Tag Archives: Germany

Democracy through mathematics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised electoral reform before he and his party won the 2015 Canadian federal election. In February 2017, Trudeau’s government abandoned any and all attempts at electoral reform (see Feb. 1, 2017 article by Laura Stone about the ‘broken’ promise for the Globe and Mail). Months later, the issue lingers on.

Anyone who places the cross for a candidate in a democratic election assumes the same influence as all other voters. Therefore, as far as the population is concerned, the constituencies should be as equal as possible. (Photo: Fotolia / Stockfotos-MG)

While this research doesn’t address the issue of how to change the system so that votes might be more meaningful especially in districts where the outcome of any election is all but guaranteed, it does suggest there are better ways of changing the electoral map (redistricting), from a June 12, 2017 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert but dated June 23, 2017),

For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes. When populations shift, districts need to be redistributed – a complex and, in many countries, controversial task when political parties attempt to influence redistricting. Mathematicians at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have now developed a method that allows the efficient calculation of optimally sized voting districts.

When constituents cast their vote for a candidate, they assume it carries the same weight as that of the others. Voting districts should thus be sized equally according to population. When populations change, boundaries need to be redrawn.

For example, 34 political districts were redrawn for the upcoming parliamentary election in Germany – a complex task. In other countries, this process often results in major controversy. Political parties often engage in gerrymandering, to create districts with a disproportionately large number of own constituents. In the United States, for example, state governments frequently exert questionable influence when redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts.

“An effective and neutral method for political district zoning, which sounds like an administrative problem, is actually of great significance from the perspective of democratic theory,” emphasizes Stefan Wurster, Professor of Policy Analysis at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at TUM. “The acceptance of democratic elections is in danger whenever parties or individuals gain an advantage out of the gate. The problem becomes particularly relevant when the allocation of parliamentary seats is determined by the number of direct mandates won. This is the case in majority election systems like in USA, Great Britain and France.”
Test case: German parliamentary election

Prof. Peter Gritzmann, head of the Chair of Applied Geometry and Discrete Mathematics at TUM, in collaboration with his staff member Fabian Klemm and his colleague Andreas Brieden, professor of statistics at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces, has developed a methodology that allows the optimal distribution of electoral district boundaries to be calculated in an efficient and, of course, politically neutral manner.

The mathematicians tested their methodology using electoral districts of the German parliament. According to the German Federal Electoral Act, the number of constituents in a district should not deviate more than 15 percent from the average. In cases where the deviation exceeds 25 percent, electoral district borders must be redrawn. In this case, the relevant election commission must adhere to various provisions: For example, districts must be contiguous and not cross state, county or municipal boundaries. The electoral districts are subdivided into precincts with one polling station each.
Better than required by law

“There are more ways to consolidate communities to electoral districts than there are atoms in the known universe,” says Peter Gritzmann. “But, using our model, we can still find efficient solutions in which all districts have roughly equal numbers of constituents – and that in a ‘minimally invasive’ manner that requires no voter to switch precincts.”

Deviations of 0.3 to 8.7 percent from the average size of electoral districts cannot be avoided based solely on the different number of voters in individual states. But the new methodology achieves this optimum. “Our process comes close to the theoretical limit in every state, and we end up far below the 15 percent deviation allowed by law,” says Gritzmann.
Deployment possible in many countries

The researchers used a mathematical model developed in the working group to calculate the electoral districts: “Geometric clustering” groups the communities to clusters, the optimized electoral districts. The target definition for calculations can be arbitrarily modified, making the methodology applicable to many countries with different election laws.

The methodology is also applicable to other types of problems: for example, in voluntary lease and utilization exchanges in agriculture, to determine adequate tariff groups for insurers or to model hybrid materials. “However, drawing electoral district boundaries is a very special application, because here mathematics can help strengthen democracies,” sums up Gritzmann.

Although the electoral wards for the German election were newly tailored in 2012, already in 2013, the year of the election, population changes led to deviations above the desired maximum value in some of them (left). The mathematical method results in significantly lower deviations, thus providing better fault tolerance. (Image: F. Klemm / TUM)


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

Constrained clustering via diagrams: A unified theory and its application to electoral district design by Andreas Brieden, Peter Gritzmann, Fabian Klemma. European Journal of Operational Research Volume 263, Issue 1, 16 November 2017, Pages 18–34 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejor.2017.04.018

This paper is behind a paywall.

While the redesign of electoral districts has been a contentious issue federally and provincially in Canada (and I imagine in municipalities where this is representation by districts), the focus for electoral reform had been on eliminating the ‘first-past-the-post’ system and replacing it with something new. Apparently, there is also some interest in the US. A June 27, 2017 article by David Daley for salon.com describes one such initiative,

Some people blame gerrymandering, while others cite geography or rage against dark money. All are corrupting factors. All act as accelerants on the underlying issue: Our winner-take-all [first-ast-the-post]system of districting that gives all the seats to the side with 50 percent plus one vote and no representation to the other 49.9 percent. We could end gerrymandering tomorrow and it wouldn’t help the unrepresented Republicans in Connecticut, or Democrats in Kansas, feel like they had a voice in Congress.

