Tag Archives: David Bruggeman

What’s in your DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)? an art auction at Christies

For this item, I have David Bruggeman’s Sept. 24, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog to thank,

As part of a fundraising project for a building at the Francis Crick Institute, Christie’s will hold an auction for 30 double-helix sculptures on September 30 (H/T ScienceInsider).

David has embedded a video featuring some of the artists and their works in his posting. By contrast, here are a few pictures of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) art objects from the Cancer Research UK’s DNA Trail page,

For our London Art trail, which ran from 29 June – 6 September 2015, we asked internationally renowned artists to design a beautiful double helix sculpture inspired by the question: What’s in your DNA? Take a look at their sculptures and find out more about the artists’ inspirations.

This one is called The Journey and is by Gary Portell,

DNA_The Journey

His inspiration is: “My design is based on two symbols, the swallow who shares my journey from Africa to England and the hand print. The hand print as a symbol of creation and the swallow reflects the traveller.

This one by Thiery Noir is titled Double Helix Noir.


The inspiration is: For this sculpture, Noir wanted to pay tribute to the memory of his former assistant, Lisa Brown, who was affected by breast cancer and who passed away in July 2001, at the young age of 31 years old.

Growing Stem is by Orla Kiely,


The inspiration is: I find inspiration in many things, but especially love nature with the abundance of colourful flowers, leaves, and stems. Applying our multi stem onto the DNA spiral seemed a natural choice as it represents positivity and growth: qualities that are so relevant for cancer research.

Double Dutch Delftblue DNA is by twins, Chris and Xand van Tulleken.


The inspiration is: The recurrent motifs of Delft tiles reference those of DNA. Our inspiration was the combination of our family’s DNA, drawing on Dutch and Canadian origins, and the fact that twins have shared genomes.  (With thanks to Anthony van Tulleken)

Ted Baker’s Ted’s Helix of Haberdashery,


Inspiration is: Always a fan of spinning a yarn, Ted Baker’s Helix of Haberdashery sculpture unravels the tale of his evolution from shirt specialist to global lifestyle brand. Ted’s DNA is represented as a cascading double helix of pearlescent buttons, finished with a typically playful story-telling flourish.

Finally, What Mad Pursuit is by Kindra Crick,


Inspiration is: What Mad Pursuit explores the creative possibilities achievable through the intermingling of art, science and imagination in the quest for knowledge. The piece is inspired by my family’s contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Aparna Vidyasagar interviewed Kindra Crick in a Sept. 24, 2015 Q&A for ScienceInsider (Note: Links have been removed),

Kindra Crick, granddaughter of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, is one of more than 20 artists contributing sculptures to an auction fundraiser for a building at the new Francis Crick Institute. The auction is being organized by Cancer Research UK and will be held at Christie’s in London on 30 September. The auction will continue online until 13 October.

The new biomedical research institute, named for the Nobel laureate who died in 2004, aims to develop prevention strategies and treatments for diseases including cancer. It is a consortium of six partners, including Cancer Research UK.

Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK asked about two dozen artists—including Chinese superstar Ai Weiwei—to answer the question “What’s in your DNA?” through a sculpture based on DNA’s double helix structure. …

Q: “What’s in your DNA?” How did you build your sculpture around that question?

A: When I was given the theme, I thought this was a wonderful project for me, considering my family history. Also, in my own art practice I try to express the wonder and the process of scientific inquiry. This draws on my backgrounds; in molecular biology from when I was at Princeton [University], and in art while going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I was influenced by my grandparents, Francis Crick and Odile Crick. He was the scientist and she was the artist. My grandfather worked on elucidating the structure of DNA, and my grandmother, Odile, was the one to draw the first image of DNA. The illustration was used for the 1953 paper that my grandfather wrote with James Watson. So, there’s a rich history there that I can draw from, in terms of what’s in my DNA.

Should you be interested in bidding on one of the pieces, you can go to Christie’s What’s in your DNA webpage,

ONLINE AUCTION IS LIVE: 30 September – 13 October 2015

Good luck!

David Bruggeman has put in a request (from his Sept. 24, 2015 posting),

… if you become aware of human trials for 3D bioprinting, please give a holler.  I may now qualify.

Good luck David!

“Off The Top” is a science/comedy hour Sept. 9, 2015 at Vancouver’s (Canada) China Cloud

Baba Brinkman, a Canadian-born rapper who’s made a bit of a career in science circles and has been featured here many times for the ‘Rap Guide to Evolution’ and other pieces, will be performing in Vancouver on Sept. 9, 2015 at The China Cloud (524 Main Street) Doors 7:30pm, showtime 8pm, $15 cover.

It’s actually a two-part performance according to the Sept. 9, 2015 event page on Baba Brinkman’s website,

First: “Off The Top” is a science/comedy hour co-hosted by Baba and Heather [Berlin], exploring the neuroscience of improvisation and humour, and the odd-couple mash-up of science and rap in their marriage. …

Second: After an intermission, Baba will perform his new rap/science/comedy show ”Rap Guide to Climate Chaos”, which explores the science and politics of global warming.

Here’s more from the Off The Top page on Baba Brinkman’s website,

Science rapper Baba Brinkman (Rap Guide to Evolution) teams up with neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin to explore the brain basis of improvisation. What’s going on “under the hood” when a comedian or musician improvises? Why are the spontaneous moments of life always the most memorable? Does anything actually rhyme with Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex?

As for the Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, from the its webpage on Baba Brinkman’s website,

Fringe First Award Winner Baba Brinkman (Rap Guide to Evolution) is the world’s first and only “peer reviewed rapper,” bringing science to the masses with his unique brand of hip-hop comedy theatrics. In “Rap Guide to Climate Chaos,” Baba breaks down the politics, economics, and science of global warming, following its surprising twists from the carbon cycle to the energy economy. If civilization is a party in full swing, are the climate cops about to pull the plug? And what happens if we just let it rage? With scientists, activists, contrarians, and the Pope adding their voices to the soundtrack, get ready for a funny and refreshing take on the world’s hottest topic.

I didn’t find much about The China Cloud but there was this January 20, 2010 article by Bob Kronbauer for vancouverisawesome.com,

Floating above Vancouver’s Chinatown rests the new studio/gallery space, The China Cloud. It is currently the home base to a handful of local bands – Analog Bell Service, No Gold, Macchu Picchu; four visual artists and comedy troupes Man Hussy and Bronx Cheer. This past Friday The China Cloud had its grand opening with an art show, some booze, and musical performances by Sun Wizard, My!Gay!Husband!, Analog Bell Service and Blue Violets. It was wall to wall people, with line-ups all night and a bit more hectic than what the artists behind the event expect it to be for future events – but what a way to step on the scene!

