This high-resolution transmission electron micrograph of particles made by the research team shows the particles’ highly uniform size and shape. These are iron oxide particles just 3 nanometers across, coated with a zwitterion layer. Their small size means they can easily be cleared through the kidneys after injection. Courtesy of the researchers
A new, specially coated iron oxide nanoparticle developed by a team at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and elsewhere could provide an alternative to conventional gadolinium-based contrast agents used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures. In rare cases, the currently used gadolinium agents have been found to produce adverse effects in patients with impaired kidney function.
The advent of MRI technology, which is used to observe details of specific organs or blood vessels, has been an enormous boon to medical diagnostics over the last few decades. About a third of the 60 million MRI procedures done annually worldwide use contrast-enhancing agents, mostly containing the element gadolinium. While these contrast agents have mostly proven safe over many years of use, some rare but significant side effects have shown up in a very small subset of patients. There may soon be a safer substitute thanks to this new research.
In place of gadolinium-based contrast agents, the researchers have found that they can produce similar MRI contrast with tiny nanoparticles of iron oxide that have been treated with a zwitterion coating. (Zwitterions are molecules that have areas of both positive and negative electrical charges, which cancel out to make them neutral overall.) The findings are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry at MIT; He Wei, an MIT postdoc; Oliver Bruns, an MIT research scientist; Michael Kaul at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany; and 15 others.
Contrast agents, injected into the patient during an MRI procedure and designed to be quickly cleared from the body by the kidneys afterwards, are needed to make fine details of organ structures, blood vessels, and other specific tissues clearly visible in the images. Some agents produce dark areas in the resulting image, while others produce light areas. The primary agents for producing light areas contain gadolinium.
Iron oxide particles have been largely used as negative (dark) contrast agents, but radiologists vastly prefer positive (light) contrast agents such as gadolinium-based agents, as negative contrast can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from certain imaging artifacts and internal bleeding. But while the gadolinium-based agents have become the standard, evidence shows that in some very rare cases they can lead to an untreatable condition called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, which can be fatal. In addition, evidence now shows that the gadolinium can build up in the brain, and although no effects of this buildup have yet been demonstrated, the FDA is investigating it for potential harm.
“Over the last decade, more and more side effects have come to light” from the gadolinium agents, Bruns says, so that led the research team to search for alternatives. “None of these issues exist for iron oxide,” at least none that have yet been detected, he says.
The key new finding by this team was to combine two existing techniques: making very tiny particles of iron oxide, and attaching certain molecules (called surface ligands) to the outsides of these particles to optimize their characteristics. The iron oxide inorganic core is small enough to produce a pronounced positive contrast in MRI, and the zwitterionic surface ligand, which was recently developed by Wei and coworkers in the Bawendi research group, makes the iron oxide particles water-soluble, compact, and biocompatible.
The combination of a very tiny iron oxide core and an ultrathin ligand shell leads to a total hydrodynamic diameter of 4.7 nanometers, below the 5.5-nanometer renal clearance threshold. This means that the coated iron oxide should quickly clear through the kidneys and not accumulate. This renal clearance property is an important feature where the particles perform comparably to gadolinium-based contrast agents.
Now that initial tests have demonstrated the particles’ effectiveness as contrast agents, Wei and Bruns say the next step will be to do further toxicology testing to show the particles’ safety, and to continue to improve the characteristics of the material. “It’s not perfect. We have more work to do,” Bruns says. But because iron oxide has been used for so long and in so many ways, even as an iron supplement, any negative effects could likely be treated by well-established protocols, the researchers say. If all goes well, the team is considering setting up a startup company to bring the material to production.
For some patients who are currently excluded from getting MRIs because of potential side effects of gadolinium, the new agents “could allow those patients to be eligible again” for the procedure, Bruns says. And, if it does turn out that the accumulation of gadolinium in the brain has negative effects, an overall phase-out of gadolinium for such uses could be needed. “If that turned out to be the case, this could potentially be a complete replacement,” he says.
Ralph Weissleder, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in this work, says, “The work is of high interest, given the limitations of gadolinium-based contrast agents, which typically have short vascular half-lives and may be contraindicated in renally compromised patients.”
The research team included researchers in MIT’s chemistry, biological engineering, nuclear science and engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and materials science and engineering departments and its program in Health Sciences and Technology; and at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf; Brown University; and the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was supported by the MIT-Harvard NIH Center for Cancer Nanotechnology, the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the NIH-funded Laser Biomedical Research Center, the MIT Deshpande Center, and the European Union Seventh Framework Program.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Exceedingly small iron oxide nanoparticles as positive MRI contrast agents by He Wei, Oliver T. Bruns, Michael G. Kaul, Eric C. Hansen, Mariya Barch, Agata Wiśniowsk, Ou Chen, Yue Chen, Nan Li, Satoshi Okada, Jose M. Cordero, Markus Heine, Christian T. Farrar, Daniel M. Montana, Gerhard Adam, Harald Ittrich, Alan Jasanoff, Peter Nielsen, and Moungi G. Bawendi. PNAS February 13, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620145114 Published online before print February 13, 2017
“Rise Up” is a pop song recorded by the Canadian group Parachute Club on their self-titled 1983 album. It was produced and engineered by Daniel Lanois, and written by Parachute Club members Billy Bryans, Lauri Conger, Lorraine Segato and Steve Webster with lyrics contributed by filmmaker Lynne Fernie.
An upbeat call for peace, celebration, and “freedom / to love who we please,” the song was a national hit in Canada, and was hailed as a unique achievement in Canadian pop music:
“ Rarely does one experience a piece of music in white North America where the barrier between participant and observer breaks down. Rise Up rises right up and breaks down the wall. ”
According to Segato, the song was not written with any one individual group in mind, but as a universal anthem of freedom and equality; Fernie described the song’s lyrics as having been inspired in part by West Coast First Nations rituals in which young girls would “rise up” at dawn to adopt their adult names as a rite of passage.
