Tag Archives: Canada

Untangling carbon nanotubes at McMaster University (Canada)

Carbon nanotubes can be wiggly, entangled things (more about McMaster in a bit) as Dr. Andrew Maynard notes in this video (part of his Risk Bites video series) describing carbon nanotubes, their ‘infinite’ variety, and risks,

Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University have found a way to untangle carbon nanotubes according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Imagine an electronic newspaper that you could roll up and spill your coffee on, even as it updated itself before your eyes.

It’s an example of the technological revolution that has been waiting to happen, except for one major problem that, until now, scientists have not been able to resolve.

Researchers at McMaster University have cleared that obstacle by developing a new way to purify carbon nanotubes – the smaller, nimbler semiconductors that are expected to replace silicon within computer chips and a wide array of electronics (Chemistry – A European Journal, “Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes”).

“Once we have a reliable source of pure nanotubes that are not very expensive, a lot can happen very quickly,” says Alex Adronov, a professor of Chemistry at McMaster whose research team has developed a new and potentially cost-efficient way to purify carbon nanotubes.

The researchers have provided a gorgeous image,

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster

Artistic rendition of a metallic carbon nanotube being pulled into solution, in analogy to the work described by the Adronov group. Image: Alex Adronov McMaster University

An Aug. 15, 2016 McMaster University news release, which originated the news item, provides a beginner’s introduction to carbon nanotubes and describes the purification process that will make production of carbon nanotubes easier,

Carbon nanotubes – hair-like structures that are one billionth of a metre in diameter but thousands of times longer ­– are tiny, flexible conductive nano-scale materials, expected to revolutionize computers and electronics by replacing much larger silicon-based chips.

A major problem standing in the way of the new technology, however, has been untangling metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes, since both are created simultaneously in the process of producing the microscopic structures, which typically involves heating carbon-based gases to a point where mixed clusters of nanotubes form spontaneously as black soot.

Only pure semiconducting or metallic carbon nanotubes are effective in device applications, but efficiently isolating them has proven to be a challenging problem to overcome. Even when the nanotube soot is ground down, semiconducting and metallic nanotubes are knotted together within each grain of powder. Both components are valuable, but only when separated.

Researchers around the world have spent years trying to find effective and efficient ways to isolate carbon nanotubes and unleash their value.

While previous researchers had created polymers that could allow semiconducting carbon nanotubes to be dissolved and washed away, leaving metallic nanotubes behind, there was no such process for doing the opposite: dispersing the metallic nanotubes and leaving behind the semiconducting structures.

Now, Adronov’s research group has managed to reverse the electronic characteristics of a polymer known to disperse semiconducting nanotubes – while leaving the rest of the polymer’s structure intact. By so doing, they have reversed the process, leaving the semiconducting nanotubes behind while making it possible to disperse the metallic nanotubes.

The researchers worked closely with experts and equipment from McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering and the Canada Centre for Electron Microscopy, located on the university’s campus.

“There aren’t many places in the world where you can do this type of interdisciplinary work,” Adronov says.

The next step, he explains, is for his team or other researchers to exploit the discovery by finding a way to develop even more efficient polymers and scale up the process for commercial production.

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

Influence of Polymer Electronics on Selective Dispersion of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Daryl Fon, William J. Bodnaryk, Dr. Nicole A. Rice, Sokunthearath Saem, Prof. Jose M. Moran-Mirabal, Prof. Alex Adronov. Chemistry A European Journal DOI: 10.1002/chem.201603553 First published: 16 August 2016

This paper appears to be open access.

Dear Kennedy Stewart (Canadian Member of Parliament), About your petition for a national science strategy …

Dear Kennedy, I very much appreciate all your efforts to bring the science conversation into the national  discourse. Also the idea of a national science strategy is appealing to me but I find your petition for such a little puzzling.

Here’s what I mean (points 2 and 4),

THEREFORE we call on the Government of Canada to
implement a National Science Strategy that:

1) Creates an independent Parliamentary Science Officer;
2) Creates a new Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister [in Science Minister Kirsty Duncan’s ministerial mandate letter from the Prime Minister {see my Nov.17, 2015 posting}, this position is given top priority but there has been no announcement to date; she has discussed how her process for developing this position and an announcement is expected in the near future {I hope}];
3) Brings in comprehensive ethics legislation to end the muzzling of scientists;
4) Restores the mandatory long-form census [this was restored according to a Nov. 5, 2015 article by Bruce Campion-Smith for the Toronto Star];
5) Re-establishes scientific capacity in key federal departments;
6) Strengthens the independence of the federal granting councils;
7) Maintains support for Canada’s universities and colleges;
8) Provides new funding for post-secondary researchers over five years;
9) Ensures a balanced approach to federal science & technology policy;
10) Makes government data open and publicly-available by default.