For anyone unfamiliar with Vancouver, The China Cloud is in an area that’s gentrifying but still retains its edgy character.

The article was well illustrated by Marcus Jolly’s photographs.

Finally, Dr. Heather Berlin was mentioned here in a March 6, 2015 post (scroll down about 75% of the way) highlighting International Women’s Day and various science communication projects including hers and Faith Salie’s, Science Goes to the Movies.

ETA Sept. 7, 2015: David Bruggeman gives a brief update on Baba Brinkman’s upcoming album release in his Sept. 5, 2015 posting on Pasco Phronesis.

Updates on a Canadian election science debate and the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference (blog session) plus a protest song

I have some good news on a couple of fronts. First, it seems increasingly likely that we will see a 2015 election science debate.

Canadian election 2015 science debate

The debate will be, according to Jim Handman, senior producer, held in early October 2015 on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio’s Quirks and Quarks program. Here’s what Mr. Handman had to say after I tweeted and contacted them about holding an election science debate,

… Quirks has approached all the parties at the national
level to provide candidates for a radio panel on science to be
broadcast in early October. They have all expressed interest and we are waiting to hear about specific candidates. It is up to the parties to choose the participants.

Not realizing something was in the works at Quirks and Quarks and following on a suggestion from David Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis (noted in my Aug. 17, 2015 posting), I contacted Lynne Quarmby (Green shadow science minister), Ted Hsu (Liberal shadow science minister), Kennedy Stewart (NDP [New Democratic Party] shadow science minister), and Ed Holder (Conservative science minister) about their willingness to participate in a debate. As of this writing, both Lynne Quarmby and Ted Hsu have shown interest.

While I was busy tweeting, this was brought to my attention,


You can see, if you look carefully at the bottom of the poster, the Evidence for Democracy logo. Those folks kicked off a proposal for science debate for this election in an Aug. 12, 2015 opinion piece for the Toronto Star.

Plus, CBC is reporting a new call for a science debate in a Sept. 3, 2015 news item by Julie Ireton,

Members of Canada’s long-silent scientific research community are increasingly speaking out during this year’s federal campaign as they desperately try to make science an election issue.

Jules  Blais, a biology professor at the University of Ottawa, calls cuts to science-related jobs “targeted strikes.”

Like many Canadian scientists, Blais considers himself non-partisan and said he’s not campaigning for any particular party, but that he and others are speaking out for the need to protect independent scientific research.

“Science has always been apolitical by its nature, but in recent years because of the dramatic changes that we’re seeing in the way science is being done, and science is being conducted, it’s increasingly a political issue,” said Blais.

To sum it up, it all looks quite promising for 2015 although I hope any national debate will be more broad-ranging and nuanced than a simple Conservative science policy bashing.

For anyone interested in ancient history, there’s my Aug. 17, 2015 posting which provides a view of previous efforts to get a science debate during an election in English-speaking Canada and notes like efforts have taken place in French-speaking Canada. Happily for anyone wanting a more complete history, Pascal Lapointe and Josh Silberg have written an Aug. 31, 2015 posting on Science Borealis detailing efforts in Québec.

Canadian Science Policy Conference blogging session

In an Aug. 18, 2015 posting, I highlighted and critiqued the blogging session offered at the upcoming 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. One of the blog panel members, Chris Buddle kindly contacted me via Twitter to answer a few of the questions I’d posed and to tell me that he’d contacted the organizers and suggested some changes be made to the descriptions based on my comments. You can find the changed descriptions here.

They’ve added one person to the panel, Lisa Willemse, who’s billed as Senior Communications Advisor, Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

One final comment about the science blogging panel descriptions, I wish they’d added links to the blogs. Perhaps that wasn’t technical feasible?

Protest song

Part of what has mobilized scientists and a discussion of science in Canada has been the Conservative government’s policy of ‘muzzling scientists’. Glyn Moody in a Sept. 1, 2015 posting on Techdirt profiles an incident where Environment Canada scientist, Tony Turner, has been put on leave while charges that he violated conflict-of-interest rules are being investigated. His sin: he wrote a protest song, got a group of friends and supporters to sing it with him, and then posted it to Youtube. From Moody’s posting (Note: A link has been removed),

Turner’s song, with its opening lines “Who controls our parliament? Harperman, Harperman. Who squashes all dissent? Harperman, Harperman,” and a refrain of “It’s time for you to go,” is pretty mild stuff. …

Of course, the great thing about the Canadian government’s absurd overreaction to this gentlest of private protests is that many more people will now learn that Turner is an environmental scientist who is being muzzled by a bunch of desperate control freaks who are frightened that the Canadian people might be told the truth about important scientific issues. Thank goodness for the Streisand Effect…. [As I understand it, Barbra Streisand once responded to criticism or commentary about herself that she found offensive. Her response, given her star power, drew a great of attention to the commentary. Techdirt folks have dubbed this the ‘Streisand’ effect, i.e. drawing attention to something no one would have noticed otherwise.]

An Aug. 28, 2015 article by Madeline Smith for the Globe and Mail provides details about the protest song and government response,

An Environment Canada scientist is under investigation for allegedly breaching the public service code of ethics by writing and performing a political song that criticizes the Harper government.

Andrew Hall, who filmed the Harperman video – a singalong with a backup choir that had almost 60,000 views as of Friday [Aug. 28, 2015] evening – said the song is a “joyful” expression of protest. [emphasis mine] He said Mr. Turner wasn’t acting as a public servant, so there should be a reasonable expectation “to be able to engage in democracy.”

As of Thurs., Sept. 3, 2015 at 10 am PDT the number of views is 525,823. So, from June 2015 when it was first posted to Aug. 28, 2015, there were almost 60,000 views. The Streisand effect in operation!

According to Smith’s article, Turner, after working for the government for 20 years, is months from retirement.

Finally, the song,

Rousing, isn’t it? That said, there is a fine line to be tread here. Civil servants are required to be neutral and, assuming you’re not dealing with noxious forces, you need to be respectful of the agreements you’ve made. As a civil servant for a number of years, that freedom of speech vs. neutrality ethics divide always bothered me. I believe that people are entitled to speak their opinions in private but I do see the point of insisting on neutrality professionally and privately. Most times, neutrality is the way to go for civil servants. However, there are times when one must speak out. The question is: what is the tipping point?

