Tag Archives: Arizona State University

Essays on Frankenstein

Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?

Introductions

Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.

Lingo

….

Debates

Popular Culture

Further Reading

….

‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

News from Arizona State University’s The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project

I received a September 2016 newsletter (issued occasionally) from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University (ASU) which contained these two tidbits:

I, Artist

Bobby Zokaites converted a Roomba, a robotic vacuum, from a room cleaning device to an art-maker by removing the dust collector and vacuuming system and replacing it with a paint reservoir. Artists have been playing with robots to make art since the 1950s. This work is an extension of a genre, repurposing a readily available commercial robot.

With this project, Bobby set out to create a self-portrait of a generation, one that grew up with access to a vast amount of information and constantly bombarded by advertisements. The Roomba paintings prove that a robot can paint a reasonably complex painting, and do it differently every time; thus this version of the Turing test was successful.

As in the story of Frankenstein, this work also interrogates questions of creativity and responsibility. Is this a truly creative work of art, and if so, who is the artist; man or machine?

Both the text description and the video are from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5ihmwPWgY

Frankenstein at 200 Exhibit

From the September 2016 newsletter (Note: Links have been removed),

Just as the creature in Frankenstein [the monster is never named in the book; its creator, however, is Victor Frankenstein] was assembled from an assortment of materials, so too is the cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth. Now a new, interdisciplinary exhibit at ASU Libraries examines how Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old science fiction story continues to inspire, educate, and frighten 21st century audiences.

Frankenstein at 200 is open now through December 10 on the first floor of ASU’s Hayden Library in Tempe, AZ.

Here’s more from the exhibit’s webpage on the ASU website,

No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than “Frankenstein;” or “The Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, influencing the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, and consider the ethical relationships between creators and their creations

Two hundred years after Mary Shelley imagined the story that would become “Frankenstein,” ASU Libraries is exhibiting an interdisciplinary installation that contextualizes the conditions of the original tale while exploring it’s continued importance in our technological age. Featuring work by ASU faculty and students, this exhibition includes a variety of physical and digital artifacts, original art projects and interactive elements that examine “Frankenstein’s” colossal scientific, technological, cultural and social impacts.

About the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project: Launched by Drs. David Guston and Ed Finn in 2013, the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, is a global celebration of the bicentennial of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from 2016-2018. The project uses Frankenstein as a lens to examine the complex relationships between science, technology, ethics, and society. To learn more visit frankenstein.asu.edu and follow @FrankensteinASU on Twitter

There are more informational tidbits at The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project website.

Breathing nanoparticles into your brain

Thanks to Dexter Johnson and his Sept. 8, 2016 posting (on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) for bringing this news about nanoparticles in the brain to my attention (Note: Links have been removed),

An international team of researchers, led by Barbara Maher, a professor at Lancaster University, in England, has found evidence that suggests that the nanoparticles that were first detected in the human brain over 20 years ago may have an external rather an internal source.

These magnetite nanoparticles are an airborne particulate that are abundant in urban environments and formed by combustion or friction-derived heating. In other words, they have been part of the pollution in the air of our cities since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

However, according to Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University, and a noted expert on the risks associated with nanomaterials,  the research indicates that this finding extends beyond magnetite to any airborne nanoscale particles—including those deliberately manufactured.

“The findings further support the possibility of these particles entering the brain via the olfactory nerve if inhaled.  In this respect, they are certainly relevant to our understanding of the possible risks presented by engineered nanomaterials—especially those that are iron-based and have magnetic properties,” said Maynard in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “However, ambient exposures to airborne nanoparticles will typically be much higher than those associated with engineered nanoparticles, simply because engineered nanoparticles will usually be manufactured and handled under conditions designed to avoid release and exposure.”

A Sept. 5, 2016 University of Lancaster press release made the research announcement,

Researchers at Lancaster University found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from 37 individuals aged three to 92-years-old who lived in Mexico City and Manchester. This strongly magnetic mineral is toxic and has been implicated in the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the human brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Barbara Maher, from Lancaster Environment Centre, and colleagues (from Oxford, Glasgow, Manchester and Mexico City) used spectroscopic analysis to identify the particles as magnetite. Unlike angular magnetite particles that are believed to form naturally within the brain, most of the observed particles were spherical, with diameters up to 150 nm, some with fused surfaces, all characteristic of high-temperature formation – such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines or open fires.

The spherical particles are often accompanied by nanoparticles containing other metals, such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt.

Professor Maher said: “The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

Other sources of magnetite nanoparticles include open fires and poorly sealed stoves within homes. Particles smaller than 200 nm are small enough to enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerve after breathing air pollution through the nose.

“Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,” added Professor Maher.

Leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

Damian Carrington’s Sept. 5, 2016 article for the Guardian provides a few more details,

“They [the troubling magnetite particles] are abundant,” she [Maher] said. “For every one of [the crystal shaped particles] we saw about 100 of the pollution particles. The thing about magnetite is it is everywhere.” An analysis of roadside air in Lancaster found 200m magnetite particles per cubic metre.

