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The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada (1 of 2)

Before launching into the assessment, a brief explanation of my theme: Hedy Lamarr was considered to be one of the great beauties of her day,

“Ziegfeld Girl” Hedy Lamarr 1941 MGM *M.V.
Titles: Ziegfeld Girl
People: Hedy Lamarr
Image courtesy mptvimages.com [downloaded from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034415/mediaviewer/rm1566611456]

Aside from starring in Hollywood movies and, before that, movies in Europe, she was also an inventor and not just any inventor (from a Dec. 4, 2017 article by Laura Barnett for The Guardian), Note: Links have been removed,

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the mercurial brilliance of Hedy Lamarr. Not only did the Vienna-born actor flee a loveless marriage to a Nazi arms dealer to secure a seven-year, $3,000-a-week contract with MGM, and become (probably) the first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen – she also took time out to invent a device that would eventually revolutionise mobile communications.

As described in unprecedented detail by the American journalist and historian Richard Rhodes in his new book, Hedy’s Folly, Lamarr and her business partner, the composer George Antheil, were awarded a patent in 1942 for a “secret communication system”. It was meant for radio-guided torpedoes, and the pair gave to the US Navy. It languished in their files for decades before eventually becoming a constituent part of GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

(The article goes on to mention other celebrities [Marlon Brando, Barbara Cartland, Mark Twain, etc] and their inventions.)

Lamarr’s work as an inventor was largely overlooked until the 1990’s when the technology community turned her into a ‘cultish’ favourite and from there her reputation grew and acknowledgement increased culminating in Rhodes’ book and the documentary by Alexandra Dean, ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (to be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Masters series on May 18, 2018).

Canada as Hedy Lamarr

There are some parallels to be drawn between Canada’s S&T and R&D (science and technology; research and development) and Ms. Lamarr. Chief amongst them, we’re not always appreciated for our brains. Not even by people who are supposed to know better such as the experts on the panel for the ‘Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada’ (proper title: Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) from the Expert Panel on the State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.

A little history

Before exploring the comparison to Hedy Lamarr further, here’s a bit more about the history of this latest assessment from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), from the report released April 10, 2018,

This assessment of Canada’s performance indicators in science, technology, research, and innovation comes at an opportune time. The Government of Canada has expressed a renewed commitment in several tangible ways to this broad domain of activity including its Innovation and Skills Plan, the announcement of five superclusters, its appointment of a new Chief Science Advisor, and its request for the Fundamental Science Review. More specifically, the 2018 Federal Budget demonstrated the government’s strong commitment to research and innovation with historic investments in science.

The CCA has a decade-long history of conducting evidence-based assessments about Canada’s research and development activities, producing seven assessments of relevance:

The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2006) [emphasis mine]
•Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (2009)
•Catalyzing Canada’s Digital Economy (2010)
•Informing Research Choices: Indicators and Judgment (2012)
The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) [emphasis mine]
The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013) [emphasis mine]
•Paradox Lost: Explaining Canada’s Research Strength and Innovation Weakness (2013)

Using similar methods and metrics to those in The State of Science and Technology in Canada (2012) and The State of Industrial R&D in Canada (2013), this assessment tells a similar and familiar story: Canada has much to be proud of, with world-class researchers in many domains of knowledge, but the rest of the world is not standing still. Our peers are also producing high quality results, and many countries are making significant commitments to supporting research and development that will position them to better leverage their strengths to compete globally. Canada will need to take notice as it determines how best to take action. This assessment provides valuable material for that conversation to occur, whether it takes place in the lab or the legislature, the bench or the boardroom. We also hope it will be used to inform public discussion. [p. ix Print, p. 11 PDF]

This latest assessment succeeds the general 2006 and 2012 reports, which were mostly focused on academic research, and combines it with an assessment of industrial research, which was previously separate. Also, this third assessment’s title (Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada) makes what was previously quietly declared in the text, explicit from the cover onwards. It’s all about competition, despite noises such as the 2017 Naylor report (Review of fundamental research) about the importance of fundamental research.

One other quick comment, I did wonder in my July 1, 2016 posting (featuring the announcement of the third assessment) how combining two assessments would impact the size of the expert panel and the size of the final report,

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

I got my answer with regard to the panel as noted in my Oct. 20, 2016 update (which featured a list of the members),

A few observations, given the size of the task, this panel is lean. As well, there are three women in a group of 13 (less than 25% representation) in 2016? It’s Ontario and Québec-dominant; only BC and Alberta rate a representative on the panel. I hope they will find ways to better balance this panel and communicate that ‘balanced story’ to the rest of us. On the plus side, the panel has representatives from the humanities, arts, and industry in addition to the expected representatives from the sciences.

The imbalance I noted then was addressed, somewhat, with the selection of the reviewers (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The CCA wishes to thank the following individuals for their review of this report:

Ronald Burnett, C.M., O.B.C., RCA, Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des
lettres, President and Vice-Chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design
(Vancouver, BC)

Michelle N. Chretien, Director, Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design
Technologies, Sheridan College; Former Program and Business Development
Manager, Electronic Materials, Xerox Research Centre of Canada (Brampton,
ON)

Lisa Crossley, CEO, Reliq Health Technologies, Inc. (Ancaster, ON)
Natalie Dakers, Founding President and CEO, Accel-Rx Health Sciences
Accelerator (Vancouver, BC)

Fred Gault, Professorial Fellow, United Nations University-MERIT (Maastricht,
Netherlands)

Patrick D. Germain, Principal Engineering Specialist, Advanced Aerodynamics,
Bombardier Aerospace (Montréal, QC)

Robert Brian Haynes, O.C., FRSC, FCAHS, Professor Emeritus, DeGroote
School of Medicine, McMaster University (Hamilton, ON)

Susan Holt, Chief, Innovation and Business Relationships, Government of
New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB)

Pierre A. Mohnen, Professor, United Nations University-MERIT and Maastricht
University (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Peter J. M. Nicholson, C.M., Retired; Former and Founding President and
CEO, Council of Canadian Academies (Annapolis Royal, NS)

Raymond G. Siemens, Distinguished Professor, English and Computer Science
and Former Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, University of
Victoria (Victoria, BC) [pp. xii- xiv Print; pp. 15-16 PDF]

The proportion of women to men as reviewers jumped up to about 36% (4 of 11 reviewers) and there are two reviewers from the Maritime provinces. As usual, reviewers external to Canada were from Europe. Although this time, they came from Dutch institutions rather than UK or German institutions. Interestingly and unusually, there was no one from a US institution. When will they start using reviewers from other parts of the world?

As for the report itself, it is 244 pp. (PDF). (For the really curious, I have a  December 15, 2016 post featuring my comments on the preliminary data for the third assessment.)

To sum up, they had a lean expert panel tasked with bringing together two inquiries and two reports. I imagine that was daunting. Good on them for finding a way to make it manageable.

Bibliometrics, patents, and a survey

I wish more attention had been paid to some of the issues around open science, open access, and open data, which are changing how science is being conducted. (I have more about this from an April 5, 2018 article by James Somers for The Atlantic but more about that later.) If I understand rightly, they may not have been possible due to the nature of the questions posed by the government when requested the assessment.

As was done for the second assessment, there is an acknowledgement that the standard measures/metrics (bibliometrics [no. of papers published, which journals published them; number of times papers were cited] and technometrics [no. of patent applications, etc.] of scientific accomplishment and progress are not the best and new approaches need to be developed and adopted (from the report released April 10, 2018),

It is also worth noting that the Panel itself recognized the limits that come from using traditional historic metrics. Additional approaches will be needed the next time this assessment is done. [p. ix Print; p. 11 PDF]

For the second assessment and as a means of addressing some of the problems with metrics, the panel decided to take a survey which the panel for the third assessment has also done (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The Panel relied on evidence from multiple sources to address its charge, including a literature review and data extracted from statistical agencies and organizations such as Statistics Canada and the OECD. For international comparisons, the Panel focused on OECD countries along with developing countries that are among the top 20 producers of peer-reviewed research publications (e.g., China, India, Brazil, Iran, Turkey). In addition to the literature review, two primary research approaches informed the Panel’s assessment:
•a comprehensive bibliometric and technometric analysis of Canadian research publications and patents; and,
•a survey of top-cited researchers around the world.

Despite best efforts to collect and analyze up-to-date information, one of the Panel’s findings is that data limitations continue to constrain the assessment of R&D activity and excellence in Canada. This is particularly the case with industrial R&D and in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Data on industrial R&D activity continue to suffer from time lags for some measures, such as internationally comparable data on R&D intensity by sector and industry. These data also rely on industrial categories (i.e., NAICS and ISIC codes) that can obscure important trends, particularly in the services sector, though Statistics Canada’s recent revisions to how this data is reported have improved this situation. There is also a lack of internationally comparable metrics relating to R&D outcomes and impacts, aside from those based on patents.