ETA Sept. 4, 2015: In the US they’re having their own civil servant neutrality issues. As evidenced by this story of the Kentucky clerk who refuses to issue marriage licences to same sex couples, civil service neutrality is not an open and shut discussion. Note: Slate has adopted a policy of urging readers to subscribe with popup ads.

Photograph 51 (about Rosalind Franklin and the double helix) in London, UK, Sept. – Nov. 2015

Thanks to David Bruggeman’s August 27, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog for this news featuring a new theatrical production of Anna Zeigler’s play about Rosalind Franklin titled: Photograph 51,

Photograph 51 will be at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End of London starting on September 5, with Nicole Kidman playing Franklin.  It marks the first London stage performance by Kidman since 1998, and is scheduled to run through November 21 [2015].

There has been at least one attempt to turn this play into a movie as per my Jan. 16, 2012 posting (scroll down about 75% of the way),

… from the news item on Nanowerk,

A film version of third STAGE Competition winner Photograph 51 is being produced by Academy Award-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz, and Ari Handel. [emphases mine] Playwright Anna Ziegler will adapt her play for the screen. Photograph 51 was featured at the 2011 World Science Festival in New York City; the play has also enjoyed prestigious productions in New York City and Washington, D.C.

To my knowledge this play has not yet become a movie and sharp-eyed observers may note that Darren Aronofsky and Rachel Weisz, listed as producers for the proposed film, were married at that time and have subsequently divorced, which may have affected plans for the movie.

Here’s more about the upcoming theatrical production in London (UK), from the Photograph 51 webpage on the londontheatre1.com website,

The Michael Grandage Company has today [July 27, 2015] announced the full company for the UK première of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51. Nicole Kidman who leads the company as Rosalind Franklin is joined by Will Attenborough (James Watson), Edward Bennett (Francis Crick), Stephen Campbell Moore (Maurice Wilkins), Patrick Kennedy (Don Caspar) and Joshua Silver (Ray Gosling). Photograph 51 opens at the Noel Coward Theatre on 14th September, with previews from 5th September, and runs until 21st November, 2015.

Photograph 51 also sees the return of Michael Grandage Company to the West End following their immensely successful season in 2013/14, also at the Noel Coward Theatre. The company is committed to reaching as wide an audience as possible through accessible ticket prices across their theatre work, and are offering over 20,000 tickets at £10 (including booking fee and restoration levy), which is 25% of the tickets for the entire run, across all levels of the auditorium. In addition, the company will stage access performances – with both captioned and audio described performances.

“The instant I saw the photograph my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race”

Does Rosalind Franklin know how precious her photograph is? In the race to unlock the secret of life it could be the one to hold the key. With rival scientists looking everywhere for the answer, who will be first to see it and more importantly, understand it? Anna Ziegler’s extraordinary play looks at the woman who cracked DNA and asks what is sacrificed in the pursuit of science, love and a place in history.

Nicole Kidman makes her hugely anticipated return to the London stage in the role of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who discovered the secret to Life, in the UK première of Anna Ziegler’s award-winning play. The production reunites Kidman and Grandage following their recent collaboration on the forthcoming feature film Genius [this film is about the literary world].

You can see a trailer where Kidman is seen briefly as Rosalind Franklin in the upcoming theatrical production. It is embedded in David Bruggeman’s August 27, 2015 posting. Here’s one of my all time favourite productions of the Rosalind Franklin story, from an Aug. 19, 2013 posting, (scroll down about 65% of the way to the part about Tom McFadden and science raps for school children),

For a description of the controversies surrounding Photograph 51 and Rosalind Franklin’s contributions, there’s this Wikipedia entry.

ETA Sept. 3, 2015: Nick Clark has written a Sept. 3, 2015 article for The Independent.com about how Kidman’s got involved with the play,

It took four years for Michael Grandage to find a play that would tempt Nicole Kidman back to the London stage for the first time in 17 years, and he discovered it in an unlikely place: the slush pile.

After turning down the chance to headline a classic revival of Ibsen or Tennessee Williams, the Australian superstar plumped instead for Photograph 51, a play about a “scientific injustice” that had been sent to the director unsolicited, and had only ever been staged in minor productions in the US.

I think there’s a little self-aggrandizement taking place here. More importantly, Grandage and Kidman are turning the spotlight on a story that isn’t as well known as it should be and for that they should be thanked. (h/t Lainey Gossip)

One final comment, James Watson seems to have an interesting relationship with the now dead Franklin. As noted in the Clark article and elsewhere, she’s mentioned (quite briefly) in Watson’s book, The Double Helix, which helped keep her name in the history books as an obscure footnote. More interestingly, David Bruggeman notes in his August 27, 2015 posting that Watson was present at one the play’s productions (2011 World Science Festival in Ireland) and participated in a public discussion (The secret behind the secret of life: facts and fictions) with the playwright Ziegler and other biologists,

In the 1950s, three labs raced to unravel the structure of DNA. Five decades after the Nobel Prize was awarded for the breakthrough, the contribution of one scientist—Rosalind Franklin—remains controversial. The event was a riveting performance of The Ensemble Studio Theatre Production of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, directed by Linsay Firman, a historical drama that explores Rosalind Franklin’s electrifying story, followed (in Friday’s performance) by a discussion among three of the men whose lives the play dramatizes—Nobel laureate James Watson, Raymond Gosling, who worked closely with Franklin at King’s College and co-authored one of Franklin’s 3 papers published in ‘Nature’ in 1953, and emeritus professor of biology Don Caspar—illuminating one of science’s most remarkable, influential, and controversial discoveries. [emphases of names mine)

Fascinating, oui?

A science debate during the 2015 Canadian federal campaign?

I’m thrilled to see David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) make a suggestion about a way to include a science debate during the current Canadian federal election campaign. In his Aug. 16, 2015 posting, David notes his suggestion follows on an opinion piece in the Toronto Star (Note: A link has been removed),

Thanks to Twitter, I read this opinion piece in The Toronto Star advocating for science to be part of the leaders’ debates leading to the October 19 [2015] Parliamentary election.  Breaking from previous tradition, there will be not two debates (one in English, one in French), but at least six. …

I think the compressed campaign schedule (though it is the longest Canadian campaign in history) will make it difficult to get either a debate exclusively on science questions or science questions into the debates that will be held.

… I would recommend not copying those of us on your southern border concerning science debates. [emphasis mine] Rather I suggest you review our British cousins and adapt your strategy accordingly.  Two science questions were part of a UK leaders debate in the 2010 campaign (though it was the one conducted over YouTube and Facebook), but that same campaign saw three cross-party debates at the science ministerial level.  [emphases mine] …

I think it manageable to have the science minister and his shadow minister counterparts in the major Canadian parties debate each other.