It remains the band’s most famous song, and has been adopted as an activist anthem for causes as diverse as gay rights, feminism, anti-racism and the New Democratic Party. As well, the song’s reggae and soca-influenced rhythms made it the first significant commercial breakthrough for Caribbean music in Canada.
L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science
From a March 8, 2017 UNESCO press release (received via email),
Fifteen outstanding young women researchers, selected
among more than 250 candidates in the framework of the 19th edition of
the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, will receive the
International Rising Talent fellowship during a gala on 21 March at the
hotel Pullman Tour Eiffel de Paris. By recognizing their achievements at
a key moment in their careers, the _For Women in Science programme aims
to help them pursue their research.
Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO _For Women in Science programme 
has highlighted the achievements of outstanding women scientists and
supported promising younger women who are in the early stages of their
scientific careers. Selected among the best national and regional
L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows, the International Rising Talents come from
all regions of the world (Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
Latin America and North America).
Together with the five laureates of the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women
in Science awards , they will participate in a week of events,
training and exchanges that will culminate with the award ceremony on 23
March 2017 at the Mutualité in Paris.
The 2017 International Rising Talent are recognized for their work in
the following five categories:
WATCHING THE BRAIN AT WORK
* DOCTOR LORINA NACI, Canada
In a coma: is the patient conscious or unconscious? * ASSOCIATE
PROFESSOR MUIREANN IRISH, Australia
Recognizing Alzheimer’s before the first signs appear.
ON THE ROAD TO CONCEIVING NEW MEDICAL TREATMENTS
* DOCTOR HYUN LEE, Germany
Neurodegenerative diseases: untangling aggregated proteins.
* DOCTOR NAM-KYUNG YU, Republic of Korea
Rett syndrome: neuronal cells come under fire
* DOCTOR STEPHANIE FANUCCHI, South Africa
Better understanding the immune system.
* DOCTOR JULIA ETULAIN, Argentina
Better tissue healing.
Finding potential new sources of drugs
* DOCTOR RYM BEN SALLEM, Tunisia
New antibiotics are right under our feet.
* DOCTOR HAB JOANNA SULKOWSKA, Poland
Unraveling the secrets of entangled proteins.
GETTING TO THE HEART OF MATTER
* MS NAZEK EL-ATAB, United Arab Emirates
Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering
Miniaturizing electronics without losing memory.
* DOCTOR BILGE DEMIRKOZ, Turkey
Piercing the secrets of cosmic radiation.
* DOCTOR TAMARA ELZEIN, Lebanon
* DOCTOR RAN LONG, China
Unlocking the potential of energy resources with nanochemistry.
EXAMINING THE PAST TO SHED LIGHT ON THE FUTURE – OR VICE VERSA
* DOCTOR FERNANDA WERNECK, Brazil
Predicting how animal biodiversity will evolve.
* DOCTOR SAM GILES, United Kingdom
Taking another look at the evolution of vertebrates thanks to their
* DOCTOR ÁGNES KÓSPÁL, Hungary
Astronomy and Space Sciences
Looking at the birth of distant suns and planets to better understand
the solar system.
Thank you to Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),
International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year. It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.
The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America. On March 8, 1917, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, a demonstration of women textile workers began, covering the whole city. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.
It seems only fitting to bookend this post with another song (Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2017),
While the lyrics are unabashedly romantic, the video is surprisingly moody with a bit of a ‘stalker vive’ although it does end up with her holding centre stage while singing and bouncing around in time to Walking on Sunshine.
A Feb. 9, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes new research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), which takes its inspiration from medieval chain mail,
The Middle Ages certainly were far from being science-friendly: Whoever looked for new findings off the beaten track faced the threat of being burned at the stake. Hence, the contribution of this era to technical progress is deemed to be rather small. Scientists of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), however, were inspired by medieval mail armor when producing a new metamaterial with novel properties. They succeeded in reversing the Hall coefficient of a material.
The Hall effect is the occurrence of a transverse electric voltage across an electric conductor passed by current flow, if this conductor is located in a magnetic field. This effect is a basic phenomenon of physics and allows to measure [sic] the strength of magnetic fields. It is the basis of magnetic speed sensors in cars or compasses in smartphones. Apart from measuring magnetic fields, the Hall effect can also be used to characterize metals and semiconductors and in particular to determine charge carrier density of the material. The sign of the measured Hall voltage allows conclusions to be drawn as to whether charge carriers in the semiconductor element carry positive or negative charge.
The ring structure of the metamaterial was inspired by mail armor of medieval knights. (Photo: KIT)
Mathematicians already predicted theoretically that it is possible to reverse the Hall coefficient of a material (such as gold or silicon), i.e. to reverse its sign. This was expected to be achieved by a three-dimensional ring structure resembling medieval mail armor. How-ever, this was considered difficult, as the ring mesh of millionths of a meter in size would have to be composed of three different components.
The ring mesh of millionths of a meter in size. (Photo: KIT)
Christian Kern, Muamer Kadic, and Martin Wegener of KIT’s Institute of Applied Physics now found that a single basic material is sufficient, provided that the ring structure chosen follows a certain geometric arrangement. First, they produced polymer scaffolds with a highest-resolution 3D printer. Then, they coated these scaffolds with semiconducting zinc oxide.
