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Shipwrecks being brought back to life with ‘smart nanotech’

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is holding its 256th meeting from August 19 – 22, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts, US. This August 21, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces a ‘shipwreck’ presentation at the meeting,

Thousands of shipwrecks litter the seafloor all over the world, preserved in sediments and cold water. But when one of these ships is brought up from the depths, the wood quickly starts deteriorating. Today, scientists report a new way to use “smart” nanocomposites to conserve a 16th-century British warship, the Mary Rose, and its artifacts. The new approach could help preserve other salvaged ships by eliminating harmful acids without damaging the wooden structures themselves.

An August 21, 2018 ACS press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research and scientists’ after hours (?) activities,

“This project began over a glass of wine with Eleanor Schofield, Ph.D., who is head of conservation at the Mary Rose Trust,” recalls Serena Corr, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator. “She was working on techniques to preserve the wood hull and assorted artifacts and needed a way to direct the treatment into the wood. We had been working with functional magnetic nanomaterials for applications in imaging, and we thought we might be able to apply this technology to the Mary Rose.”

The Mary Rose sank in 1545 off the south coast of England and remained under the seabed until she was salvaged in 1982, along with over 19,000 artifacts and pieces of timber. About 40 percent of the original structure survived. The ship and its artifacts give unique insights into Tudor seafaring and what it was like to live during that period. A state-of-the-art museum in Portsmouth, England, displays the ship’s hull and artifacts. A video about the ship and its artifacts can be viewed here.

While buried in the seabed, sulfur-reducing marine bacteria migrated into the wood of the Mary Rose and produced hydrogen sulfide. This gas reacted with iron ions from corroded fixtures like cannons to form iron sulfides. Although stable in low-oxygen environments, sulfur rapidly oxidizes in regular air in the presence of iron to form destructive acids. Corr’s goal was to avoid acid production by removing the free iron ions.

Once raised from the seabed, the ship was sprayed with cold water, which stopped it from drying out and prevented further microbial activity. The conservation team then sprayed the hull with different types of polyethylene glycol (PEG), a common polymer with a wide range of applications, to replace the water in the cellular structure of the wood and strengthen its outer layer.

Corr and her postdoctoral fellow Esther Rani Aluri, Ph.D., and Ph.D. candidate Enrique Sanchez at the University of Glasgow are devising a new family of tiny magnetic nanoparticles to aid in this process, in collaboration with Schofield and Rachel O’Reilly, Ph.D., at the University of Warwick. In their initial step, the team, led by Schofield, used synchrotron techniques to probe the nature of the sulfur species before turning the PEG sprays off, and then periodically as the ship dried. This was the first real-time experiment to closely examine  the evolution of oxidized sulfur and iron species. This accomplishment has informed efforts to design new targeted treatments for the removal of these harmful species from the Mary Rose wood.

The next step will be to use a nanocomposite based on core magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles that include agents on their surfaces that can remove the ions. The nanoparticles can be directly applied to the porous wood structure and guided to particular areas of the wood using external magnetic fields, a technique previously demonstrated for drug delivery. The nanocomposite will be encompassed in a heat-responsive polymer that protects the nanoparticles and provides a way to safely deliver them to and from the wood surface. A major advantage of this approach is that it allows for the complete removal of free iron and sulfate ions from the wood, and these nanocomposites can be tuned by tweaking their surfaces.

With this understanding, Corr notes, “Conservators will have, for the first time, a state-of-the-art quantitative and restorative method for the safe and rapid treatment of wooden artifacts. We plan to then transfer this technology to other materials recovered from the Mary Rose, such as textiles and leather.”

The researchers acknowledge funding from the Mary Rose Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.

There is a video about the Mary Rose produced by Agence France Presse (AFP) and published on Youtube in May 2013,

Here’s the text from AFP Mary Rose entry on Youtube,

The relics from the Mary Rose, the flagship of England’s navy when it sank in 1545 as a heartbroken king Henry VIII watched from the shore, have finally been reunited with the famous wreck in a new museum offering a view of life in Tudor times. Duration: 02:35

One more thing: Canadian shipwrecks

We don’t have a ‘Henry VIII’ story or ‘smart nano and shipwrecks’ story but we do have a federal agency devoted to underwater archaeology, Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology webpage,

Underwater archaeology deals with archaeological sites found below the surface of oceans, rivers, and lakes and on the foreshore. In addition to shipwrecks, underwater archaeologists study submerged aboriginal sites such as fish weirs and middens; remains of historic structures such as wharves, canal locks, and marine railways; sunken aircraft; and other submerged cultural heritage resources.

Underwater archaeology shares the same methodology and principles as archaeology carried out on land sites. All archaeology involves the careful study of artefacts, structures and features to reconstruct and explain the lives of people in the past. However, because it is carried out in a more challenging environment, underwater archaeological fieldwork is more complex than land archaeology.

Specialized techniques and equipment are required to work productively underwater. Staying warm during long dives is a constant concern, so underwater archaeologists often use masks that cover their entire faces, dry suits worn over layers of warm clothing, or in cases where the water is extremely cold, such as the excavation in Red Bay (Labrador), wet suits supplied with a flow of hot water. Underwater communication systems are used to talk to people on the surface or to other divers. Removing sediments covering underwater sites requires the controlled use of specially designed equipment such as suction airlifts and small dredges. Recording information underwater presents its own challenges. Special underwater paper is used for notes and drawings, while photo and video cameras are placed in waterproof housings.

Underwater archaeological fieldwork includes remote-sensing surveys using geophysical techniques, diving surveys to locate and map sites, site monitoring, and excavation. The success of an underwater archaeological project rests on accurate documentation of all aspects of the process. Meticulous mapping and recording are particularly essential when excavation is required, as artefacts and other physical evidence are permanently removed from their original contexts. Archaeologists aim to be able to reconstruct the entire site from the records they generate during fieldwork.

Underwater archeology with Marc-André Bernier

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There’s also a podcast interview with Marc-André Bernier where he discusses an important Canadian shipwreck, from the Library and Archives Canada, Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks webpage (podcast length 27:25), here’s the transcript for those who prefer reading,

Shipwrecks have stirred up interest in Canada’s maritime heritage for many decades. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters.

In this episode, Marc-André Bernier, Chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, joins us to discuss shipwrecks, their importance in Canadian history, and how LAC plays an important role in researching, discovering and investigating them.

Podcast Transcript

Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase the treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

Canada has a rich maritime history filled with many tragedies, from small boats [lost] in the Great Lakes, to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River, to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expeditions in the Arctic. The shipwrecks capture our imaginations and evoke images of tragedy, heroism, mystery and discovery. 2014 also marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.

Marc-André Bernier, Chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, is joining us to discuss shipwrecks and their significance in Canada’s history, and LAC’s important role in the research, discovery and investigation of these shipwrecks.

Hello, Marc-André Bernier. Thank you for coming today.

Marc-André Bernier: My pleasure. Hello to you.

JO: For those who don’t know much about underwater archaeology, can you explain what it is and the risks and challenges that it presents?

MAB: I’ll start with the challenges rather than the risks, because there are obviously risks, but we try to minimize them. Diving is inherently risky. But I’ll start with the challenges because they are, to a certain extent, what characterize underwater archaeology.

We face a series of challenges that are more complicated, that make our work much more complicated than terrestrial archaeology. We work on water and underwater, and our working conditions are dictated by what happens outside, by nature. We can’t work every day on the water, especially if our work involves the sea or the ocean, for example. And when we work underwater, we have to deal with constraints in terms of time and sometimes visibility. That means that we have to be extremely well organized. Preparation is crucial. Logistics are crucial.

In terms of preparation, we need to properly prepare our research using archives and so on, but we also have to be prepared in terms of knowing what’s going on in the field. We need to know the environmental conditions and diving conditions, even when we can’t dive. Increasingly, the work involves heading into deeper areas that can only be reached by robots, by remotely operated equipment. So we have to be able to adapt.