For the social sciences, arts, and humanities, metrics based on journal articles and other indexed publications provide an incomplete and uneven picture of research contributions. The expansion of bibliometric databases and methodological improvements such as greater use of web-based metrics, including paper views/downloads and social media references, will support ongoing, incremental improvements in the availability and accuracy of data. However, future assessments of R&D in Canada may benefit from more substantive integration of expert review, capable of factoring in different types of research outputs (e.g., non-indexed books) and impacts (e.g., contributions to communities or impacts on public policy). The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity. It is vital that such contributions are better measured and assessed. [p. xvii Print; p. 19 PDF]

My reading: there’s a problem and we’re not going to try and fix it this time. Good luck to those who come after us. As for this line: “The Panel has no doubt that contributions from the humanities, arts, and social sciences are of equal importance to national prosperity.” Did no one explain that when you use ‘no doubt’, you are introducing doubt? It’s a cousin to ‘don’t take this the wrong way’ and ‘I don’t mean to be rude but …’ .

Good news

This is somewhat encouraging (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada’s international reputation for its capacity to participate in cutting-edge R&D is strong, with 60% of top-cited researchers surveyed internationally indicating that Canada hosts world-leading infrastructure or programs in their fields. This share increased by four percentage points between 2012 and 2017. Canada continues to benefit from a highly educated population and deep pools of research skills and talent. Its population has the highest level of educational attainment in the OECD in the proportion of the population with
a post-secondary education. However, among younger cohorts (aged 25 to 34), Canada has fallen behind Japan and South Korea. The number of researchers per capita in Canada is on a par with that of other developed countries, andincreased modestly between 2004 and 2012. Canada’s output of PhD graduates has also grown in recent years, though it remains low in per capita terms relative to many OECD countries. [pp. xvii-xviii; pp. 19-20]

Don’t let your head get too big

Most of the report observes that our international standing is slipping in various ways such as this (from the report released April 10, 2018),

In contrast, the number of R&D personnel employed in Canadian businesses
dropped by 20% between 2008 and 2013. This is likely related to sustained and
ongoing decline in business R&D investment across the country. R&D as a share
of gross domestic product (GDP) has steadily declined in Canada since 2001,
and now stands well below the OECD average (Figure 1). As one of few OECD
countries with virtually no growth in total national R&D expenditures between
2006 and 2015, Canada would now need to more than double expenditures to
achieve an R&D intensity comparable to that of leading countries.

Low and declining business R&D expenditures are the dominant driver of this
trend; however, R&D spending in all sectors is implicated. Government R&D
expenditures declined, in real terms, over the same period. Expenditures in the
higher education sector (an indicator on which Canada has traditionally ranked
highly) are also increasing more slowly than the OECD average. Significant
erosion of Canada’s international competitiveness and capacity to participate
in R&D and innovation is likely to occur if this decline and underinvestment
continue.

Between 2009 and 2014, Canada produced 3.8% of the world’s research
publications, ranking ninth in the world. This is down from seventh place for
the 2003–2008 period. India and Italy have overtaken Canada although the
difference between Italy and Canada is small. Publication output in Canada grew
by 26% between 2003 and 2014, a growth rate greater than many developed
countries (including United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and
Japan), but below the world average, which reflects the rapid growth in China
and other emerging economies. Research output from the federal government,
particularly the National Research Council Canada, dropped significantly
between 2009 and 2014.(emphasis mine)  [p. xviii Print; p. 20 PDF]

For anyone unfamiliar with Canadian politics,  2009 – 2014 were years during which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed the government. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected to form the government in late 2015.

During Harper’s years in government, the Conservatives were very interested in changing how the National Research Council of Canada operated and, if memory serves, the focus was on innovation over research. Consequently, the drop in their research output is predictable.

Given my interest in nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, this popped out (from the report released April 10, 2018),

When it comes to research on most enabling and strategic technologies, however, Canada lags other countries. Bibliometric evidence suggests that, with the exception of selected subfields in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) such as Medical Informatics and Personalized Medicine, Canada accounts for a relatively small share of the world’s research output for promising areas of technology development. This is particularly true for Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, and Materials science [emphasis mine]. Canada’s research impact, as reflected by citations, is also modest in these areas. Aside from Biotechnology, none of the other subfields in Enabling and Strategic Technologies has an ARC rank among the top five countries. Optoelectronics and photonics is the next highest ranked at 7th place, followed by Materials, and Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, both of which have a rank of 9th. Even in areas where Canadian researchers and institutions played a seminal role in early research (and retain a substantial research capacity), such as Artificial Intelligence and Regenerative Medicine, Canada has lost ground to other countries.

Arguably, our early efforts in artificial intelligence wouldn’t have garnered us much in the way of ranking and yet we managed some cutting edge work such as machine learning. I’m not suggesting the expert panel should have or could have found some way to measure these kinds of efforts but I’m wondering if there could have been some acknowledgement in the text of the report. I’m thinking a couple of sentences in a paragraph about the confounding nature of scientific research where areas that are ignored for years and even decades then become important (e.g., machine learning) but are not measured as part of scientific progress until after they are universally recognized.

Still, point taken about our diminishing returns in ’emerging’ technologies and sciences (from the report released April 10, 2018),

The impression that emerges from these data is sobering. With the exception of selected ICT subfields, such as Medical Informatics, bibliometric evidence does not suggest that Canada excels internationally in most of these research areas. In areas such as Nanotechnology and Materials science, Canada lags behind other countries in levels of research output and impact, and other countries are outpacing Canada’s publication growth in these areas — leading to declining shares of world publications. Even in research areas such as AI, where Canadian researchers and institutions played a foundational role, Canadian R&D activity is not keeping pace with that of other countries and some researchers trained in Canada have relocated to other countries (Section 4.4.1). There are isolated exceptions to these trends, but the aggregate data reviewed by this Panel suggest that Canada is not currently a world leader in research on most emerging technologies.

The Hedy Lamarr treatment

We have ‘good looks’ (arts and humanities) but not the kind of brains (physical sciences and engineering) that people admire (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphases mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world researchin these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected
in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

Couldn’t they have used a more buoyant tone? After all, science was known as ‘natural philosophy’ up until the 19th century. As for visual and performing arts, let’s include poetry as a performing and literary art (both have been the case historically and cross-culturally) and let’s also note that one of the great physics texts, (De rerum natura by Lucretius) was a multi-volume poem (from Lucretius’ Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed).

His poem De rerum natura (usually translated as “On the Nature of Things” or “On the Nature of the Universe”) transmits the ideas of Epicureanism, which includes Atomism [the concept of atoms forming materials] and psychology. Lucretius was the first writer to introduce Roman readers to Epicurean philosophy.[15] The poem, written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, is divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, “chance”, and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.[16]

Should you need more proof that the arts might have something to contribute to physical sciences, there’s this in my March 7, 2018 posting,

It’s not often you see research that combines biologically inspired engineering and a molecular biophysicist with a professional animator who worked at Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings film trilogy, etc.) Park Road Post film studio. An Oct. 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the project,

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, [emphasis mine] is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions to many of the world’s greatest problems. “I feel that there’s a huge disconnect between science and the public because it’s depicted as rote memorization in schools, when by definition, if you can memorize it, it’s not science,” says Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). [emphasis mine] “Science is the pursuit of the unknown. We have a responsibility to reach out to the public and convey that excitement of exploration and discovery, and fortunately, the film industry is already great at doing that.”

“Not only is our physics-based simulation and animation system as good as other data-based modeling systems, it led to the new scientific insight [emphasis mine] that the limited motion of the dynein hinge focuses the energy released by ATP hydrolysis, which causes dynein’s shape change and drives microtubule sliding and axoneme motion,” says Ingber. “Additionally, while previous studies of dynein have revealed the molecule’s two different static conformations, our animation visually depicts one plausible way that the protein can transition between those shapes at atomic resolution, which is something that other simulations can’t do. The animation approach also allows us to visualize how rows of dyneins work in unison, like rowers pulling together in a boat, which is difficult using conventional scientific simulation approaches.”

It comes down to how we look at things. Yes, physical sciences and engineering are very important. If the report is to be believed we have a very highly educated population and according to PISA scores our students rank highly in mathematics, science, and reading skills. (For more information on Canada’s latest PISA scores from 2015 see this OECD page. As for PISA itself, it’s an OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] programme where 15-year-old students from around the world are tested on their reading, mathematics, and science skills, you can get some information from my Oct. 9, 2013 posting.)

Is it really so bad that we choose to apply those skills in fields other than the physical sciences and engineering? It’s a little bit like Hedy Lamarr’s problem except instead of being judged for our looks and having our inventions dismissed, we’re being judged for not applying ourselves to physical sciences and engineering and having our work in other closely aligned fields dismissed as less important.