Do you know something I don’t? Please let me know. Otherwise, the petition seems odd given that I received your request via email on Aug. 11, 2016,

My team is collecting signatures right now for 4 major petition campaigns.

Whether it’s tackling BC’s affordable housing crisis, stopping the new Kinder Morgan pipeline, or bringing gender parity to Canadian democracy, we’re working towards progressive change that makes a real difference in people’s lives.

You can download copies of each petition at the links below:

Signed petitions can be mailed postage-free to my Parliament Hill office:

I wish you good luck with your efforts but before signing this petition I would like to know more and/or see an updated version.

A selection of science songs for summer

Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) has compiled a list of science songs and it includes a few Canadian surprises. Here’s more from the July 21, 2016 PI notice received via email.

Ah, summer.

School’s out, the outdoors beckon, and with every passing second a 4.5-billion-year-old nuclear fireball fuses 620 million tons of hydrogen so brightly you’ve gotta wear shades.

Who says you have to stop learning science over the summer?

All you need is the right soundtrack to your next road trip, backyard barbeque, or day at the beach.

Did we miss your favourite science song? Tweet us @Perimeter with the hashtag #SciencePlaylist.

You can find the list and accompanying videos on The Ultimate Science Playlist webpage on the PI website. Here are a few samples,

“History of Everything” – Barenaked Ladies (The Big Bang Theory theme)

You probably know this one as the theme song of The Big Bang Theory. But here’s something you might not know. The tune began as an improvised ditty Barenaked Ladies’ singer Ed Robertson performed one night in Los Angeles after reading Simon Singh’s book Big Bang: The Most Important Scientific Discovery of All Time and Why You Need to Know About It. Lo and behold, in the audience that night were Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, creators of The Big Bang Theory. The rest is history (of everything).

“Bohemian Gravity” – A Capella Science (Tim Blais)

Tim Blais, the one-man choir behind A Capella Science, is a master at conveying complex science in fun musical parodies. “Bohemian Gravity” is his most famous, but be sure to also check out our collaboration with him about gravitational waves, “LIGO: Feel That Space.”

“NaCl” – Kate and Anna McGarrigle

“NaCl” is a romantic tale of the courtship of a chlorine atom and a sodium atom, who marry and become sodium chloride. “Think of the love you eat,” sings Kate McGarrigle, “when you salt your meat.”

This is just a sampling. At this point, there are 15 science songs on the webpage. Surprisingly, rap is not represented. One other note, you’ll notice all of my samples are Canadian. (Sadly, I had other videos as well but every time I saved a draft I lost at least half or more. It seems the maximum allowed to me is three.).

Here are the others I wanted to include:

“Mandelbrot Set” – Jonathan Coulton

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton (JoCo, to fans) is arguably the patron saint of geek-pop, having penned the uber-catchy credits songs of the Portal games, as well as this loving tribute to a particular set of complex numbers that has a highly convoluted fractal boundary when plotted.

“Higgs Boson Sonification” – Traq 

CERN physicist Piotr Traczyk (a.k.a. Traq) “sonified” data from the experiment that uncovered the Higgs boson, turning the discovery into a high-energy metal riff.

“Why Does the Sun Shine?” – They Might Be Giants

Choosing just one song for this playlist by They Might Be Giants is a tricky task, since They Definitely Are Nerdy. But this one celebrates physics, chemistry, and astronomy while also being absurdly catchy, so it made the list. Honourable mention goes to their entire album for kids, Here Comes Science.

In any event, the PI list is a great introduction to science songs and The Ultimate Science Playlist includes embedded videos for all 15 of the songs selected so far. Happy Summer!

DNA as a sensor

McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) researchers have developed a technique for using DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as a sensor according to a July 7, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at McMaster University have established a way to harness DNA as the engine of a microscopic “machine” they can turn on to detect trace amounts of substances that range from viruses and bacteria to cocaine and metals.

“It’s a completely new platform that can be adapted to many kinds of uses,” says John Brennan, director of McMaster’s Biointerfaces Insitute and co-author of a paper in the journal Nature Communications that describes the technology. “These DNA nano-architectures are adaptable, so that any target should be detectable.”

A July 7, 2016 McMaster University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

DNA is best known as a genetic material, but is also a very programmable molecule that lends itself to engineering for synthetic applications.

The new method shapes separately programmed pieces of DNA material into pairs of interlocking circles.