Interesting idea and I like it! Unfortunately, I’ve never heard of an election debate amongst shadow ministers/critics in the Canadian context, which means there’s nothing to build on. However, the advantage for this particular election campaign is that this is a three horse race (meaning no one party is clearly in the lead) consequently, election organizers for the three parties might be more open to opportunities which might gain some election votes.

As for the opinion piece (Aug. 12, 2015) in the Toronto Star written by Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood, both from Evidence for Democracy, they outline their reasons for a science debate in Canada’s 2015 federal election,

Canada’s commitment to science, and our scientific capacity, made us an international leader for years. It was Canadian medical researchers who decoded the breast cancer genome, invented medical insulin and have developed a promising Ebola vaccine. Social scientists and statisticians help us understand our changing demographics, guiding decisions on everything from where to build new schools and hospitals to helping businesses make smarter investment choices. Right now, environmental scientists are using their expertise to guide the fight against forest fires in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Evidence for Democracy analyzed debate questions in all the televised English-language federal leaders’ debates from 1968 to 2011 (with the exception of 1997, for which we could not find a record) to see which topics were discussed. Unsurprisingly, 32 per cent of all debate questions focused on the economy — taxes, unemployment, trade agreements, etc. Social policies including medicare, child care, and women’s issues covered 25 per cent of the questions. Government accountability and ethics accounted for 20 per cent, with national unity, foreign affairs, and public safety making up most of the rest. Only 2 per cent of debate questions focused on protection of the environment.

Gibbs and Westwood asked this question in the piece,

Given the clear importance of science in our lives, why has a question about science policy never — not once — been asked in a federal leaders’ debate?

It’s a very simple answer, the election organizers don’t believe science debates will attract a large audience allowing them one more chance to hammer their election messages home and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t think a debate will garner any votes.

I expect Gibbs and Westwood know this as they go on to make a compelling case for why a science debate in Canada is important (Note: A link has been removed),

Once a world-leader in scientific research, recent decisions have eroded our science capacity and our international scientific reputation. It’s estimated that up to 5,000 federal scientists have lost their jobs, and over 250 research and monitoring programs and institutions have been closed. Our recently launched website called True North Smart and Free, documents dozens of examples of funding cuts to science, government scientists being silenced and policy decisions that ignore the best available evidence. This is essential public-interest science needed to protect Canadian’s health and safety, from food inspection to monitoring toxic chemicals in water.

Many Canadians, including our scientific community are speaking out. Even beyond our borders, the current government has been widely criticized for its treatment of science. In recent years scientists have stepped out of their labs in large rallies on Parliament Hill and across the country. By the thousands, Canadians have joined with them not only in protest but in a shared commitment to strong public science and evidence-based decision-making. Every major Canadian newspaper, including the Toronto Star, has written high-profile editorials on science. Even international media such as New York Times and the prestigious science journal Nature have commented on the decline in Canadian science and the treatment of our government scientists.

Political parties clearly want to discuss it as well. This last session of parliament saw an unprecedented focus on science policy issues with the NDP, Liberals, and Greens all introducing bills and motions aimed at improving the state of public-interest science in Canada.

I hope this is a successful effort for the 2015 campaign. It’s great to see these efforts building up. In 2011, Adrian J. Ebsary of Peer Review Radio worked tirelessly to bring science into that year’s federal election (my April 25, 2011 posting, April 26, 2011 posting, and April 29, 2011 posting). In Québec, Pascal Lapointe has been working for several years to bring science into election debates both provincially and federally. Assuming you’re comfortable reading in French, you can find Pascal’s Je vote pour la science here. It’s all part of his larger enterprise Agence Science-Presse where he makes sure Québeckers get their science news.

Should you choose to support the notion of a national science debate, I suggest contacting the political parties for Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, Ed Holder (Conservative Party, former insurance broker), Stewart Kennedy (New Democratic Party, academic and political scientist), Ted Hsu (Liberal Party; a physicist by training, he’s not running in the 2015 election but remains the party’s science critic for now), and Lynne Quarmby, (Green Party, biochemist and molecular biologist).

Finally, you can find True North Smart + Free here.

Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility

There’s a look you see in people’s eyes when you say ‘science’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’. It’s not happiness or excitement.

At some point in our schooling, the sciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering became the exclusive property of those who were deemed to be talented in those areas and the rest of us weren’t necessarily treated well by the teachers or ‘talented’ fellow students.  Some people are so wounded by the experience they lose any interest or curiosity they might once have had and refuse to engage at all.

The odd thing is that most of us have more experience with science, engineering, and mathematics than we commonly believe.

There are very few people today compared to thirty years ago who don’t more or less understand how a computer operates. Car mechanics typically have to repair very sophisticated mechanical and electronic systems featuring computers and wireless technology. Hairdressers need to know a lot about chemicals and how hair and skin might react to them.  And, on it goes.

A sense of superiority seems to be a feature of human nature as if somehow we need to be better than someone else. That sense of superiority is found in many areas, as well as, within the sciences and mathematics and engineering and technology communities. Chemists are superior to engineers who are superior to technologists and all of them are superior to social scientists who return the favour and look down on scientists who they view as having low moral character and having, undeservedly, lots of money (I was in a session at a 2007 conference where that was the gist of the presentation and comments).

In this somewhat balkanized atmosphere it’s good to see people trying to establish a discussion about science, technology, mathematics, and engineering that doesn’t require an advanced degree or discount the comments of an amateur.

There’s a delightful Aug. 5, 2015 posting by John Hinton for the Guardian science blogs that espouses the joy of a ‘scientist pretender’,

I adored science at school. But my coursework assignments bewildered my teachers. Details of experimentations were often accompanied by personal anecdotes and quotes from obscure song lyrics. Irrelevant clip-art was rife. So when I had to pick a path through the labyrinth of life, i.e. select my A-levels, science fell away in favour of subjects where personal anecdoture and obscure lyricalism are paramount.

Despite my enforced rebuttal of science as a professional pursuit, it always retained a very special place in both my brain and bookshelf. Deep down, I wanted to be a scientist. And if you pretend for long enough (it has been suggested by non-scientists), eventually you become the thing you’re pretending to be.