Canada’s Industrial R&D: an oft-told, very sad story

Bemoaning the state of Canada’s industrial research and development efforts has been a national pastime as long as I can remember. Here’s this from the report released April 10, 2018,

There has been a sustained erosion in Canada’s industrial R&D capacity and competitiveness. Canada ranks 33rd among leading countries on an index assessing the magnitude, intensity, and growth of industrial R&D expenditures. Although Canada is the 11th largest spender, its industrial R&D intensity (0.9%) is only half the OECD average and total spending is declining (−0.7%). Compared with G7 countries, the Canadian portfolio of R&D investment is more concentrated in industries that are intrinsically not as R&D intensive. Canada invests more heavily than the G7 average in oil and gas, forestry, machinery and equipment, and finance where R&D has been less central to business strategy than in many other industries. …  About 50% of Canada’s industrial R&D spending is in high-tech sectors (including industries such as ICT, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and automotive) compared with the G7 average of 80%. Canadian Business Enterprise Expenditures on R&D (BERD) intensity is also below the OECD average in these sectors. In contrast, Canadian investment in low and medium-low tech sectors is substantially higher than the G7 average. Canada’s spending reflects both its long-standing industrial structure and patterns of economic activity.

R&D investment patterns in Canada appear to be evolving in response to global and domestic shifts. While small and medium-sized enterprises continue to perform a greater share of industrial R&D in Canada than in the United States, between 2009 and 2013, there was a shift in R&D from smaller to larger firms. Canada is an increasingly attractive place to conduct R&D. Investment by foreign-controlled firms in Canada has increased to more than 35% of total R&D investment, with the United States accounting for more than half of that. [emphasis mine]  Multinational enterprises seem to be increasingly locating some of their R&D operations outside their country of ownership, possibly to gain proximity to superior talent. Increasing foreign-controlled R&D, however, also could signal a long-term strategic loss of control over intellectual property (IP) developed in this country, ultimately undermining the government’s efforts to support high-growth firms as they scale up. [pp. xxii-xxiii Print; pp. 24-25 PDF]

Canada has been known as a ‘branch plant’ economy for decades. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, it means that companies from other countries come here, open up a branch and that’s how we get our jobs as we don’t have all that many large companies here. Increasingly, multinationals are locating R&D shops here.

While our small to medium size companies fund industrial R&D, it’s large companies (multinationals) which can afford long-term and serious investment in R&D. Luckily for companies from other countries, we have a well-educated population of people looking for jobs.

In 2017, we opened the door more widely so we can scoop up talented researchers and scientists from other countries, from a June 14, 2017 article by Beckie Smith for The PIE News,

Universities have welcomed the inclusion of the work permit exemption for academic stays of up to 120 days in the strategy, which also introduces expedited visa processing for some highly skilled professions.

Foreign researchers working on projects at a publicly funded degree-granting institution or affiliated research institution will be eligible for one 120-day stay in Canada every 12 months.

And universities will also be able to access a dedicated service channel that will support employers and provide guidance on visa applications for foreign talent.

The Global Skills Strategy, which came into force on June 12 [2017], aims to boost the Canadian economy by filling skills gaps with international talent.

As well as the short term work permit exemption, the Global Skills Strategy aims to make it easier for employers to recruit highly skilled workers in certain fields such as computer engineering.

“Employers that are making plans for job-creating investments in Canada will often need an experienced leader, dynamic researcher or an innovator with unique skills not readily available in Canada to make that investment happen,” said Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“The Global Skills Strategy aims to give those employers confidence that when they need to hire from abroad, they’ll have faster, more reliable access to top talent.”

Coincidentally, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, etc. have announced, in 2017, new jobs and new offices in Canadian cities. There’s a also Chinese multinational telecom company Huawei Canada which has enjoyed success in Canada and continues to invest here (from a Jan. 19, 2018 article about security concerns by Matthew Braga for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) online news,

For the past decade, Chinese tech company Huawei has found no shortage of success in Canada. Its equipment is used in telecommunications infrastructure run by the country’s major carriers, and some have sold Huawei’s phones.

The company has struck up partnerships with Canadian universities, and say it is investing more than half a billion dollars in researching next generation cellular networks here. [emphasis mine]

While I’m not thrilled about using patents as an indicator of progress, this is interesting to note (from the report released April 10, 2018),

Canada produces about 1% of global patents, ranking 18th in the world. It lags further behind in trademark (34th) and design applications (34th). Despite relatively weak performance overall in patents, Canada excels in some technical fields such as Civil Engineering, Digital Communication, Other Special Machines, Computer Technology, and Telecommunications. [emphases mine] Canada is a net exporter of patents, which signals the R&D strength of some technology industries. It may also reflect increasing R&D investment by foreign-controlled firms. [emphasis mine] [p. xxiii Print; p. 25 PDF]

Getting back to my point, we don’t have large companies here. In fact, the dream for most of our high tech startups is to build up the company so it’s attractive to buyers, sell, and retire (hopefully before the age of 40). Strangely, the expert panel doesn’t seem to share my insight into this matter,

Canada’s combination of high performance in measures of research output and impact, and low performance on measures of industrial R&D investment and innovation (e.g., subpar productivity growth), continue to be viewed as a paradox, leading to the hypothesis that barriers are impeding the flow of Canada’s research achievements into commercial applications. The Panel’s analysis suggests the need for a more nuanced view. The process of transforming research into innovation and wealth creation is a complex multifaceted process, making it difficult to point to any definitive cause of Canada’s deficit in R&D investment and productivity growth. Based on the Panel’s interpretation of the evidence, Canada is a highly innovative nation, but significant barriers prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation. The available evidence does point to a number of important contributing factors that are analyzed in this report. Figure 5 represents the relationships between R&D, innovation, and wealth creation.

The Panel concluded that many factors commonly identified as points of concern do not adequately explain the overall weakness in Canada’s innovation performance compared with other countries. [emphasis mine] Academia-business linkages appear relatively robust in quantitative terms given the extent of cross-sectoral R&D funding and increasing academia-industry partnerships, though the volume of academia-industry interactions does not indicate the nature or the quality of that interaction, nor the extent to which firms are capitalizing on the research conducted and the resulting IP. The educational system is high performing by international standards and there does not appear to be a widespread lack of researchers or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. IP policies differ across universities and are unlikely to explain a divergence in research commercialization activity between Canadian and U.S. institutions, though Canadian universities and governments could do more to help Canadian firms access university IP and compete in IP management and strategy. Venture capital availability in Canada has improved dramatically in recent years and is now competitive internationally, though still overshadowed by Silicon Valley. Technology start-ups and start-up ecosystems are also flourishing in many sectors and regions, demonstrating their ability to build on research advances to develop and deliver innovative products and services.

You’ll note there’s no mention of a cultural issue where start-ups are designed for sale as soon as possible and this isn’t new. Years ago, there was an accounting firm that published a series of historical maps (the last one I saw was in 2005) of technology companies in the Vancouver region. Technology companies were being developed and sold to large foreign companies from the 19th century to present day.

Part 2

Australian peacock spiders, photonic nanostructures, and making money

Researcher Bor-Kai Hsiung’s work has graced this blog before but the topic was tarantulas and their structural colour. This time, it’s all about Australian peacock spiders and their structural colour according to a December 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Even if you are arachnophobic, you probably have seen pictures or videos of Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.). These tiny spiders are only 1-5 mm long but are famous for their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements.

The spiders extremely large anterior median eyes have excellent color vision and combine with their bright colors to make peacock spiders cute enough to cure most people of their arachnophobia. But these displays aren’t just pretty to look at, they also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.

One species of peacock spider — the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) is particularly neat, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to the females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females. Dr. Bor-Kai Hsiung led an international team of researchers from the US (UAkron, Cal Tech, UC San Diego, UNL [University of Nebraska-Lincoln]), Belgium (Ghent University), Netherlands (UGroningen), and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique multi-color iridescent signal.

A December 22, 2017 Ghent University (Belgium) press release on Alpha Galileo, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Using a diverse array of research techniques, including light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry, nano 3D printing and optical modeling, the team found the origin of this intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales of the spiders. These scales have an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface.

The interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current manmade engineering technologies.

Inspiration from these super iridescent scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to further reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems. And it could have a wide array of implications to fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.

Here’s a video of an Australian rainbow peacock spider,

Here’s more from the YouTube description published on April 13, 2017 by Peacockspiderman,

Scenes of Maratus robinsoni, a spider Peter Robinson discovered and David Hill and I named it after him in 2012. You can read our description on pages 36-41 in Peckhamia 103.2, which can be downloaded from the Peckhamia website http://peckhamia.com/peckhamia_number…. This is one of the two smallest species of peacock spider (2.5 mm long) and the only spider we know of in which colour changes occur every time it moves, this video was created to document this. Music: ‘Be Still’ by Johannes Bornlöf licensed through my MCN ‘Brave Bison’ from ‘Epidemic Sound’ For licensing inquiries please contact Brave Bison licensing@bravebison.io

The University of California at San Diego also published a December 22, 2017 news release about this work, which covers some of the same ground while providing a few new tidbits of information,

Brightly colored Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.) captivate even the most arachnophobic viewers with their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements – all packed into miniature bodies measuring less than five millimeters in size for many species. However, these displays are not just pretty to look at. They also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.