The result of the experiment: The scientists can produce meta-materials with a positive coefficient, even though their components have negative coefficients. This sounds a bit like the philosopher’s stone, the formula, by means of which medieval alchemists tried to convert one substance into another. But here, no conversion takes place. “The charge carriers in the metamaterial remain negatively charged electrons,” Christian Kern explains. “Hall measurements only make them appear positively charged, as the structure forces them to take detours.”
Kern admits that this discovery so far is of no practical use. There are sufficient solids with both negative and positive Hall coefficients. But Kern wants to continue research. The next step will be the production of anisotropic structures with a Hall voltage in the direction of the magnetic field. Normally, Hall voltage is directed vertically to current and magnetic fields. Such unconventional materials might be applied in novel sensors for the direct measurement of magnetic field eddies.
The researchers do not seem to have published a paper about this work.
After all these years of writing about geckos and their adhesive properties (they can hang off a wall or ceiling by a single toe), I’ve developed a mild interest in them. From a Feb. 7, 2017 posting by Dirk Steinke for the One species a day blog,
The new species was found in northern Madagascar and its name was build [sic] from the two Greek stems mégas, meaning ‘very large’ and lepís, meaning ‘scale’, and refers to the large size of the scales of this species in comparison to other geckos.
Caption: The new fish-scale gecko, Geckolepis megalepis, has the largest body scales of all geckos. This nocturnal lizard was discovered in the ‘tsingy’ karst formations in northern Madagascar Credit: F. Glaw
Many lizards can drop their tails when grabbed, but one group of geckos has gone to particularly extreme lengths to escape predation. Fish-scale geckos in the genus Geckolepis have large scales that tear away with ease, leaving them free to escape whilst the predator is left with a mouth full of scales. Scientists have now described a new species (Geckolepis megalepis) that is the master of this art, possessing the largest scales of any gecko.
The skin of fish-scale geckos is specially adapted to tearing. The large scales are attached only by a relatively narrow region that tears with ease, and beneath them they have a pre-formed splitting zone within the skin itself. Together, these features make them especially good at escaping from predators. Although several other geckos are able to lose their skin like this if they are grasped really firmly, Geckolepis are apparently able to do it actively, and at the slightest touch. And while others might take a long time to regenerate their scales, fish-scale geckos can grow them back, scar-free, in a matter of weeks.
This remarkable (if somewhat gruesome) ability has made these geckos a serious challenge to the scientists who want to study them. Early researchers described how it was necessary to catch them with bundles of cotton wool, to avoid them losing almost all of their skin. Today, little has changed, and researchers try to catch them without touching them if possible, by luring them into plastic bags. But once they are caught, the challenges are not over; identifying and describing them is even harder.
“A study a few years ago showed that our understanding of the diversity of fish-scale geckos was totally inadequate,” says Mark D. Scherz, lead author of the new study and PhD student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Zoologische Staatssammlung München, “it showed us that there were actually about thirteen highly distinct genetic lineages in this genus, and not just the three or four species we thought existed. One of the divergent lineages they identified was immediately obvious as a new species, because it had such massive scales. But to name it, we had to find additional reliable characteristics that distinguish it from the other species.” A challenging task indeed: one of the main ways reptile species can be told apart is by their scale patterns, but these geckos lose their scales with such ease that the patterns are often lost by the time they reach adulthood. “You have to think a bit outside the box with Geckolepis. They’re a nightmare to identify. So we turned to micro-CT to get at their skeletons and search there for identifying features.” Micro-CT (micro-computed tomography) is essentially a 3D x-ray of an object. This method is allowing morphologists like Scherz to examine the skeletons of animals without having to dissect them, opening up new approaches to quickly study the internal morphology of animals.
By looking at the skeletons of the geckos, the team was able to identify some features of the skull that distinguish their new species from all others. But they also found some surprises; a species named 150 years ago, Geckolepis maculata, was confirmed to be different from the genetic lineage that it had been thought to be. “This is just typical of Geckolepis. You think you have them sorted out, but then you get a result that turns your hypothesis on its head. We still have no idea what Geckolepis maculata really is–we are just getting more and more certain what it’s not.”
The new species, Geckolepis megalepis, which was described by researchers from the US, Germany, and Columbia [sic] in a paper published today in the open access journal PeerJ, is most remarkable because of its huge scales, which are by far the largest of any gecko. The researchers hypothesize that the larger scales tear more easily than smaller scales, because of their greater surface area relative to the attachment area, and larger friction surface. “What’s really remarkable though is that these scales–which are really dense and may even be bony, and must be quite energetically costly to produce–and the skin beneath them tear away with such ease, and can be regenerated quickly and without a scar,” says Scherz. The mechanism for regeneration, which is not well understood, could potentially have applications in human medicine, where regeneration research is already being informed by studies on salamander limbs and lizard tails.
For anyone unfamiliar with ‘gecko research’, scientists are fascinated by their abilities and have been researching them (in a field known as biomimicry or bioinspired engineering or biomimetics) for years with the hope of mimicking those abilities for new applications. You can check out a March 19, 2015 posting or this July 10, 2014 posting for examples or you can search ‘gecko’ on this blog for more examples.
Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.
Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.
As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.
About a year ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine brought together a diverse group of experts and practitioners to address this gap between research and practice. The goal was to apply scientific thinking to the process of how we go about communicating science effectively. Both of us were a part of this group (with Dietram as the vice chair).
The public draft of the group’s findings – “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” – has just been published. In it, we take a hard look at what effective science communication means and why it’s important; what makes it so challenging – especially where the science is uncertain or contested; and how researchers and science communicators can increase our knowledge of what works, and under what conditions.
At some level, all science communication has embedded values. Information always comes wrapped in a complex skein of purpose and intent – even when presented as impartial scientific facts. Despite, or maybe because of, this complexity, there remains a need to develop a stronger empirical foundation for effective communication of and about science.