Other scientists told the Guardian the new work provided strong evidence that most of the magnetite in the brain samples come from air pollution but that the link to Alzheimer’s disease remained speculative.

For anyone who might be concerned about health risks, there’s this from Andrew Maynard’s comments in Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 8, 2016 posting,

“In most workplaces, exposure to intentionally made nanoparticles is likely be small compared to ambient nanoparticles, and so it’s reasonable to assume—at least without further data—that this isn’t a priority concern for engineered nanomaterial production,” said Maynard.

While deliberate nanoscale manufacturing may not carry much risk, Maynard does believe that the research raises serious questions about other manufacturing processes where exposure to high concentrations of airborne nanoscale iron particles is common—such as welding, gouging, or working with molten ore and steel.

It seems everyone is agreed that the findings are concerning but I think it might be good to remember that the percentage of people who develop Alzheimer’s Disease is much smaller than the population of people who have crystals in their brains. In other words, these crystals might (they don’t know) be a factor and likely there would have to be one or more factors to create the condition for developing Alzheimer’s.

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

Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain by Barbara A. Maher, Imad A. M. Ahmed, Vassil Karloukovski, Donald A. MacLaren, Penelope G. Fouldsd, David Allsop, David M. A. Mann, Ricardo Torres-Jardón, and Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605941113

This paper is behind a paywall but Dexter’s posting offers more detail for those who are still curious.

A couple of Frankenstein dares from The Frankenstein Bicentennial project

Drat! I’ve gotten the information about the first Frankenstein dare (a short story challenge) a little late in the game since the deadline is 11:59 pm PDT on July 31, 2016. In any event, here’s more about the two dares,

And for those who like their information in written form, here are the details from the Arizona State University’s (ASU) Frankenstein Bicentennial Dare (on The Franklin Bicentennial Project website),

Two centuries ago, on a dare to tell the best scary story, 19-year-old Mary Shelley imagined an idea that became the basis for Frankenstein. Mary’s original concept became the novel that arguably kick-started the genres of science fiction and Gothic horror, but also provided an enduring myth that shapes how we grapple with creativity, science, technology, and their consequences.
Two hundred years later, inspired by that classic dare, we’re challenging you to create new myths for the 21st century along with our partners National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Chabot Space and Science Center, and Creative Nonfiction magazine.

FRANKENSTEIN 200

Presented by NaNoWriMo and the Chabot Space and Science Center

Frankenstein is a classic of Gothic literature – a gripping, tragic story about Victor Frankenstein’s failure to accept responsibility for the consequences of bringing new life into the world. In this dare, we’re challenging you to write a scary story that explores the relationship between creators and the “monsters” they create.

Almost anything that we create can become monstrous: a misinterpreted piece of architecture; a song whose meaning has been misappropriated; a big, but misunderstood idea; or, of course, an actual creature. And in Frankenstein, Shelley teaches us that monstrous does not always mean evil – in fact, creators can prove to be more destructive and inhuman than the things they bring into being

Tell us your story in 1,000 – 1,800 words on Medium.com and use the hashtag #Frankenstein200. Read other #Frankenstein200 stories, and use the recommend button at the bottom of each post for the stories you like. Winners in the short fiction contest will receive personal feedback from Hugo and Sturgeon Award-winning science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeth Bear, as well as a curated selection of classic and contemporary science fiction books and  Frankenstein goodies, courtesy of the NaNoWriMo team.

Rules and Mechanics

  • There are no restrictions on content. Entry is limited to one submission per author. Submissions must be in English and between 1,000 to 1,800 words. You must follow all Medium Terms of Service, including the Rules.
  • All entries submitted and tagged as #Frankenstein200 and in compliance with the rules outlined here will be considered.
  • The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM on July 31, 2016.
  • Three winners will be selected at random on August 1, 2016.
  • Each winner receives the following prize package including:
  • Additionally, one of the three winners, chosen at random, will receive written coaching/feedback from Elizabeth Bear on his or her entry.
  • Select stories will be featured on Frankenscape, a public geo-storytelling project hosted by ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. Stories may also be featured in National Novel Writing Month communications and social media platforms.
  • U.S. residents only [emphasis mine]; void where prohibited by law. No purchase is necessary to enter or win.

Dangerous Creations: Real-life Frankenstein Stories

Presented by Creative Nonfiction magazine

Creative Nonfiction magazine is daring writers to write original and true stories that explore humans’ efforts to control and redirect nature, the evolving relationships between humanity and science/technology, and contemporary interpretations of monstrosity.

Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re open to a broad range of interpretations of the “Frankenstein” theme, with the understanding that all works submitted must tell true stories and be factually accurate. Above all, we’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice.

Creative Nonfiction editors and a judge (to be announced) will award $10,000 and publication for Best Essay and two $2,500 prizes and publication for runners-up. All essays submitted will be considered for publication in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine.

Deadline for submissions: March 20, 2017.
For complete guidelines: www.creativenonfiction.org/submissions

[Note: There is a submission fee for the nonfiction dare and no indication as to whether or not there are residency requirements.]