One species of peacock spider – the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) – is particularly impressive, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females to mate. But how do males make their rainbows? A new study published in Nature Communications looked to answer that question.

Figuring out the answers was inherently interdisciplinary so Bor-Kai Hsiung, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, assembled an international team that included biologists, physicists and engineers. Starting while he was a Ph.D. student at The University of Akron under the mentorship of Todd Blackledge and Matthew Shawkey, the team included researchers from UA, Scripps Oceanography, California Institute of Technology, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Ghent in Belgium, University of Groningen in Netherlands, and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique iridescent signal.

The team investigated the spider’s photonic structures using techniques that included light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry and optical modeling to generate hypotheses about how the spider’s scale generate such intense rainbows. The team then used cutting-edge nano 3D printing to fabricate different prototypes to test and validate their hypotheses. In the end, they found that the intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales on the spiders. These scales combine an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface. It is the interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales that enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current engineering technologies.

“Who knew that such a small critter would create such an intense iridescence using extremely sophisticated mechanisms that will inspire optical engineers,” said Dimitri Deheyn, Hsuing’s advisor at Scripps Oceanography and a coauthor of the study.

For Hsiung, the finding wasn’t quite so unexpected.

“One of the main questions that I wanted to address in my Ph.D. dissertation was ‘how does nature modulate iridescence?’ From a biomimicry perspective, to fully understand and address a question, one has to take extremes from both ends into consideration. I purposefully chose to study these tiny spiders with intense iridescence after having investigated the non-iridescent blue tarantulas,” said Hsiung.

The mechanism behind these tiny rainbows may inspire new color technology, but would not have been discovered without research combining basic natural history with physics and engineering, the researchers said.

“Nanoscale 3D printing allowed us to experimentally validate our models, which was really exciting,” said Shawkey. “We hope that these techniques will become common in the future.”

“As an engineer, what I found fascinating about these spider structural colors is how these long evolved complex structures can still outperform human engineering,” said Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and study coauthor. “Even with high-end fabrication techniques, we could not replicate the exact structures. I wonder how the spiders assemble these fancy structural patterns in the first place!”

Inspiration from these super iridescent spider scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems.

In the end, peacock spiders don’t just produce nature’s smallest rainbows.They could also have implications for a wide array of fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.

Before citing the paper and providing a link, here’s a story by Robert F. Service for Science magazine about attempts to capitalize on ‘spider technology’, in this case spider silk,

The hype over spider silk has been building since 1710. That was the year François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, president of the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpellier, France, wrote to his colleagues, “You will be surpriz’d to hear, that Spiders make a Silk, as beautiful, strong and glossy, as common Silk.” Modern pitches boast that spider silk is five times stronger than steel yet more flexible than rubber. If it could be made into ropes, a macroscale web would be able to snare a jetliner.

The key word is “if.” Researchers first cloned a spider silk gene in 1990, in hopes of incorporating it into other organisms to produce the silk. (Spiders can’t be farmed like silkworms because they are territorial and cannibalistic.) Today, Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats have been genetically engineered to churn out spider silk proteins, though the proteins are often shorter and simpler than the spiders’ own. Companies have managed to spin those proteins into enough high-strength thread to produce a few prototype garments, including a running shoe by Adidas and a lightweight parka by The North Face. But so far, companies have struggled to mass produce these supersilks.

Some executives say that may finally be about to change. One Emeryville, California-based startup, Bolt Threads, says it has perfected growing spider silk proteins in yeast and is poised to turn out tons of spider silk thread per year. In Lansing, Michigan, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories says it needs only to finalize negotiations with silkworm farms in Vietnam to produce mass quantities of a combination spider/silkworm silk, which the U.S. Army is now testing for ballistics protection. …

I encourage you to read Service’s article in its entirety if the commercialization prospects for spider silk interest you as it includes gems such as this,

Spider silk proteins are already making their retail debut—but in cosmetics and medical devices, not high-strength fibers. AMSilk grows spider silk proteins in E. coli and dries the purified protein into powders or mixes it into gels, for use as additives for personal care products, such as moisture-retaining skin lotions. The silk proteins supposedly help the lotions form a very smooth, but breathable, layer over the skin. Römer says the company now sells tons of its purified silk protein ingredients every year.

Finally, here’s a citation for and a link to the paper about Australian peacock spiders and nanophotonics,

Rainbow peacock spiders inspire miniature super-iridescent optics by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Doekele G. Stavenga, Jürgen C. Otto, Michael C. Allen, Ying Liu, Yong-Feng Lu, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, & Todd A. Blackledge. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 2278 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02451-x Published online: 22 December 2017

This paper is open access.

As for Bor-Kai Hsiung’s other mentions here:

How tarantulas get blue (December 7, 2015 posting)

Noniridescent photonics inspired by tarantulas (October 19, 2016 posting)

More on the blue tarantula noniridescent photonics (December 28, 2016 posting)

China is world leader in nanotechnology and in other fields too?

State of Chinese nanoscience/nanotechnology

China claims to be the world leader in the field in a white paper announced in an August 29, 2017 Springer Nature press release,

Springer Nature, the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, China and the National Science Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) released in both Chinese and English a white paper entitled “Small Science in Big China: An overview of the state of Chinese nanoscience and technology” at NanoChina 2017, an international conference on nanoscience and technology held August 28 and 29 in Beijing. The white paper looks at the rapid growth of China’s nanoscience research into its current role as the world’s leader [emphasis mine], examines China’s strengths and challenges, and makes some suggestions for how its contribution to the field can continue to thrive.

The white paper points out that China has become a strong contributor to nanoscience research in the world, and is a powerhouse of nanotechnology R&D. Some of China’s basic research is leading the world. China’s applied nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies have also begun to take shape. These achievements are largely due to China’s strong investment in nanoscience and technology. China’s nanoscience research is also moving from quantitative increase to quality improvement and innovation, with greater emphasis on the applications of nanotechnologies.

“China took an initial step into nanoscience research some twenty years ago, and has since grown its commitment at an unprecedented rate, as it has for scientific research as a whole. Such a growth is reflected both in research quantity and, importantly, in quality. Therefore, I regard nanoscience as a window through which to observe the development of Chinese science, and through which we could analyze how that rapid growth has happened. Further, the experience China has gained in developing nanoscience and related technologies is a valuable resource for the other countries and other fields of research to dig deep into and draw on,” said Arnout Jacobs, President, Greater China, Springer Nature.

The white paper explores at China’s research output relative to the rest of the world in terms of research paper output, research contribution contained in the Nano database, and finally patents, providing insight into China’s strengths and expertise in nano research. The white paper also presents the results of a survey of experts from the community discussing the outlook for and challenges to the future of China’s nanoscience research.

China nano research output: strong rise in quantity and quality

In 1997, around 13,000 nanoscience-related papers were published globally. By 2016, this number had risen to more than 154,000 nano-related research papers. This corresponds to a compound annual growth rate of 14% per annum, almost four times the growth in publications across all areas of research of 3.7%. Over the same period of time, the nano-related output from China grew from 820 papers in 1997 to over 52,000 papers in 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 24%.

China’s contribution to the global total has been growing steadily. In 1997, Chinese researchers co-authored just 6% of the nano-related papers contained in the Science Citation Index (SCI). By 2010, this grew to match the output of the United States. They now contribute over a third of the world’s total nanoscience output — almost twice that of the United States.

Additionally, China’s share of the most cited nanoscience papers has kept increasing year on year, with a compound annual growth rate of 22% — more than three times the global rate. It overtook the United States in 2014 and its contribution is now many times greater than that of any other country in the world, manifesting an impressive progression in both quantity and quality.

The rapid growth of nanoscience in China has been enabled by consistent and strong financial support from the Chinese government. As early as 1990, the State Science and Technology Committee, the predecessor of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), launched the Climbing Up project on nanomaterial science. During the 1990s, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) also funded nearly 1,000 small-scale projects in nanoscience. In the National Guideline on Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development (for 2006−2020) issued in early 2006 by the Chinese central government, nanoscience was identified as one of four areas of basic research and received the largest proportion of research budget out of the four areas. The brain boomerang, with more and more foreign-trained Chinese researchers returning from overseas, is another contributor to China’s rapid rise in nanoscience.

The white paper clarifies the role of Chinese institutions, including CAS, in driving China’s rise to become the world’s leader in nanoscience. Currently, CAS is the world’s largest producer of high impact nano research, contributing more than twice as many papers in the 1% most-cited nanoscience literature than its closest competitors. In addition to CAS, five other Chinese institutions are ranked among the global top 20 in terms of output of top cited 1% nanoscience papers — Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Zhejiang University, University of Science and Technology of China and Peking University.

Nano database reveals advantages and focus of China’s nano research

The Nano database (http://nano.nature.com) is a comprehensive platform that has been recently developed by Nature Research – part of Springer Nature – which contains nanoscience-related papers published in 167 peer-reviewed journals including Advanced Materials, Nano Letters, Nature, Science and more. Analysis of the Nano database of nanomaterial-containing articles published in top 30 journals during 2014–2016 shows that Chinese scientists explore a wide range of nanomaterials, the five most common of which are nanostructured materials, nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanodevices and nanoporous materials.