Addressing this, the National Academies draft report makes an extensive number of recommendations. A few in particular stand out:
Use a systems approach to guide science communication. In other words, recognize that science communication is part of a larger network of information and influences that affect what people and organizations think and do.
Assess the effectiveness of science communication. Yes, researchers try, but often we still engage in communication first and evaluate later. Better to design the best approach to communication based on empirical insights about both audiences and contexts. Very often, the technical risk that scientists think must be communicated have nothing to do with the hopes or concerns public audiences have.
Get better at meaningful engagement between scientists and others to enable that “honest, bidirectional dialogue” about the promises and pitfalls of science that our committee chair Alan Leshner and others have called for.
Consider social media’s impact – positive and negative.
Work toward better understanding when and how to communicate science around issues that are contentious, or potentially so.
The paper version of the book has a cost but you can get a free online version. Unfortunately, I cannot copy and paste the book’s table of contents here and was not able to find a book index although there is a handy list of reference texts.
I have taken a very quick look at the book. If you’re in the field, it’s definitely worth a look. It is, however, written for and by academics. If you look at the list of writers and reviewers, you will find over 90% are professors at one university or another. That said, I was happy to see references to Dan Kahan’s work at the Yale Law School’s Culture Cognition Project cited. As happens they weren’t able to cite his latest work [***see my xxx, 2017 curiosity post***], released about a month after “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.”
I was unable to find any reference to science communication via popular culture. I’m a little dismayed as I feel that this is a seriously ignored source of information by science communication specialists and academicians but not by the folks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who announced a wireless app in the same week as it was featured in an episode of the US television comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Here’s more from MIT’s emotion detection wireless app in a Feb. 1, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert),
It’s a fact of nature that a single conversation can be interpreted in very different ways. For people with anxiety or conditions such as Asperger’s, this can make social situations extremely stressful. But what if there was a more objective way to measure and understand our interactions?
Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) say that they’ve gotten closer to a potential solution: an artificially intelligent, wearable system that can predict if a conversation is happy, sad, or neutral based on a person’s speech patterns and vitals.
“Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai, who co-authored a related paper with PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi that they will present at next week’s Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in San Francisco. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket.”
As a participant tells a story, the system can analyze audio, text transcriptions, and physiological signals to determine the overall tone of the story with 83 percent accuracy. Using deep-learning techniques, the system can also provide a “sentiment score” for specific five-second intervals within a conversation.
“As far as we know, this is the first experiment that collects both physical data and speech data in a passive but robust way, even while subjects are having natural, unstructured interactions,” says Ghassemi. “Our results show that it’s possible to classify the emotional tone of conversations in real-time.”
The researchers say that the system’s performance would be further improved by having multiple people in a conversation use it on their smartwatches, creating more data to be analyzed by their algorithms. The team is keen to point out that they developed the system with privacy strongly in mind: The algorithm runs locally on a user’s device as a way of protecting personal information. (Alhanai says that a consumer version would obviously need clear protocols for getting consent from the people involved in the conversations.)
How it works
Many emotion-detection studies show participants “happy” and “sad” videos, or ask them to artificially act out specific emotive states. But in an effort to elicit more organic emotions, the team instead asked subjects to tell a happy or sad story of their own choosing.
Subjects wore a Samsung Simband, a research device that captures high-resolution physiological waveforms to measure features such as movement, heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and skin temperature. The system also captured audio data and text transcripts to analyze the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary.
“The team’s usage of consumer market devices for collecting physiological data and speech data shows how close we are to having such tools in everyday devices,” says Björn Schuller, professor and chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at the University of Passau in Germany, who was not involved in the research. “Technology could soon feel much more emotionally intelligent, or even ‘emotional’ itself.”
After capturing 31 different conversations of several minutes each, the team trained two algorithms on the data: One classified the overall nature of a conversation as either happy or sad, while the second classified each five-second block of every conversation as positive, negative, or neutral.
Alhanai notes that, in traditional neural networks, all features about the data are provided to the algorithm at the base of the network. In contrast, her team found that they could improve performance by organizing different features at the various layers of the network.
“The system picks up on how, for example, the sentiment in the text transcription was more abstract than the raw accelerometer data,” says Alhanai. “It’s quite remarkable that a machine could approximate how we humans perceive these interactions, without significant input from us as researchers.”
Indeed, the algorithm’s findings align well with what we humans might expect to observe. For instance, long pauses and monotonous vocal tones were associated with sadder stories, while more energetic, varied speech patterns were associated with happier ones. In terms of body language, sadder stories were also strongly associated with increased fidgeting and cardiovascular activity, as well as certain postures like putting one’s hands on one’s face.
On average, the model could classify the mood of each five-second interval with an accuracy that was approximately 18 percent above chance, and a full 7.5 percent better than existing approaches.
The algorithm is not yet reliable enough to be deployed for social coaching, but Alhanai says that they are actively working toward that goal. For future work the team plans to collect data on a much larger scale, potentially using commercial devices such as the Apple Watch that would allow them to more easily implement the system out in the world.
“Our next step is to improve the algorithm’s emotional granularity so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense, and excited moments, rather than just labeling interactions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’” says Alhanai. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.”
This research was made possible in part by the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center.
Episode 14 of season 10 of The Big Bang Theory was titled “The Emotion Detection Automation” (full episode can be found on this webpage) and broadcast on Feb. 2, 2017. There’s also a Feb. 2, 2017 recap (recapitulation) by Lincee Ray for EW.com (it seems Ray is unaware that there really is such a machine),
Who knew we would see the day when Sheldon and Raj figured out solutions for their social ineptitudes? Only The Big Bang Theory writers would think to tackle our favorite physicists’ lack of social skills with an emotion detector and an ex-girlfriend focus group. It’s been a while since I enjoyed both storylines as much as I did in this episode. That’s no bazinga.