A July 27, 2016 email received from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (which is how I learned about the dares somewhat belatedly) has this about the first dare,

Planetary Design, Transhumanism, and Pork Products
Our #Frankenstein200 Contest Took Us in Some Unexpected Directions

Last month [June 2016], we partnered with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and The Chabot Space and Science Center to dare the world to create stories in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel’s conception.

We received a bevy of intriguing and sometimes frightening submissions that explore the complex relationships between creators and their “monsters.” Here are a few tales that caught our eye:

The Man Who Harnessed the Sun
By Sandra Knisely
Eliza has to choose between protecting the scientist who once gave her the world and punishing him for letting it all slip away. Read the story…

The Mortality Complex
By Brandon Miller
When the boogeyman of medical students reflects on life. Read the story…

Bacon Man
By Corey Pressman
A Frankenstein story in celebration of ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. And bacon. Read the story… 

You can find the stories that have been submitted to date for the creative short story dare at Medium.com.

Good luck! And, don’t forget to tag your short story with #Frankenstein200 and submit it by July 31, 2016 (if you are a US resident). There’s still lots of time to enter a submission for a creative nonfiction piece.

Nanoparticles in baby formula

Needle-like particles of hydroxyapatite found in infant formula by ASU researchers. Westerhoff and Schoepf/ASU, CC BY-ND

Needle-like particles of hydroxyapatite found in infant formula by ASU [Arizona State University] researchers. Westerhoff and Schoepf/ASU, CC BY-ND

Nanowerk is featuring an essay about hydroxyapatite nanoparticles in baby formula written by Dr. Andrew Maynard in a May 17, 2016 news item (Note: A link has been removed),

There’s a lot of stuff you’d expect to find in baby formula: proteins, carbs, vitamins, essential minerals. But parents probably wouldn’t anticipate finding extremely small, needle-like particles. Yet this is exactly what a team of scientists here at Arizona State University [ASU] recently discovered.

The research, commissioned and published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) – an environmental advocacy group – analyzed six commonly available off-the-shelf baby formulas (liquid and powder) and found nanometer-scale needle-like particles in three of them. The particles were made of hydroxyapatite – a poorly soluble calcium-rich mineral. Manufacturers use it to regulate acidity in some foods, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement.

Andrew’s May 17, 2016 essay first appeared on The Conversation website,

Looking at these particles at super-high magnification, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious about feeding them to a baby. They appear sharp and dangerous – not the sort of thing that has any place around infants. …

… questions like “should infants be ingesting them?” make a lot of sense. However, as is so often the case, the answers are not quite so straightforward.

Andrew begins by explaining about calcium and hydroxyapatite (from The Conversation),

Calcium is an essential part of a growing infant’s diet, and is a legally required component in formula. But not necessarily in the form of hydroxyapatite nanoparticles.

Hydroxyapatite is a tough, durable mineral. It’s naturally made in our bodies as an essential part of bones and teeth – it’s what makes them so strong. So it’s tempting to assume the substance is safe to eat. But just because our bones and teeth are made of the mineral doesn’t automatically make it safe to ingest outright.

The issue here is what the hydroxyapatite in formula might do before it’s digested, dissolved and reconstituted inside babies’ bodies. The size and shape of the particles ingested has a lot to do with how they behave within a living system.

He then discusses size and shape, which are important at the nanoscale,

Size and shape can make a difference between safe and unsafe when it comes to particles in our food. Small particles aren’t necessarily bad. But they can potentially get to parts of our body that larger ones can’t reach. Think through the gut wall, into the bloodstream, and into organs and cells. Ingested nanoscale particles may be able to interfere with cells – even beneficial gut microbes – in ways that larger particles don’t.

These possibilities don’t necessarily make nanoparticles harmful. Our bodies are pretty well adapted to handling naturally occurring nanoscale particles – you probably ate some last time you had burnt toast (carbon nanoparticles), or poorly washed vegetables (clay nanoparticles from the soil). And of course, how much of a material we’re exposed to is at least as important as how potentially hazardous it is.

Yet there’s a lot we still don’t know about the safety of intentionally engineered nanoparticles in food. Toxicologists have started paying close attention to such particles, just in case their tiny size makes them more harmful than otherwise expected.

Currently, hydroxyapatite is considered safe at the macroscale by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the agency has indicated that nanoscale versions of safe materials such as hydroxyapatite may not be safe food additives. From Andrew’s May 17, 2016 essay,

Hydroxyapatite is a tough, durable mineral. It’s naturally made in our bodies as an essential part of bones and teeth – it’s what makes them so strong. So it’s tempting to assume the substance is safe to eat. But just because our bones and teeth are made of the mineral doesn’t automatically make it safe to ingest outright.