We have to be very precise and very organized because sometimes we have only a few minutes to access a site that will tell us many historical secrets. So we have to come very well prepared.

And when we dive, we’re working in a foreign environment. We have to be good divers, yes, but we also have to have access to tools that will give us access to information. We have to take into account currents, darkness, and so on. The work is really very challenging. But with the rapid development of new technologies in recent years, we have access to more and more tools. We do basically the same work as archaeologists on land. However, the work is done in a completely different environment.

JO: A bit hostile in fact.

MAB: A bit hostile, but with sites, objects and information that are not accessible elsewhere. So there’s an opportunity to learn about history in a different way, and in some cases on a much larger scale.

JO: With all the maritime traffic in Canada, there must have been many accidents. Can you talk about them and give us an idea of the number?

MAB: People don’t realize that we’re a maritime country. We are a country that has evolved and developed around water. This was true even before the Europeans arrived. The First Nations often travelled by water. That travel increased or developed differently, if you will, when the Europeans arrived.

The St. Lawrence River, for example, and the Atlantic provinces were the point of entry and the route. We refer to different waterways, such as the Ottawa and Richelieu rivers. They constituted the route. So, there was heavy traffic, which meant many accidents. We’re talking about probably tens of thousands of shipwrecks if we include the Great Lakes and all the coasts of Canada. Since Canada has the longest coastline in the world, there is potential for shipwrecks. Only a small number of those shipwrecks have been found, but some are very significant and extremely impressive as well.

JO: Are there also many military ships, or is it more…?

MAB: That’s another thing that people don’t realize. There have been many military confrontations in Canadian waters, dating back to the New France era, or when Phips (Sir William Phips) arrived at Quebec City in 1690 and laid siege to the city. He arrived by ship and lost ships when he returned. During the Conquest, there were naval confrontations in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia; in Chaleur Bay; and even at Quebec City. Then, in the War of 1812, the Great Lakes were an extremely important maritime theatre of war in terms of naval battles. There are a number of examples in the Richelieu River.

Then we have the Second World War, with ships and German submarines. We all know the stories of the submarines that came inside the Gulf. So there are many military shipwrecks, from the New France era onward.

JO: What were the most significant shipwrecks in Canada? Have all the shipwrecks been found or…?

MAB: No. There are still shipwrecks that remain to be found. These days at Parks Canada, we’ve been looking for two of the shipwrecks that are considered among the most significant in the country: the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, Sir John Franklin’s ships lost in the Arctic. Franklin left England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, and he was never heard from again. Those are examples of significant shipwrecks that haven’t been found.

However, significance is always relative. A shipwreck may be very significant, especially if there is loss of life. It’s a tragic event that is deeply affecting. There are many shipwrecks that may not be seen as having national historic significance. However, at the local level, they are tragic stories that have very deep significance and that have profoundly affected an area.

That being said, there are ships that bear witness to memorable moments in the history of our country. Among the national historic sites of shipwrecks are, if we go back, the oldest shipwrecks: the Basque wrecks at Red Bay, Labrador, where whales were hunted in the 16th century. It’s even a UNESCO world heritage site. Then, from the New France era, there’s the Corossol from 1693 and the Phips wrecks from 1690. These are very significant shipwrecks.

Also of great significance are the Louisbourg shipwrecks, the battle site, the Battle of the Restigouche historic site, as well as shipwrecks such as the Hamilton and Scourge from the War of 1812. For all practical purposes, those shipwrecks are intact at the bottom of Lake Ontario. And the Franklin shipwrecks-even if they still haven’t been found-have been declared of national historic significance.

So there’s a wide range of shipwrecks that are significant, but there are thousands and thousands of shipwrecks that have significance. A shipwreck may also be of recreational significance. Some shipwrecks may be a little less historically significant, but for divers, they are exceptional sites for appreciating history and for having direct contact with history. That significance matters.

JO: Yes, they have a bit of a magical side.

MAB: They have a very magical side. When we dive shipwrecks, we travel through history. They give us direct access to our past.

JO: Yes. I imagine that finding a shipwreck is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack?

MAB: It can sometimes be a needle in a haystack, but often it’s by chance. Divers will sometimes stumble upon remains, and it leads to the discovery of a shipwreck. But usually, when we’re looking for a shipwreck, we have to start at the beginning and go to the source. We have to begin with the archives. We have to start by doing research, trying to find every small clue because searching in water over a large area is very difficult and complicated. We face logistical and environmental obstacles in our working conditions. It’s also expensive. We need to use ships and small boats.

There are different ways to find shipwrecks. At one extreme is a method that is technologically very simple. We dive and systematically search an area, if it’s not too deep. At the other extreme, we use the most sophisticated equipment. Today we have what we call robotic research vehicles. It is as sophisticated as launching the device, which is a bit like a self-guided torpedo. We launch it and recover it a few hours later. It carries out a sonar sweep of the bottom along a pre-programmed path. Between the two, we have a range of methods.

Basically, we have to properly define the boundaries of the area. It’s detective work. We have to try to recreate the events and define our search area, then use the proper equipment. The side-scan sonar gives us an image, and magnetometers detect metal. We have to decide which of the tools we’ll use. If we don’t do the research beforehand, we’ll lose a great deal of time.

JO: Have you used the LAC collections in your research, and what types of documents have you found?

MAB: Yes, as often as possible. We try to use the off-site archives, but it’s important to have access to the sources. Our research always starts with the archives. As for the types of documents, I mentioned the Basque documents that were collected through Library and Archives Canada. I’ve personally used colonial archives a lot. For the Corossol sinking in 1693, I remember looking at documents and correspondence that talked about the French recovery from the shipwreck the year after 1693, and the entire Phips epic.

At LAC, there’s a copy of the paintings of Creswell [Samuel Gurney Cresswell], who was an illustrator, painter, and also a lieutenant, in charge of doing illustrations during the HMS Investigator’s journey through the Arctic. So there’s a wide variety of documents, and sometimes we are surprised by the personal correspondence, which gives us details that official documents can’t provide.

JO: How do these documents help you in your research?

MAB: The archival records are always surprising. They help us in every respect. You have to see archaeology as detective work. Every detail is significant. It can be the change in topographical names on old maps that refer to events. There are many “Wreck Points” or “Pointe à la barque,” “Anse à la barque,” and so on. They refer to events. People named places after events. So we can always be surprised by bits of information that seem trivial at first.

It ranges from information on the sites and on the events that led to a shipwreck, to what happened after the sinking and what happened overall. What we want is not only to understand an event, but also to understand the event in the larger context of history, such as the history of navigation. Sometimes, the records provide that broader information.

It ranges from the research information to the analysis afterward: what we have, what we found, what it means and what it says about our history. That’s where the records offer limitless possibilities. We always have surprises. That’s why we enjoy coming to the archives, because we never know what we’ll discover.

JO: Yes, it’s always great to open a box.

MAB: It’s like Christmas. It’s like Christmas when we start delving into archival records, and it’s a sort of prelude to what happens in archaeology. When we reach a site, we’re always excited by what the site has to offer. But we have to be prepared to understand it. That’s why preparation using archives is extremely important to our work.

JO: In terms of LAC sources, do you often look at historical maps? Do you look at the different ones, because we have quite a large collection…

MAB: Quite exceptional, yes.

JO: … from the beginning until now?

MAB: Yes. They provide a lot of information, and we use them, like all sources, as much as possible. We look for different things on the maps. Obviously, we look for places that may show shipwreck locations. These maps may also show the navigation corridors or charts. The old charts show anchorages and routes. They help us recreate navigation habits, which helps us understand the navigation and maritime mindset of the era and gives us clues as to where the ships went and where they were lost.

These maps give us that type of information. They also give us information on the topography and the names of places that have changed over the years. Take the example of the Corossol in the Sept-Îles bay. One of the islands in that bay is called Corossol. For years, people looked for the French ship, the Corossol, near that island. However, Manowin Island was also called Corossol at that time and its name changed. So in the old maps, we traced the origin, and the ship lies much closer to that island. Those are some of the clues.