So six or seven years ago, I started pretending to be a scientist. Specifically, I started pretending to be Charles Darwin in my first science-theatre show, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES … And people were fooled – they came from far and wide to hear me speak, invited me to Australia and Norway and Croatia and Hemel Hempstead. …

Hinton has also pretended to Einstein but I find his latest pretence the most interesting,

Now it’s not easy, we’re told by lots and lots of people, to recruit women into the sciences – and it’s rendered even harder by off-hand remarks made by Nobel laureates. So I started wondering whether I could pull off the ruse of the century and pretend to be a woman scientist, to see if that’d help matters at all.

The scientist I chose was Marie Curie. Like the other two I’d pretended to be, she is the linchpin to a whole branch of science (evolution, relativity and radioactivity respectively). Like the other two, her discoveries have been used both for good (conservation, GPS, radiotherapy) and bad (eugenics, nuclear bombs, radium quackery). And like the other two, I don’t look very much like her.

I’ve already pretended to be Marie Curie in Brighton, where the reception was very positive, and I shall shortly be pretending to be Marie Curie in Edinburgh. And in a few decades’ time, we’ll see whether my efforts have led to a redress of the gender bias (the scientific basis I’ll use to judge my eventual success shall be strictly cum hoc ergo propter hoc, if you know what I mean).

Hinton will be at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so if you should happen to be in the vicinity,

The Element in the Room: a radioactive muscial comedy about the death and life of Marie Curie runs at Edinburgh Fringe’s Pleasance Courtyard, 5-31 August 2015 at 3.30pm, alongside the full trilogy playing in rep.

More information here.

While this next bit concerns women and science, it still pertains to the main theme of this posting which is that anyone can participate in science/mathematics/technology/engineering, including comedians. David Bruggeman in an Aug. 4, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog reveals information about a very interesting new video series (Note: Links have been removed),

Last fall [2014] Megan Amram released Science…For Her!, a science textbook written as though by a women’s magazine writer who knows little about science.

If you couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing, but still want to dive in, Amram has a solution.  She has partnered with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on a web series, Experimenting with Megan Amram.  (Poehler’s website has a great deal of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – content worth exploring, not just this series.)

I find it inspiring that comedy writers want to talk about science. You can find Experimenting with Meg Amram here. I understand from David’s posting that this is comedy with some science and the first episode features an interview with Dr. Beverly McKeon, associate director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

Meg Amram and her book were featured here in a May 25, 2014 posting about the then upcoming book. For anyone unfamiliar with Meg Amram and Amy Poehler you can check out the Internet Movie DataBase (imdb.com) for their various television and movie credits.

Slingshot; a movie about a water purification system

Thanks to David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog for his Aug. 2, 2015 posting about Slingshot, which is both a water purification system and a documentary about Dean Kamen, inventor, and his system.  From the Slingshot (movie) About page,

SlingShot focuses on Segway inventor Dean Kamen, his fascinating life, and his work to solve the world’s water crisis.

Iconoclast, Kamen, is a modern hero. His inventions, mostly medical devices, help people in need and ease suffering. Several documentaries have been produced about the world’s dire water challenges. SlingShot is a film about an indomitable man who just might have enough passion, will, and innovative thinking to create a solution for a crisis that affects billions.

A quirky genius with a sharp wit and a provocative worldview, Kamen is our era’s Thomas Edison. He takes on the world’s grand challenges one invention at a time. Best known for his Segway Human Transporter, Kamen has reconceived kidney dialysis, engineered an electric wheelchair that can travel up stairs (the iBot), reworked the heart stent, built portable insulin pumps, founded FIRST robotics to inspire young students, and on and on. Holder of over 440 U.S. and foreign patents, Kamen devotes himself to dreaming up products that improve people’s lives. For the last 15 years, he has relentlessly pursued an effective way to clean up the world’s water supply.

Fifty percent of all human illness is the result of water borne pathogens. Dean Kamen has invented an energy efficient vapor compression distiller that can turn any unfit source of water (seawater, poisoned well water, river sludge, etc.) into potable, safe water without any need for chemical additives or filters. Kamen has nicknamed his device the SlingShot as in the David and Goliath story. In Kamen’s imagining, undeveloped countries are filled with little Davids, and just like the biblical slingshot and stone, the SlingShot device is the tiny piece of technology that is going to take down the gigantic Goliath of bad water.

David lists upcoming US screenings of the documentary and speculates as to a possible market for the system in the US. From David’s Aug. 2, 2015 posting,

It’s worth noting that while Kamen’s target markets for the Slingshot device are in the developing world, the drought in the Western United States may generate additional demand for the Slingshot.  The water conservation tips on the film’s website are worth following, and perhaps some enterprising (or desperate) local government may try to address its water troubles through judicious use of technology like the Slingshot.

You can check the Slingshot documentary Upcoming webpage for US and international screenings, as well as, a list of screenings stretching back to March 2014. Should you wish to host a screening, there’s the Host a Screening webpage.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find any technical details, additional to those on the About page, regarding Kamen’s vapor compression distiller (Slingshot).

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), music, and data storage

David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) has written up, as he so often does, a fascinating art/science piece in his May 28, 2015 post (Note: A link has been removed),

Opening next month [June 2015] at the Dilston Grove Gallery at GDP London is Music of the Spheres, an exhibition that uses bioinformatics to record music.  Dr. Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute has been working on new technologies for encoding large amounts of information into DNA.  Collaborating with Charlotte Jarvis, the two have worked on installations of bubbles that would contain DNA encoded with music (the DNA is suspended in soap solution).

There’s more information about the exhibit on the Music of the Spheres webpage on the CGP London website,

Music of the Spheres utilises new bioinformatics technology developed by Dr. Nick Goldman to encode a new musical recording by the Kreutzer Quartet into DNA.

The DNA has been suspended in soap solution and will be used by visual artist Charlotte Jarvis to create performances and installations filled with bubbles. The recording will fill the air, pop on visitors skin and literally bathe the audience in music.

Dr. Nick Goldman and Charlotte Jarvis have been working together for the past year to create a series of moving visual and musical experiences that explore the scope and future ubiquity of DNA technologies.

The Kreutzer Quartet’s new composition for string quartet loosely follows the traditional form of a concerto, in comprising of three musical movements. The second movement only exists in the form of a recording encoded into DNA.

For the exhibition the DNA will be suspended in soap solution and used to create silent installations filled with bubbles. The bubbles will be accompanied by a video projection showing the musicians playing in the server room of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge.