A Virginia congressman wants to change this. Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat, introduced something called the Fair Representation Act this week. Beyer aims to wipe out today’s map of safe red and blue seats and replace them with larger, multimember districts (drawn by nonpartisan commissions) of three, four or five representatives. Smaller states would elect all members at large. All members would then be elected with ranked-choice voting. That would ensure that as many voters as possible elect a candidate of their choice: In a multimember district with five seats, for example, a candidate could potentially win with one-sixth of the vote.

This is how you fix democracy. The larger districts would help slay the gerrymander. A ranked-choice system would eliminate our zero-sum, winner-take-all politics. Leadership of the House would belong to the side with the most votes — unlike in 2012, for example, when Democratic House candidates received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, but the GOP maintained a 33-seat majority. No wasted votes and no spoilers, bridge builders in Congress, and (at least in theory) less negative campaigning as politicians vied to be someone’s second choice if not their first. There’s a lot to like here.

There are other similar schemes but the idea is always to reestablish the primacy (meaningfulness) of a vote and to achieve better representation of the country’s voters and interests. As for the failed Canadian effort, such as it was, the issue’s failure to fade away hints that Canadian politicians at whatever jurisdictional level they inhabit might want to tackle the situation a little more seriously than they have previously.

In scientific race US sees China coming up from rear

Sometime it seems as if scientific research is like a race with everyone competing for first place. As in most sports, there are multiple competitions for various sub-groups but only one important race. The US has held the lead position for decades although always with some anxiety. These days the anxiety is focused on China. A June 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that US dominance is threatened in at least one area of research—the biomedical sector,

American scientific teams still publish significantly more biomedical research discoveries than teams from any other country, a new study shows, and the U.S. still leads the world in research and development expenditures.

But American dominance is slowly shrinking, the analysis finds, as China’s skyrocketing investing on science over the last two decades begins to pay off. Chinese biomedical research teams now rank fourth in the world for total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, and the country spent three-quarters what the U.S. spent on research and development during 2015.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows, scientists from the U.S. and other countries increasingly make discoveries and advancements as part of teams that involve researchers from around the world.

A June 15, 2017 Michigan Medicine University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research team’s insights,

The last 15 years have ushered in an era of “team science” as research funding in the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, stagnated. The number of authors has also grown over time. For example, in 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked include 21 or more authors — a number that increased to 12.5 percent in 2015.

The new findings, published in JCI Insight by a team of University of Michigan researchers, come at a critical time for the debate over the future of U.S. federal research funding. The study is based on a careful analysis of original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment from those same years.

The study builds on other work that has also warned of America’s slipping status in the world of science and medical research, and the resulting impact on the next generation of aspiring scientists.

“It’s time for U.S. policy-makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in National Institutes of Health budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest,” says Bishr Omary, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new data-supported opinion piece and chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The analysis charts South Korea’s entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China’s leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. They also track the major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

Meticulous tracking

First author of the study, U-M informationist Marisa Conte, and Omary co-led a team that looked carefully at the currency of modern science: peer-reviewed basic science and clinical research papers describing new findings, published in journals with long histories of accepting among the world’s most significant discoveries.

They reviewed every issue of six top-tier international journals (JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science), and four mid-ranking journals (British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal), chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research.

The analysis included only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes. Author affiliations for corresponding authors and all other authors were recorded by country.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, likely have something to do with this, Omary says.

The authors, who also include Santiago Schnell, Ph.D. and Jing Liu, Ph.D., note that part of their group’s interest in doing the study sprang from their hypothesis that a flat NIH budget is likely to have negative consequences but they wanted to gather data to test their hypothesis.

They also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the U.S. In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch U.S. and other international scientists due to their marked increase in R&D investments.

The same trends appear to be happening in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries the authors studied – where research investing has stayed consistent when measured as a percentage of the U.S. total over the last 15 years.

The authors note that their study is based on data up to 2015, and that in the current 2017 federal fiscal year, funding for NIH has increased thanks to bipartisan Congressional appropriations. The NIH contributes to most of the federal support for medical and basic biomedical research in the U.S. But discussion of cuts to research funding that hinders many federal agencies is in the air during the current debates for the 2018 budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese R&D spending is projected to surpass the U.S. total by 2022.

“Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research,” Omary says. “I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.”

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

Globalization and changing trends of biomedical research output by Marisa L. Conte, Jing Liu, Santiago Schnell, and M. Bishr Omary. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e95206 doi:10.1172/jci.insight.95206 Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 15, 2017)

Copyright © 2017, American Society for Clinical Investigation

This paper is open access.

The notion of a race and looking back to see who, if anyone, is gaining on you reminded me of a local piece of sports lore, the Roger Banister-John Landy ‘Miracle Mile’. In the run up to the 1954 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver, Canada, two runners were known to have broken the 4-minute mile limit (previously thought to have been impossible) and this meeting was considered an historic meeting. Here’s more from the miraclemile1954.com website,

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in the one mile run at the newly constructed Empire Stadium.

Both men had broken the four minute barrier previously that year. Bannister was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6th in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, John Landy became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58.

The world watched eagerly as both men approached the starting blocks. As 35,000 enthusiastic fans looked on, no one knew what would take place on that historic day.

Promoted as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”.

With only 90 yards to go in one of the world’s most memorable races, John Landy glanced over his left shoulder to check his opponent’s position. At that instant Bannister streaked by him to victory in a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy’s second place finish in 3:59.6 marked the first time the four minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

The website hosts an image of the moment memorialized in bronze when Landy looks to his left as Banister passes him on his right,

By Statue: Jack HarmanPhoto: Paul Joseph from vancouver, bc, canada – roger bannister running the four minute mileUploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801121

Getting back to science, I wonder if some day we’ll stop thinking of it as a race where, inevitably, there’s one winner and everyone else loses and find a new metaphor.