When Raj tells the guys that he is back on the market, he wonders out loud what is wrong with his game. Why do women reject him? Sheldon receives the information like a scientist and runs through many possible answers. Raj shuts him down with a simple, “I’m fine.”
Sheldon is irritated when he learns that this obligatory remark is a mask for what Raj is really feeling. It turns out, Raj is not fine. Sheldon whines, wondering why no one just says exactly what’s on their mind. It’s quite annoying for those who struggle with recognizing emotional cues.
Lo and behold, Bernadette recently read about a gizmo that was created for people who have this exact same anxiety. MIT has a prototype, and because Howard is an alum, he can probably submit Sheldon’s name as a beta tester.
Of course this is a real thing. If anyone can build an emotion detector, it’s a bunch of awkward scientists with zero social skills.
This is the first time I’ve noticed an academic institution’s news release to be almost simultaneous with mention of its research in a popular culture television program, which suggests things have come a long way since I featured news about a webinar by the National Academies ‘ Science and Entertainment Exchange for film and television productions collaborating with scientists in an Aug. 28, 2012 post.
One last science/popular culture moment: Hidden Figures, a movie about African American women who were human computers supporting NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Agency) efforts during the 1960s space race and getting a man on the moon was (shockingly) no. 1 in the US box office for a few weeks (there’s more about the movie here in my Sept. 2, 2016 post covering then upcoming movies featuring science). After the movie was released, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote up a Jan. 23, 2017 interview with the ‘Hidden Figures’ scriptwriter for Salon.com
I [Allison Schroeder] got on the phone with her [co-producer Renee Witt] and Donna [co-producer Donna Gigliotti] and I said, “You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this.” Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, “God, these Hollywood types would say anything.” I said, “No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.”
She was like, “OK that’s impressive.” And I said, “No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.”
She said, “Well do you think you can handle the math?” I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, “Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.”
I pitched her a few scenes. I pitched her the end of the movie that you saw with Katherine running the numbers as John Glenn is trying to get up in space. I pitched her the idea of one of the women as a mechanic and to see her legs underneath the engine. You’re used to seeing a guy like that, but what would it be like to see heels and pantyhose and a skirt and she’s a mechanic and fixing something? Those are some of the scenes that I pitched them, and I got the job.
I love that the film begins with setting up their mechanical aptitude. You set up these are women; you set up these women of color. You set up exactly what that means in this moment in history. It’s like you just go from there.
I was on a really tight timeline because this started as an indie film. It was just Donna Gigliotti, Renee Witt, me and the author Margot Lee Shetterly for about a year working on it. I was only given four weeks for research and 12 weeks for writing the first draft. I’m not sure if I hadn’t known NASA and known the culture and just knew what the machines would look like, knew what the prototypes looked like, if I could have done it that quickly. I turned in that draft and Donna was like, “OK you’ve got the math and the science; it’s all here. Now go have fun.” Then I did a few more drafts and that was really enjoyable because I could let go of the fact I did it and make sure that the characters and the drive of the story and everything just fit what needed to happen.
For anyone interested in the science/popular culture connection, David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog does a better job than I do of keeping up with the latest doings.
Getting back to ‘Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda’, even with a mention of popular culture, it is a thoughtful book on the topic.
I’m guessing that graphene will feature in these proposed cortical implants since the project leader is a member of the Graphene Flagship’s Biomedical Technologies Work Package. (For those who don’t know, the Graphene Flagship is one of two major funding initiatives each receiving funding of 1B Euros over 10 years from the European Commission as part of their FET [Future and Emerging Technologies)] Initiative.) A Jan. 12, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces the new project (Note: A link has been removed),
BrainCom is a FET Proactive project, funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ [8.3 million Euros] for the next 5 years, holding its Kick-off meeting on January 12-13 at ICN2 (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology) and the UAB [ Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona]. This project, coordinated by ICREA [Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies] Research Prof. Jose A. Garrido from ICN2, will permit significant advances in understanding of cortical speech networks and the development of speech rehabilitation solutions using innovative brain-computer interfaces.
More than 5 million people worldwide suffer annually from aphasia, an extremely invalidating condition in which patients lose the ability to comprehend and formulate language after brain damage or in the course of neurodegenerative disorders. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), enabled by forefront technologies and materials, are a promising approach to treat patients with aphasia. The principle of BCIs is to collect neural activity at its source and decode it by means of electrodes implanted directly in the brain. However, neurorehabilitation of higher cognitive functions such as language raises serious issues. The current challenge is to design neural implants that cover sufficiently large areas of the brain to allow for reliable decoding of detailed neuronal activity distributed in various brain regions that are key for language processing.
BrainCom is a FET Proactive project funded by the European Commission with 8.35M€ for the next 5 years. This interdisciplinary initiative involves 10 partners including technologists, engineers, biologists, clinicians, and ethics experts. They aim to develop a new generation of neuroprosthetic cortical devices enabling large-scale recordings and stimulation of cortical activity to study high level cognitive functions. Ultimately, the BraimCom project will seed a novel line of knowledge and technologies aimed at developing the future generation of speech neural prostheses. It will cover different levels of the value chain: from technology and engineering to basic and language neuroscience, and from preclinical research in animals to clinical studies in humans.
This recently funded project is coordinated by ICREA Prof. Jose A. Garrido, Group Leader of the Advanced Electronic Materials and DevicesGroup at the Institut Català de Nanociència i Nanotecnologia (Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2) and deputy leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package presented last year in Barcelona by the Graphene Flagship. The BrainCom Kick-Off meeting is held on January 12-13 at ICN2 and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).