In terms of the research of applications, China has a clear leading edge in catalysis research, which is the most popular area of the country’s quality nanoscience papers. Chinese nano researchers also contributed significantly to nanomedicine and energy-related applications. China is relatively weaker in nanomaterials for electronics applications, compared to other research powerhouses, but robotics and lasers are emerging applications areas of nanoscience in China, and nanoscience papers addressing photonics and data storage applications also see strong growth in China. Over 80% of research from China listed in the database explicitly mentions applications of the nanostructures and nanomaterials described, notably higher than from most other leading nations such as the United States, Germany, the UK, Japan and France.

Nano also reveals the extent of China’s international collaborations in nano research. China has seen the percentage of its internationally collaborated papers increasing from 36% in 2014 to 44% in 2016. This level of international collaboration, similar to that of South Korea, is still much lower than that of the western countries, and the rate of growth is also not as fast as those in the United States, France and Germany.

The United States is China’s biggest international collaborator, contributing to 55% of China’s internationally collaborated papers on nanoscience that are included in the top 30 journals in the Nano database. Germany, Australia and Japan follow in a descending order as China’s collaborators on nano-related quality papers.

China’s patent output: topping the world, mostly applied domestically

Analysis of the Derwent Innovation Index (DII) database of Clarivate Analytics shows that China’s accumulative total number of patent applications for the past 20 years, amounting to 209,344 applications, or 45% of the global total, is more than twice as many as that of the United States, the second largest contributor to nano-related patents. China surpassed the United States and ranked the top in the world since 2008.

Five Chinese institutions, including the CAS, Zhejiang University, Tsinghua University, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. and Tianjin University can be found among the global top 10 institutional contributors to nano-related patent applications. CAS has been at the top of the global rankings since 2008, with a total of 11,218 patent applications for the past 20 years. Interestingly, outside of China, most of the other big institutional contributors among the top 10 are commercial enterprises, while in China, research or academic institutions are leading in patent applications.

However, the number of nano-related patents China applied overseas is still very low, accounting for only 2.61% of its total patent applications for the last 20 years cumulatively, whereas the proportion in the United States is nearly 50%. In some European countries, including the UK and France, more than 70% of patent applications are filed overseas.

China has high numbers of patent applications in several popular technical areas for nanotechnology use, and is strongest in patents for polymer compositions and macromolecular compounds. In comparison, nano-related patent applications in the United States, South Korea and Japan are mainly for electronics or semiconductor devices, with the United States leading the world in the cumulative number of patents for semiconductor devices.

Outlook, opportunities and challenges

The white paper highlights that the rapid rise of China’s research output and patent applications has painted a rosy picture for the development of Chinese nanoscience, and in both the traditionally strong subjects and newly emerging areas, Chinese nanoscience shows great potential.

Several interviewed experts in the survey identify catalysis and catalytic nanomaterials as the most promising nanoscience area for China. The use of nanotechnology in the energy and medical sectors was also considered very promising.

Some of the interviewed experts commented that the industrial impact of China’s nanotechnology is limited and there is still a gap between nanoscience research and the industrialization of nanotechnologies. Therefore, they recommended that the government invest more in applied research to drive the translation of nanoscience research and find ways to encourage enterprises to invest more in R&D.

As more and more young scientists enter the field, the competition for research funding is becoming more intense. However, this increasing competition for funding was not found to concern most interviewed young scientists, rather, they emphasized that the soft environment is more important. They recommended establishing channels that allow the suggestions or creative ideas of the young to be heard. Also, some interviewed young researchers commented that they felt that the current evaluation system was geared towards past achievements or favoured overseas experience, and recommended the development of an improved talent selection mechanism to ensure a sustainable growth of China’s nanoscience.

I have taken a look at the white paper and found it to be well written. It also provides a brief but thorough history of nanotechnology/nanoscience even adding a bit of historical information that was new to me. As for the rest of the white paper, it relies on bibliometrics (number of published papers and number of citations) and number of patents filed to lay the groundwork for claiming Chinese leadership in nanotechnology. As I’ve stated many times before, these are problematic measures but as far as I can determine they are almost the only ones we have. Frankly, as a Canadian, it doesn’t much matter to me since Canada no matter how you slice or dice it is always in a lower tier relative to science leadership in major fields. It’s the Americans who might feel inclined to debate leadership with regard to nanotechnology and other major fields and I leave it to to US commentators to take up the cudgels should they be inclined. The big bonuses here are the history, the glimpse into the Chinese perspective on the field of nanotechnology/nanoscience, and the analysis of weaknesses and strengths.

Coming up fast on Google and Amazon

A November 16, 2017 article by Christina Bonnington for Slate explores the possibility that a Chinese tech giant, Baidu,  will provide Google and Amazon serious competition in their quests to dominate world markets (Note: Links have been removed,

raven_h
The company took a playful approach to the form—but it has functional reasons for the design, too. Baidu

 

One of the most interesting companies in tech right now isn’t based in Palo Alto, or San Francisco, or Seattle. Baidu, a Chinese company with headquarters in Beijing, is taking on America’s biggest and most innovative tech titans—with style.

Baidu, a titan in its own right, leapt onto the scene as a competitor to Google in the search engine space. Since then, the company, largely underappreciated here in the U.S., has focused on beefing up its artificial intelligence efforts. Former AI chief Andrew Ng, upon leaving the company in March, credited Baidu’s CEO Robin Li on being one of the first technology leaders to fully appreciate the value of deep learning. Baidu now has a 1,300 person AI group, and that investment in AI has helped the company catch up to older, more established companies like Google and Amazon—both in emerging spaces, such as autonomous vehicles, and in consumer tech, as its latest announcement shows.

On Thursday [November 16, 2017], Baidu debuted its entrants to the popular virtual assistant space: a connected speaker and two robots. Baidu aims for the speaker to compete against options such as Amazon’s Echo line, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. Inside, the $256 device will utilize Baidu’s DuerOS conversational artificial intelligence platform, which is already used in more than 100 different smart home brands’ products. DuerOS will let you use your voice to do things like ask the speaker for information, play music, or hail a cab. Called the Raven H, the speaker includes high-end audio components from Tymphany and a unique design jointly created by acquired startup Raven Tech and Swedish consumer electronics company Teenage Engineering.

While the focus is on exciting new technology products from Baidu, the subtext, such as it is, suggests US companies had best keep an eye on its Chinese competitor(s).

Dutch/Chinese partnership to produce nanoparticles at the touch of a button

Now back to China and nanotechnology leadership and the production of nanoparticles. This announcement was made in a November 17, 2017 news item on Azonano,

Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] spin-off VSPARTICLE enters the booming Chinese market with a radical technology that allows researchers to produce nanoparticles at the push of a button. VSPARTICLE’s nanoparticle generator uses atoms, the worlds’ smallest building blocks, to provide a controllable source of nanoparticles. The start-up from Delft signed a distribution agreement with Bio-Sun to make their VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator available in China.

A November 16, 2017 VSPARTICLE press release, which originated the news item,

“We are honoured to cooperate with VSPARTICLE and bring the innovative VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator into the Chinese market. The VSP-G1 will create new possibilities for researchers in catalysis, aerosol, healthcare and electronics,” says Yinghui Cai, CEO of Bio-Sun.

With an exponential growth in nanoparticle research in the last decade, China is one of the leading countries in the field of nanotechnology and its applications. Vincent Laban, CFO of VSPARTICLE, explains: “Due to its immense investments in IOT, sensors, semiconductor technology, renewable energy and healthcare applications, China will eventually become one of our biggest markets. The collaboration with Bio-Sun offers a valuable opportunity to enter the Chinese market at exactly the right time.”

NANOPARTICLES ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE

Increasingly, scientists are focusing on nanoparticles as a key technology in enabling the transition to a sustainable future. Nanoparticles are used to make new types of sensors and smart electronics; provide new imaging and treatment possibilities in healthcare; and reduce harmful waste in chemical processes.

CURRENT RESEARCH TOOLKIT LACKS A FAST WAY FOR MAKING SPECIFIC BUILDING BLOCKS

With the latest tools in nanotechnology, researchers are exploring the possibilities of building novel materials. This is, however, a trial-and-error method. Getting the right nanoparticles often is a slow struggle, as most production methods take a substantial amount of effort and time to develop.

VSPARTICLE’S VSP-G1 NANOPARTICLE GENERATOR

With the VSP-G1 nanoparticle generator, VSPARTICLE makes the production of nanoparticles as easy as pushing a button. . Easy and fast iterations enable researchers to fast forward their research cycle, and verify their hypotheses.

VSPARTICLE

Born out of the research labs of Delft University of Technology, with over 20 years of experience in the synthesis of aerosol, VSPARTICLE believes there is a whole new world of possibilities and materials at the nanoscale. The company was founded in 2014 and has an international sales network in Europe, Japan and China.