Nanotechnology-enabled warming textile being introduced at Berlin (Germany) Fashion Week July 4 – 7, 2017

Acanthurus GmbH, a Frankfurt-based (Germany) nanotechnology company announced its participation in Berlin Fashion Week’s (July 4 – 7, 2017) showcase for technology in fashion, Panorama Berlin  (according to Berlin Fashion Week’s Fashion Fair Highlights in July 2017 webpage; scroll down to Panorama Berlin subsection).

Here are more details about Acanthurus’ participation from a July 4, 2017 news item on innovationintextiles.com,

This week, Frankfurt-based nanotechnology company Acanthurus GmbH will introduce its innovative nanothermal warming textile technology nanogy at the Berlin FashionTech exhibition. An innovative warming technology was developed by Chinese market leader j-NOVA for the European market, under the brand name nanogy.

A July 3, 2017 nanogy press release, which originated the news item, offers another perspective on the story,

Too cold for your favorite dress? Leave your heavy coat at home and stay warm with ground-breaking nanotechnology instead.

Frankfurt-based nano technology company Acanthurus GmbH has brought an innovative warming technology developed by Chinese market leader j-NOVA© to the European market, under the brand name nanogy. “This will make freezing a thing of the past,” says Carsten Wortmann, founder and CEO of Acanthurus GmbH. The ultra-light, high-tech textiles can be integrated into any garment – including that go-to jacket everyone loves to wear on chilly days. All you need is a standard power bank to feel the warmth flow through your body, even on the coldest of days.

The innovative, lightweight technology is completely non-metallic, meaning it emits no radiation. The non-metallic nature of the technology allows it to be washed at any temperature, so there’s no need to worry about accidental spillages, whatever the circumstances. The technology is extremely thin and flexible and, as there is absolutely no metal included, can be scrunched or crumpled without damaging its function. This also means that the technology can be integrated into garments without any visible lines or hems, making it the optimal solution for fashion and textile companies alike.

nanogy measures an energy conversion rate of over 90%, making it one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly warming solutions ever developed. The technology is also recyclable, so consumers can dispose of it as they would any other garment.

“Our focus is not just to provide world class technology, but also to improve people’s lives without harming our environment. We call this a nanothermal experience, and our current use cases have only covered a fraction of potential opportunities,” says Jeni Odley, Director of Acanthurus GmbH. As expected for any modern tech company, users can even control the temperature of the textile with a mobile app, making the integration of nanogy a simplified, one-touch experience.

I wasn’t able to find much about j-Nova but there was this from the ISPO Munich 2017 exhibitor details webpage,

j-NOVA.WORKS Co., Ltd.

4-B302, No. 328 Creative Industry Park, Xinhu St., Suzhou Industrial Park
215123 Jiangsu Prov.
P  +49 69 130277-70
F  +49 69 130277-75

As the new generation of warming technology, we introduce our first series of intelligent textiles: j-NOVA intelligent warming textiles.

The intelligent textiles are based on complex nano-technology, and maintain a constant temperature whilst preserving a low energy conversion rate. The technology can achieve an efficiency level of up to 90%, depending on its power source.

The combination of advanced nano material and intelligent modules bring warmth from the fabric and garment itself, which can be scrunched up or washed without affecting its function.

j-NOVA.WORKS aims to balance technology with tradition, and to improve the relationship between nature and humans.

Acanthurus GmbH is the sole European Distributor.

So, j-NOVA is the company with the nanotechnology and Acanthurus represents their interests in Europe. I wish I could find out more about the technology but this is the best I’ve been able to accomplish in the time I have available.

Light-based computation made better with silver

It’s pretty amazing to imagine a future where computers run on light but according to a May 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily the idea is not beyond the realms of possibility,

Tomorrow’s computers will run on light, and gold nanoparticle chains show much promise as light conductors. Now Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich scientists have demonstrated how tiny spots of silver could markedly reduce energy consumption in light-based computation.

Today’s computers are faster and smaller than ever before. The latest generation of transistors will have structural features with dimensions of only 10 nanometers. If computers are to become even faster and at the same time more energy efficient at these minuscule scales, they will probably need to process information using light particles instead of electrons. This is referred to as “optical computing.”

The silver serves as a kind of intermediary between the gold particles while not dissipating energy. Capture: Liedl/Hohmann (NIM)

A March 15, 2017 LMU press release (also one EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a current use of light in telecommunications technology and this latest research breakthrough (the discrepancy in dates is likely due to when the paper was made available online versus in print),

Fiber-optic networks already use light to transport data over long distances at high speed and with minimum loss. The diameters of the thinnest cables, however, are in the micrometer range, as the light waves — with a wavelength of around one micrometer — must be able to oscillate unhindered. In order to process data on a micro- or even nanochip, an entirely new system is therefore required.

One possibility would be to conduct light signals via so-called plasmon oscillations. This involves a light particle (photon) exciting the electron cloud of a gold nanoparticle so that it starts oscillating. These waves then travel along a chain of nanoparticles at approximately 10% of the speed of light. This approach achieves two goals: nanometer-scale dimensions and enormous speed. What remains, however, is the energy consumption. In a chain composed purely of gold, this would be almost as high as in conventional transistors, due to the considerable heat development in the gold particles.