The first remains inactive until it is released by the second, like a bicycle wheel in a lock. When the second circle, acting as the lock, is exposed to even a trace of the target substance, it opens, freeing the first circle of DNA, which replicates quickly and creates a signal, such as a colour change.

“The key is that it’s selectively triggered by whatever we want to detect,” says Brennan, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioanalytical Chemistry and Biointerfaces. “We have essentially taken a piece of DNA and forced it to do something it was never designed to do. We can design the lock to be specific to a certain key. All the parts are made of DNA, and ultimately that key is defined by how we build it.”

The idea for the “DNA nanomachine” comes from nature itself, explains co-author Yingfu Li, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nucleic Acids Research.

“Biology uses all kinds of nanoscale molecular machines to achieve important functions in cells,” Li says. “For the first time, we have designed a DNA-based nano-machine that is capable of achieving ultra-sensitive detection of a bacterial pathogen.”

The DNA-based nanomachine is being further developed into a user-friendly detection kit that will enable rapid testing of a variety of substances, and could move to clinical testing within a year.

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

Programming a topologically constrained DNA nanostructure into a sensor by Meng Liu, Qiang Zhang, Zhongping Li, Jimmy Gu, John D. Brennan, & Yingfu Li. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12074  doi:10.1038/ncomms12074 Published 23 June 2016

This paper is open access.

D-PLACE: an open access database of places, language, culture, and enviroment

In an attempt to be a bit more broad in my interpretation of the ‘society’ part of my commentary I’m including this July 8, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of researchers has developed a website at d-place.org to help answer long-standing questions about the forces that shaped human cultural diversity.

D-PLACE — the Database of Places, Language, Culture and Environment — is an expandable, open access database that brings together a dispersed body of information on the language, geography, culture and environment of more than 1,400 human societies. It comprises information mainly on pre-industrial societies that were described by ethnographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A July 8, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Human cultural diversity is expressed in numerous ways: from the foods we eat and the houses we build, to our religious practices and political organisation, to who we marry and the types of games we teach our children,” said Kathryn Kirby, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Geography at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “Cultural practices vary across space and time, but the factors and processes that drive cultural change and shape patterns of diversity remain largely unknown.

“D-PLACE will enable a whole new generation of scholars to answer these long-standing questions about the forces that have shaped human cultural diversity.”

Co-author Fiona Jordan, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Bristol and one of the project leads said, “Comparative research is critical for understanding the processes behind cultural diversity. Over a century of anthropological research around the globe has given us a rich resource for understanding the diversity of humanity – but bringing different resources and datasets together has been a huge challenge in the past.

“We’ve drawn on the emerging big data sets from ecology, and combined these with cultural and linguistic data so researchers can visualise diversity at a glance, and download data to analyse in their own projects.”

D-PLACE allows users to search by cultural practice (e.g., monogamy vs. polygamy), environmental variable (e.g. elevation, mean annual temperature), language family (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian), or region (e.g. Siberia). The search results can be displayed on a map, a language tree or in a table, and can also be downloaded for further analysis.

It aims to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions.

D-PLACE was developed by an international team of scientists interested in cross-cultural research. It includes researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human history in Jena Germany, University of Auckland, Colorado State University, University of Toronto, University of Bristol, Yale, Human Relations Area Files, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, American Museum of Natural History, and City University of New York.

The diverse team included: linguists; anthropologists; biogeographers; data scientists; ethnobiologists; and evolutionary ecologists, who employ a variety of research methods including field-based primary data collection; compilation of cross-cultural data sources; and analyses of existing cross-cultural datasets.

“The team’s diversity is reflected in D-PLACE, which is designed to appeal to a broad user base,” said Kirby. “Envisioned users range from members of the public world-wide interested in comparing their cultural practices with those of other groups, to cross-cultural researchers interested in pushing the boundaries of existing research into the drivers of cultural change.”

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

D-PLACE: A Global Database of Cultural, Linguistic and Environmental Diversity by Kathryn R. Kirby, Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Fiona M. Jordan, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Damián E. Blasi, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Dan Leehr, Bobbi S. Low, Joe McCarter, William Divale, Michael C. Gavin.  PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0158391 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0158391 Published July 8, 2016.

This paper is open access.

You can find D-PLACE here.