The issue here is what the hydroxyapatite in formula might do before it’s digested, dissolved and reconstituted inside babies’ bodies. The size and shape of the particles ingested has a lot to do with how they behave within a living system. Size and shape can make a difference between safe and unsafe when it comes to particles in our food. Small particles aren’t necessarily bad. But they can potentially get to parts of our body that larger ones can’t reach. Think through the gut wall, into the bloodstream, and into organs and cells. Ingested nanoscale particles may be able to interfere with cells – even beneficial gut microbes – in ways that larger particles don’t.These possibilities don’t necessarily make nanoparticles harmful. Our bodies are pretty well adapted to handling naturally occurring nanoscale particles – you probably ate some last time you had burnt toast (carbon nanoparticles), or poorly washed vegetables (clay nanoparticles from the soil). And of course, how much of a material we’re exposed to is at least as important as how potentially hazardous it is.Yet there’s a lot we still don’t know about the safety of intentionally engineered nanoparticles in food. Toxicologists have started paying close attention to such particles, just in case their tiny size makes them more harmful than otherwise expected.

Putting particle size to one side for a moment, hydroxyapatite is classified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “Generally Regarded As Safe.” That means it considers the material safe for use in food products – at least in a non-nano form. However, the agency has raised concerns that nanoscale versions of food ingredients may not be as safe as their larger counterparts.Some manufacturers may be interested in the potential benefits of “nanosizing” – such as increasing the uptake of vitamins and minerals, or altering the physical, textural and sensory properties of foods. But because decreasing particle size may also affect product safety, the FDA indicates that intentionally nanosizing already regulated food ingredients could require regulatory reevaluation.In other words, even though non-nanoscale hydroxyapatite is “Generally Regarded As Safe,” according to the FDA, the safety of any nanoscale form of the substance would need to be reevaluated before being added to food products.Despite this size-safety relationship, the FDA confirmed to me that the agency is unaware of any food substance intentionally engineered at the nanoscale that has enough generally available safety data to determine it should be “Generally Regarded As Safe.”Casting further uncertainty on the use of nanoscale hydroxyapatite in food, a 2015 report from the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) suggests there may be some cause for concern when it comes to this particular nanomaterial.Prompted by the use of nanoscale hydroxyapatite in dental products to strengthen teeth (which they consider “cosmetic products”), the SCCS reviewed published research on the material’s potential to cause harm. Their conclusion?

The available information indicates that nano-hydroxyapatite in needle-shaped form is of concern in relation to potential toxicity. Therefore, needle-shaped nano-hydroxyapatite should not be used in cosmetic products.

This recommendation was based on a handful of studies, none of which involved exposing people to the substance. Researchers injected hydroxyapatite needles directly into the bloodstream of rats. Others exposed cells outside the body to the material and observed the effects. In each case, there were tantalizing hints that the small particles interfered in some way with normal biological functions. But the results were insufficient to indicate whether the effects were meaningful in people.

As Andrew also notes in his essay, none of the studies examined by the SCCS OEuropean Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety) looked at what happens to nano-hydroxyapatite once it enters your gut and that is what the researchers at Arizona State University were considering (from the May 17, 2016 essay),

The good news is that, according to preliminary studies from ASU researchers, hydroxyapatite needles don’t last long in the digestive system.

This research is still being reviewed for publication. But early indications are that as soon as the needle-like nanoparticles hit the highly acidic fluid in the stomach, they begin to dissolve. So fast in fact, that by the time they leave the stomach – an exceedingly hostile environment – they are no longer the nanoparticles they started out as.

These findings make sense since we know hydroxyapatite dissolves in acids, and small particles typically dissolve faster than larger ones. So maybe nanoscale hydroxyapatite needles in food are safer than they sound.

This doesn’t mean that the nano-needles are completely off the hook, as some of them may get past the stomach intact and reach more vulnerable parts of the gut. But the findings do suggest these ultra-small needle-like particles could be an effective source of dietary calcium – possibly more so than larger or less needle-like particles that may not dissolve as quickly.

Intriguingly, recent research has indicated that calcium phosphate nanoparticles form naturally in our stomachs and go on to be an important part of our immune system. It’s possible that rapidly dissolving hydroxyapatite nano-needles are actually a boon, providing raw material for these natural and essential nanoparticles.

While it’s comforting to know that preliminary research suggests that the hydroxyapatite nanoparticles are likely safe for use in food products, Andrew points out that more needs to be done to insure safety (from the May 17, 2016 essay),

And yet, even if these needle-like hydroxyapatite nanoparticles in infant formula are ultimately a good thing, the FoE report raises a number of unresolved questions. Did the manufacturers knowingly add the nanoparticles to their products? How are they and the FDA ensuring the products’ safety? Do consumers have a right to know when they’re feeding their babies nanoparticles?

Whether the manufacturers knowingly added these particles to their formula is not clear. At this point, it’s not even clear why they might have been added, as hydroxyapatite does not appear to be a substantial source of calcium in most formula. …

And regardless of the benefits and risks of nanoparticles in infant formula, parents have a right to know what’s in the products they’re feeding their children. In Europe, food ingredients must be legally labeled if they are nanoscale. In the U.S., there is no such requirement, leaving American parents to feel somewhat left in the dark by producers, the FDA and policy makers.

As far as I’m aware, the Canadian situation is much the same as the US. If the material is considered safe at the macroscale, there is no requirement to indicate that a nanoscale version of the material is in the product.