A tiny spot of silver

Tim Liedl, Professor of Physics at LMU and PI at the cluster of excellence Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM), together with colleagues from Ohio University, has now published an article in the journal Nature Physics, which describes how silver nanoparticles can significantly reduce the energy consumption. The physicists built a sort of miniature test track with a length of around 100 nanometers, composed of three nanoparticles: one gold nanoparticle at each end, with a silver nanoparticle right in the middle.

The silver serves as a kind of intermediary between the gold particles while not dissipating energy. To make the silver particle’s plasmon oscillate, more excitation energy is required than for gold. Therefore, the energy just flows “around” the silver particle. “Transport is mediated via the coupling of the electromagnetic fields around the so-called hot spots which are created between each of the two gold particles and the silver particle,” explains Tim Liedl. “This allows the energy to be transported with almost no loss, and on a femtosecond time scale.”

Textbook quantum model

The decisive precondition for the experiments was the fact that Tim Liedl and his colleagues are experts in the exquisitely exact placement of nanostructures. This is done by the DNA origami method, which allows different crystalline nanoparticles to be placed at precisely defined nanodistances from each other. Similar experiments had previously been conducted using conventional lithography techniques. However, these do not provide the required spatial precision, in particular where different types of metals are involved.

In parallel, the physicists simulated the experimental set-up on the computer – and had their results confirmed. In addition to classical electrodynamic simulations, Alexander Govorov, Professor of Physics at Ohio University, Athens, USA, was able to establish a simple quantum-mechanical model: “In this model, the classical and the quantum-mechanical pictures match very well, which makes it a potential example for the textbooks.”

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

Hotspot-mediated non-dissipative and ultrafast plasmon passage by Eva-Maria Roller, Lucas V. Besteiro, Claudia Pupp, Larousse Khosravi Khorashad, Alexander O. Govorov, & Tim Liedl. Nature Physics (2017) doi:10.1038/nphys4120 Published online 15 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Material that sheds like a snake when it’s damaged

Truly water-repellent materials are on the horizon. Or, they would be if one tiny problem was solved. According to a May  3, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, scientists may have come up with that solution,

Imagine a raincoat that heals a scratch by shedding the part of the outer layer that’s damaged. To create such a material, scientists have turned to nature for inspiration. They report in ACS’ journal Langmuir a water-repellant material that molts like a snake’s skin when damaged to reveal another hydrophobic [water-repellent] layer beneath it.

A May 3, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Lotus leaves, water striders and other superhydrophobic examples from nature have inspired scientists to copy their water-repelling architecture to develop new materials. Such materials are often made by coating a substrate with nanostructures, which can be shored up by adding microstructures to the mix. Superhydrophobic surfaces could be useful in a range of applications including rain gear, medical instruments and self-cleaning car windows. But most of the prototypes so far haven’t been strong enough to stand up to damage by sharp objects. To address this shortcoming, Jürgen Rühe and colleagues again found a potential solution in nature — in snake and lizard skins.

The researchers stacked three layers to create their material: a water-repellant film made with poly-1H,1H,2H,2H-perfluorodecyl acrylate (PFA) “nanograss” on the top, a water-soluble polymer in the middle and a superhydrophobic silicon nanograss film on the bottom. Nanograss consists of tiny needle-like projections sticking straight up. The team scratched the coating and submerged the material in water, which then seeped into the cut and dissolved the polymer. The top layer then peeled off like molted skin and floated away, exposing the bottom, water-repellant film. Although further work is needed to strengthen the top coating so that a scratch won’t be able to penetrate all three layers, the researchers say it offers a new approach to creating self-cleaning and water-repellant materials.

The authors acknowledge support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and VDI/VDE/IT GmbH through project NanoTau.

Here’s a video demonstrating the concept,

Published on May 2, 2017

Scientists turn to snakes and lizards for inspiration to create a new material that sheds its outer layer when scratched.

Finally, a link to and a citation for the paper,

Molting Materials: Restoring Superhydrophobicity after Severe Damage via Snakeskin-like Shedding by Roland Hönes, Vitaliy Kondrashov, and Jürgen Rühe. Langmuir, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.langmuir.7b00814 Publication Date (Web): April 14, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada and its Vancouver tech scene gets a boost

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been running around attending tech events both in the Vancouver area (Canada) and in Seattle these last few days (May 17 and May 18, 2017). First he attended the Microsoft CEO Summit as noted in a May 11, 2017 news release from the Prime Minister’s Office (Note: I have a few comments about this performance and the Canadian tech scene at the end of this post),

The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, today [May 11, 2017] announced that he will participate in the Microsoft CEO Summit in Seattle, Washington, on May 17 and 18 [2017], to promote the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, encourage investment in the Canadian technology sector, and draw global talent to Canada.

This year’s summit, under the theme “The CEO Agenda: Navigating Change,” will bring together more than 150 chief executive officers. While at the Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau will showcase Budget 2017’s Innovation and Skills Plan and demonstrate how Canada is making it easier for Canadian entrepreneurs and innovators to turn their ideas into thriving businesses.

Prime Minister Trudeau will also meet with Washington Governor Jay Inslee.