We also have magnificent maps. One in particular comes to mind. It was created in the 19th century on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine by an insurance company agent who made a wreck map of all the shipwrecks that he knew of. To us, that’s like candy. It’s one of the opportunities that maps provide. Maps are magnificent even if we don’t find clues. Just to admire them-they’re absolutely magnificent.

JO: From a historical point of view, why is it important to study shipwrecks?

MAB: Shipwrecks are in fact a microcosm. They represent a small world. During the time of the voyage, there was a world of its own inside the ship. That in itself is interesting. How did people live on board? What were they carrying? These are clues. The advantage of a shipwreck is that it’s like a Polaroid, a fixed image of a specific point in time. When we study a city such as Quebec City that has been continuously occupied, sometimes it’s difficult to see the separation between eras, or even between events. A shipwreck shows a specific time and specific place.

JO: And it’s frozen in time.

MAB: And it’s frozen in time. So here’s an image, in 1740, what did we have? Of course, we find objects made in other eras that were still in use in that time period. But it really gives us a fixed image, a capsule. We often have an image of a time capsule. It’s very useful, because it’s very rare to have these mini Pompeiis, and we have them underwater. It’s absolutely fascinating and interesting. It’s one of the contributions of underwater archaeology.

The other thing is that we don’t necessarily find the same type of material underwater as on land. The preservation conditions are completely different. On land, we find a great deal of metal. Iron stays fairly well preserved. But there’s not much organic material, unless the environment is extremely humid or extremely dry. Underwater, organic materials are very well preserved, especially if the sedimentation is fairly quick. I remember finding cartouches from 1690 that still had paper around them. So the preservation conditions are absolutely exceptional.

That’s why it’s important. The shipwrecks give us unique information that complements what we find on land, but they also offer something that can’t be found elsewhere.

JO: I imagine that there are preservation problems once it’s…

MAB: And that’s the other challenge.

JO: Yes, certainly.

MAB: If an object is brought up, we have to be ready to take action because it starts to degrade the moment we move it…

JO: It comes into contact with oxygen.

MAB: … Yes, but even when we move it, we expose it to a new corrosion, a new degradation. If we bring it to the surface right away, the process accelerates very quickly. We have to keep the object damp. We always have to be ready to take action. For example, if the water heats up too fast, micro-organisms may develop that accelerate the degradation. We then have to be ready to start preservation treatments, which can take years depending on the object. It’s an enormous responsibility and we have to be ready to handle it, if not, we destroy…

JO: … the heritage.

MAB: … what we are trying to save, and that’s to everyone’s detriment.

JO: Why do you think that people are so fascinated by archaeology, and more specifically by shipwrecks?

MAB: That’s also a paradox. We say that people aren’t interested in history. I am firmly convinced that people enjoy history and are interested in it. It must be well narrated, but people are interested in history. There’s already an interest in our past and in our links with the past. If people feel directly affected by the past, they’ll be fascinated by it. If we add on top of that the element of discovery, and archaeology is discovery, and all the myths surrounding artefact hunters…

JO: … treasure hunters.

MAB: … treasures, and so on. It’s an image that people have. Yes, we hunt treasure, but historical treasure. That image applies even more strongly to shipwrecks. There’s always that myth of the Spanish galleon filled with gold. Everyone thinks that all shipwrecks contain a treasure. That being said, there’s a fascination with discovery and with the past, and add on top of that the notion of the bottom of the sea: it’s the final frontier, where we can be surprised by what we discover. Since these discoveries are often remarkably well preserved, people are absolutely fascinated.

We grow up with stories of pirates, shipwrecks and lost ships. These are powerful images. A shipwreck is an image that captures the imagination. But a shipwreck, when we dive a shipwreck, we have direct contact with the past. People are fascinated by that.

JO: Are shipwreck sites accessible to divers?

MAB: Shipwreck sites are very accessible to divers. For us, it’s a basic principle. We want people to be able to visit these sites. Very rarely do we limit access to a site. We do, for example, in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. The site is accessible, but with a guide. The site must be visited with a guide because the wrecks are unique and very fragile.

However, the basic principle is that, as I was saying, we should try to allow people to savour and absorb the spirit of the site. The best way is to visit the site. So there are sites that are accessible, and we try to make them accessible. We not only make them accessible, but we also promote them. We’re developing tools to provide information to people.

It’s also important to raise awareness. We have the opportunity and privilege to visit the sites. We have to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same opportunity. So we have to protect and respect [the sites]. In that spirit, the sites have to be accessible because these experiences are absolutely incredible. With technology, we can now make them accessible not only to divers but also virtually, which is interesting and stimulating. Nowadays there are opportunities to make all these wonders available to as many people as possible, even if they don’t have the chance to dive.

JO: How long has Parks Canada been involved in underwater archaeology?

MAB: 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first dives at Fort Lennox in 1964 by Sean Gilmore and Walter Zacharchuk. That’s where it began. We’re going back there in August of this year, to the birthplace of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada.

We’re one of the oldest teams in the world, if we can say that. The first time an archaeologist dived a site was in 1960, so we were there basically at the beginning. Parks Canada joined the adventure very early on and it continues to be a part of it to this day. I believe that we’ve studied 225 sites across Canada, in the three oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, truly across the entire country. We have a wealth of experience, and we’ll celebrate that this year by returning to Fort Lennox where it all began.

JO: Congratulations!

MAB: Thank you very much.

JO: 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. What can you tell us about this maritime accident?

MAB: The story of the Empress begins on May 28, 1914. The Empress of Ireland left Quebec City for England with first, second and third class passengers on board. The Empress left Quebec in the late afternoon, with more than 1,400 passengers and crew on board. The ship headed down the St. Lawrence to Pointe au Père, a pilot station, because pilots were needed to navigate the St. Lawrence, given the reefs and hazards.

The pilot left the Empress at the Pointe au Père pilot station, and the ship resumed her journey. At the same time, the Storstad, a cargo ship, was heading in the opposite direction. In the fog, the two ships collided. The Storstad rammed the Empress of Ireland, creating a hole that immediately filled with water.

At that moment, it was after 1:30 a.m., so almost 2:00 a.m. It was night and foggy. The ship sank within 14 minutes, with a loss of 1,012 lives. Over 400 people survived, but over 1,000 people [died]. Many survivors were pulled from the water either by the ship that collided with the Empress or by other ships that were immediately dispatched.

JO: 14 minutes…

MAB: … In 14 minutes, the ship sank. The water rushed in and the ship sank extremely fast, leaving very little opportunity for people, especially those deeper inside the ship, to save themselves.

JO: So a disaster.

MAB: The greatest maritime tragedy in the history of the country.

JO: What’s your most unforgettable experience at an underwater archaeology site?

MAB :I’ve been doing this job for 24 years now, and I can tell you that I have had extraordinary experiences! There are two that stand out.

One was a Second World War plane in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan that sank after takeoff. Five of the nine crew members drowned in the plane. In 2009, the plane was found intact at a depth of 40 metres. We knew that five of the crew members were still inside. What was absolutely fascinating, apart from the sense of contact and the very touching story, was that we had the opportunity, chance and privilege to have people who were on the beach when the event occurred, who saw the accident and who saw the soldiers board right beforehand. They told us how it happened and they are a direct link. They are part of the history and they experienced that history.

That was an absolutely incredible human experience. We worked with the American forces to recover the remains of the soldiers. Seeing people who had witnessed the event and who could participate 70 years later was a very powerful moment. Diving the wreck of that plane was truly a journey through time.

The other experience was with the HMS Investigator in the Arctic. That’s the ship that was credited with discovering the Northwest Passage. Actually, the crew found it, since the ship remained trapped in the ice and the crew continued on foot and were saved by another ship. The ship is practically intact up to the upper deck in ten metres of water. When you go down there, the area is completely isolated. The crew spent two winters there. On land we can see the remains of the equipment that they left on the ground. Three graves are also visible. So we can absorb the fact that they were in this environment, which was completely hostile, for two years, with the hope of being rescued.