In response to the growing challenge of storing vast quantities of biological data generated by biomedical research Dr. Nick Goldman and the European Bioinformatics Institute have developed a method to encode huge amounts of information in DNA itself. Every day the huge quantities and speed of data pouring into servers gets larger. When research groups sequence DNA the file sizes are too large to be kept on local computers. It is this problem that was the motivation for Nick Goldman to develop his new technology. Their goal is a system that will safely store the equivalent of one million CDs in a gram of DNA for 10,000 years. Nick’s work was has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and on BBC News amongst other media outlets.

The Kreutzer Quartet will play the full-length composition live during the preview on 12 June [2015] timed with the setting of the sun through the large westerly windows. [emphasis mine] During the passage of the second movement the stage will fall silent, the music will be released into the auditorium in the form of bubbles. The performance will be accompanied by film projection and a discussion about the project.

The exhibit runs from June 12 – July 5, 2015. Hours and location can be found on the CGP website.

The Music of the Spheres DNA/music project was first mentioned here in a May 5, 2014 post about the launch of the book ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’. The launch featured a number of performances and events, scroll down abut 80% of the way for the then description of Music of the Spheres.

CRISPR genome editing tools and human genetic engineering issues

This post is going to feature a human genetic engineering roundup of sorts.

First, the field of human genetic engineering encompasses more than the human genome as this paper (open access until June 5, 2015) notes in the context of a discussion about a specific CRISPR gene editing tool,

CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare by Rajendran Subin Raj Cheri Kunnumal, Yau Yuan-Yeu, Pandey Dinesh, and Kumar Anil. OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology. May 2015, 19(5): 261-275. doi:10.1089/omi.2015.0023 Published Online Ahead of Print: April 14, 2015

Here’s more about the paper from a May 7, 2015 Mary Ann Liebert publisher news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have customized and refined a technique derived from the immune system of bacteria to develop the CRISPR-Cas9 genome engineering system, which enables targeted modifications to the genes of virtually any organism. The discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, its wide range of potential applications in the agriculture/food industry and in modern medicine, and emerging regulatory issues are explored in a Review article published in OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, …

“CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Engineering: Opportunities in Agri-Food-Nutrition and Healthcare” provides a detailed description of the CRISPR system and its applications in post-genomics biology. Subin Raj, Cheri Kunnumal Rajendran, Dinish Pandey, and Anil Kumar, G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Uttarakhand, India) and Yuan-Yeu Yau, Northeastern State University (Broken Arrow, OK) describe the advantages of the RNA-guided Cas9 endonuclease-based technology, including the activity, specificity, and target range of the enzyme. The authors discuss the rapidly expanding uses of the CRISPR system in both basic biological research and product development, such as for crop improvement and the discovery of novel therapeutic agents. The regulatory implications of applying CRISPR-based genome editing to agricultural products is an evolving issue awaiting guidance by international regulatory agencies.

“CRISPR-Cas9 technology has triggered a revolution in genome engineering within living systems,” says OMICS Editor-in-Chief Vural Özdemir, MD, PhD, DABCP. “This article explains the varied applications and potentials of this technology from agriculture to nutrition to medicine.

Intellectual property (patents)

The CRISPR technology has spawned a number of intellectual property (patent) issues as a Dec. 21,2014 post by Glyn Moody on Techdirt stated,

Although not many outside the world of the biological sciences have heard of it yet, the CRISPR gene editing technique may turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of recent years — if patent battles don’t ruin it. Technology Review describes it as:

… an invention that may be the most important new genetic engineering technique since the beginning of the biotechnology age in the 1970s. The CRISPR system, dubbed a “search and replace function” for DNA, lets scientists easily disable genes or change their function by replacing DNA letters. During the last few months, scientists have shown that it’s possible to use CRISPR to rid mice of muscular dystrophy, cure them of a rare liver disease, make human cells immune to HIV, and genetically modify monkeys.

Unfortunately, rivalry between scientists claiming the credit for key parts of CRISPR threatens to spill over into patent litigation:

[A researcher at the MIT-Harvard Broad Institute, Feng] Zhang cofounded Editas Medicine, and this week the startup announced that it had licensed his patent from the Broad Institute. But Editas doesn’t have CRISPR sewn up. That’s because [Jennifer] Doudna, a structural biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was a cofounder of Editas, too. And since Zhang’s patent came out, she’s broken off with the company, and her intellectual property — in the form of her own pending patent — has been licensed to Intellia, a competing startup unveiled only last month. Making matters still more complicated, [another CRISPR researcher, Emmanuelle] Charpentier sold her own rights in the same patent application to CRISPR Therapeutics.

Things are moving quickly on the patent front, not least because the Broad Institute paid extra to speed up its application, conscious of the high stakes at play here:

Along with the patent came more than 1,000 pages of documents. According to Zhang, Doudna’s predictions in her own earlier patent application that her discovery would work in humans was “mere conjecture” and that, instead, he was the first to show it, in a separate and “surprising” act of invention.

The patent documents have caused consternation. The scientific literature shows that several scientists managed to get CRISPR to work in human cells. In fact, its easy reproducibility in different organisms is the technology’s most exciting hallmark. That would suggest that, in patent terms, it was “obvious” that CRISPR would work in human cells, and that Zhang’s invention might not be worthy of its own patent.


Ethical and moral issues

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”


Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

More than CRISPR

As well, following on the April 22, 2015 Nature article about the controversial research, the Guardian published an April 26, 2015 post by Filippa Lentzos, Koos van der Bruggen and Kathryn Nixdorff which makes the case that CRISPR techniques do not comprise the only worrisome genetic engineering technology,

The genome-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest in a series of technologies to hit the headlines. This week Chinese scientists used the technology to genetically modify human embryos – the news coming less than a month after a prominent group of scientists had called for a moratorium on the technology. The use of ‘gene drives’ to alter the genetic composition of whole populations of insects and other life forms has also raised significant concern.

But the technology posing the greatest, most immediate threat to humanity comes from ‘gain-of-function’ (GOF) experiments. This technology adds new properties to biological agents such as viruses, allowing them to jump to new species or making them more transmissible. While these are not new concepts, there is grave concern about a subset of experiments on influenza and SARS viruses which could metamorphose them into pandemic pathogens with catastrophic potential.

In October 2014 the US government stepped in, imposing a federal funding pause on the most dangerous GOF experiments and announcing a year-long deliberative process. Yet, this process has not been without its teething-problems. Foremost is the de facto lack of transparency and open discussion. Genuine engagement is essential in the GOF debate where the stakes for public health and safety are unusually high, and the benefits seem marginal at best, or non-existent at worst. …

Particularly worrisome about the GOF process is that it is exceedingly US-centric and lacks engagement with the international community. Microbes know no borders. The rest of the world has a huge stake in the regulation and oversight of GOF experiments.