Recent developments show that it is possible to record cortical signals from a small region of the motor cortex and decode them to allow tetraplegic [also known as, quadriplegic] people to activate a robotic arm to perform everyday life actions. Brain-computer interfaces have also been successfully used to help tetraplegic patients unable to speak to communicate their thoughts by selecting letters on a computer screen using non-invasive electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings. The performance of such technologies can be dramatically increased using more detailed cortical neural information.
BrainCom project proposes a radically new electrocorticography technology taking advantage of unique mechanical and electrical properties of novel nanomaterials such as graphene, 2D materials and organic semiconductors. The consortium members will fabricate ultra-flexible cortical and intracortical implants, which will be placed right on the surface of the brain, enabling high density recording and stimulation sites over a large area. This approach will allow the parallel stimulation and decoding of cortical activity with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.
These technologies will help to advance the basic understanding of cortical speech networks and to develop rehabilitation solutions to restore speech using innovative brain-computer paradigms. The technology innovations developed in the project will also find applications in the study of other high cognitive functions of the brain such as learning and memory, as well as other clinical applications such as epilepsy monitoring.
The BrainCom project Consortium members are:
Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) – Spain (Coordinator)
Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona (CNM-IMB-CSIC) – Spain
University Grenoble Alpes – France
ARMINES/ Ecole des Mines de St. Etienne – France
Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Grenoble – France
Multichannel Systems – Germany
University of Geneva – Switzerland
University of Oxford – United Kingdom
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München – Germany
Wavestone – Luxembourg
There doesn’t seem to be a website for the project but there is a BrainCom webpage on the European Commission’s CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service) website.
According to a Dec. 13, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton for the National Law Review blog the German government has released a report on nanotechnology, perceptions of risk, and communication strategies,
On November 15, 2016, Germany’sFederal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) published a report, in English, entitled Nanoview — Influencing factors on the perception of nanotechnology and target group-specific risk communication strategies. In 2007, BfR conducted a survey concerning the public perception of nanotechnology. Given the newness of nanotechnology and that large sections of the population did not have any definite opinions or knowledge of it, BfR conducted a follow-up survey, Nanoview, in 2012. Nanoview also included the additional question of which communication measures for conveying risk information regarding nanotechnology are best suited to reach the majority of the population. … The report states that, given the findings from the 2007 representative survey, which confirmed gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, ideal-typical male and ideal-typical female concepts were developed. Focus groups then reviewed and optimized the conceptual considerations. According to the report, the ideal-typical male concept met the expectations of the male target groups (nano-types “supporters” and “cautious observers”).
… According to the report, the conceptual approach of the ideal-typical female concept met the expectations of the female target groups (nano-types “sceptics” and “cautious observers”), as well as catering to the information needs of some men (“cautious observers”). …
The report concludes that, with regard to the central communication measure, creating an information portal on the Internet appears to be the most meaningful strategy. .. The report states: “The ideal-typical male concept is geared towards the provision of information on scientific, technical and application-related aspects of nanotechnology, for example. The ideal-typical female concept focuses on the provision of information on application-related aspects of nanotechnology and support for everyday (purchase) decisions.”
I have quickly gone through the report and it’s interesting to note that the age range surveyed in 2012 was 16 to 60. Presumably Germany is in a similar position to other European countries, Canada, the US, and others in that the main portion of the population is ageing and that population is living longer; consequently, it seems odd to have excluded people over the age of 60.
For the following findings, there were numerous significant differences for the variables gender and age:
Women are on the whole more sceptical towards nanotechnology than men; i.e.
– men tend to be more in favour of nano applications than women
– men take a more positive view than women of the risk-benefit ratio in general and in connection with specific applications
– men have a far better feeling about nanotechnology than women
– when it comes to information about nanotechnology, men have more faith in the government than women; women have more faith than men in environmental organisations as well as health and work safety authorities
– in some areas, men have a far more positive attitude towards nanotechnology than women
Younger people are on the whole more open-minded about nanotechnology than older people; i.e.
-younger people tend to be more in favour of nano applications than older people. The cohort of 16 to 30-year-olds is in some cases far more open-minded than the population overall
– younger people take a (slightly) more positive view than older people of the risk-benefit ratio in general and in connection with specific applications
– in some areas, younger people have a far more positive attitude towards nanotechnology than older people
In contrast, there are few to hardly any significant differences for the variables “education”, “size of household”, “income” and “migration background”. [p. 77]
I also found this to be of interest,
In recent years, there has been little or no change in awareness levels among the general population with regard to nanotechnology. This is shown by a comparison of the representative Germany-wide surveys on the risk perception of nanotechnology among the population conducted in 2007 and 2012 (cf. Chapter 0). In response to the open question regarding nanotechnology, around 40% of respondents in the 2012 survey say they had not previously heard of nanotechnology or nanomaterials (cf. Chapter 4.2.2). At the same time, however, those respondents who did know about the topic were able to make fairly differentiated statements on individual issues and applications. The risk-benefit ratio of nanotechnology is seen slightly more critically than five years previously, and the general attitude towards nanotechnology has become less favourable. The subjective feeling of being informed about the issue is also still less pronounced than is the case with other innovative technologies. From the point of view of consumers, therefore, this means that an information deficit still exists when it comes to nanotechnology. (p. 83)
It seems to be true everywhere. Awareness of nanotechnology does not seem to change much.