I encourage you to read Andrew’s essay in its entirety. As for the FoE report (Nanoparticles in baby formula: Tiny new ingredients are a big concern), that is here.

Frankenstein and Switzerland in 2016

The Frankenstein Bicentennial celebration is in process as various events and projects are now being launched. In a Nov. 12, 2015 posting I made mention of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018 at Arizona State University (ASU; scroll down about 15% of the way),

… the Transmedia Museum (Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018).  This project is being hosted by Arizona State University. From the project homepage,

No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes—such as the complex dynamic between creator and creation—continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Frankenstein continues to influence the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project will infuse science and engineering endeavors with considerations of ethics. It will use the power of storytelling and art to shape processes of innovation and empower public appraisal of techno-scientific research and creation. It will offer humanists and artists a new set of concerns around research, public policy, and the ramifications of exploration and invention. And it will inspire new scientific and technological advances inspired by Shelley’s exploration of our inspiring and terrifying ability to bring new life into the world. Frankenstein represents a landmark fusion of science, ethics, and literary expression.

The bicentennial provides an opportunity for vivid reflection on how science is culturally framed and understood by the public, as well as our ethical limitations and responsibility for nurturing the products of our creativity. It is also a moment to unveil new scientific and technological marvels, especially in the areas of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Engaging with Frankenstein allows scholars and educators, artists and writers, and the public at large to consider the history of scientific invention, reflect on contemporary research, and question the future of our technological society. Acting as a network hub for the bicentennial celebration, ASU will encourage and coordinate collaboration across institutions and among diverse groups worldwide.

2016 Frankenstein events

Now, there’s an exhibition in Switzerland where Frankenstein was ‘born’ according to a May 12, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who brings to life a cadaver and causes his own downfall, has for two centuries given voice to anxiety surrounding the unrelenting advance of science.

To mark the 200 years since England’s Mary Shelley first imagined the ultimate horror story during a visit to a frigid, rain-drenched Switzerland, an exhibit opens in Geneva Friday called “Frankenstein, Creation of Darkness”.

In the dimly-lit, expansive basement at the Martin Bodmer Foundation, a long row of glass cases holds 15 hand-written, yellowed pages from a notebook where Shelley in 1816 wrote the first version of what is considered a masterpiece of romantic literature.

The idea for her “miserable monster” came when at just 18 she and her future husband, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, went to a summer home—the Villa Diodati—rented by literary great Lord Byron on the outskirts of Geneva.

The current private owners of the picturesque manor overlooking Lake Geneva will also open their lush gardens to guided tours during the nearby exhibit which runs to October 9 [May 13 – Oct. 9, 2016].

While the spot today is lovely, with pink and purple lilacs spilling from the terraces and gravel walkways winding through rose-covered arches, in the summer of 1816 the atmosphere was more somber.

A massive eruption from the Tambora volcano in Indonesia wreaked havoc with the global climate that year, and a weather report for Geneva in June on display at the exhibit mentions “not a single leaf” had yet appeared on the oak trees.

To pass the time, poet Lord Byron challenged the band of literary bohemians gathered at the villa to each invent a ghost story, resulting in several famous pieces of writing.

English doctor and author John Polidori came up with the idea for “The Vampyre”, which was published three years later and is considered to have pioneered the romantic vampyre genre, including works like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

That book figures among a multitude of first editions at the Geneva exhibit, including three of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”—the most famous story to emerge from the competition.

Here’s a description of the exhibit, from the Martin Bodmer Foundation’s Frankenstein webpage,

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of this historically influential work of literature, the Martin Bodmer Foundation presents a major exhibition on the origins of Frankenstein, the perspectives it opens and the questions it raises.

A best seller since its first publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel continues to demand attention. The questions it raises remain at the heart of literary and philosophical concerns: the ethics of science, climate change, the technologisation of the human body, the unconscious, human otherness, the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed.

The exposition Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness recreates the beginnings of the novel in its first manuscript and printed forms, along with paintings and engravings that evoke the world of 1816. A variety of literary and scientific works are presented as sources of the novel’s ideas. While exploring the novel’s origins, the exhibition also evokes the social and scientific themes of the novel that remain important in our own day.

For what it’s worth, I have come across analyses which suggest science and technology may not have been the primary concern at the time. There are interpretations which suggest issues around childbirth (very dangerous until modern times) and fear of disfigurement and disfigured individuals. What makes Frankenstein and the book so fascinating is how flexible interpretations can be. (For more about Frankenstein and flexibility, read Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s 2009 book, Frankenstein: a cultural history.)

There’s one more upcoming Frankenstein event, from The Frankenstein Bicentennial announcement webpage,

On June 14 and 15, 2016, the Brocher Foundation, Arizona State University, Duke University, and the University of Lausanne will host “Frankenstein’s Shadow,” a symposium in Geneva, Switzerland to commemorate the origin of Frankenstein and assess its influence in different times and cultures, particularly its resonance in debates about public policy governing biotechnology and medicine. These dates place the symposium almost exactly 200 years after Mary Shelley initially conceived the idea for Frankenstein on June 16, 1816, and in almost exactly the same geographical location on the shores of Lake Geneva.