Canadian perspective?

I became somewhat curious about the Canadian perspective on all this genome engineering discussion and found a focus on agricultural issues in the single Canadian blog piece I found. It’s an April 30, 2015 posting by Lisa Willemse on Genome Alberta’s Livestock blog has a twist in the final paragraph,

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.

Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Willemse’s last paragraph offers a strong contrast to the Guardian and Nature pieces.

Finally, there’s a May 8, 2015 posting (which seems to be an automat4d summary of an article in the New Scientist) on a blog maintained by the Canadian Raelian Movement. These are people who believe that alien scientists landed on earth and created all the forms of life on this planet. You can find  more on their About page. In case it needs to be said, I do not subscribe to this belief system but I do find it interesting in and of itself and because one of the few Canadian sites that I could find offering an opinion on the matter even if it is in the form of a borrowed piece from the New Scientist.

Research2Reality: a science media engagement experience dedicated to Canadian science

As of May 11, 2015, Canadians will be getting an addition to their science media environment (from the May 4, 2015 news release),

Research2Reality to celebrate Canadian research stars

Social media initiative to popularize scientific innovation

May 4, 2015, TORONTO – On Monday, May 11, Research2Reality.com goes live and launches a social media initiative that will make the scientist a star. Following in the footsteps of popular sites like IFLScience and How Stuff Works, Research2Reality uses a video series and website to engage the community in the forefront of scientific discoveries made here in Canada.

The interviews feature some of Canada’s leading researchers such as Dick Peltier – director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, Sally Aitken – director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia and Raymond Laflamme – executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

“Right now many Canadians don’t understand the scope of cutting-edge work being done in our backyards,” says Research2Reality co-founder and award-winning professor Molly Shoichet. “This initiative will bridge that gap between researchers and the public.”

Also launching Monday, May 11, courtesy of Research2Reality’s official media partner, Discovery Science, is a complementary website www.sciencechannel.ca/Shows/Research2Reality. The new website will feature the exclusive premieres of a collection of interview sessions. In addition, Discovery Science and Discovery will broadcast an imaginative series of public service announcements through the end of the year, while social media accounts will promote Research2Reality, including Discovery’s flagship science and technology program DAILY PLANET.

About Research2Reality:
Research2Reality is a social media initiative designed to popularize the latest Canadian research. It was founded by Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Mike MacMillan, founder and producer of Lithium Studios Productions. Research2Reality’s founding partners are leading research-intensive universities – the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Western University – along with the Ontario Government and Discovery Networks. Discovery Science is the official media partner. Research2Reality is also supported by The Globe and Mail.

Research2Reality details

A Valentine of sorts to Canadian science researchers from Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoy [and] quette as in David Arquette)  and her producing partner Mike MacMillan of Lithium Studios, Research2Reality gives Canadians an opportunity to discover online some of the extraordinary work done by scientists of all stripes, including (unusually) social scientists, in this country. The top tier in this effort is the interview video series ‘The Orange Chair Sessions‘  which can be found and shared across

Shoichet and MacMillan are convinced there’s an appetite for more comprehensive science information. Supporting The Orange Chair Sessions is a complementary website operated by Discovery Channel where there are

  • more interviews
  • backgrounders,
  • biographies,
  • blogs, and
  • links to other resources

Discovery Channel is also going to be airing special one minute  public service announcements (PSA) on topics like water, quantum computing, and cancer. Here’s one of the first of those PSAs,

“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.

This is a big undertaking. ” Mike and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,

  • the University of British Columbia,
  • the University of Alberta,
  • Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario),
  • McMaster University,
  • Waterloo University, and, of course,
  • the University of Toronto

(Unfortunately, Shoichet was not able to answer a question about the cost for an individual episode but perhaps when there’s time that detail and more about the financing will be made available. [ETA May 11, 2015 1625 PDT: Ivan Semeniuk notes this is a $400,000 project in his Globe and Mail May 11, 2015 article.]) As part of their involvement, the universities decide which of their researchers/projects should be profiled then Research2Reality swings into action. “We shoot our own video, that is, we (Mike and I) come out and conduct interviews that take approximately fifteen minutes. We also shoot a b-roll, that is, footage of the laboratories and other relevant sites so it’s not all ‘talking heads’.” Shoichet and MacMillan are interested in the answer to two questions, “What are you doing? and Why do we care?” Neither interviewer/producer is seen or heard on camera as they wanted to keep the focus on the researcher.

Three videos are being released initially with another 67 in the pipeline for a total of 70.  The focus is on research of an international calibre and one of the first interviews to be released (Shoichet’s will be release later) is Raymond Laflamme’s (he’s also featured in the ‘quantum PSA’.

Raymond Laflamme

Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)

… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.

Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.

One of his major research interests is quantum cryptography, a means of passing messages you can ensure are private. Laflamme’s team and a team in Vienna (Austria) have enabled two quantum communication systems, one purely terrestrial version, which can exchange messages with another such system up to 100 km. away. There are some problems yet to be solved with terrestrial quantum communication. First, buildings, trees, and other structures provide interference as does the curvature of the earth. Second, fibre optic cables absorb some of the photons en route.

Satellite quantum communication seems more promising as these problems are avoided altogether. The joint Waterloo/Vienna team of researchers has  conducted successful satellite experiments in quantum communication in the Canary Islands.

While there don’t seem to be any practical, commercial quantum applications, Laflamme says that isn’t strictly speaking the truth, “In the last 10  to 15 years many ideas have been realized.” The talk turns to quantum sensing and Laflamme mentions two startups and notes he can’t talk about them yet. But there is Universal Quantum Devices (UQD), a company that produces parts for quantum sensors. It is Laflamme’s startup, one he co-founded with two partners. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian academic scene, Laflamme’s home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the most actively ‘innovative’ and business-oriented universities in Canada.)

LaFlamme’s interests extend beyond laboratory work and business. He’s an active science communicator as can be seen in this 2010 TEDxWaterloo presentation where he takes his audience from the discovery of fire to quantum physics concepts such as a ‘quantum superposition’ and the ‘observer effect’ to the question, ‘What is reality?’ in approximately 18 mins.

For anyone who needs a little more information, a quantum superposition is a term referring the ability of a quantum object to inhabit two states simultaneously, e.g., on/off. yes/no, alive/dead, as in Schrödinger’s cat. (You can find out more about quantum superpositions in this Wikipedia essay and about Schrodinger’s cat in this Wikipedia essay.) The observer effect is a phenomenon whereby the observer of a quantum experiment affects that experiment by the act of observing it. (You can find out more about the observer effect in this Wikipedia essay.)