This is a 162 pp. report, which recommends risk communication strategies for nanotechnology,
The findings of the representative survey underline the need to inform the public at the earliest possible date about scientific knowledge as well as the potential and possible risks of nanotechnology. For this reason, the challenge was to develop two alternative target group-specific risk communication concepts. The drafting of these concepts was a two-phase process and took account not only of the prior work done in the research project but also of the insights gained from two group discussions with consumers (focus groups). Against the backdrop of the findings from the representative survey, which confirmed the gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, it was decided in consultation with the client to develop an ideal-typical male and an ideal-typical female concept. … (p. 100)
This returns us to the beginning with the Bergeson/Hutton post. For more details you do need to read the report. By the way, the literature survey is quite broad and interesting bringing together more than 20 surveys to provide an international (largely Eurocentric) perspective.
A Dec. 12, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the answer to a problem scientists have been investigating for over a century but first, here are the questions,
We all know that water melts at 0°C. However, 150 years ago the famous physicist Michael Faraday discovered that at the surface of frozen ice, well below 0°C, a thin film of liquid-like water is present. This thin film makes ice slippery and is crucial for the motion of glaciers.
Since Faraday’s discovery, the properties of this water-like layer have been the research topic of scientists all over the world, which has entailed considerable controversy: at what temperature does the surface become liquid-like? How does the thickness of the layer dependent on temperature? How does the thickness of the layer increases with temperature? Continuously? Stepwise? Experiments to date have generally shown a very thin layer, which continuously grows in thickness up to 45 nm right below the bulk melting point at 0°C. This also illustrates why it has been so challenging to study this layer of liquid-like water on ice: 45 nm is about 1/1000th part of a human hair and is not discernible by eye.
Scientists of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research (MPI-P), in a collaboration with researchers from the Netherlands, the USA and Japan, have succeeded to study the properties of this quasi-liquid layer on ice at the molecular level using advanced surface-specific spectroscopy and computer simulations. The results are published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
The team of scientists around Ellen Backus, group leader at MPI-P, investigated how the thin liquid layer is formed on ice, how it grows with increasing temperature, and if it is distinguishable from normal liquid water. These studies required well-defined ice crystal surfaces. Therefore much effort was put into creating ~10 cm large single crystals of ice, which could be cut in such a way that the surface structure was precisely known. To investigate whether the surface was solid or liquid, the team made use of the fact that water molecules in the liquid have a weaker interaction with each other compared to water molecules in ice. Using their interfacial spectroscopy, combined with the controlled heating of the ice crystal, the researchers were able to quantify the change in the interaction between water molecules directly at the interface between ice and air.
The experimental results, combined with the simulations, showed that the first molecular layer at the ice surface has already molten at temperatures as low as -38° C (235 K), the lowest temperature the researchers could experimentally investigate. Increasing the temperature to -16° C (257 K), the second layer becomes liquid. Contrary to popular belief, the surface melting of ice is not a continuous process, but occurs in a discontinuous, layer-by-layer fashion.
“A further important question for us was, whether one could distinguish between the properties of the quasi-liquid layer and those of normal water” says Mischa Bonn, co-author of the paper and director at the MPI-P. And indeed, the quasi-liquid layer at -4° C (269 K) shows a different spectroscopic response than supercooled water at the same temperature; in the quasi-liquid layer, the water molecules seem to interact more strongly than in liquid water.
The results are not only important for a fundamental understanding of ice, but also for climate science, where much research takes place on catalytic reactions on ice surfaces, for which the understanding of the ice surface structure is crucial.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Experimental and theoretical evidence for bilayer-by-bilayer surface melting of crystalline ice by M. Alejandra Sánchez, Tanja Kling, Tatsuya Ishiyama, Marc-Jan van Zadel, Patrick J. Bisson, Markus Mezger, Mara N. Jochum, Jenée D. Cyran, Wilbert J. Smit, Huib J. Bakker, Mary Jane Shultz, Akihiro Morita, Davide Donadio, Yuki Nagata, Mischa Bonn, and Ellen H. G. Backus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1612893114 Published online before print December 12, 2016
Colors are produced in a variety of ways. The best known colors are pigments. However, the very bright colors of the blue tarantula or peacock feathers do not result from pigments, but from nanostructures that cause the reflected light waves to overlap. This produces extraordinarily dynamic color effects. Scientists from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in cooperation with international colleagues, have now succeeded in replicating nanostructures that generate the same color irrespective of the viewing angle. DOI: 10.1002/adom.201600599
In contrast to pigments, structural colors are non-toxic, more vibrant and durable. In industrial production, however, they have the drawback of being strongly iridescent, which means that the color perceived depends on the viewing angle. An example is the rear side of a CD. Hence, such colors cannot be used for all applications. Bright colors of animals, by contrast, are often independent of the angle of view. Feathers of the kingfisher always appear blue, no matter from which angle we look. The reason lies in the nanostructures: While regular structures are iridescent, amorphous or irregular structures always produce the same color. Yet, industry can only produce regular nanostructures in an economically efficient way.
Radwanul Hasan Siddique, researcher at KIT in collaboration with scientists from USA and Belgium has now discovered that the blue tarantula does not exhibit iridescence in spite of periodic structures on its hairs. First, their study revealed that the hairs are multi-layered, flower-like structure. Then, the researchers analyzed its reflection behavior with the help of computer simulations. In parallel, they built models of these structures using nano-3D printers and optimized the models with the help of the simulations. In the end, they produced a flower-like structure that generates the same color over a viewing angle of 160 degrees. This is the largest viewing angle of any synthetic structural color reached so far.
Flower-shaped nanostructures generate the color of the blue tarantula. (Graphics: Bill Hsiung, University of Akron)
The 3D print of the optimized flower structure is only 15 µm in dimension. A human hair is about three times as thick. (Photo: Bill Hsiung, Universtiy of Akron)
Apart from the multi-layered structure and rotational symmetry, it is the hierarchical structure from micro to nano that ensures homogeneous reflection intensity and prevents color changes.