If you’re interested in details such as the programme schedule, there’s this PDF,

Frankenstein¹s_ShadowConference

Enjoy!

Not enough talk about nano risks?

It’s not often that a controversy amongst visual artists intersects with a story about carbon nanotubes, risk, and the roles that  scientists play in public discourse.

Nano risks

Dr. Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University, opens the discussion in a March 29, 2016 article for the appropriately named website, The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do.

As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made.

The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated.

I had covered the carbon nanotube-based coating in a March 14, 2016 posting here,

Surrey NanoSystems (UK) is billing their Vantablack as the world’s blackest coating and they now have a new product in that line according to a March 10, 2016 company press release (received via email),

A whole range of products can now take advantage of Vantablack’s astonishing characteristics, thanks to the development of a new spray version of the world’s blackest coating material. The new substance, Vantablack S-VIS, is easily applied at large scale to virtually any surface, whilst still delivering the proven performance of Vantablack.

Oddly, the company news release notes Vantablack S-VIS could be used in consumer products while including the recommendation that it not be used in products where physical contact or abrasion is possible,

… Its ability to deceive the eye also opens up a range of design possibilities to enhance styling and appearance in luxury goods and jewellery [emphasis mine].

… “We are continuing to develop the technology, and the new sprayable version really does open up the possibility of applying super-black coatings in many more types of airborne or terrestrial applications. Possibilities include commercial products such as cameras, [emphasis mine] equipment requiring improved performance in a smaller form factor, as well as differentiating the look of products by means of the coating’s unique aesthetic appearance. It’s a major step forward compared with today’s commercial absorber coatings.”

The structured surface of Vantablack S-VIS means that it is not recommended for applications where it is subject to physical contact or abrasion. [emphasis mine] Ideally, it should be applied to surfaces that are protected, either within a packaged product, or behind a glass or other protective layer.

Presumably Surrey NanoSystems is looking at ways to make its Vantablack S-VIS capable of being used in products such as jewellery, cameras, and other consumers products where physical contact and abrasions are a strong possibility.

Andrew has pointed questions about using Vantablack S-VIS in new applications (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),

The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly small. It wasn’t nontoxic, but the risk of exposure was minuscule.

In contrast, Vantablack S-VIS is designed to be used where people might touch it, inhale it, or even (unintentionally) ingest it.

To be clear, Vantablack S-VIS is not comparable to asbestos – the carbon nanotubes it relies on are too short, and too tightly bound together to behave like needle-like asbestos fibers. Yet its combination of novelty, low density and high surface area, together with the possibility of human exposure, still raise serious risk questions.

For instance, as an expert in nanomaterial safety, I would want to know how readily the spray – or bits of material dislodged from surfaces – can be inhaled or otherwise get into the body; what these particles look like; what is known about how their size, shape, surface area, porosity and chemistry affect their ability to damage cells; whether they can act as “Trojan horses” and carry more toxic materials into the body; and what is known about what happens when they get out into the environment.

Risk and the roles that scientists play

Andrew makes his point and holds various groups to account (from his March 29, 2016 article; Note: Links have been removed),

… in the case of Vantablack S-VIS, there’s been a conspicuous absence of such nanotechnology safety experts in media coverage.

This lack of engagement isn’t too surprising – publicly commenting on emerging topics is something we rarely train, or even encourage, our scientists to do.

And yet, where technologies are being commercialized at the same time their safety is being researched, there’s a need for clear lines of communication between scientists, users, journalists and other influencers. Otherwise, how else are people to know what questions they should be asking, and where the answers might lie?

In 2008, initiatives existed such as those at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (where I served as science advisor) that took this role seriously. These and similar programs worked closely with journalists and others to ensure an informed public dialogue around the safe, responsible and beneficial uses of nanotechnology.

In 2016, there are no comparable programs, to my knowledge – both CBEN and PEN came to the end of their funding some years ago.

Some of the onus here lies with scientists themselves to make appropriate connections with developers, consumers and others. But to do this, they need the support of the institutions they work in, as well as the organizations who fund them. This is not a new idea – there is of course a long and ongoing debate about how to ensure academic research can benefit ordinary people.

Media and risk

As mainstream media such as newspapers and broadcast news continue to suffer losses in audience numbers, the situation vis à vis science journalism has changed considerably since 2008. Finding information is more of a challenge even for the interested.

As for those who might be interested, the chances of catching their attention are considerably more challenging. For example, some years ago scientists claimed to have achieved ‘cold fusion’ and there were television interviews (on the 60 minutes tv programme, amongst others) and cover stories in Time magazine and Newsweek magazine, which you could find in the grocery checkout line. You didn’t have to look for it. In fact, it was difficult to avoid the story. Sadly, the scientists had oversold and misrepresented their findings and that too was extensively covered in mainstream media. The news cycle went on for months. Something similar happened in 2010 with ‘arsenic life’. There was much excitement and then it became clear that scientists had overstated and misrepresented their findings. That news cycle was completed within three or fewer weeks and most members of the public were unaware. Media saturation is no longer what it used to be.