BIO-SUN

Bio-Sun was founded in Beijing in 2010 and is a leader in promoting nanotechnology and biotechnology instruments in China. It serves many renowned customers in life science, drug discovery and material science. Bio-Sun has four branch offices in Qingdao, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan City, and a nationwide sale network.

That’s all folks!

Historic and other buildings get protection from pollution?

This Sept. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new product for protecting buildings from pollution,

The organic pollution decomposing properties of titanium dioxide (TiO2 ) have been known for about half a century. However, practical applications have been few and hard to develop, but now a Greek paint producer claims to have found a solution

A Sept. 11, 2017 Youris (European Research Media Center) press release by Koen Mortelmans which originated the news item expands on the theme,

The photocatalytic properties of anatase, one of the three naturally occurring forms of titanium dioxide, were discovered in Japan in the late 1960s. Under the influence of the UV-radiation in sunlight, it can decompose organic pollutants such as bacteria, fungi and nicotine, and some inorganic materials into carbon dioxide. The catalytic effect is caused by the nanostructure of its crystals.

Applied outdoors, this affordable and widely available material could represent an efficient self-cleaning solution for buildings. This is due to the chemical reaction, which leaves a residue on building façades, a residue then washed away when it rains. Applying it to monuments in urban areas may save our cultural heritage, which is threatened by pollutants.

However, “photocatalytic paints and additives have long been a challenge for the coating industry, because the catalytic action affects the durability of resin binders and oxidizes the paint components,” explains Ioannis Arabatzis, founder and managing director of NanoPhos, based in the Greek town of Lavrio, in one of the countries home to some of the most important monuments of human history. The Greek company is testing a paint called Kirei, inspired by a Japanese word meaning both clean and beautiful.

According to Arabatzis, it’s an innovative product because it combines the self-cleaning action of photocatalytic nanoparticles and the reflective properties of cool wall paints. “When applied on exterior surfaces this paint can reflect more than 94% of the incident InfraRed radiation (IR), saving energy and reducing costs for heating and cooling”, he says. “The reflection values are enhanced by the self-cleaning ability. Compared to conventional paints, they remain unchanged for longer.”

The development of Kirei has been included in the European project BRESAER (BREakthrough Solutions for Adaptable Envelopes in building Refurbishment) which is studying a sustainable and adaptable “envelope system” to renovate buildings. The new paint was tested and subjected to quality controls following ISO standard procedures at the company’s own facilities and in other independent laboratories. “The lab results from testing in artificial, accelerated weathering conditions are reliable,” Arabatzis claims. “There was no sign of discolouration, chalking, cracking or any other paint defect during 2,000 hours of exposure to the simulated environmental conditions. We expect the coating’s service lifetime to be at least ten years.”

Many studies are being conducted to exploit the properties of titanium dioxide. Jan Duyzer, researcher at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) in Utrecht, focused on depollution: “There is no doubt about the ability of anatase to decrease the levels of nitrogen oxides in the air. But in real situations, there are many differences in pollution, wind, light, and temperature. We were commissioned by the Dutch government specifically to find a way to take nitrogen oxides out of the air on roads and in traffic tunnels. We used anatase coated panels. Our results were disappointing, so the government decided to discontinue the research. Furthermore, we still don’t know what caused the difference between lab and life. Our best current hypothesis is that the total surface of the coated panels is very small compared to the large volumes of polluted air passing over them,” he tells youris.com.

Experimental deployment of titanium dioxide panels on an acoustic wall along a Dutch highway – Courtesy of Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO)

“In laboratory conditions the air is blown over the photocatalytic surface with a certain degree of turbulence. This results in the NOx-particles and the photocatalytic material coming into full contact with one another,” says engineer Anne Beeldens, visiting professor at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her experience with photocatalytic TiO2 is also limited to nitrogen dioxide (NOx) pollution.

In real applications, the air stream at the contact surface becomes laminar. This results in a lower velocity of the air at the surface and a lower depollution rate. Additionally, not all the air will be in contact with the photocatalytic surfaces. To ensure a good working application, the photocatalytic material needs to be positioned so that all the air is in contact with the surface and flows over it in a turbulent manner. This would allow as much of the NOx as possible to be in contact with photocatalytic material. In view of this, a good working application could lead to a reduction of 5 to 10 percent of NOx in the air, which is significant compared to other measures to reduce pollutants.”

The depollution capacity of TiO2 is undisputed, but most applications and tests have only involved specific kinds of substances. More research and measurements are required if we are to benefit more from the precious features of this material.

I think the most recent piece here on protecting buildings, i.e., the historic type, from pollution is an Oct. 21, 2014 posting: Heart of stone.

‘Nano-hashtags’ for Majorana particles?

The ‘nano-hashtags’ are in fact (assuming a minor leap of imagination) nanowires that resemble hashtags.

Scanning electron microscope image of the device wherein clearly a ‘hashtag’ is formed. Credit: Eindhoven University of Technology

An August 23, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

In Nature, an international team of researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology [Netherlands], Delft University of Technology [Netherlands] and the University of California — Santa Barbara presents an advanced quantum chip that will be able to provide definitive proof of the mysterious Majorana particles. These particles, first demonstrated in 2012, are their own antiparticle at one and the same time. The chip, which comprises ultrathin networks of nanowires in the shape of ‘hashtags’, has all the qualities to allow Majorana particles to exchange places. This feature is regarded as the smoking gun for proving their existence and is a crucial step towards their use as a building block for future quantum computers.

An August 23, 2017 Eindhoven University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides some context and information about the work,

In 2012 it was big news: researchers from Delft University of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology presented the first experimental signatures for the existence of the Majorana fermion. This particle had been predicted in 1937 by the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana and has the distinctive property of also being its own anti-particle. The Majorana particles emerge at the ends of a semiconductor wire, when in contact with a superconductor material.

Smoking gun

While the discovered particles may have properties typical to Majoranas, the most exciting proof could be obtained by allowing two Majorana particles to exchange places, or ‘braid’ as it is scientifically known. “That’s the smoking gun,” suggests Erik Bakkers, one of the researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology. “The behavior we then see could be the most conclusive evidence yet of Majoranas.”

Crossroads

In the Nature paper that is published today [August 23, 2017], Bakkers and his colleagues present a new device that should be able to show this exchanging of Majoranas. In the original experiment in 2012 two Majorana particles were found in a single wire but they were not able to pass each other without immediately destroying the other. Thus the researchers quite literally had to create space. In the presented experiment they formed intersections using the same kinds of nanowire so that four of these intersections form a ‘hashtag’, #, and thus create a closed circuit along which Majoranas are able to move.

Etch and grow

The researchers built their hashtag device starting from scratch. The nanowires are grown from a specially etched substrate such that they form exactly the desired network which they then expose to a stream of aluminium particles, creating layers of aluminium, a superconductor, on specific spots on the wires – the contacts where the Majorana particles emerge. Places that lie ‘in the shadow’ of other wires stay uncovered.

Leap in quality

The entire process happens in a vacuum and at ultra-cold temperature (around -273 degree Celsius). “This ensures very clean, pure contacts,” says Bakkers, “and enables us to make a considerable leap in the quality of this kind of quantum device.” The measurements demonstrate for a number of electronic and magnetic properties that all the ingredients are present for the Majoranas to braid.

Quantum computers

If the researchers succeed in enabling the Majorana particles to braid, they will at once have killed two birds with one stone. Given their robustness, Majoranas are regarded as the ideal building block for future quantum computers that will be able to perform many calculations simultaneously and thus many times faster than current computers. The braiding of two Majorana particles could form the basis for a qubit, the calculation unit of these computers.

Travel around the world

An interesting detail is that the samples have traveled around the world during the fabrication, combining unique and synergetic activities of each research institution. It started in Delft with patterning and etching the substrate, then to Eindhoven for nanowire growth and to Santa Barbara for aluminium contact formation. Finally back to Delft via Eindhoven for the measurements.

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

Epitaxy of advanced nanowire quantum devices by Sasa Gazibegovic, Diana Car, Hao Zhang, Stijn C. Balk, John A. Logan, Michiel W. A. de Moor, Maja C. Cassidy, Rudi Schmits, Di Xu, Guanzhong Wang, Peter Krogstrup, Roy L. M. Op het Veld, Kun Zuo, Yoram Vos, Jie Shen, Daniël Bouman, Borzoyeh Shojaei, Daniel Pennachio, Joon Sue Lee, Petrus J. van Veldhoven, Sebastian Koelling, Marcel A. Verheijen, Leo P. Kouwenhoven, Chris J. Palmstrøm, & Erik P. A. M. Bakkers. Nature 548, 434–438 (24 August 2017) doi:10.1038/nature23468 Published online 23 August 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson has some additional insight (interview with one of the researchers) in an Aug. 29, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website).

Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature (a three year Canadian project nearing its end date)

Working on a grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the  Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature project has been establishing a ‘cosmopolitanism’ research network that critiques the eurocentric approach so beloved of Canadian academics and has set up nodes across Canada and in India and Southeast Asia.