And the ship: we then dive this amazing exploration machine that’s still upright, with its iron-clad prow to break the ice. It’s an icebreaker from the 1850s. We dive on the deck, with the debris left by the ice, the pieces of the ship completely sheared off by the ice. But underneath that is a complete ship, and on the inside, everything that the people left on board.

I often say that it’s like a time travel machine. We are transported and we can absorb the spirit of the site. That’s what I believe is important, and what we at Parks [Canada] try to impart, the spirit of the site. There was a historic moment, but it occurred at a site. That site must be seen and experienced for maximum appreciation. That’s part of the essence of the historic event and the site. On that site, we truly felt it.

JO: Thank you very much for coming to speak with us today. We greatly appreciate your knowledge of underwater Canada. Thank you.

MAB: Thank you very much.

JO: To learn more about shipwrecks, visit our website Shipwreck Investigations at lac-bac.gc.ca/sos/shipwrecks or read our articles on shipwrecks on thediscoverblog.com [I found other subjects but not shipwrecks in my admittedly brief search of the blog].

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada-where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thanks to our guest today, Marc-André Bernier.

A couple of comments. (1) It seems that neither Mr. Bernier nor his team have ever dived on the West Coast or west of Ottawa for that matter. (2) Given Bernier’s comments about oxygen and the degradation of artefacts once exposed to the air, I imagine there’s a fair of amount of excitement and interest in Corr’s work on ‘smart nanotech’ for shipwrecks.

Wearable technology: two types of sensors one from the University of Glasgow (Scotland) and the other from the University of British Columbia (Canada)

Sometimes it’s good to try and pull things together.

University of Glasgow and monitoring chronic conditions

A February 23, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the latest wearable tech from the University of Glasgow,

A new type of flexible, wearable sensor could help people with chronic conditions like diabetes avoid the discomfort of regular pin-prick blood tests by monitoring the chemical composition of their sweat instead.

In a new paper published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics, a team of scientists from the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering outline how they have built a stretchable, wireless system which is capable of measuring the pH level of users’ sweat.

A February 22, 2018 University of Glasgow press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Ravinder Dahiya

 Courtesy: University of Glasgow

 

Sweat, like blood, contains chemicals generated in the human body, including glucose and urea. Monitoring the levels of those chemicals in sweat could help clinicians diagnose and monitor chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and some types of cancers without invasive tests which require blood to be drawn from patients.

However, non-invasive, wearable systems require consistent contact with skin to offer the highest-quality monitoring. Current systems are made from rigid materials, making it more difficult to ensure consistent contact, and other potential solutions such as adhesives can irritate skin. Wireless systems which use Bluetooth to transmit their information are also often bulky and power-hungry, requiring frequent recharging.

The University of Glasgow team’s new system is built around an inexpensively-produced sensor capable of measuring pH levels which can stretch and flex to better fit the contours of users’ bodies. Made from a graphite-polyurethane composite and measuring around a single square centimetre, it can stretch up to 53% in length without compromising performance. It will also continue to work after being subjected to flexes of 30% up to 500 times, which the researchers say will allow it to be used comfortably on human skin with minimal impact on the performance of the sensor.

The sensor can transmit its data wirelessly, and without external power, to an accompanying smartphone app called ‘SenseAble’, also developed by the team. The transmissions use near-field communication, a data transmission system found in many current smartphones which is used most often for smartphone payments like ApplePay, via a stretchable RFID antenna integrated into the system – another breakthrough innovation from the research team.

The smartphone app allows users to track pH levels in real time and was demonstrated in the lab using a chemical solution created by the researchers which mimics the composition of human sweat.

The research was led by Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering’s Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group.

Professor Dahiya said: “Human sweat contains much of the same physiological information that blood does, and its use in diagnostic systems has the significant advantage of not needing to break the skin in order to administer tests.

“Now that we’ve demonstrated that our stretchable system can be used to monitor pH levels, we’ve already begun additional research to expand the capabilities of the sensor and make it a more complete diagnostic system. We’re planning to add sensors capable of measuring glucose, ammonia and urea, for example, and ultimately we’d like to see a system ready for market in the next few years.”

The team’s paper, titled ‘Stretchable Wireless System for Sweat pH Monitoring’, is published in Biosensors and Bioelectronics. The research was supported by funding from the European Commission and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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

Stretchable wireless system for sweat pH monitoring by Wenting Dang, Libu Manjakkal, William Taube Navaraj, Leandro Lorenzelli, Vincenzo Vinciguerra. Biosensors and Bioelectronics Volume 107, 1 June 2018, Pages 192–202 [Available online February 2018] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bios.2018.02.025

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of British Columbia (UBC; Okanagan) and monitor bio-signals

This is a completely other type of wearable tech monitor, from a February 22, 2018 UBC news release (also on EurekAlert) by Patty Wellborn (A link has been removed),

Creating the perfect wearable device to monitor muscle movement, heart rate and other tiny bio-signals without breaking the bank has inspired scientists to look for a simpler and more affordable tool.

Now, a team of researchers at UBC’s Okanagan campus have developed a practical way to monitor and interpret human motion, in what may be the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to wearable technology.

What started as research to create an ultra-stretchable sensor transformed into a sophisticated inter-disciplinary project resulting in a smart wearable device that is capable of sensing and understanding complex human motion, explains School of Engineering Professor Homayoun Najjaran.

The sensor is made by infusing graphene nano-flakes (GNF) into a rubber-like adhesive pad. Najjaran says they then tested the durability of the tiny sensor by stretching it to see if it can maintain accuracy under strains of up to 350 per cent of its original state. The device went through more than 10,000 cycles of stretching and relaxing while maintaining its electrical stability.

“We tested this sensor vigorously,” says Najjaran. “Not only did it maintain its form but more importantly it retained its sensory functionality. We have further demonstrated the efficacy of GNF-Pad as a haptic technology in real-time applications by precisely replicating the human finger gestures using a three-joint robotic finger.”

The goal was to make something that could stretch, be flexible and a reasonable size, and have the required sensitivity, performance, production cost, and robustness. Unlike an inertial measurement unit—an electronic unit that measures force and movement and is used in most step-based wearable technologies—Najjaran says the sensors need to be sensitive enough to respond to different and complex body motions. That includes infinitesimal movements like a heartbeat or a twitch of a finger, to large muscle movements from walking and running.

School of Engineering Professor and study co-author Mina Hoorfar says their results may help manufacturers create the next level of health monitoring and biomedical devices.

“We have introduced an easy and highly repeatable fabrication method to create a highly sensitive sensor with outstanding mechanical and electrical properties at a very low cost,” says Hoorfar.

To demonstrate its practicality, researchers built three wearable devices including a knee band, a wristband and a glove. The wristband monitored heartbeats by sensing the pulse of the artery. In an entirely different range of motion, the finger and knee bands monitored finger gestures and larger scale muscle movements during walking, running, sitting down and standing up. The results, says Hoorfar, indicate an inexpensive device that has a high-level of sensitivity, selectivity and durability.

Hoorfar and Najjaran are both members of the Okanagan node of UBC’s STITCH (SmarT Innovations for Technology Connected Health) Institute that creates and investigates advanced wearable devices.

The research, partially funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, was recently published in the Journal of Sensors and Actuators A: Physical.

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

Low-cost ultra-stretchable strain sensors for monitoring human motion and bio-signals by Seyed Reza Larimi, Hojatollah Rezaei Nejad, Michael Oyatsi, Allen O’Brien, Mina Hoorfar, Homayoun Najjaran. Sensors and Actuators A: Physical Volume 271, 1 March 2018, Pages 182-191 [Published online February 2018] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sna.2018.01.028

This paper is behind a paywall.

Final comments

The term ‘wearable tech’ covers a lot of ground. In addition to sensors, there are materials that harvest energy, detect poisons, etc.  making for a diverse field.

EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France from July 9 to July 14, 2018

A March 22, 2018 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2018 announcement (received via email) trumpets some of the latest news for this event being held July 9 to July 14, 2018 in Toulouse, France. (Located in the south in the region known as the Occitanie, it’s the fourth largest city in France. Toulouse is situated on the River Garonne. See more in its Wikipedia entry.) Here’s the latest from the announcement,

ESOF 2018 Plenary Sessions

Top speakers and hot topics confirmed for the Plenary Sessions at ESOF 2018

Lorna Hughes, Professor at the University of Glasgow, Chair of the Europeana Research Advisory Board, will give a plenary keynote on “Digital humanities”. John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine and of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, famous for his PLoS Medicine paper on “Why most Published Research Findings are False”, will talk about “Reproducibility”. A third plenary will involve Marìa Teresa Ruiz, a Chilean astronomer and the 2017 L’Oreal UNESCO award for Women in Science: she will talk about exoplanets.

 

ESOF under the spotlights

French President’s high patronage: ESOF is at the top of the institutional agendas in 2018.

“Sharing science”. But also putting science at the highest level making it a real political and societal issue in a changing world. ESOF 2018 has officially received the “High Patronage” from the President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron. ESOF 2018 has also been listed by the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs among the 27 priority events for France.

A constellation of satellites around the ESOF planet!

Second focus on Satellite events:
4th GEO Blue Planet Symposium organised 4-6 July by Mercator Ocean.
ECSJ 2018, 5th European Conference of Science Journalists, co-organised by the French Association of Science Journalists in the News Press (AJSPI) and the Union of European Science Journalists’ Associations (EUSJA) on 8 July.
– Esprit de Découvertes (Discovery spirit) organised by the Académie des Sciences, Inscriptions et Belles Lettres de Toulouse on 8 July.

More Satellite events to come! Don’t forget to stay long enough in order to participate in these focused Satellite Events and … to discover the city.

The programme for ESOF 2018 can be found here.

Science meets poetry

As has become usual, there is a European City of Science event being held in Toulouse in concert (more or less) with and in celebration of the ESOF event. The City of Science event is being held from July 7 – July 16, 2018.

Organizers have not announced much in the way of programming for the City of Science other than a ‘Science meets Poetry’ meeting,

A unique feature of ESOF is the Science meets Poetry day, which is held at every Forum and brings poets and scientists together.

Indeed, there is today a real artistic movement of poets connected with ESOF. Famous participants from earlier meetings include contributors such as the late Seamus Heaney, Roald Hoffmann [sic] Jean-Pierre Luminet and Prince Henrik of Denmark, but many young and aspiring poets are also involved.

The meeting is in two parts:

  • lectures on subjects involving science with poetry
  • a poster session for contributed poems

There are competitions associated with the event and every Science meets Poetry day gives rise to the publication of Proceedings in book form.

In Toulouse, the event will be staged by EuroScience in collaboration with the Académie des Jeux Floraux of Toulouse, the Société des Poètes Français and the European Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, under patronage of UNESCO. The full programme will be announced later, but includes such themes as a celebration of the number 7 in honour of the seven Troubadours of Toulouse, who held the first Jeux Floraux in the year 1323, Space Travel and the first poets and scientists who wrote about it (including Cyrano de Bergerac and Johannes Kepler), from Metrodorus and Diophantes of Alexandria to Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Poetry of Ecology, Lafayette’s ship the Hermione seen from America and many other thought-provoking subjects.

The meeting will be held in the Hôtel d’Assézat, one of the finest old buildings of the ancient city of Toulouse.

Exceptionally, it will be open to registered participants from ESOF and also to some members of the public within the limits of available space.

Tentative Programme for the Science meets Poetry day on the 12th of July 2018

(some Speakers are still to be confirmed)

  • 09:00 – 09:30 A welcome for the poets : The legendary Troubadours of Toulouse and the poetry of the number 7 (Philippe Dazet-Brun, Académie des Jeux Floraux)
  • 09:30 – 10:00 The science and the poetry of violets from Toulouse (Marie-Thérèse Esquerré-Tugayé  Laboratoire de Recherche en Sciences Végétales, Université Toulouse III-CNRS)
  • 10:00 –10:30  The true Cyrano de Bergerac, gascon poet, and his celebrated travels to the Moon (Jean-Charles Dorge, Société des Poètes Français)
  • 10:30 – 11:00  Coffee Break (with poems as posters)
  • 11:00 – 11:30 Kepler the author and the imaginary travels of the famous astronomer to the Moon. (Uli Rothfuss, die Kogge International Society of German-language authors )
  • 11:30 – 12:00  Spoutnik and Space in Russian Literature (Alla-Valeria Mikhalevitch, Laboratory of the Russian Academy of Sciences  Saint-Petersburg)
  • 12:00 – 12:30  Poems for the planet Mars (James Philip Kotsybar, the ‘Bard of Mars’, California and NASA USA)
  • 12:30 – 14:00  Lunch and meetings of the Juries of poetry competitions
  • 14:00 – 14:30  The voyage of the Hermione and « Lafayette, here we come ! » seen by an American poet (Nick Norwood, University of Columbus Ohio)
  • 14:30 –  15:00 Alexandria, Toulouse and Oxford : the poem rendered by Eutrope and Fermat’s Last Theorem (Chaunes [Jean-Patrick Connerade], European Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, UNESCO)
  • 15:00 –15:30  How biology is celebrated in contemporary poetry (Assumpcio Forcada, biologist and poet from Barcelona)
  • 15:30 – 16:00  A book of poems around ecology : a central subject in modern poetry (Sam Illingworth, Metropolitan University of Manchester)
  • 16:00 – 16:30  Coffee break (with poems as posters)
  • 16:30 – 17:00 Toulouse and Europe : poetry at the crossroads of European Languages (Stefka Hrusanova (Bulgarian Academy and Linguaggi-Di-Versi)
  • 17:00 – 17:30 Round Table : seven poets from Toulouse give their views on the theme : Languages, invisible frontiers within both science and poetry
  • 17:30 – 18:00 The winners of the poetry competitions are announced
  • 18:00 – 18:15 Chaunes. Closing remarks

I’m fascinated as in all the years I’ve covered the European City of Science events I’ve never before tripped across a ‘Science meets Poetry’ meeting. Sadly, there’s no contact information for those organizers. However, you can sign up for a newsletter and there are contacts for the larger event, European City of Science or as they are calling it in Toulouse, the Science in the City Festival,

Contact

Camille Rossignol (Toulouse Métropole)

camille.rossignol@toulouse-metropole.fr

+33 (0)5 36 25 27 83

François Lafont (ESOF 2018 / So Toulouse)

francois.lafont@toulouse2018.esof.eu

+33 (0)5 61 14 58 47

Travel grants for media types

One last note and this is for journalists. It’s still possible to apply for a travel grant, which helps ease but not remove the pain of travel expenses. From the ESOF 2018 Media Travel Grants webpage,

ESOF 2018 – ECSJ 2018 Travel Grants

The 5th European Conference of Science Journalists (ECSJ2018) is offering 50 travel + accommodation grants of up to 400€ to international journalists interested in attending ECSJ and ESOF.

We are looking for active professional journalists who cover science or science policy regularly (not necessarily exclusively), with an interest in reflecting on their professional practices and ethics. Applicants can be freelancers or staff, and can work for print, web, or broadcast media.

More information

ESOF 2018 Nature Travel Grants

Springer Nature is a leading research, educational and professional publisher, providing quality content to its communities through a range of innovative platforms, products and services and is home of trusted brands including Nature Research.

Nature Research has supported ESOF since its very first meeting in 2004 and is funding the Nature Travel Grant Scheme for journalists to attend ESOF2018 with the aim of increasing the impact of ESOF. The Nature Travel Grant Scheme offers a lump sum of £400 for journalists based in Europe and £800 for journalists based outside of Europe, to help cover the costs of travel and accommodation to attend ESOF2018.

More information

Good luck!

(My previous posting about this ESOF 2018 was Sept. 4, 2017 [scroll down about 50% of the way] should you be curious.)