“Canada’s greatest strength is its skilled, hard-working, creative, and diverse workforce. Canada is recognized as a world leader in research and development in many areas like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and 3D programming. Our government will continue to help Canadian businesses grow and create good, well-paying middle class jobs in today’s high-tech economy.”
— Rt. Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Quick Facts

  • Canada-U.S. bilateral trade in goods and services reached approximately $882 billion in 2016.
  • Nearly 400,000 people and over $2 billion-worth of goods and services cross the Canada-U.S. border every day.
  • Canada-Washington bilateral trade was $19.8 billion in 2016. Some 223,300 jobs in the State of Washington depend on trade and investment with Canada. Canada is among Washington’s top export destinations.

Associated Link

Here’s a little more about the Microsoft meeting from a May 17, 2017 article by Alan Boyle for GeekWire.com (Note: Links have been removed),

So far, this year’s Microsoft CEO Summit has been all about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s talk today, but there’s been precious little information available about who else is attending – and Trudeau may be one of the big reasons why.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates created the annual summit back in 1997, to give global business leaders an opportunity to share their experiences and learn about new technologies that will have an impact on business in the future. The event’s attendee list is kept largely confidential, as is the substance of the discussions.

This year, Microsoft says the summit’s two themes are “trust in technology” (as in cybersecurity, international hacking, privacy and the flow of data) and “the race to space” (as in privately funded space efforts such as Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture).

Usually, Microsoft lists a few folks who are attending the summit on the company’s Redmond campus, just to give a sense of the event’s cachet. For example, last year’s headliners included Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson (who is now the Trump administration’s secretary of state)

This year, however, the spotlight has fallen almost exclusively on the hunky 45-year-old Trudeau, the first sitting head of government or state to address the summit. Microsoft isn’t saying anything about the other 140-plus VIPs attending the discussions. “Out of respect for the privacy of our guests, we are not providing any additional information,” a Microsoft spokesperson told GeekWire via email.

Even Trudeau’s remarks at the summit are hush-hush, although officials say he’s talking up Canada’s tech sector.  …

Laura Kane’s May 18, 2017 article for therecord.com provides a little more information about Trudeau’s May 18, 2017 activities in Washington state,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued his efforts to promote Canada’s technology sector to officials in Washington state on Thursday [May 18, 2017], meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee a day after attending the secretive Microsoft CEO Summit.

Trudeau and Inslee discussed, among other issues, the development of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, an initiative that aims to strengthen technology industry ties between British Columbia and Washington.

The pair also spoke about trade and investment opportunities and innovation in the energy sector, said Trudeau’s office. In brief remarks before the meeting, the prime minister said Washington and Canada share a lot in common.

But protesters clad in yellow hazardous material suits that read “Keystone XL Toxic Cleanup Crew” gathered outside the hotel to criticize Trudeau’s environmental record, arguing his support of pipelines is at odds with any global warming promises he has made.

Later that afternoon, Trudeau visited Electronic Arts (a US games company with offices in the Vancouver area) for more tech talk as Stephanie Ip notes in her May 18, 2017 article for The Vancouver Sun,

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Metro Vancouver Thursday [may 18, 2017] to learn from local tech and business leaders how the federal government can boost B.C.’s tech sector.

The roundtable discussion was organized by the Vancouver Economic Commission and hosted in Burnaby at Electronic Arts’ Capture Lab, where the video game company behind the popular FIFA, Madden and NHL franchises records human movement to add more realism to its digital characters. Representatives from Amazon, Launch Academy, Sony Pictures, Darkhorse 101 Pictures and Front Fundr were also there.

While the roundtable was not open to media, Trudeau met beforehand with media.

“We’re going to talk about how the government can be a better partner or better get out of your way in some cases to allow you to continue to grow, to succeed, to create great opportunities to allow innovation to advance success in Canada and to create good jobs for Canadians and draw in people from around the world and continue to lead the way in the world,” he said.

“Everything from clean tech, to bio-medical advances, to innovation in digital economy — there’s a lot of very, very exciting things going on”

Comments on the US tech sector and the supposed Canadian tech sector

I wonder at all the secrecy. As for the companies mentioned as being at the roundtable, you’ll notice a preponderance of US companies with Launch Academy and Front Fundr (which is not a tech company but a crowdfunding equity company) supplying Canadian content. As for Darkhorse 101 Pictures,  I strongly suspect (after an online search) it is part of Darkhorse Comics (as US company) which has an entertainment division.

Perhaps it didn’t seem worthwhile to mention the Canadian companies? In that case, that’s a sad reflection on how poorly we and our media support our tech sector.

In fact, it seems Trudeau’s version of the Canadian technology sector is for us to continue in our role as a branch plant remaining forever in service of the US economy or at least the US tech sector which may be experiencing some concerns with the US Trump administration and what appears to be an increasingly isolationist perspective with regard to trade and immigration. It’s a perspective that the tech sector, especially the entertainment component, can ill afford.

As for the Cascadia Innovation Corridor mentioned in the Prime Minister’s news release and in Kane’s article, I have more about that in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting about the Cascadia Data Analytics Cooperative.

I noticed he mentioned clean tech as an area of excitement. Well, we just lost a significant player not to the US this time but to the EU (European Union) or more specifically, Germany. (There’ll be more about that in an upcoming post.)

I’m glad to see that Trudeau remains interested in Canadian science and technology but perhaps he could concentrate on new ways of promoting sectoral health rather than relying on the same old thing.