I first wrote about the project in a Dec. 12, 2014 posting which also featured a job listing. It seems I was there for the beginning and now for the end. For one of the project’s blog postings in its final months, they’re profiling one of their researchers (Dr. Letitia Meynell, Sept. 6, 2017 posting),

1. What is your current place of research?

I am an associate professor in philosophy at Dalhousie University, cross appointed with gender and women studies.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

My 1st degree was in Theater, which I did at York University. I did, however, minor in Philosophy and I have always had a particular interest in philosophy of science. So, my minor was perhaps a little anomalous, comprising courses on philosophy of physics, philosophy of nature, and the philosophy of Karl Popper along with courses on aesthetics and existentialism. After taking a few more courses in philosophy at the University of Calgary, I enrolled there for a Master’s degree, writing a thesis on conceptualization, with a view to its role in aesthetics and epistemology. From there I moved to the University of Western Ontario where I brought these three interests together, writing a thesis on the epistemology of pictures in science. Throughout these studies I maintained a keen interest in feminist philosophy, especially the politics of knowledge, and I have always seen my work on pictures in science as fitting into broader feminist commitments.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

As feminist philosophers have long realized, having perspectives on a topic that are quite different to your own is incredibly powerful for critically assessing both your own views and those of others. So, for instance, if you want to address the exploitation of nonhuman animals in our society it is incredibly powerful to consider how people from, say, South Asian traditions have thought about the differences, similarities, and relationships between humans and other animals. Keeping non-western perspectives in mind, even as one works in a western philosophical tradition, helps one to be both more rigorous in one’s analyses and less dogmatic. Rigor and critical openness are, in my opinion, central virtues of philosophy and, indeed, science.

Dr. Maynell will be speaking at the ‘Bridging the Gap: Scientific Imagination Meets Aesthetic Imagination‘ conference Oct. 5-6, 2017 at the London School of Economics,

On 5–6 October, this 2-day conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play.

Why, how, and when do scientists imagine, and what epistemological roles does the imagination play in scientific progress? Over the past few years, many philosophical accounts have emerged that are relevant to these questions. Roman Frigg, Arnon Levy, and Adam Toon have developed theories of scientific models that place imagination at the heart of modelling practice. And James R. Brown, Tamar Gendler, James McAllister, Letitia Meynell, and Nancy Nersessian have developed theories that recognize the indispensable role of the imagination in the performance of thought experiments. On the other hand, philosophers like Michael Weisberg dismiss imagination-based views of scientific modelling as mere “folk ontology”, and John D. Norton seems to claim that thought experiments are arguments whose imaginary components are epistemologically irrelevant.

In this conference we turn to aesthetics for help in addressing issues concerning scientific imagination-use. Aesthetics is said to have begun in 1717 with an essay called “The Pleasures of the Imagination” by Joseph Addison, and ever since imagination has been what Michael Polyani called “the cornerstone of aesthetic theory”. In recent years Kendall Walton has fruitfully explored the fundamental relevance of imagination for understanding literary, visual and auditory fictions. And many others have been inspired to do the same, including Greg Currie, David Davies, Peter Lamarque, Stein Olsen, and Kathleen Stock.

This conference aims to connect work on artistic and scientific imagination, and to advance our understanding of the epistemic and heuristic roles that imagination can play. Specific topics may include:

  • What kinds of imagination are involved in science?
  • What is the relation between scientific imagination and aesthetic imagination?
  • What are the structure and limits of knowledge and understanding acquired through imagination?
  • From a methodological point of view, how can aesthetic considerations about imagination play a role in philosophical accounts of scientific reasoning?
  • What can considerations about scientific imagination contribute to our understanding of aesthetic imagination?

The conference will include eight invited talks and four contributed papers. Two of the four slots for contributed papers are being reserved for graduate students, each of whom will receive a travel bursary of £100.

Invited speakers

Margherita Arcangeli (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Andrej Bicanski (Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London)

Gregory Currie (University of York)

Jim Faeder (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Tim de Mey (Erasmus University of Rotterdam)

Laetitia Meynell (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Adam Toon (University of Exeter)

Margot Strohminger (Humboldt University, Berlin)

This event is organised by LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and it is co-sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics, the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 654034.

I wonder if they’ll be rubbing shoulders with Angelina Jolie? She is slated to be teaching there in Fall 2017 according to a May 23, 2016 news item in the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

The Hollywood actor and director has been appointed a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, teaching a course on the impact of war on women.

From 2017, Jolie will join the former foreign secretary William Hague as a “professor in practice”, the university announced on Monday, as part of a new MSc course on women, peace and security, which LSE says is the first of its kind in the world.

The course, it says, is intended to “[develop] strategies to promote gender equality and enhance women’s economic, social and political participation and security”, with visiting professors playing an active part in giving lectures, participating in workshops and undertaking their own research.

Getting back to ‘Cosmopolitanism’, some of the principals organized a summer 2017 event (from a Sept. 6, 2017 posting titled: Summer Events – 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology),

CosmoLocal partners Lesley Cormack (University of Alberta, Canada), Gordon McOuat (University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada), and Dhruv Raina (Jawaharlal Nehru University, India) organized a symposium “Cosmopolitanism and the Local in Science and Nature” as part of the 25th International Congress of History of Science and Technology.  The conference was held July 23-29, 2017, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  The abstract of the CosmoLocal symposium is below, and a pdf version can be found here.

Science, and its associated technologies, is typically viewed as “universal”. At the same time we were also assured that science can trace its genealogy to Europe in a period of rising European intellectual and imperial global force, ‘going outwards’ towards the periphery. As such, it is strikingly parochial. In a kind of sad irony, the ‘subaltern’ was left to retell that tale as one of centre-universalism dominating a traditionalist periphery. Self-described ‘modernity’ and ‘the west’ (two intertwined concepts of recent and mutually self-supporting origin) have erased much of the local engagement and as such represent science as emerging sui generis, moving in one direction. This story is now being challenged within sociology, political theory and history.

… Significantly, scholars who study the history of science in Asia and India have been examining different trajectories for the origin and meaning of science. It is now time for a dialogue between these approaches. Grounding the dialogue is the notion of a “cosmopolitical” science. “Cosmopolitics” is a term borrowed from Kant’s notion of perpetual peace and modern civil society, imagining shared political, moral and economic spaces within which trade, politics and reason get conducted.  …

The abstract is a little ‘high falutin’ but I’m glad to see more efforts being made in  Canada to understand science and its history as a global affair.

Robot artists—should they get copyright protection

Clearly a lawyer wrote this June 26, 2017 essay on theconversation.com (Note: A link has been removed),

When a group of museums and researchers in the Netherlands unveiled a portrait entitled The Next Rembrandt, it was something of a tease to the art world. It wasn’t a long lost painting but a new artwork generated by a computer that had analysed thousands of works by the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

The computer used something called machine learning [emphasis mine] to analyse and reproduce technical and aesthetic elements in Rembrandt’s works, including lighting, colour, brush-strokes and geometric patterns. The result is a portrait produced based on the styles and motifs found in Rembrandt’s art but produced by algorithms.

But who owns creative works generated by artificial intelligence? This isn’t just an academic question. AI is already being used to generate works in music, journalism and gaming, and these works could in theory be deemed free of copyright because they are not created by a human author.

This would mean they could be freely used and reused by anyone and that would be bad news for the companies selling them. Imagine you invest millions in a system that generates music for video games, only to find that music isn’t protected by law and can be used without payment by anyone in the world.

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

It could have been someone involved in the technology but nobody with that background would write “… something called machine learning … .”  Andres Guadamuz, lecturer in Intellectual Property Law at the University of Sussex, goes on to say (Note: Links have been removed),

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

That doesn’t mean that copyright should be awarded to the computer, however. Machines don’t (yet) have the rights and status of people under the law. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be any copyright either. Not all copyright is owned by individuals, after all.

Companies are recognised as legal people and are often awarded copyright for works they don’t directly create. This occurs, for example, when a film studio hires a team to make a movie, or a website commissions a journalist to write an article. So it’s possible copyright could be awarded to the person (company or human) that has effectively commissioned the AI to produce work for it.

 

Things are likely to become yet more complex as AI tools are more commonly used by artists and as the machines get better at reproducing creativity, making it harder to discern if an artwork is made by a human or a computer. Monumental advances in computing and the sheer amount of computational power becoming available may well make the distinction moot. At that point, we will have to decide what type of protection, if any, we should give to emergent works created by intelligent algorithms with little or no human intervention.

The most sensible move seems to follow those countries that grant copyright to the person who made the AI’s operation possible, with the UK’s model looking like the most efficient. This will ensure companies keep investing in the technology, safe in the knowledge they will reap the benefits. What happens when we start seriously debating whether computers should be given the status and rights of people is a whole other story.