While it might not seem like that there would be a close link between anthropology and physics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that information can be mined for more contemporary applications. For example, someone who wants to make a case for a more diverse scientific community may want to develop a social science approach to the discussion. The situation in my June 16, 2016 post titled: Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons, could  be extended into a discussion and educational process using data from D-Place and other sources to make the point,

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

More generally, with D-PLACE and the recently announced Trans-Atlantic Platform (see my July 15, 2016 post about it), it seems Canada’s humanities and social sciences communities are taking strides toward greater international collaboration and a more profound investment in digital scholarship.

Trans-Atlantic Platform (T-AP) is a unique collaboration of humanities and social science researchers from Europe and the Americas

Launched in 2013, the Trans-Atlantic Platform is co-chaired by Dr.Ted Hewitt, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) , and Dr. Renée van Kessel-Hagesteijn, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research—Social Sciences (NWO—Social Sciences).

An EU (European Union) publication, International Innovation features an interview about T-AP with Ted Hewitt in a June 30, 2016 posting,

The Trans-Atlantic Platform is a unique collaboration of humanities and social science funders from Europe and the Americas. International Innovation’s Rebecca Torr speaks with Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and Co-Chair of T-AP to understand more about the Platform and its pilot funding programme, Digging into Data.

Many commentators have called for better integration between natural and social scientists, to ensure that the societal benefits of STEM research are fully realised. Does the integration of diverse scientific disciplines form part of T-AP’s remit, and if so, how are you working to achieve this?

T-AP was designed primarily to promote and facilitate research across SSH. However, given the Platform’s thematic priorities and the funding opportunities being contemplated, we anticipate that a good number of non-SSH [emphasis mine] researchers will be involved.

As an example, on March 1, T-AP launched its first pilot funding opportunity: the T-AP Digging into Data Challenge. One of the sponsors is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Canada’s federal funding agency for research in the natural sciences and engineering. Their involvement ensures that the perspective of the natural sciences is included in the challenge. The Digging into Data Challenge is open to any project that addresses research questions in the SSH by using large-scale digital data analysis techniques, and is then able to show how these techniques can lead to new insights. And the challenge specifically aims to advance multidisciplinary collaborative projects.

When you tackle a research question or undertake research to address a social challenge, you need collaboration between various SSH disciplines or between SSH and STEM disciplines. So, while proposals must address SSH research questions, the individual teams often involve STEM researchers, such as computer scientists.

In previous rounds of the Digging into Data Challenge, this has led to invaluable research. One project looked at how the media shaped public opinion around the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Another used CT scans to examine hundreds of mummies, ultimately discovering that atherosclerosis, a form of heart disease, was prevalent 4,000 years ago. In both cases, these multidisciplinary historical research projects have helped inform our thinking of the present.

Of course, Digging into Data isn’t the only research area in which T-AP will be involved. Since its inception, T-AP partners have identified three priority areas beyond digital scholarship: diversity, inequality and difference; resilient and innovative societies; and transformative research on the environment. Each of these areas touches on a variety of SSH fields, while the transformative research on the environment area has strong connections with STEM fields. In September 2015, T-AP organised a workshop around this third priority area; environmental science researchers were among the workshop participants.

I wish Hewitt hadn’t described researchers from disciplines other than the humanities and social sciences as “non-SSH.” The designation divides the world in two: us and non-take your pick: non-Catholic/Muslim/American/STEM/SSH/etc.

Getting back to the interview, it is surprisingly Canuck-centric in places,

How does T-AP fit in with Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s priorities?

One of the objectives in SSHRC’s new strategic plan is to develop partnerships that enable us to expand the reach of our funding. As T-AP provides SSHRC with links to 16 agencies across Europe and the Americas, it is an efficient mechanism for us to broaden the scope of our support and promotion of post-secondary-based research and training in SSH.

It also provides an opportunity to explore cutting edge areas of research, such as big data (as we did with the first call we put out, Digging into Data). The research enterprise is becoming increasingly international, by which I mean that researchers are working on issues with international dimensions or collaborating in international teams. In this globalised environment, SSHRC must partner with international funders to support research excellence. By developing international funding opportunities, T-AP helps researchers create teams better positioned to tackle the most exciting and promising research topics.

Finally, it is a highly effective way of broadly promoting the value of SSH research throughout Canada and around the globe. There are significant costs and complexities involved in international research, and uncoordinated funding from multiple national funders can actually create barriers to collaboration. A platform like T-AP helps funders coordinate and streamline processes.

The interview gets a little more international scope when it turns to the data project,

What is the significance of your pilot funding programme in digital scholarship and what types of projects will it support?

The T-AP Digging into Data Challenge is significant for several reasons. First, the geographic reach of Digging is truly significant. With 16 participants from 11 countries, this round of Digging has significantly broader participation from previous rounds. This is also the first time Digging into Data includes funders from South America.