Crackpot or visionary? Teaching seven-year-olds about intellectual property

It’s been a while since I’ve devoted a posting to intellectual property issues and my focus is usually on science/technology and how intellectual property issues relate to those fields. As a writer, I support a more relaxed approach to copyright and patent law and, in particular, I want to see the continuation of ‘fair use’ as it’s called in the US and ‘fair dealing’ as it’s called in Canada. I support the principle of making money from your work so you can continue to contribute creatively. But, the application of intellectual property law seems to have been turned into a weapon against creativity of all sorts. (At the end of this post you’ll find links to three typical posts from the many I have written on this topic.)

I do take the point being made in the following video (but for seven-year-olds and up!!!) about trademarks/logos and trademark infringement from the UK’s Intellectual Property Office,

Here’s the description from Youtube’s Logo Mania webpage,

Published on Jan 16, 2018

Brian Wheeler’s January 17, 2018 article for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online news on UK Politics sheds a bit of light on this ‘campaign’ (Note: A link has been removed),

A campaign to teach children about copyright infringement on the internet, is employing cartoons and puns on pop stars’ names, to get the message across.

Even its makers admit it is a “dry” and “niche” subject for a cartoon aimed at seven-year-olds.

But the Intellectual Property Office adds learning to “respect” copyrights and trademarks is a “key life skill”.

And it is hoping the adventures of Nancy and the Meerkats can finally make intellectual property “fun”.

The series, which began life five years ago on Fun Kids Radio, was re-launched this week with the aim of getting its message into primary schools.

The Intellectual Property Office is leading the government’s efforts to crack down on internet piracy and protect the revenues of Britain’s creative industries.

The government agency is spending £20,000 of its own money on the latest Nancy campaign, which is part-funded by the UK music industry.

Catherine Davies, head of the IPO’s education outreach department, which already produces teaching materials for GCSE students, admitted IP was a “complex subject” for small children and something of a challenge to make accessible and entertaining.

Wheeler’s article is definitely worth reading in its entirety. In fact, I was so intrigued I chased down the government press release (from the www.gov.uk webpage),

Nancy and the Meerkats logo

Nancy and the Meerkats, with the help of Big Joe, present a new radio series to engage pupils with the concept of intellectual property (IP). Aimed at primary education, the resource guides pupils through the process of setting up a band and recording and releasing a song, which is promoted and performed live on tour.

Building on the success of the previous two series, Nancy and the Meerkats consists of a new radio series, short videos, comic book, lesson plans and competition. The supporting teaching resource also includes themed activities and engaging lesson plans. Together, these support and develop pupils’ understanding of copyright, trade marks and the importance of respecting IP.

Curriculum links are provided for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The series will launch on Monday 15th January [2018] at 5pm on Fun Kids Radio

Along with ‘Logo Mania’, you can find such gems as ‘Track Attack’ concerning song lyrics and, presumably, copyright issues, ‘The Hum Bone’ concerning patents, and ‘Pirates on the Internet’ about illegal downloading on the Fun Kids Radio website. Previous seasons have included ‘Are forks just for eating with?’, ‘Is a kaleidoscope useful?’, ‘Rubber Bands’, ‘Cornish Pasties’, and more. It seems Fun Kids Radio has moved from its focus on the types of questions and topics that might interest children to topics of interest for the music industry and the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. At a guess, I’m guessing those groups might be maximalists where copyright is concerned.

By the way, for those interested in teaching resources and more, go to http://crackingideas.com/third_party/Nancy+and+the+Meerkats.

Finally, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I do know that I’m curious about how they decided to focus on seven to 11-year-olds. Are children in the UK heavily involved in content piracy? Is there a generation of grade school pop stars about to enter the music market? Where is the data and how did they gather it?

Should anyone be inclined to answer those questions, I look forward to reading your reply in the Comments section.

ETA January 19, 2018 (five minutes later) Oops! Here are the links promised earlier,

October 31, 2011: Patents as weapons and obstacles

June 28, 2012: Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP

March 28, 2013: Intellectual property, innovation, and hindrances

There are many, many more posts. Just click on the category for ‘intellectual property’.

What helps you may hurt you (titanium dioxide nanoparticles and orthopedic implants)

From a Sept. 16, 2017 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic have proposed that negative cellular responses to titanium-based nanoparticles released from metal implants interfere in bone formation and resorption at the site of repair, resulting in implant loosening and joint pain. [emphasis mine]Their review of recent scientific evidence and call for further research to characterize the biological, physical, and chemical interactions between titanium dioxide nanoparticles and bone-forming cells is published in BioResearch Open Access, a peer-reviewed open access journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. The article is available free on theBioResearch Open Access website.

A Sept. 14, 2017 Mary Anne Liebert (Publishing) news release, which originated the news item,  mentions the authors,

Jie Yao, Eric Lewallen, PhD, David Lewallen, MD, Andre van Wijnen, PhD, and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN and Second Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University, China, coauthored the article entitled “Local Cellular Responses to Titanium Dioxide from Orthopedic Implants The authors examined the results of recently published studies of titanium-based implants, focusing on the direct and indirect effects of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on the viability and behavior of multiple bone-related cell types. They discuss the impact of particle size, aggregation, structure, and the specific extracellular and intracellular (if taken up by the cells) effects of titanium particle exposure.

“The adverse effects of metallic orthopedic particles generated from implants are of significant clinical interest given the large number of procedures carried out each year. This article reviews our current understanding of the clinical issues and highlights areas for future research,” says BioResearch Open Access Editor Jane Taylor, PhD, MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Before getting to the abstract, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Local Cellular Responses to Titanium Dioxide from Orthopedic Implants by Yao, Jie J.; Lewallen, Eric A.; Trousdale, William H.; Xu, Wei; Thaler, Roman; Salib, Christopher G.; Reina, Nicolas; Abdel, Matthew P.; Lewallen, David G.; and van Wijnenm, Andre J.. BioResearch Open Access. July 2017, 6(1): 94-103. https://doi.org/10.1089/biores.2017.0017 Published July 1, 2017

This paper is open access.

Brain stuff: quantum entanglement and a multi-dimensional universe

I have two brain news bits, one about neural networks and quantum entanglement and another about how the brain operates on more than three dimensions.

Quantum entanglement and neural networks

A June 13, 2017 news item on phys.org describes how machine learning can be used to solve problems in physics (Note: Links have been removed),

Machine learning, the field that’s driving a revolution in artificial intelligence, has cemented its role in modern technology. Its tools and techniques have led to rapid improvements in everything from self-driving cars and speech recognition to the digital mastery of an ancient board game.

Now, physicists are beginning to use machine learning tools to tackle a different kind of problem, one at the heart of quantum physics. In a paper published recently in Physical Review X, researchers from JQI [Joint Quantum Institute] and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland showed that certain neural networks—abstract webs that pass information from node to node like neurons in the brain—can succinctly describe wide swathes of quantum systems.

An artist’s rendering of a neural network with two layers. At the top is a real quantum system, like atoms in an optical lattice. Below is a network of hidden neurons that capture their interactions (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)

A June 12, 2017 JQI news release by Chris Cesare, which originated the news item, describes how neural networks can represent quantum entanglement,

Dongling Deng, a JQI Postdoctoral Fellow who is a member of CMTC and the paper’s first author, says that researchers who use computers to study quantum systems might benefit from the simple descriptions that neural networks provide. “If we want to numerically tackle some quantum problem,” Deng says, “we first need to find an efficient representation.”

On paper and, more importantly, on computers, physicists have many ways of representing quantum systems. Typically these representations comprise lists of numbers describing the likelihood that a system will be found in different quantum states. But it becomes difficult to extract properties or predictions from a digital description as the number of quantum particles grows, and the prevailing wisdom has been that entanglement—an exotic quantum connection between particles—plays a key role in thwarting simple representations.

The neural networks used by Deng and his collaborators—CMTC Director and JQI Fellow Sankar Das Sarma and Fudan University physicist and former JQI Postdoctoral Fellow Xiaopeng Li—can efficiently represent quantum systems that harbor lots of entanglement, a surprising improvement over prior methods.