Via the size of the “flower,” the resulting color can be adjusted, which makes this coloring method interesting for industry. “This could be a key first step towards a future where structural colorants replace the toxic pigments currently used in textile, packaging, and cosmetic industries,” says Radwanul Hasan Siddique of KIT’s Institute of Microstructure Technology, who now works at the California Institute of Technology. He considers short-term application in textile industry feasible.
The synthetically generated flower structure inspired by the blue tarantula reflects light in the same color over a viewing angle of 160 degrees. (Graphics: Derek Miller)
Dr. Hendrik Hölscher thinks that the scalability of nano-3D printing is the biggest challenge on the way towards industrial use. Only few companies in the world are able to produce such prints. In his opinion, however, rapid development in this field will certainly solve this problem in the near future.
Once again, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
From a Nov. 14, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton for The National Law Review (Note: A link has been removed),
The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) recently published an English version of its Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020. Based on the success of the Action Plan Nanotechnology over the previous ten years, the federal government will continue the Action Plan Nanotechnology for the next five years. Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020 is geared towards the priorities of the federal government’s new “High-Tech Strategy” (HTS), which has as its objective the solution of societal challenges by promoting research. According to Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020, the results of a number of research projects “have shown that nanomaterials are not per se linked with a risk for people and the environment due to their nanoscale properties.” Instead, this is influenced more by structure, chemical composition, and other factors, and is thus dependent on the respective material and its application.
A Nov. 16, 2016 posting on Out-Law.com provides mores detail about the plan (Note: A link has been removed),
Eight ministries have been responsible for producing a joint plan on nanotechnology every five years since 2006, the Ministry said. The ministries develop a common approach that pools strategies for action and fields of application for nanotechnology, it [Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research] said.
The German public sector currently spends more than €600 million a year on nanotechnology related developments, and 2,200 organisations from industry, services, research and associations are registered in the Ministry’s nanotechnology competence map, the report said.
“There are currently also some 1,100 companies in Germany engaged [in] the use of nanotechnology in the fields of research and development as well as the marketing of commercial products and services. The proportion of SMEs [small to medium enterprises?] is around 75%,” it said.
Nanotechnology-based product innovations play “an increasingly important role in many areas of life, such as health and nutrition, the workplace, mobility and energy production”, and the plan “thus pursues the objective of continuing to exploit the opportunities and potential of nanotechnology in Germany, without disregarding any potential risks to humans and the environment.”, the Ministry said.
Technology law expert Florian von Baum of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: “The action plan aims to achieve and secure Germany’s critical lead in the still new nanotechnology field and to recognise and use the full potential of nanotechnology while taking into account possible risks and dangers of this new technology.”
“With the rapid pace of development and the new applications that emerge every day, the government needs to ensure that the dangers and risks are sufficiently recognised and considered. Nanotechnology will provide great and long-awaited breakthroughs in health and ecological areas, but ethical, legal and socio-economic issues must be assessed and evaluated at all stages of the innovation chain,” von Baum said.
You can find Germany’s Action Plan Nanotechnology 2020 here, all 64 pp.of it.
Israel and Germany
A Nov. 16, 2016 article by Shoshanna Solomon for The Times of Israel announces a new joint (Israel-Germany) nanotechnology fund,
Tsrael and Germany have set up a new three-year, €30 million plan to promote joint nanotechnology initiatives and are calling on companies and entities in both countries to submit proposals for funding for projects in this field.
“Nanotech is the industry of the future in global hi-tech and Israel has set a goal of becoming a leader of this field, while cooperating with leading European countries,” Ilan Peled, manager of Technological Infrastructure Arena at the Israel Innovation Authority, said in a statement announcing the plan.
In the past decade nanotechnology, seen by many as the tech field of the future, has focused mainly on research. Now, however, Israel’s Innovation Authority, which has set up the joint program with Germany, believes the next decade will focus on the application of this research into products — and countries are keen to set up the right ecosystem that will draw companies operating in this field to them.
Over the last decade, the country has focused on creating a “robust research foundation that can support a large industry,” the authority said, with six academic research institutes that are among the world’s most advanced.
In addition, the authority said, there are about 200 new startups that were established over the last decade in the field, many in the development stage.
I know it’s been over 70 years since the events of World War II but this does seem like an unexpected coupling. It is heartening to see that people can resolve the unimaginable within the space of a few generations.
Iran is ready to build a laboratory center equipped with nanotechnology in one of nano institutes in Cuba, Iran’s VP for Science and Technology Sorena Sattari said Tuesday [Nov. 15, 2016].
Sorena Sattari, Vice-President for Science and Technology, made the remark in a meeting with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, scientific adviser to the Cuban president, in Tehran on Tuesday [November 15, 2016], adding that Iran is also ready to present Cuba with a gifted package including educational services related to how to operate the equipment at the lab.
During the meeting, Sattari noted Iran’s various technological achievements including exports of biotechnological medicine to Russia, the extensive nanotechnology plans for high school and university students as well as companies, the presence of about 160 companies active in the field of nanotechnology and the country’s achievements in the field of water treatment.
“We have sealed good nano agreements with Cuba, and are ready to develop our technological cooperation with this country in the field of vaccines and recombinant drugs,” he said.
Sattari maintained that the biggest e-commerce company in the Middle East is situated in Iran, adding “the company which was only established six years ago now sales over $3.5 million in a day, and is even bigger than similar companies in Russia.”
The Cuban official, for his part, welcomed any kind of cooperation with Iran, and thanked the Islamic Republic for its generous proposal on establishing a nanotechnology laboratory in his country.
This coupling is not quite so unexpected as Iran has been cozying up to all kinds of countries in its drive to establish itself as a nanotechnology leader.