The T-AP Digging into Data Challenge is open to any research project that addresses questions in SSH. In terms of what those projects will end up being is anybody’s guess – projects from past competitions have involved fields ranging from musicology to anthropology to political science.

The Challenge’s main focus is, of course, the use of big data in research.

You may want to read the interview in its entirety here.

I have checked out the Trans-Atlantic Platform website but cannot determine how someone or some institution might consult that site for information on how to get involved in their projects or get funding. However, there is a T-AP Digging into Data website where there is evidence of the first international call for funding submissions. Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 call has passed if the website is to be believed (sometimes people are late when changing deadline dates).

Deep learning and some history from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

A June 27, 2016 news item on phys.org provides a measured analysis of deep learning and its current state of development (from a Swiss perspective),

In March 2016, the world Go champion Lee Sedol lost 1-4 against the artificial intelligence AlphaGo. For many, this was yet another defeat for humanity at the hands of the machines. Indeed, the success of the AlphaGo software was forged in an area of artificial intelligence that has seen huge progress over the last decade. Deep learning, as it’s called, uses artificial neural networks to process algorithmic calculations. This software architecture therefore mimics biological neural networks.

Much of the progress in deep learning is thanks to the work of Jürgen Schmidhuber, director of the IDSIA (Istituto Dalle Molle di Studi sull’Intelligenza Artificiale) which is located in the suburbs of Lugano. The IDSIA doctoral student Shane Legg and a group of former colleagues went on to found DeepMind, the startup acquired by Google in early 2014 for USD 500 million. The DeepMind algorithms eventually wound up in AlphaGo.

“Schmidhuber is one of the best at deep learning,” says Boi Faltings of the EPFL Artificial Intelligence Lab. “He never let go of the need to keep working at it.” According to Stéphane Marchand-Maillet of the University of Geneva computing department, “he’s been in the race since the very beginning.”

A June 27, 2016 SNSF news release (first published as a story in Horizons no. 109 June 2016) by Fabien Goubet, which originated the news item, goes on to provide a brief history,

The real strength of deep learning is structural recognition, and winning at Go is just an illustration of this, albeit a rather resounding one. Elsewhere, and for some years now, we have seen it applied to an entire spectrum of areas, such as visual and vocal recognition, online translation tools and smartphone personal assistants. One underlying principle of machine learning is that algorithms must first be trained using copious examples. Naturally, this has been helped by the deluge of user-generated content spawned by smartphones and web 2.0, stretching from Facebook photo comments to official translations published on the Internet. By feeding a machine thousands of accurately tagged images of cats, for example, it learns first to recognise those cats and later any image of a cat, including those it hasn’t been fed.

Deep learning isn’t new; it just needed modern computers to come of age. As far back as the early 1950s, biologists tried to lay out formal principles to explain the working of the brain’s cells. In 1956, the psychologist Frank Rosenblatt of the New York State Aeronautical Laboratory published a numerical model based on these concepts, thereby creating the very first artificial neural network. Once integrated into a calculator, it learned to recognise rudimentary images.

“This network only contained eight neurones organised in a single layer. It could only recognise simple characters”, says Claude Touzet of the Adaptive and Integrative Neuroscience Laboratory of Aix-Marseille University. “It wasn’t until 1985 that we saw the second generation of artificial neural networks featuring multiple layers and much greater performance”. This breakthrough was made simultaneously by three researchers: Yann LeCun in Paris, Geoffrey Hinton in Toronto and Terrence Sejnowski in Baltimore.

Byte-size learning

In multilayer networks, each layer learns to recognise the precise visual characteristics of a shape. The deeper the layer, the more abstract the characteristics. With cat photos, the first layer analyses pixel colour, and the following layer recognises the general form of the cat. This structural design can support calculations being made upon thousands of layers, and it was this aspect of the architecture that gave rise to the name ‘deep learning’.

Marchand-Maillet explains: “Each artificial neurone is assigned an input value, which it computes using a mathematical function, only firing if the output exceeds a pre-defined threshold”. In this way, it reproduces the behaviour of real neurones, which only fire and transmit information when the input signal (the potential difference across the entire neural circuit) reaches a certain level. In the artificial model, the results of a single layer are weighted, added up and then sent as the input signal to the following layer, which processes that input using different functions, and so on and so forth.

For example, if a system is trained with great quantities of photos of apples and watermelons, it will progressively learn to distinguish them on the basis of diameter, says Marchand-Maillet. If it cannot decide (e.g., when processing a picture of a tiny watermelon), the subsequent layers take over by analysing the colours or textures of the fruit in the photo, and so on. In this way, every step in the process further refines the assessment.