Innovative outreach needs to be part of the discussion and perhaps the Vantablack S-VIS controversy amongst artists can be viewed through that lens.

Anish Kapoor and his exclusive rights to Vantablack

According to a Feb. 29, 2016 article by Henri Neuendorf for artnet news, there is some consternation regarding internationally known artist, Anish Kapoor and a deal he has made with Surrey Nanosystems, the makers of Vantablack in all its iterations (Note: Links have been removed),

Anish Kapoor provoked the fury of fellow artists by acquiring the exclusive rights to the blackest black in the world.

The Indian-born British artist has been working and experimenting with the “super black” paint since 2014 and has recently acquired exclusive rights to the pigment according to reports by the Daily Mail.

The artist clearly knows the value of this innovation for his work. “I’ve been working in this area for the last 30 years or so with all kinds of materials but conventional materials, and here’s one that does something completely different,” he said, adding “I’ve always been drawn to rather exotic materials.”

This description from his Wikipedia entry gives some idea of Kapoor’s stature (Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Anish Kapoor, CBE RA (Hindi: अनीश कपूर, Punjabi: ਅਨੀਸ਼ ਕਪੂਰ), (born 12 March 1954) is a British-Indian sculptor. Born in Bombay,[1][2] Kapoor has lived and worked in London since the early 1970s when he moved to study art, first at the Hornsey College of Art and later at the Chelsea School of Art and Design.

He represented Britain in the XLIV Venice Biennale in 1990, when he was awarded the Premio Duemila Prize. In 1991 he received the Turner Prize and in 2002 received the Unilever Commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Notable public sculptures include Cloud Gate (colloquially known as “the Bean”) in Chicago’s Millennium Park; Sky Mirror, exhibited at the Rockefeller Center in New York City in 2006 and Kensington Gardens in London in 2010;[3] Temenos, at Middlehaven, Middlesbrough; Leviathan,[4] at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011; and ArcelorMittal Orbit, commissioned as a permanent artwork for London’s Olympic Park and completed in 2012.[5]

Kapoor received a Knighthood in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to visual arts. He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Oxford in 2014.[6] [7] In 2012 he was awarded Padma Bhushan by Congress led Indian government which is India’s 3rd highest civilian award.[8]

Artists can be cutthroat but they can also be prankish. Take a look at this image of Kapoor and note the blue background,

Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. (Image: Andrew Winning/Reuters)

Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. (Image: Andrew Winning/Reuters)

I don’t know why or when this image (used to illustrate Andrew’s essay) was taken so it may be coincidental but the background for the image brings to mind, Yves Klein and his International Klein Blue (IKB) pigment. From the IKB Wikipedia entry,

L'accord bleu (RE 10), 1960, mixed media piece by Yves Klein featuring IKB pigment on canvas and sponges Jaredzimmerman (WMF) - Foundation Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Collection

L’accord bleu (RE 10), 1960, mixed media piece by Yves Klein featuring IKB pigment on canvas and sponges Jaredzimmerman (WMF) – Foundation Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Collection

Here’s more from the IKB Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

International Klein Blue (IKB) was developed by Yves Klein in collaboration with Edouard Adam, a Parisian art paint supplier whose shop is still in business on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Montparnasse.[1] The uniqueness of IKB does not derive from the ultramarine pigment, but rather from the matte, synthetic resin binder in which the color is suspended, and which allows the pigment to maintain as much of its original qualities and intensity of color as possible.[citation needed] The synthetic resin used in the binder is a polyvinyl acetate developed and marketed at the time under the name Rhodopas M or M60A by the French pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc.[2] Adam still sells the binder under the name “Médium Adam 25.”[1]

In May 1960, Klein deposited a Soleau envelope, registering the paint formula under the name International Klein Blue (IKB) at the Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI),[3] but he never patented IKB. Only valid under French law, a soleau enveloppe registers the date of invention, according to the depositor, prior to any legal patent application. The copy held by the INPI was destroyed in 1965. Klein’s own copy, which the INPI returned to him duly stamped is still extant.[4]

In short, it’s not the first time an artist has ‘owned’ a colour. Kapoor is not a performance artist as was Klein but his sculptural work lends itself to spectacle and to stimulating public discourse. As to whether or not, this is a prank, I cannot say but it has stimulated a discourse which ranges from intellectual property and artists to the risks of carbon nanotubes and the role scientists could play in the discourse about the risks associated with emerging technologies.

Regardless of how is was intended, bravo to Kapoor.

More reading

Andrew’s March 29, 2016 article has also been reproduced on Nanowerk and Slate.

Johathan Jones has written about Kapoor and the Vantablack  controversy in a Feb. 29, 2016 article for The Guardian titled: Can an artist ever really own a colour?

NISE Net, the acronym remains the same but the name changes

NISE Net, the US Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network is winding down the nano and refocussing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In short, NISE Net will now stand for National Informal STEM Education Network. Here’s more from the Jan. 7, 2016 NISE Net announcement in the January 2016 issue of the Nano Bite,

COMMUNITY NEWS

NISE Network is Transitioning to the National Informal STEM Education Network

Thank you for all the great work you have done over the past decade. It has opened up totally new possibilities for the decade ahead.

