care and president and CEO of Bayer Corp. [emphases mine]

One of the Bayer companies (Babe is the Chief Executive Officer of the parent corporation), Bayer CropScience has a product used as a pesticide which has been strongly implicated as a factor in the calamitous collapse of bee colonies in North America and elsewhere. From a Dec. 14, 2010 article by Ariel Schwartz for Fast Company,

Beekeepers across the U.S. are reporting record low honey crops as their bees fail to make it through the winter. One-third of American agriculture, which relies on bee pollination, is at stake. And the problem may be at least partially attributable to clothianidin, a Bayer-branded pesticide used on corn and other crops.

But as we revealed last week, the EPA knew that clothianidin could be toxic when the product came on the market in 2003. So why is it still on the market?

The bee-toxic pesticide problem can be traced back to 1994, when the first neonicotinoid pesticide (Imidacloprid) was released. Neonicotinoids like imidacloprid and clothianidin disrupt the central nervous system of pest insects, and are supposed to be relatively non-toxic to other animals. But there’s a problem: The neonicotinoids coat plant seeds, releasing insecticides permanently into the plant. The toxins are then released in pollen and nectar–where they may cause bees to become disoriented and die.


The EPA first brought up the link between clothianidin and bees before the pesticide’s release in February 2003. The agency originally planned to withhold registration of the pesticide because of concerns about toxicity in bees, going so far as to suggest that the product come with a warning label (PDF): “This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistance [sic] of residues and the expression clothianidin in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic toxic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual stability of the hive.”

But in April 2003, the EPA decided to give Bayer conditional registration. Bayer could sell the product and seed processors could freely use it, with the proviso that Bayer complete a life cycle study of clothianidin on corn by December 2004. Bayer was granted an extension until May 2005 (and permission to use canola instead of corn in its tests), but didn’t complete the study until August 2007. The EPA continued to allow the sale of clothianidin, and once the Bayer study finally came out, it was flawed.

There’s more about the bees and Bayer both in this article and in a Dec. 17, 2010 article by Schwartz for Fast Company.

Here’s an excerpt from the company’s Dec. 22, 2010 response to the concerns,

Bayer CropScience was recently made aware of an unauthorized release [emphasis mine] from within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a document regarding the seed treatment product, clothianidin, which is sold in the United States corn market. Bayer CropScience disagrees with the claims by some environmental groups against this product and we believe these are incorrect and unwarranted with regard to honey bee concerns.

The study referenced in the document is important research, conducted by independent experts and published in a major peer-reviewed scientific journal. The long-term field study conducted in accordance with Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) by independent experts using clothianidin-treated seed showed that there were no effects on bee mortality, weight gain, worker longevity, brood development, honey yield and over-winter survival. The EPA reviewed and approved the study protocol prior to its initiation and it was peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Economic Entomology*. Upon reviewing the results of the long-term trial, the Agency noted the study as “scientifically sound and satisfies the guideline requirements for a field toxicity test with honey bees.

According to Schwartz, the ‘unauthorized release’ was in response to a freedom of information (FOI) query.

If the product is suspected of being unsafe, why not make the data available for analysis by respected scientists who are not associated with Bayer in any way? Given the magnitude of the problem, shouldn’t the company go above and beyond? And, what does this mean for its commitment to the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care program?

The issue is not Vive Nano; it’s the credibility of the award. For example, the Nobel Peace Prize is funded from the proceeds of a fortune derived from the invention of dynamite, amongst other things. (I was not able to confirm that Alfred Nobel was a munitions manufacturer although I’ve heard that any number of times.) Does the source for the funding matter or has the Nobel Peace Prize accrued credibility over the years from the reputations of the award recipients?

Could Vive Nano and companies like it (assuming they are genuinely living up to the standards of the Responsible Care program) possibly give the award credibility over time?

There you have it. An award is not just an award; it is a complex interplay between the recipient, the organization giving the award, and reputation.

Intelligence, computers, and robots

Starting tonight, Feb. 14, 2011, you’ll be able to watch a computer compete against two former champions on the US television quiz programme, Jeopardy.  The match between the IBM computer, named Watson, and the most accomplished champions that have ever played on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, has been four years in the making. From the article by Julie Beswald on physorg.com,

“Let’s finish, ‘Chicks Dig Me’,” intones the somewhat monotone, but not unpleasant, voice of Watson, IBM’s new supercomputer built to compete on the game show Jeopardy!