Video games to the rescue

For decades, the frontier of computing held back more complex applications, even at the cutting edge. Industry walked away, and deep learning only survived thanks to the video games sector, which eventually began producing graphics chips, or GPUs, with an unprecedented power at accessible prices: up to 6 teraflops (i.e., 6 trillion calculations per second) for a few hundred dollars. “There’s no doubt that it was this calculating power that laid the ground for the quantum leap in deep learning”, says Touzet. GPUs are also very good at parallel calculations, a useful function for executing the innumerable simultaneous operations required by neural networks.
Although image analysis is getting great results, things are more complicated for sequential data objects such as natural spoken language and video footage. This has formed part of Schmidhuber’s work since 1989, and his response has been to develop recurrent neural networks in which neurones communicate with each other in loops, feeding processed data back into the initial layers.

Such sequential data analysis is highly dependent on context and precursory data. In Lugano, networks have been instructed to memorise the order of a chain of events. Long Short Term Memory (LSTM) networks can distinguish ‘boat’ from ‘float’ by recalling the sound that preceded ‘oat’ (i.e., either ‘b’ or ‘fl’). “Recurrent neural networks are more powerful than other approaches such as the Hidden Markov models”, says Schmidhuber, who also notes that Google Voice integrated LSTMs in 2015. “With looped networks, the number of layers is potentially infinite”, says Faltings [?].

For Schmidhuber, deep learning is just one aspect of artificial intelligence; the real thing will lead to “the most important change in the history of our civilisation”. But Marchand-Maillet sees deep learning as “a bit of hype, leading us to believe that artificial intelligence can learn anything provided there’s data. But it’s still an open question as to whether deep learning can really be applied to every last domain”.

It’s nice to get an historical perspective and eye-opening to realize that scientists have been working on these concepts since the 1950s.

Dear Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Science, Innovation and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains: a Happy Canada Day! open letter

Dear Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Minister of Science, Innovation and Economic Development Navdeep Bains,

Thank you both. It’s been heartening to note some of the moves you’ve made since entering office. Taking the muzzles off Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada scientists was a big relief and it was wonderful to hear that the mandatory longform census was reinstated along with the Experimental Lakes Area programme. (Btw, I can’t be the only one who’s looking forward to hearing the news once Canada’s Chief Science Officer is appointed. In the fall, eh?)

Changing the National Science and Technology week by giving it a news name “Science Odyssey” and rescheduling it from the fall to the spring seems to have revitalized the effort. Then, there was the news about a review focused on fundamental science (see my June 16, 2016 post). It seems as if the floodgates have opened or at least communication about what’s going on has become much freer. Brava and Bravo!

The recently announced (June 29, 2016) third assessment on the State of S&T (Science and Technology) and IR&D (Industrial Research and Development; my July 1, 2016 post features the announcement) by the Council of Canadian Academies adds to the impression that you both have adopted a dizzying pace for science of all kinds in Canada.

With the initiatives I’ve just mentioned in mind, it would seem that encouraging a more vital science culture and and re-establishing science as a fundamental part of Canadian society is your aim.

Science education and outreach as a whole population effort

It’s facey to ask for more but that’s what I’m going to do.

In general, the science education and outreach efforts in Canada have focused on children. This is wonderful but not likely to be as successful as we would hope when a significant and influential chunk of the population is largely ignored: adults. (There is a specific situation where outreach to adults is undertaken but more about that later.)

There is research suggesting that children’s attitudes to science and future careers is strongly influenced by their family. From my Oct. 9, 2013 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’. [emphases mine]

Family as a bigger concept

I suggest that ‘family’ be expanded to include the social environment in which children operate. When I was a kid no one in our family or extended group of friends had been to university let alone become a scientist. My parents had aspirations for me but when it came down to brass tacks, even though I was encouraged to go to university, they were much happier when I dropped out and got a job.

It’s very hard to break out of the mold. The odd thing about it all? I had two uncles who were electricians which when you think about it means they were working in STEM (science, technology,engineering, mathematics) jobs. Electricians, then and now. despite their technical skills, are considered tradespeople.

It seems to me that if more people saw themselves as having STEM or STEM-influenced occupations: hairdressers, artists, automechanics, plumbers, electricians, musicians, etc., we might find more children willing to engage directly in STEM opportunities. We might also find there’s more public support for science in all its guises.

That situation where adults are targeted for science outreach? It’s when the science is considered controversial or problematic and, suddenly, public (actually they mean voter) engagement or outreach is considered vital.