The topic of reality is much trickier to explain. No one has yet been able to offer a viable theory for why the world at the macro scale behaves one way (classical physics) and the world at the quantum scale behaves another way (quantum physics). As Laflamme notes, “There is no such thing as a superposition in classical physics but we can prove in the laboratory that it exists in quantum physics.” He goes on to suggest that children, raised in an environment where quantum physics and its applications are commonplace, will have an utterly different notion as to what constitutes reality.

Laflamme is also interested in music and consulted on a ‘quantum symphony’. He has this to say about it in an Sept. 20, 2012 piece on the University of Waterlo website,

Science and art share a common goal — to help us understand our universe and ourselves.  Research at IQC [Institute for Quantum Computing] aims to provide important new understanding of nature’s building blocks, and devise methods to turn that understanding into technologies beneficial for society.Since founding IQC a decade ago, I have sought ways to bridge science and the arts, with the belief that scientific discovery itself is a source of beauty and inspiration.  Our collaboration with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was an example — one of many yet to come — of how science and the arts provide different but complementary insights into our universe and ourselves.

I wrote about the IQC and the symphony which debuted at the IQC’s opening in a Sept. 25, 2012 posting.

Music is not the only art which has attracted Laflamme’s talents. He consulted on a documentary, The Quantum Tamers: Revealing our weird and wired future, a co-production between Canada’s Perimeter Institute and Title Entertainment,

From deep inside the sewers of Vienna, site of groundbreaking quantum teleportation experiments, to cutting-edge quantum computing labs, to voyages into the minds of the world’s brightest thinkers, including renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking, this documentary explores the coming quantum technological revolution.

All of this suggests an interest in science not seen since the 19th century when scientists could fill theatres for their lectures. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on this interest. Laflamme, who saw ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Imitation Game’ (Alan Turing), and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (Stephen Hawking) in fall 2014 comments, “I was surprised by how much science there was in The Imitation Game and Interstellar.” As for the Theory of Everything, “I was apprehensive since I know Stephen well. But, the actor, Eddie Redmayne, and the movie surprised me. There were times when he moved his head or did something in a particular way—he was Stephen. Also, most people don’t realize what an incredible sense of humour Stephen has and the movie captured that well.” Laflamme also observed that it was a movie about a relationship and not really concerned with science and its impacts (good and ill) or scientific accomplishments.  Although he allows, “It could have had more science.”

Research2Reality producers

Molly Shoichet

Co-producer Shoichet has sterling scientific credentials of her own. In addition to this science communication project, she runs the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto (from the Dr. Molly Shoichet bio page),

Dr. Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is University Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an expert in the study of Polymers for Drug Delivery & Regeneration which are materials that promote healing in the body.

Dr. Shoichet has published over to 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide.  She currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers and has graduated 134 researchers over the past 20 years.  She founded two spin-off companies from research in her laboratory.

Dr. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty.

Mike MacMillan

MacMIllan’s biography (from the Lithium Studios website About section hints this is his first science-oriented series (Note: Links have been removed),

Founder of Lithium Studios Productions
University of Toronto (‘02)
UCLA’s Professional Producing Program (‘11)

His first feature, the dark comedy / thriller I Put a Hit on You (2014, Telefilm Canada supported), premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. Guidance (2014, Telefilm Canada supported, with super producer Alyson Richards over at Edyson), a dark comedy/coming of age story is currently in post-production, expected to join the festival circuit in September 2014.

Mike has produced a dozen short films with Toronto talents Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart (CAN – Long Branch, Margo Lily), Samuel Fluckiger (SWISS – Terminal, Nightlight) and Darragh McDonald (CAN – Love. Marriage. Miscarriage.). They’ve played at the top film fests around the world and won a bunch of awards.

Special skills include kickass hat collection and whiskey. Bam.

Final comments

It’s nice to see the Canadian scene expanding; I’m particularly pleased to learn social scientists will be included.Too often researchers from the physical sciences or natural sciences and researchers from the social sciences remain aloof from each other. In April 2013, I attended a talk by Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, feminist, and philosopher, who read from a paper she’d written based on a then relatively recent experience in South Africa where researchers had aligned themselves in two different groups and refused to speak to each other. They were all anthropologists but the sticking point was the type of science they practiced. One group were physical anthropologists and the other were cultural anthropologists. That’s an extreme example unfortunately symptomatic of a great divide. Bravo to Research2Reality for bringing the two groups together.

As for the science appetite Shoichet and MacMillan see in Canada, this is not the only country experiencing a resurgence of interest; they’ve been experiencing a science media expansion in the US.  Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk television talk show, which also exists as a radio podcast, debuted on April 19, 2015 (Yahoo article by Calla Cofield); Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) Transistor; a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) audio project debuted in Feb. 2015; and video podcast Science Goes to the Movies also debuted in Feb. 2015 (more about the last two initiatives in my March 6, 2015 posting [scroll down about 40% of the way]). Finally (for the burgeoning US science media scene) and neither least nor new, David Bruggeman has a series of posts titled, Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of …, on his Pasco Phronesis blog which has been running for many years. Bruggeman’s series is being included here because most people don’t realize that US late night talk shows have jumped into the science scene. You can check  David’s site here as he posts this series on Mondays and this is Monday, May 11, 2015.

It’s early days for Research2Reality and it doesn’t yet have the depth one might wish. The videos are short (the one featured on the Discovery Channel’s complementary website is less than 2 mins. and prepare yourself for ads). They may not be satisfying from an information perspective but what makes The Orange Chair Series fascinating is the peek into the Canadian research scene. Welcome to Research2Reality and I hope to hear more about you in the coming months.

[ETA May 11, 2015 at 1625 PDT: Semeniuk’s May 11, 2015 article mentions a few other efforts to publicize Canadian research (Note: Links have been removed),

For example, Research Matters, a promotional effort by the Council of Ontario Universities, has built up a large bank of short articles on its website that highlight researchers across the province. Similarly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which channels federal dollars toward research infrastructure and projects, produces features stories with embedded videos about the scientists who are enabled by their investments.

What makes Research2Reality different, said Dr. Shoichet, is an approach that doesn’t speak for one region, field of research of  [sic] funding stream.

One other aspect which distinguishes Research2Reality from the other science promotion efforts is the attempt to reach out to the audience. The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Council for Ontario Universities are not known for reaching out directly to the general public.]