The audience chuckles in response to the machine-like voice and its all-too-human assertion. But fellow contestant Ken Jennings gets the last laugh as he buzzes in and garners $1,000.

This exchange is part of a January 13 practice round for the world’s first man vs. machine game show. Scheduled to air February 14-16, the match pits Watson against the two best Jeopardy! players of all time. Jennings holds the record for the most consecutive games won, at 74. The other contestant, Brad Rutter, has winnings totaling over $3.2 million.

On Feb. 9, 2011, PBS’s NOVA science program broadcast a documentary about Watson whose name is derived from the company founder, Paul Watson, and not Sherlock Holmes’s companion and biographer, Dr. Watson. Titled the Smartest Machine on Earth, the show highlighted Watson’s learning process and some of the principles behind artificial intelligence. PBS’s website is featuring a live blogging event of tonight’s and the Feb. 15 and 16 matches. From the website,

On Monday [Feb. 14, 2011], our bloggers will be Nico Schlaefer and Hideki Shima, two Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute who worked on the Watson project.

At the same time that the ‘Watson’ event was being publicized last week, another news item on artificial intelligence and learning was making the rounds. From a Feb. 9, 2011 article by Mark Ward on BBC News ,

Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia.

European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.

Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters. [emphasis mine]

You can read a first person account of the RoboEarth project on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Spectrum’s Automaton Robotics blog in a posting by Markus Waibel,

As part of the European project RoboEarth, I am currently one of about 30 people working towards building an Internet for robots: a worldwide, open-source platform that allows any robot with a network connection to generate, share, and reuse data. The project is set up to deliver a proof of concept to show two things:

* RoboEarth greatly speeds up robot learning and adaptation in complex tasks.

* Robots using RoboEarth can execute tasks that were not explicitly planned for at design time.

The vision behind RoboEarth is much larger: Allow robots to encode, exchange, and reuse knowledge to help each other accomplish complex tasks. This goes beyond merely allowing robots to communicate via the Internet, outsourcing computation to the cloud, or linked data.

But before you yell “Skynet!,” think again. While the most similar things science fiction writers have imagined may well be the artificial intelligences in Terminator, the Space Odyssey series, or the Ender saga, I think those analogies are flawed. [emphasis mine] RoboEarth is about building a knowledge base, and while it may include intelligent web services or a robot app store, it will probably be about as self-aware as Wikipedia.

That said, my colleagues and I believe that if robots are to move out of the factories and work alongside humans, they will need to systematically share data and build on each other’s experience.

Unfortunately, Markus Waibel doesn’t explain why he thinks the analogies are flawed but he does lay out the reasoning for why robots should share information. For a more approachable and much briefer account, you can check out Ariel Schwartz’s Feb. 10, 2011 article on the Fast Company website,

The EU-funded [European Union] RoboEarth project is bringing together European scientists to build a network and database repository for robots to share information about the world. They will, if all goes as planned, use the network to store and retrieve information about objects, locations (including maps), and instructions about completing activities. Robots will be both the contributors and the editors of the repository.

With RoboEarth, one robot’s learning experiences are never lost–the data is passed on for other robots to mine. As RedOrbit explains, that means one robot’s experiences with, say, setting a dining room table could be passed on to others, so the butler robot of the future might know how to prepare for dinner guests without any prior programming.

There is a RoboEarth website, so we humans can get more information and hopefully keep up with the robots.

Happily and as there is with increasing frequency, there’s a Youtube video. This one features a robot downloading information from RoboEarth and using that information in a quasi hospital setting,

I find this use of popular entertainment, particularly obvious with Watson, to communicate about scientific advances quite interesting. On this same theme of popular culture as a means of science communication, I featured a Lady Gaga parody by a lab working on Alzheimer’s in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.  I also find the reference to “human masters” in the BBC article along with Waibel’s flat assertion that some science fiction analogies about artificial intelligence are flawed indicative of some very old anxieties as expressed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

ETA Feb. 14, 2011: The latest posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog, I, For One, Welcome Our Robot Game Show Overlords, features another opinion about the Watson appearances on Jeopardy. From the posting,

What will this mean? Given that a cursory search suggests opinion is divided on whether Watson will win this week, I have no idea. While it will likely be entertaining, and does represent a significant step forward in computing capabilities, I can’t help but think about the supercomputing race that makes waves only when a new computational record is made. It’s nice, and might prompt government action should they lose the number one standing. But what does it mean? What new outcomes do we have because of this? The conversation is rarely about what, to me, seems more important.