Suggestion

Given the initiatives you both have undertaken and Prime Minister Trudeau’s recent public outbreak of enthusiasm for and interest in quantum computing (my April 18, 2016 posting), I’m hopeful that you will consider the notion and encourage (fund?) science promotion programmes aimed at adults. Preferably attention-grabbing and imaginative programmes.

Should you want to discuss the matter further (I have some suggestions), please feel free to contact me.

Regardless, I’m very happy to see the initiatives that have been undertaken and, just as importantly, the communication about science.

Yours sincerely,

Maryse de la Giroday
(FrogHeart blog)

P.S. I very much enjoyed the June 22, 2016 interview with Léo Charbonneau for University Affairs,

UA: Looking ahead, where would you like Canada to be in terms of research in five to 10 years?

Dr. Duncan: Well, I’ll tell you, it breaks my heart that in a 10-year period we fell from third to eighth place among OECD countries in terms of HERD [government expenditures on higher education research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product]. That should never have happened. That’s why it was so important for me to get that big investment in the granting councils.

Do we have a strong vision for science? Do we have the support of the research community? Do we have the funding systems that allow our world-class researchers to do the work they want do to? And, with the chief science officer, are we building a system where we have the evidence to inform decision-making? My job is to support research and to make sure evidence makes its way to the cabinet table.

As stated earlier, I’m hoping you will expand your vision to include Canadian society, not forgetting seniors (being retired or older doesn’t mean that you’re senile and/or incapable of public participation), and supporting Canada’s emerging science media environment.

P.P.S. As a longstanding observer of the interplay between pop culture, science, and society I was much amused and inspired by news of Justin Trudeau’s emergence as a character in a Marvel comic book (from a June 28, 2016 CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] news online item),

Trudeau Comic Cover 20160628

The variant cover of the comic Civil War II: Choosing Sides #5, featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surrounded by the members of Alpha Flight: Sasquatch, top, Puck, bottom left, Aurora, right, and Iron Man in the background. (The Canadian Press/Ramon Perez)

Make way, Liberal cabinet: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have another all-Canadian crew in his corner as he suits up for his latest feature role — comic book character.

Trudeau will grace the variant cover of issue No. 5 of Marvel’s “Civil War II: Choosing Sides,” due out Aug. 31 [2016].

Trudeau is depicted smiling, sitting relaxed in the boxing ring sporting a Maple Leaf-emblazoned tank, black shorts and red boxing gloves. Standing behind him are Puck, Sasquatch and Aurora, who are members of Canadian superhero squad Alpha Flight. In the left corner, Iron Man is seen with his arms crossed.

“I didn’t want to do a stuffy cover — just like a suit and tie — put his likeness on the cover and call it a day,” said award-winning Toronto-based cartoonist Ramon Perez.

“I wanted to kind of evoke a little bit of what’s different about him than other people in power right now. You don’t see (U.S. President Barack) Obama strutting around in boxing gear, doing push-ups in commercials or whatnot. Just throwing him in his gear and making him almost like an everyday person was kind of fun.”

The variant cover featuring Trudeau will be an alternative to the main cover in circulation showcasing Aurora, Puck, Sasquatch and Nick Fury.

It’s not the first time a Canadian Prime Minister has been featured in a Marvel comic book (from the CBC news item),

Trudeau Comic Cover 20160628

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1979’s Volume 120 of The Uncanny X-Men. (The Canadian Press/Marvel)

Trudeau follows in the prime ministerial footsteps of his late father, Pierre, who graced the pages of “Uncanny X-Men” in 1979.

The news item goes on to describe artist/writer Chip Zdarsky’s (Edmonton-born) ideas for the 2016 story.

h/t to Reva Seth’s June 29, 2016 article for Fast Company for pointing me to Justin Trudeau’s comic book cover.

Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada announced

The last State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada assessments were delivered in 2012 and 2013 respectively, which seems a shortish gap between assessments, as these things go. Having On a positive note, this may mean that the government has seen the importance of a more agile approach as the pace of new discoveries is ever quickening. Here’s more from a June 29, 2016 announcement from the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA; received via email),

CCA to undertake third assessment on the State of S&T and IR&D

June 29, 2016 (Ottawa, ON) – The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is pleased to announce the launch of a new assessment on the state of science and technology (S&T) and industrial research and development (IR&D) in Canada. This assessment, referred by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), will be the third installment in the state of S&T and IR&D series by the CCA.