What’s more, the new results go beyond mere representation. “This research is unique in that it does not just provide an efficient representation of highly entangled quantum states,” Das Sarma says. “It is a new way of solving intractable, interacting quantum many-body problems that uses machine learning tools to find exact solutions.”

Neural networks and their accompanying learning techniques powered AlphaGo, the computer program that beat some of the world’s best Go players last year (link is external) (and the top player this year (link is external)). The news excited Deng, an avid fan of the board game. Last year, around the same time as AlphaGo’s triumphs, a paper appeared that introduced the idea of using neural networks to represent quantum states (link is external), although it gave no indication of exactly how wide the tool’s reach might be. “We immediately recognized that this should be a very important paper,” Deng says, “so we put all our energy and time into studying the problem more.”

The result was a more complete account of the capabilities of certain neural networks to represent quantum states. In particular, the team studied neural networks that use two distinct groups of neurons. The first group, called the visible neurons, represents real quantum particles, like atoms in an optical lattice or ions in a chain. To account for interactions between particles, the researchers employed a second group of neurons—the hidden neurons—which link up with visible neurons. These links capture the physical interactions between real particles, and as long as the number of connections stays relatively small, the neural network description remains simple.

Specifying a number for each connection and mathematically forgetting the hidden neurons can produce a compact representation of many interesting quantum states, including states with topological characteristics and some with surprising amounts of entanglement.

Beyond its potential as a tool in numerical simulations, the new framework allowed Deng and collaborators to prove some mathematical facts about the families of quantum states represented by neural networks. For instance, neural networks with only short-range interactions—those in which each hidden neuron is only connected to a small cluster of visible neurons—have a strict limit on their total entanglement. This technical result, known as an area law, is a research pursuit of many condensed matter physicists.

These neural networks can’t capture everything, though. “They are a very restricted regime,” Deng says, adding that they don’t offer an efficient universal representation. If they did, they could be used to simulate a quantum computer with an ordinary computer, something physicists and computer scientists think is very unlikely. Still, the collection of states that they do represent efficiently, and the overlap of that collection with other representation methods, is an open problem that Deng says is ripe for further exploration.

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

Quantum Entanglement in Neural Network States by Dong-Ling Deng, Xiaopeng Li, and S. Das Sarma. Phys. Rev. X 7, 021021 – Published 11 May 2017

This paper is open access.

Blue Brain and the multidimensional universe

Blue Brain is a Swiss government brain research initiative which officially came to life in 2006 although the initial agreement between the École Politechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IBM was signed in 2005 (according to the project’s Timeline page). Moving on, the project’s latest research reveals something astounding (from a June 12, 2017 Frontiers Publishing press release on EurekAlert),

For most people, it is a stretch of the imagination to understand the world in four dimensions but a new study has discovered structures in the brain with up to eleven dimensions – ground-breaking work that is beginning to reveal the brain’s deepest architectural secrets.

Using algebraic topology in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.

The research, published today in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, shows that these structures arise when a group of neurons forms a clique: each neuron connects to every other neuron in the group in a very specific way that generates a precise geometric object. The more neurons there are in a clique, the higher the dimension of the geometric object.

“We found a world that we had never imagined,” says neuroscientist Henry Markram, director of Blue Brain Project and professor at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, “there are tens of millions of these objects even in a small speck of the brain, up through seven dimensions. In some networks, we even found structures with up to eleven dimensions.”

Markram suggests this may explain why it has been so hard to understand the brain. “The mathematics usually applied to study networks cannot detect the high-dimensional structures and spaces that we now see clearly.”

If 4D worlds stretch our imagination, worlds with 5, 6 or more dimensions are too complex for most of us to comprehend. This is where algebraic topology comes in: a branch of mathematics that can describe systems with any number of dimensions. The mathematicians who brought algebraic topology to the study of brain networks in the Blue Brain Project were Kathryn Hess from EPFL and Ran Levi from Aberdeen University.

“Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time. It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures – the trees in the forest – and see the empty spaces – the clearings – all at the same time,” explains Hess.

In 2015, Blue Brain published the first digital copy of a piece of the neocortex – the most evolved part of the brain and the seat of our sensations, actions, and consciousness. In this latest research, using algebraic topology, multiple tests were performed on the virtual brain tissue to show that the multi-dimensional brain structures discovered could never be produced by chance. Experiments were then performed on real brain tissue in the Blue Brain’s wet lab in Lausanne confirming that the earlier discoveries in the virtual tissue are biologically relevant and also suggesting that the brain constantly rewires during development to build a network with as many high-dimensional structures as possible.

When the researchers presented the virtual brain tissue with a stimulus, cliques of progressively higher dimensions assembled momentarily to enclose high-dimensional holes, that the researchers refer to as cavities. “The appearance of high-dimensional cavities when the brain is processing information means that the neurons in the network react to stimuli in an extremely organized manner,” says Levi. “It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building then razing a tower of multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes (3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc. The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates.”

The big question these researchers are asking now is whether the intricacy of tasks we can perform depends on the complexity of the multi-dimensional “sandcastles” the brain can build. Neuroscience has also been struggling to find where the brain stores its memories. “They may be ‘hiding’ in high-dimensional cavities,” Markram speculates.

###

About Blue Brain

The aim of the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss brain initiative founded and directed by Professor Henry Markram, is to build accurate, biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the rodent brain, and ultimately, the human brain. The supercomputer-based reconstructions and simulations built by Blue Brain offer a radically new approach for understanding the multilevel structure and function of the brain. http://bluebrain.epfl.ch

About Frontiers

Frontiers is a leading community-driven open-access publisher. By taking publishing entirely online, we drive innovation with new technologies to make peer review more efficient and transparent. We provide impact metrics for articles and researchers, and merge open access publishing with a research network platform – Loop – to catalyse research dissemination, and popularize research to the public, including children. Our goal is to increase the reach and impact of research articles and their authors. Frontiers has received the ALPSP Gold Award for Innovation in Publishing in 2014. http://www.frontiersin.org.

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

Cliques of Neurons Bound into Cavities Provide a Missing Link between Structure and Function by Michael W. Reimann, Max Nolte, Martina Scolamiero, Katharine Turner, Rodrigo Perin, Giuseppe Chindemi, Paweł Dłotko, Ran Levi, Kathryn Hess, and Henry Markram. Front. Comput. Neurosci., 12 June 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fncom.2017.00048

This paper is open access.

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.

Solar-powered graphene skin for more feeling in your prosthetics

A March 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk highlights research that could put feeling into a prosthetic limb,

A new way of harnessing the sun’s rays to power ‘synthetic skin’ could help to create advanced prosthetic limbs capable of returning the sense of touch to amputees.

Engineers from the University of Glasgow, who have previously developed an ‘electronic skin’ covering for prosthetic hands made from graphene, have found a way to use some of graphene’s remarkable physical properties to use energy from the sun to power the skin.

Graphene is a highly flexible form of graphite which, despite being just a single atom thick, is stronger than steel, electrically conductive, and transparent. It is graphene’s optical transparency, which allows around 98% of the light which strikes its surface to pass directly through it, which makes it ideal for gathering energy from the sun to generate power.

A March 23, 2017 University of Glasgow press release, which originated the news item, details more about the research,

Ravinder Dahiya

Dr Ravinder Dahiya

A new research paper, published today in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, describes how Dr Dahiya and colleagues from his Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) group have integrated power-generating photovoltaic cells into their electronic skin for the first time.

Dr Dahiya, from the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, said: “Human skin is an incredibly complex system capable of detecting pressure, temperature and texture through an array of neural sensors which carry signals from the skin to the brain.

“My colleagues and I have already made significant steps in creating prosthetic prototypes which integrate synthetic skin and are capable of making very sensitive pressure measurements. Those measurements mean the prosthetic hand is capable of performing challenging tasks like properly gripping soft materials, which other prosthetics can struggle with. We are also using innovative 3D printing strategies to build more affordable sensitive prosthetic limbs, including the formation of a very active student club called ‘Helping Hands’.