Rare earths, China, and Nanosys

There’s been some discussion recently about rare earths in the light of tensions between China and Japan. Here’s a brief description of rare earths for anyone who’s not certain what they are, from the Wikipedia essay on rare earths,

… rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanides.

Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the highly unstable promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms, generally called rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”

Here’s what started the tensions (from the NY Times article by Keith Bradsher),

Chinese customs officials abruptly halted the processing of paperwork for shipments bound for Japan on Sept. 21 [2010]. The shipments were halted during an acrimonious dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler that rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels two weeks earlier near islands long controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

Here’s why they’re so important,

Rare earths are vital to the production of a wide range of industrial products, including automobiles, glass, oil refining, computers, smartphones, wind turbines and flat-screen televisions. The military needs them for missiles, sonar systems and the range finders of tanks.

Here are some of the consequences of the ban,

Many factories in China assemble products that require high-tech components from Japan that use rare earths. Some of these factories, which employ large numbers of workers in China, have begun running low on components as Japanese suppliers ran short on some of the more obscure rare earths needed to manufacture them, two rare earth industry executives said.

Electronics industries have been affected, particularly camera manufacturers, leading to a desperate scramble for raw materials that has even included buying tons of obscure rare earth compounds from corporate stockpiles in Europe and airlifting them to Japan.

All 32 of the authorized rare earth exporters in China have refused to increase their shipments to other countries during the unannounced ban on shipments to Japan, making it difficult for Japanese traders to obtain supplies indirectly.

As a result of the blocked shipments, some rare earths now cost up to 10 times as much outside China as inside; the Chinese government has started a vigorous campaign to prevent this from leading to smuggling.

Brasher’s article is very interesting and I do recommend reading all of it.

There has been one other consequence to this concern over a dependency on China’s rare earths (excerpted from the Nov. 23, 2010 article by Ariel Schwartz on Fast Company),

There’s just one problem: The metals are only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia–and China has threatened to stop exporting its supply. But instead of expanding rare earth metal mines, what if we look for more sustainable replacements?

Enter Nanosys, a company that offers process-ready materials for the LED and energy-storage markets, among other things. Nanosys has been thinking about rare earth material shortages for years, which is why the company manufactures synthetic phosphors out of common materials–not the rare earth materials (i.e. yttrium) usually used in phosphors.

“We make a semiconductor phosphor that employs a nanomaterial called a quantum dot,” explains Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. “It’s made out of indium phosphide and phosphorous, and the synthesis process is all in the lab. There’s no heavy metal mining, no destructive mining practices.”

Nanosys’s QuantumRail LED backlighting device is made out of quantum dots, which can purportedly generate brighter and richer colors than their rare earth metal counterparts–all while delivering a higher efficiency and lower cost.

I don’t know how close they are to producing these quantum dots in industrial quantities but the appeal of a process that lessens dependency on resources that have to be mined and/or be used to apply political pressure is undeniable. If you’re interested, you can visit the Nanosys website here.

(They talk about ‘architected’ materials. I view that word with the same enthusiasm I have for ‘impactful’. These people should never be allowed to invent another word, ever again.)

New metals, inflatable, origami-style, and self-healing

I’m still having trouble imagining inflatable metal objects but according to Ariel Schwartz’s article in Fast Company, it does exist. There’s even a slide show about how to make an inflatable chair at the Fast Company website. (I decided to show the stool.)

Inflatable metal stool (from Fast Company slide show)

From the article,

Designed by architect Oskar Zieta and materials scientist Philipp Dohmen, the chair is built with thin sheet metal that has been inflated with tubes releasing high-pressure air. The pair have also built an inflatable metal stool. Zieta and Dohmen are also working on large-scale installations.

I wish there was more information about the technology but I’m reasonably certain this could be described as a nano-enabled product. It’s certainly an interesting product although I’m having difficulty understanding why someone would want an inflatable metal chair or stool but I’m pretty slow about these kinds of things. I see more more possibilities for the origami-based designs from Industrial Origami that will cut down on the amount of sheet metal needed for products such as ovens. As for the Fraunhofer Institute’s self-healing metal,  that seems like an excellent idea and is definitely nano-enabled technology.