Ultra-thin superconducting film for outer space

Truth in a press release? But first, there’s this April 6, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announcing research that may have applications in aerospace and other sectors,

Experimental physicists in the research group led by Professor Uwe Hartmann at Saarland University have developed a thin nanomaterial with superconducting properties. Below about -200 °C these materials conduct electricity without loss, levitate magnets and can screen magnetic fields.

The particularly interesting aspect of this work is that the research team has succeeded in creating superconducting nanowires that can be woven into an ultra-thin film that is as flexible as cling film. As a result, novel coatings for applications ranging from aerospace to medical technology are becoming possible.

The research team will be exhibiting their superconducting film at Hannover Messe from April 24th to April 28th [2017] (Hall 2, Stand B46) and are looking for commercial and industrial partners with whom they can develop their system for practical applications.

An April 6, 2017 University of Saarland press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details along with a line that rings with the truth,

A team of experimental physicists at Saarland University have developed something that – it has to be said – seems pretty unremarkable at first sight. [emphasis mine] It looks like nothing more than a charred black piece of paper. But appearances can be deceiving. This unassuming object is a superconductor. The term ‘superconductor’ is given to a material that (usually at a very low temperatures) has zero electrical resistance and can therefore conduct an electric current without loss. Put simply, the electrons in the material can flow unrestricted through the cold immobilized atomic lattice. In the absence of electrical resistance, if a magnet is brought up close to a cold superconductor, the magnet effectively ‘sees’ a mirror image of itself in the superconducting material. So if a superconductor and a magnet are placed in close proximity to one another and cooled with liquid nitrogen they will repel each another and the magnet levitates above the superconductor. The term ‘levitation’ comes from the Latin word levitas meaning lightness. It’s a bit like a low-temperature version of the hoverboard from the ‘Back to the Future’ films. If the temperature is too high, however, frictionless sliding is just not going to happen.
Many of the common superconducting materials available today are rigid, brittle and dense, which makes them heavy. The Saarbrücken physicists have now succeeded in packing superconducting properties into a thin flexible film. The material is a essentially a woven fabric of plastic fibres and high-temperature superconducting nanowires. ‘That makes the material very pliable and adaptable – like cling film (or ‘plastic wrap’ as it’s also known). Theoretically, the material can be made to any size. And we need fewer resources than are typically required to make superconducting ceramics, so our superconducting mesh is also cheaper to fabricate,’ explains Uwe Hartmann, Professor of Nanostructure Research and Nanotechnology at Saarland University.

The low weight of the film is particularly advantageous. ‘With a density of only 0.05 grams per cubic centimetre, the material is very light, weighing about a hundred times less than a conventional superconductor. This makes the material very promising for all those applications where weight is an issue, such as in space technology. There are also potential applications in medical technology,’ explains Hartmann. The material could be used as a novel coating to provide low-temperature screening from electromagnetic fields, or it could be used in flexible cables or to facilitate friction-free motion.

In order to be able to weave this new material, the experimental physicists made use of a technique known as electrospinning, which is usually used in the manufacture of polymeric fibres. ‘We force a liquid material through a very fine nozzle known as a spinneret to which a high electrical voltage has been applied. This produces nanowire filaments that are a thousand times thinner than the diameter of a human hair, typically about 300 nanometres or less. We then heat the mesh of fibres so that superconductors of the right composition are created. The superconducting material itself is typically an yttrium-barium-copper-oxide or similar compound,’ explains Dr. Michael Koblischka, one of the research scientists in Hartmann‘s group.

The research project received €100,000 in funding from the Volkswagen Foundation as part of its ‘Experiment!’ initiative. The initiative aims to encourage curiosity-driven, blue-skies research. The positive results from the Saarbrücken research team demonstrate the value of this type of funding. Since September 2016, the project has been supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Total funds of around €425,000 will be provided over a three-year period during which the research team will be carrying out more detailed investigations into the properties of the nanowires.

I’d say the “unremarkable but appearances can be deceiving” comments are true more often than not. I think that’s one of the hard things about science. Big advances can look nondescript.

What looks like a pretty unremarkable piece of burnt paper is in fact an ultrathin superconductor that has been developed by the team lead by Uwe Hartmann (r.) shown here with doctoral student XianLin Zeng. Courtesy: Saarland University

In any event, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Preparation of granular Bi-2212 nanowires by electrospinning by Xian Lin Zeng, Michael R Koblischka, Thomas Karwoth, Thomas Hauet, and Uwe Hartmann. Superconductor Science and Technology, Volume 30, Number 3 Published 1 February 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanocar Race winners!

In fact, there was a tie although it seems the Swiss winners were a little more excited. A May 1, 2017 news item on swissinfo.ch provides fascinating detail,

“Swiss Nano Dragster”, driven by scientists from Basel, has won the first international car race involving molecular machines. The race involved four nano cars zipping round a pure gold racetrack measuring 100 nanometres – or one ten-thousandth of a millimetre.

The two Swiss pilots, Rémy Pawlak and Tobias Meier from the Swiss Nanoscience Institute and the Department of Physicsexternal link at the University of Basel, had to reach the chequered flag – negotiating two curves en route – within 38 hours. [emphasis mine*]

The winning drivers, who actually shared first place with a US-Austrian team, were not sitting behind a steering wheel but in front of a computer. They used this to propel their single-molecule vehicle with a small electric shock from a scanning tunnelling microscope.