“Skin capable of touch sensitivity also opens the possibility of creating robots capable of making better decisions about human safety. A robot working on a construction line, for example, is much less likely to accidentally injure a human if it can feel that a person has unexpectedly entered their area of movement and stop before an injury can occur.”

The new skin requires just 20 nanowatts of power per square centimetre, which is easily met even by the poorest-quality photovoltaic cells currently available on the market. And although currently energy generated by the skin’s photovoltaic cells cannot be stored, the team are already looking into ways to divert unused energy into batteries, allowing the energy to be used as and when it is required.

Dr Dahiya added: “The other next step for us is to further develop the power-generation technology which underpins this research and use it to power the motors which drive the prosthetic hand itself. This could allow the creation of an entirely energy-autonomous prosthetic limb.

“We’ve already made some encouraging progress in this direction and we’re looking forward to presenting those results soon. We are also exploring the possibility of building on these exciting results to develop wearable systems for affordable healthcare. In this direction, recently we also got small funds from Scottish Funding Council.”

For more information about this advance and others in the field of prosthetics you may want to check out Megan Scudellari’s March 30, 2017 article for the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum (Note: Links have been removed),

Cochlear implants can restore hearing to individuals with some types of hearing loss. Retinal implants are now on the market to restore sight to the blind. But there are no commercially available prosthetics that restore a sense of touch to those who have lost a limb.

Several products are in development, including this haptic system at Case Western Reserve University, which would enable upper-limb prosthetic users to, say, pluck a grape off a stem or pull a potato chip out of a bag. It sounds simple, but such tasks are virtually impossible without a sense of touch and pressure.

Now, a team at the University of Glasgow that previously developed a flexible ‘electronic skin’ capable of making sensitive pressure measurements, has figured out how to power their skin with sunlight. …

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

Energy-Autonomous, Flexible, and Transparent Tactile Skin by Carlos García Núñez, William Taube Navaraj, Emre O. Polat and Ravinder Dahiya. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201606287 Version of Record online: 22 MAR 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Epic Scottish poetry and social network science

It’s been a while since I’ve run a social network story here and this research into a 250-year controversy piqued my interest anew. From an Oct. 20, 2016 Coventry University (UK) press release (also on EurekAlert) Note: A link has been removed,

The social networks behind one of the most famous literary controversies of all time have been uncovered using modern networks science.

Since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by a third-century bard named Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works and whether they were misappropriated from Irish mythology or, as heralded at the time, authored by a Scottish equivalent to Homer.

Now, in a joint study by Coventry University, the National University of Ireland, Galway and the University of Oxford, published today in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, researchers have revealed the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossian’s works and their similarities to Irish mythology.

The researchers mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them to compare the social networks found in the Scottish epics with classical Greek literature and Irish mythology.

The study revealed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore no resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.

The Ossianic poems are considered to be some of the most important literary works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland, given their influence over the Romantic period in literature and the arts. Figures from Brahms to Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically; Napoleon took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet to have ever existed.

The poems launched the romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands which persists, in many forms, to the present day and inspired Romantic nationalism all across Europe.

Professor Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University, said:

By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities. The opposite also applies, as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics.”

Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland, Galway said:

From a humanities point of view, while it cannot fully resolve the debate about Ossian, this scientific analysis does reveal an insightful statistical picture: close similarity to the Irish texts which Macpherson explicitly rejected, and distance from the Greek sources which he sought to emulate.”

A statistical physicist, eh? I find that specialty quite an unexpected addition to the team stretching my ideas about social networks in new directions.

Getting back to the research, the scientists have supplied this image to illustrate their work,

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

Caption: In the social network underlying the Ossianic epic, the 325 nodes represent characters appearing in the narratives and the 748 links represent interactions between them. Credit: Coventry University

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

A networks-science investigation into the epic poems of Ossian by Joseph Yose, Ralph Kenna, Pádraig MacCarron, Thierry Platini, Justin Tonra.  Complex Syst. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1142/S0219525916500089 Published: 21 October 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Breathing nanoparticles into your brain

Thanks to Dexter Johnson and his Sept. 8, 2016 posting (on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) for bringing this news about nanoparticles in the brain to my attention (Note: Links have been removed),

An international team of researchers, led by Barbara Maher, a professor at Lancaster University, in England, has found evidence that suggests that the nanoparticles that were first detected in the human brain over 20 years ago may have an external rather an internal source.

These magnetite nanoparticles are an airborne particulate that are abundant in urban environments and formed by combustion or friction-derived heating. In other words, they have been part of the pollution in the air of our cities since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

However, according to Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University, and a noted expert on the risks associated with nanomaterials,  the research indicates that this finding extends beyond magnetite to any airborne nanoscale particles—including those deliberately manufactured.

“The findings further support the possibility of these particles entering the brain via the olfactory nerve if inhaled.  In this respect, they are certainly relevant to our understanding of the possible risks presented by engineered nanomaterials—especially those that are iron-based and have magnetic properties,” said Maynard in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “However, ambient exposures to airborne nanoparticles will typically be much higher than those associated with engineered nanoparticles, simply because engineered nanoparticles will usually be manufactured and handled under conditions designed to avoid release and exposure.”

A Sept. 5, 2016 University of Lancaster press release made the research announcement,

Researchers at Lancaster University found abundant magnetite nanoparticles in the brain tissue from 37 individuals aged three to 92-years-old who lived in Mexico City and Manchester. This strongly magnetic mineral is toxic and has been implicated in the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) in the human brain, which are associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Barbara Maher, from Lancaster Environment Centre, and colleagues (from Oxford, Glasgow, Manchester and Mexico City) used spectroscopic analysis to identify the particles as magnetite. Unlike angular magnetite particles that are believed to form naturally within the brain, most of the observed particles were spherical, with diameters up to 150 nm, some with fused surfaces, all characteristic of high-temperature formation – such as from vehicle (particularly diesel) engines or open fires.

The spherical particles are often accompanied by nanoparticles containing other metals, such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt.

Professor Maher said: “The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

Other sources of magnetite nanoparticles include open fires and poorly sealed stoves within homes. Particles smaller than 200 nm are small enough to enter the brain directly through the olfactory nerve after breathing air pollution through the nose.

“Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease,” added Professor Maher.

Leading Alzheimer’s researcher Professor David Allsop, of Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

Damian Carrington’s Sept. 5, 2016 article for the Guardian provides a few more details,

“They [the troubling magnetite particles] are abundant,” she [Maher] said. “For every one of [the crystal shaped particles] we saw about 100 of the pollution particles. The thing about magnetite is it is everywhere.” An analysis of roadside air in Lancaster found 200m magnetite particles per cubic metre.

Other scientists told the Guardian the new work provided strong evidence that most of the magnetite in the brain samples come from air pollution but that the link to Alzheimer’s disease remained speculative.

For anyone who might be concerned about health risks, there’s this from Andrew Maynard’s comments in Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 8, 2016 posting,

“In most workplaces, exposure to intentionally made nanoparticles is likely be small compared to ambient nanoparticles, and so it’s reasonable to assume—at least without further data—that this isn’t a priority concern for engineered nanomaterial production,” said Maynard.

While deliberate nanoscale manufacturing may not carry much risk, Maynard does believe that the research raises serious questions about other manufacturing processes where exposure to high concentrations of airborne nanoscale iron particles is common—such as welding, gouging, or working with molten ore and steel.

It seems everyone is agreed that the findings are concerning but I think it might be good to remember that the percentage of people who develop Alzheimer’s Disease is much smaller than the population of people who have crystals in their brains. In other words, these crystals might (they don’t know) be a factor and likely there would have to be one or more factors to create the condition for developing Alzheimer’s.

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

Magnetite pollution nanoparticles in the human brain by Barbara A. Maher, Imad A. M. Ahmed, Vassil Karloukovski, Donald A. MacLaren, Penelope G. Fouldsd, David Allsop, David M. A. Mann, Ricardo Torres-Jardón, and Lilian Calderon-Garciduenas. PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605941113

This paper is behind a paywall but Dexter’s posting offers more detail for those who are still curious.