We are excited to let you know that with the completion of NSF funding for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, and the soon-to-be-announced NASA [US National Aeronautics and Space Administration]-funded Space and Earth Informal STEM Education project, the NISE Network is transitioning to a new, ongoing identity as the National Informal STEM Education Network! While we’ll still be known as the NISE Net, network partners will now engage audiences across the United States in a range of STEM topics. Several new projects are already underway and others are in discussion for the future.

Current NISE Net projects include:

  • The original Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), focusing on nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science, Boston)
  • Building with Biology, focusing on synthetic biology (funded by NSF and led by the Museum of Science with AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science], BioBuilder, and SynBerc [emphases mine])
  • Sustainability in Science Museums (funded by Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives and led by Arizona State University)
  • Transmedia Museum, focusing on science and society issues raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (funded by NSF and led by Arizona State University)
  • Space and Earth Informal STEM Education (funded by NASA and led by the Science Museum of Minnesota)

The “new” NISE Net will be led by the Science Museum of Minnesota in collaboration with the Museum of Science and Arizona State University. Network leadership, infrastructure, and participating organizations will include existing Network partners, and others attracted to the new topics. We will be in touch through the newsletter, blog, and website in the coming months to share more about our plans for the Network and its projects.

In the mean time, work is continuing with partners within the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network throughout 2016, with an award end date of February 28, 2017. Although there will not be a new NanoDays 2016 kit, we encourage our partners to continue to engage audiences in nano by hosting NanoDays events in 2016 (March 26 – April 3) and in the years ahead using their existing kit materials. The Network will continue to host and update nisenet.org and the online catalog that includes 627 products of which 366 are NISE Net products (public and professional), 261 are Linked products, and 55 are Evaluation and Research reports. The Evaluation and Research team is continuing to work on final Network reports, and the Museum and Community Partnerships project has awarded 100 Explore Science physical kits to partners to create new or expanded collaborations with local community organizations to reach new underserved audiences not currently engaged in nano. These collaborative projects are taking place spring-summer 2016.

Thank you again for making this possible through your great work.

Best regards,

Larry Bell, Museum of Science
Paul Martin, Science Museum of Minnesota and
Rae Ostman, Arizona State University

As noted in previous posts, I’m quite interested in the synthetic biology focus the network has established in the last several months starting in late Spring 2015 and the mention of two (new-to-me) organizations, BioBuilder and Synberc piqued my interest.

I found this on the About the foundation page of the BioBuilder website,

What’s the best way to solve today’s health problems? Or hunger challenges? Address climate change concerns? Or keep the environment cleaner? These are big questions. And everyone can be part of the solutions. Everyone. Middle school students, teens, high school teachers.

At BioBuilder, we teach problem solving.
We bring current science to the classroom.
We engage our students to become real scientists — the problem solvers who will change the world.
At BioBuilder, we empower educators to be agents of educational reform by reconnecting teachers all across the country with their love of teaching and their own love of learning.

Synthetic biology programs living cells to tackle today’s challenges. Biofuels, safer foods, anti-malarial drugs, less toxic cancer treatment, biodegradable adhesives — all fuel young students’ imaginations. At BioBuilder, we empower students to tackle these big questions. BioBuilder’s curricula and teacher training capitalize on students’ need to know, to explore and to be part of solving real world problems. Developed by an award winning team out of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], BioBuilder is taught in schools across the country and supported by thought leaders in the STEM community.

BioBuilder proves that learning by doing works. And inspires.

As for Synberc, it is the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and they has this to say about themselves on their About us page (Note: Links have been removed),

Synberc is a multi-university research center established in 2006 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lay the foundation for synthetic biology Our mission is threefold:

develop the foundational understanding and technologies to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish many particular tasks;
train a new cadre of engineers who will specialize in engineering biology; and
engage the public about the opportunities and challenges of engineering biology.

Just as electrical engineers have made it possible for us to assemble computers from standardized parts (hard drives, memory cards, motherboards, and so on), we envision a day when biological engineers will be able to systematically assemble biological components such as sensors, signals, pathways, and logic gates in order to build bio-based systems that solve real-world problems in health, energy, and the environment.

In our work, we apply engineering principles to biology to develop tools that improve how fast — and how well — we can go through the design-test-build cycle. These include smart fermentation organisms that can sense their environment and adjust accordingly, and multiplex automated genome engineering, or MAGE, designed for large-scale programming and evolution of cells. We also pursue the discovery of applications that can lead to significant public benefit, such as synthetic artemisinin [emphasis mine], an anti-malaria drug that costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment.

The reference to ‘synthetic artemisinin’ caught my eye as I wrote an April 12, 2013 posting featuring this “… anti-malaria drug …” and the claim that the synthetic “… costs less and is more effective than the current plant-derived treatment” wasn’t quite the conclusion journalist, Brendan Borrell arrived at. Perhaps there’s been new research? If so, please let me know.