The team that developed a ‘new’ Rembrandt produced a video about the process,

Mark Brown’s April 5, 2016 article abut this project (which was unveiled on April 5, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands) for the Guardian newspaper provides more detail such as this,

It [Next Rembrandt project] is the result of an 18-month project which asks whether new technology and data can bring back to life one of the greatest, most innovative painters of all time.

Advertising executive [Bas] Korsten, whose brainchild the project was, admitted that there were many doubters. “The idea was greeted with a lot of disbelief and scepticism,” he said. “Also coming up with the idea is one thing, bringing it to life is another.”

The project has involved data scientists, developers, engineers and art historians from organisations including Microsoft, Delft University of Technology, the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

The final 3D printed painting consists of more than 148 million pixels and is based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments.

Some of the challenges have been in designing a software system that could understand Rembrandt based on his use of geometry, composition and painting materials. A facial recognition algorithm was then used to identify and classify the most typical geometric patterns used to paint human features.

It sounds like it was a fascinating project but I don’t believe ‘The Next Rembrandt’ is an example of AI creativity or an example of the ‘creative spark’ Guadamuz discusses. This seems more like the kind of work  that could be done by a talented forger or fraudster. As I understand it, even when a human creates this type of artwork (a newly discovered and unknown xxx masterpiece), the piece is not considered a creative work in its own right. Some pieces are outright fraudulent and others which are described as “in the manner of xxx.”

Taking a somewhat different approach to mine, Timothy Geigner at Techdirt has also commented on the question of copyright and AI in relation to Guadamuz’s essay in a July 7, 2017 posting,

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way: the culminating sentence in the quote above is not true. The creative spark is not the artistic output. Rather, the creative spark has always been known as the need to create in the first place. This isn’t a trivial quibble, either, as it factors into the simple but important reasoning for why AI and machines should certainly not receive copyright rights on their output.

That reasoning is the purpose of copyright law itself. Far too many see copyright as a reward system for those that create art rather than what it actually was meant to be: a boon to an artist to compensate for that artist to create more art for the benefit of the public as a whole. Artificial intelligence, however far progressed, desires only what it is programmed to desire. In whatever hierarchy of needs an AI might have, profit via copyright would factor either laughably low or not at all into its future actions. Future actions of the artist, conversely, are the only item on the agenda for copyright’s purpose. If receiving a copyright wouldn’t spur AI to create more art beneficial to the public, then copyright ought not to be granted.

Geigner goes on (July 7, 2017 posting) to elucidate other issues with the ideas expressed in the general debates of AI and ‘rights’ and the EU’s solution.

Art masterpieces are turning into soap

This piece of research has made a winding trek through the online science world. First it was featured in an April 20, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert,

A good art dealer can really clean up in today’s market, but not when some weird chemistry wreaks havoc on masterpieces. Art conservators started to notice microscopic pockmarks forming on the surfaces of treasured oil paintings that cause the images to look hazy. It turns out the marks are eruptions of paint caused, weirdly, by soap that forms via chemical reactions. Since you have no time to watch paint dry, we explain how paintings from Rembrandts to O’Keefes are threatened by their own compositions — and we don’t mean the imagery.

Here’s the video,

Interestingly, this seems to be based on a May 23, 2016 article by Sarah Everts for Chemical and Engineering News (an American Society publication) Note: Links have been removed,

When conservator Petria Noble first peered at Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” under a microscope back in 1996, she was surprised to find pockmarks across the nearly 400-year-old painting’s surface.

Each tiny crater was just a few hundred micrometers in diameter, no wider than the period at the end of this sentence. The painting’s surface was entirely riddled with these curious structures, giving it “a dull, rather hazy, gritty surface,” Noble says.

A structure of lead nonanoate.

The crystal structures of metal soaps vary: Shown here is lead nonanoate, based on a structure solved by Cecil Dybowski at the University of Delaware and colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dashed lines are nearest oxygen neighbors.

This concerned Noble, who was tasked with cleaning the masterpiece with her then-colleague Jørgen Wadum at the Mauritshuis museum, the painting’s home in The Hague.

When Noble called physicist Jaap Boon, then at the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter in Amsterdam, to help figure out what was going on, the researchers unsuspectingly embarked on an investigation that would transform the art world’s understanding of aging paint.

More recently this ‘metal soaps in paintings’ story has made its way into a May 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

An oil painting is not a permanent and unchangeable object, but undergoes a very slow change in the outer and inner structure. Metal soap formation is of great importance. Joen Hermans has managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints: a big step towards better preservation of works of art. He graduated cum laude on Tuesday 9 May [2017] at the University of Amsterdam with NWO funding from the Science4Arts program.

A May 15, 2017 Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) press release, which originated the phys.org news item, provides more information about Hermans’ work (albeit some of this is repetitive),

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 - 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 – 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Paint can fade, varnish can discolour and paintings can collect dust and dirt. Joen Hermans has examined the chemical processes behind ageing processes in paints. ‘While restorers do their best to repair any damages that have occurred, the fact remains that at present we do not know enough about the molecular structure of ageing oil paint and the chemical processes they undergo’, says Hermans. ‘This makes it difficult to predict with confidence how paints will react to restoration treatments or to changes in a painting’s environment.’

‘Sand grains’ In the red tiles of 'View of Delft' by Johannes Vermeer shows 'lead soap spheres' (Annelies van Loon, UvA/Mauritshuis)‘Sand grains’ In the red tiles of ‘View of Delft’ by Johannes Vermeer shows ‘lead soap spheres’ (Annelies van Loon, UvA/Mauritshuis)

Visible to the naked eye

Hermans explains that in its simplest form, oil paint is a mixture of pigment and drying oil, which forms the binding element. Colour pigments are often metal salts. ‘When the pigment and the drying oil are combined, an incredibly complicated chemical process begins’, says Hermans, ‘which continues for centuries’. The fatty acids in the oil form a polymer network when exposed to oxygen in the air. Meanwhile, metal ions react with the oil on the surface of the grains of pigment.

‘A common problem when conserving oil paintings is the formation of what are known as metal soaps’, Hermans continues. These are compounds of metal ions and fatty acids. The formation of metal soaps is linked to various ways in which paint deteriorates, as when it becomes increasingly brittle, transparent or forms a crust on the paint surface. Hermans: ‘You can see clumps of metal soap with the naked eye on some paintings, like Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp or Vermeer’s View of Delft’. Around 70 per cent of all oil paintings show signs of metal soap formation.’

Conserving valuable paintings

Hermans has studied in detail how metal soaps form. He began by defining the structure of metal soaps. One of the things he discovered was that the process that causes metal ions to move in the painting is crucial to the speed at which the painting ages. Hermans also managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints, making it possible to simulate and study the behaviour of old paints without actually having to remove samples from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Hermans hopes this knowledge will contribute towards a solid foundation for the conservation of valuable works of art.

I imagine this will make anyone who owns an oil painting or appreciates paintings in general pause for thought and the inclination to utter a short prayer for conservators to find a solution.

Explaining the link between air pollution and heart disease?

An April 26, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research that may explain the link between heart disease and air pollution (Note: A link has been removed),

Tiny particles in air pollution have been associated with cardiovascular disease, which can lead to premature death. But how particles inhaled into the lungs can affect blood vessels and the heart has remained a mystery.

Now, scientists have found evidence in human and animal studies that inhaled nanoparticles can travel from the lungs into the bloodstream, potentially explaining the link between air pollution and cardiovascular disease. Their results appear in the journal ACS Nano (“Inhaled Nanoparticles Accumulate at Sites of Vascular Disease”).

An April 26, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item,  expands on the theme,

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2012, about 72 percent of premature deaths related to outdoor air pollution were due to ischemic heart disease and strokes. Pulmonary disease, respiratory infections and lung cancer were linked to the other 28 percent. Many scientists have suspected that fine particles travel from the lungs into the bloodstream, but evidence supporting this assumption in humans has been challenging to collect. So Mark Miller and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands used a selection of specialized techniques to track the fate of inhaled gold nanoparticles.

In the new study, 14 healthy volunteers, 12 surgical patients and several mouse models inhaled gold nanoparticles, which have been safely used in medical imaging and drug delivery. Soon after exposure, the nanoparticles were detected in blood and urine. Importantly, the nanoparticles appeared to preferentially accumulate at inflamed vascular sites, including carotid plaques in patients at risk of a stroke. The findings suggest that nanoparticles can travel from the lungs into the bloodstream and reach susceptible areas of the cardiovascular system where they could possibly increase the likelihood of a heart attack or stroke, the researchers say.

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

Inhaled Nanoparticles Accumulate at Sites of Vascular Disease by Mark R. Miller, Jennifer B. Raftis, Jeremy P. Langrish, Steven G. McLean, Pawitrabhorn Samutrtai, Shea P. Connell, Simon Wilson, Alex T. Vesey, Paul H. B. Fokkens, A. John F. Boere, Petra Krystek, Colin J. Campbell, Patrick W. F. Hadoke, Ken Donaldson, Flemming R. Cassee, David E. Newby, Rodger Duffin, and Nicholas L. Mills. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b08551 Publication Date (Web): April 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.