During such a race, a tunnelling current flows between the tip of the microscope and the molecule, with the size of the current depending on the distance between molecule and tip. If the current is high enough, the molecule starts to move and can be steered over the racetrack, a bit like a hovercraft.


The race track was maintained at a very low temperature (-268 degrees Celsius) so that the molecules didn’t move without the current.

What’s more, any nudging of the molecule by the microscope tip would have led to disqualification.

Miniature motors

The race, held in Toulouse, France, and organised by the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), was originally going to be held in October 2016, but problems with some cars resulted in a slight delay. In the end, organisers selected four of nine applicants since there were only four racetracks.

The cars measured between one and three nanometres – about 30,000 times smaller than a human hair. The Swiss Nano Dragster is, in technical language, a 4′-(4-Tolyl)-2,2′:6′,2”-terpyridine molecule.

The Swiss and US-Austrian teams outraced rivals from the US and Germany.

The race is not just a bit of fun for scientists. The researchers hope to gain insights into how molecules move.

I believe this Basel University .gif is from the race,

*Emphasis added on May 9, 2017 at 12:26 pm PT. See my May 9, 2017 posting: Nanocar Race winners: The US-Austrian team for the other half of this story.

Graphene-based neural probes

I have two news bits (dated almost one month apart) about the use of graphene in neural probes, one from the European Union and the other from Korea.

European Union (EU)

This work is being announced by the European Commission’s (a subset of the EU) Graphene Flagship (one of two mega-funding projects announced in 2013; 1B Euros each over ten years for the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project).

According to a March 27, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, researchers have developed a graphene-based neural probe that has been tested on rats,

Measuring brain activity with precision is essential to developing further understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and disorders that affect brain function and motor control. Neural probes with high spatial resolution are needed for both recording and stimulating specific functional areas of the brain. Now, researchers from the Graphene Flagship have developed a new device for recording brain activity in high resolution while maintaining excellent signal to noise ratio (SNR). Based on graphene field-effect transistors, the flexible devices open up new possibilities for the development of functional implants and interfaces.

The research, published in 2D Materials, was a collaborative effort involving Flagship partners Technical University of Munich (TU Munich; Germany), Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; Spain), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC; Spain), The Biomedical Research Networking Center in Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine (CIBER-BBN; Spain) and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2; Spain).

Caption: Graphene transistors integrated in a flexible neural probe enables electrical signals from neurons to be measured with high accuracy and density. Inset: The tip of the probe contains 16 flexible graphene transistors. Credit: ICN2

A March 27, 2017 Graphene Flagship press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work,  in more detail,

The devices were used to record the large signals generated by pre-epileptic activity in rats, as well as the smaller levels of brain activity during sleep and in response to visual light stimulation. These types of activities lead to much smaller electrical signals, and are at the level of typical brain activity. Neural activity is detected through the highly localised electric fields generated when neurons fire, so densely packed, ultra-small measuring devices is important for accurate brain readings.

The neural probes are placed directly on the surface of the brain, so safety is of paramount importance for the development of graphene-based neural implant devices. Importantly, the researchers determined that the graphene-based probes are non-toxic, and did not induce any significant inflammation.

Devices implanted in the brain as neural prosthesis for therapeutic brain stimulation technologies and interfaces for sensory and motor devices, such as artificial limbs, are an important goal for improving quality of life for patients. This work represents a first step towards the use of graphene in research as well as clinical neural devices, showing that graphene-based technologies can deliver the high resolution and high SNR needed for these applications.

First author Benno Blaschke (TU Munich) said “Graphene is one of the few materials that allows recording in a transistor configuration and simultaneously complies with all other requirements for neural probes such as flexibility, biocompability and chemical stability. Although graphene is ideally suited for flexible electronics, it was a great challenge to transfer our fabrication process from rigid substrates to flexible ones. The next step is to optimize the wafer-scale fabrication process and improve device flexibility and stability.”

Jose Antonio Garrido (ICN2), led the research. He said “Mechanical compliance is an important requirement for safe neural probes and interfaces. Currently, the focus is on ultra-soft materials that can adapt conformally to the brain surface. Graphene neural interfaces have shown already great potential, but we have to improve on the yield and homogeneity of the device production in order to advance towards a real technology. Once we have demonstrated the proof of concept in animal studies, the next goal will be to work towards the first human clinical trial with graphene devices during intraoperative mapping of the brain. This means addressing all regulatory issues associated to medical devices such as safety, biocompatibility, etc.”

Caption: The graphene-based neural probes were used to detect rats’ responses to visual stimulation, as well as neural signals during sleep. Both types of signals are small, and typically difficult to measure. Credit: ICN2

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

Mapping brain activity with flexible graphene micro-transistors by Benno M Blaschke, Núria Tort-Colet, Anton Guimerà-Brunet, Julia Weinert, Lionel Rousseau, Axel Heimann, Simon Drieschner, Oliver Kempski, Rosa Villa, Maria V Sanchez-Vives. 2D Materials, Volume 4, Number 2 DOI https://doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/aa5eff Published 24 February 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.


While this research from Korea was published more recently, the probe itself has not been subjected to in vivo (animal testing). From an April 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Electrodes placed in the brain record neural activity, and can help treat neural diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Interest is also growing in developing better brain-machine interfaces, in which electrodes can help control prosthetic limbs. Progress in these fields is hindered by limitations in electrodes, which are relatively stiff and can damage soft brain tissue.