“I’m delighted the government continues to recognize the value of the CCA’s state of S&T and IR&D reports,” said Eric M. Meslin, President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. “An updated assessment will enable policy makers, and others, such as industry leaders, universities, and the private sector, to draw on current Canadian S&T and IR&D data to make evidence-informed decisions.”

The CCA’s reports on the state of S&T and state of IR&D provide valuable data and analysis documenting Canada’s S&T and IR&D strengths and weaknesses. New data will help identify trends that have emerged in the Canadian S&T and IR&D environment in the past four to five years.

Under the guidance of the CCA’s Scientific Advisory Committee, a multidisciplinary, multi-sectoral expert panel is being assembled. It is anticipated that the final report will be released in a two-part sequence, with an interim report released in late 2016 and a final report released in 2017.

To learn more about this and the CCA’s other active assessments, visit Assessments in Progress.

The announcement offers information about the series of assessments,

About the State of S&T and IR&D Assessment Series

Current charge: What is the current state of science and technology and industrial research and development in Canada?

Sponsor: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)

This assessment will be the third edition in the State of S&T and Industrial R&D assessment series.

Background on the Series

  • In 2006, the CCA completed its first report on The State of Science and Technology in Canada. The findings were integral to the identification of S&T priority areas in the federal government’s 2007 S&T strategy,  Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage [the original link was not functional; I found the report on an archived page].
  • In 2010 the CCA was again asked to assess the state of S&T in Canada.  The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 updated the 2006 report and provided a thorough analysis of the scientific disciplines and technological applications where Canada excelled in a global context. It also identified Canada’s S&T strengths, regional specializations, and emerging research areas.
  • In 2013, the CCA published The State of Industrial R&D in Canada. This report provided an in-depth analysis of research and development activities in Canadian industries and is one of the most detailed and systematic studies of the state of IR&D ever undertaken in Canada.

I wrote three posts after the second assessment was delivered in 2012. My Sept. 27, 2012 posting was an announcement of its launch and then I offered a two-part critique: part 1 was in a Dec. 28, 2012 posting and part 2 was in a second Dec. 28, 2012 posting. I did not write about the 2013 report on Canada’s industrial research and development efforts.

Given the size of the 2012 assessment of science and technology at 232 pp. (PDF) and the 2013 assessment of industrial research and development at 220 pp. (PDF) with two expert panels, the imagination boggles at the potential size of the 2016 expert panel and of the 2016 assessment combining the two areas.

Given the timing for the interim report (late 2016), I wonder if they are planning to release at the 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference, which is being held in Ottawa from Nov. 8 – 10, 2016 (for the second year in a row and, I believe, the third time in eight conferences).

Combat cells (Robot Wars for cells) and a plea from Concordia University

Students at Concordia University (located in Montréal, Québec, Canada) are requesting help (financial or laboratory supplies) for their submission to  the 2016 iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition.

Here’s a little about their entry (from a June 16, 2016 request received via email),

For this year’s project, we plan to design a biological system that mimics the concept of the popular TV series Robot Wars. We will be engineering cellular species to wear nanoparticles as battle shields and then use microfluidics to guide them through an obstacle course leading to a battledome, where both cells will engage into a duel. Essentially, we want to test the interactions between nanoparticles and cell membranes, as well as their protective abilities against varying environmental conditions and other equipped cells. The method in which we will adapt Robot Wars for synthetic biology is by creating a web series that will visualize the cell battle and communicate the research behind it. This web series will serve as an entertaining  medium to educate and inspire the audience to develop an interest in science. We are incorporating the emerging fields of  synthetic biology, nanotechnology and microfluidics to make this process possible.  Furthermore, this study will contribute to the advancement of nanotechnology, an interdisciplinary field aiming to make applicable improvements in other fields such as medicine, optics and cosmetics.

Here’s a little more about iGEM (from the organization’s homepage),

The iGEM Foundation is dedicated to education and competition, advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of open community and collaboration.

The main program at the iGEM Foundation is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition. The iGEM Competition is the premiere student competition in Synthetic Biology. Since 2004, participants of the competition have experienced education, teamwork, sharing, and more in a unique competition setting.

The deadline for donations/sponsorships is the end of September 2016 and sponsors/donors will be acknowledged on “our website, all of our social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), at our community outreach events and at the competition [from the June 16, 2016 email].”

For more information contact:

Maria Salouros
iGEM Concordia
igem.concordia@gmail.com

Finally, there’s this:

We are excited to make this year’s project a reality and we are determined to win gold. Any help, either financially or by the donation of laboratory supplies, would contribute to the development of our project and would be greatly appreciated.

Good luck to the students! Hopefully one or more of my readers will be able to help. In which case, thank you!