Designing smaller, gentler electrodes that still pick up brain signals is a challenge because brain signals are so weak. Typically, the smaller the electrode, the harder it is to detect a signal. However, a team from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology [DGIST} in Korea developed new probes that are small, flexible and read brain signals clearly.

This is a pretty interesting way to illustrate the research,

Caption: Graphene and gold make a better brain probe. Credit: DGIST

An April 19, 2017 DGIST press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

The probe consists of an electrode, which records the brain signal. The signal travels down an interconnection line to a connector, which transfers the signal to machines measuring and analysing the signals.

The electrode starts with a thin gold base. Attached to the base are tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated in a thin layer of gold, and then a layer of conducting polymer called PEDOT. These combined materials increase the probe’s effective surface area, conducting properties, and strength of the electrode, while still maintaining flexibility and compatibility with soft tissue.

Packing several long, thin nanowires together onto one probe enables the scientists to make a smaller electrode that retains the same effective surface area of a larger, flat electrode. This means the electrode can shrink, but not reduce signal detection. The interconnection line is made of a mix of graphene and gold. Graphene is flexible and gold is an excellent conductor. The researchers tested the probe and found it read rat brain signals very clearly, much better than a standard flat, gold electrode.

“Our graphene and nanowires-based flexible electrode array can be useful for monitoring and recording the functions of the nervous system, or to deliver electrical signals to the brain,” the researchers conclude in their paper recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The probe requires further clinical tests before widespread commercialization. The researchers are also interested in developing a wireless version to make it more convenient for a variety of applications.

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

Enhancement of Interface Characteristics of Neural Probe Based on Graphene, ZnO Nanowires, and Conducting Polymer PEDOT by Mingyu Ryu, Jae Hoon Yang, Yumi Ahn, Minkyung Sim, Kyung Hwa Lee, Kyungsoo Kim, Taeju Lee, Seung-Jun Yoo, So Yeun Kim, Cheil Moon, Minkyu Je, Ji-Woong Choi, Youngu Lee, and Jae Eun Jang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2017, 9 (12), pp 10577–10586 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.7b02975 Publication Date (Web): March 7, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanomedicine and an enhanced uptake of nanoparticles

It’s nice to know that a step forward has been taken with regard to improving uptake in  nanoparticle-based drug delivery (see my April 27, 2016 posting titled: How many nanoparticle-based drugs does it take to kill a cancer tumour? More than 1% for insight into the difficulties of f nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems).

Here’s the latest move forward in a March 8, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Nanotechnology has become a growing part of medical research in recent years, with scientists feverishly working to see if tiny particles could revolutionize the world of drug delivery.

But many questions remain about how to effectively transport those particles and associated drugs to cells.
In an article published today in Scientific Reports (“Enhanced cellular uptake of size-separated lipophilic silicon nanoparticles”), FSU Associate Professor of Biological Science Steven Lenhert takes a step forward in the understanding of nanoparticles and how they can best be used to deliver drugs.

After conducting a series of experiments, Lenhert and his colleagues found that it may be possible to boost the efficacy of medicine entering target cells via a nanoparticle.

A March 8, 2017 Florida State University news release by Kathleen Haughney, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research (an international collaboration involving the University of Toronto [Canada] and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology [Germany]),

“We can enhance how cells take them up and make more drugs more potent,” Lenhert said.

Initially, Lenhert and his colleagues from the University of Toronto and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology  wanted to see what happened when they encapsulated silicon nanoparticles in liposomes — or small spherical sacs of molecules — and delivered them to HeLa cells, a standard cancer cell model.

The initial goal was to test the toxicity of silicon-based nanoparticles and get a better understanding of its biological activity.

Silicon is a non-toxic substance and has well-known optical properties that allow their nanostructures to appear fluorescent under an infrared camera, where tissue would be nearly transparent. Scientists believe it has enormous potential as a delivery agent for drugs as well as in medical imaging.

But there are still questions about how silicon behaves at such a small size.

“Nanoparticles change properties as they get smaller, so scientists want to understand the biological activity,” Lenhert said. “For example, how does shape and size affect toxicity?”

Scientists found that 10 out of 18 types of the particles, ranging from 1.5 nanometers to 6 nanometers, were significantly more toxic than crude mixtures of the material.

At first, scientists believed this could be a setback, but they then discovered the reason for the toxicity levels. The more toxic fragments also had enhanced cellular uptake.

That information is more valuable long term, Lenhert said, because it means they could potentially alter nanoparticles to enhance the potency of a given therapeutic.

The work also paves the way for researchers to screen libraries of nanoparticles to see how cells react.

“This is an essential step toward the discovery of novel nanotechnology based therapeutics,” Lenhert said. “There’s big potential here for new therapeutics, but we need to be able to test everything first.”

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

Enhanced cellular uptake of size-separated lipophilic silicon nanoparticles by Aubrey E. Kusi-Appiah, Melanie L. Mastronardi, Chenxi Qian, Kenneth K. Chen, Lida Ghazanfari, Plengchart Prommapan, Christian Kübel, Geoffrey A. Ozin, & Steven Lenhert. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 43731 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep43731 Published online: 08 March 2017

This paper is open access.