Tag Archives: Smithsonian Institute

X-raying fungus on paper to conserve memory

Civilization is based on memory. Our libraries and archives serve as memories of how things are made, why we use certain materials rather than others, how the human body is put together, what the weather patterns have been, etc. For centuries we have preserved our memories on paper. While this has many advantages, there are some drawbacks including fungus infestations.

A July 21, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily describes how a technique used to x-ray rocks has provided insights into paper and its fungal infestations,

Believe it or not: X-ray works a lot better on rocks than on paper. This has been a problem for conservators trying to save historical books and letters from the ravages of time and fungi. They frankly did not know what they were up against once the telltale signs of vandals such as Dothidales or Pleosporales started to spot the surface of their priceless documents

Now Diwaker Jha, an imaging specialist from Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen, has managed to adapt methods developed to investigate interiors of rocks to work on paper too, thus getting a first look at how fungus goes about infesting paper. …

A July 21, 2015 University of Copenhagen press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

This is good news for paper conservators and others who wish to study soft materials with X-ray tomography. “Rocks are easy because they are hard. The X-ray images show a very good contrast between the solid and the pores or channels, which are filled with low density materials such as air or fluids. In this case, however, paper and fungi, both are soft and carbon based, which makes them difficult to distinguish,” says Diwaker.

Diwaker Jha is a PhD student in the NanoGeoScience group, which is a part of the Nano-Science Center at Department of Chemistry. He investigates methods to improve imaging techniques used by chemists and physicists to investigate how fluids move in natural porous materials. At a recent conference, he was presenting an analysis method he developed for X-ray tomography data, for which he was awarded the Presidential Scholar Award by the Microscopy Society of America. And this sparked interest with a conservator in the audience.

Hanna Szczepanowska works as a research conservator with the Smithsonian Institution in the USA. She had been wondering how fungi interact with the paper. Does it sit on the surface, or does it burrow deeper? If they are surface dwellers, it should be easy to just brush them off, but no such luck, says Jha.

“As it turns out, microscopic fungi that infest paper grow very much the same way as mushrooms on a forest floor. However, unlike mushrooms, where the fruiting body emerges out of the soil to the surface, here the fruiting bodies can be embedded within the paper fibres, making it difficult to isolate them. This is not great news for conservators because the prevalent surface cleaning approaches are not adequate,” explains Diwaker Jha.

In working out a way to see into the paper, Jha investigated a 17th century letter on a handmade sheet and a 1920 engraving on machine-made paper. Compared with mushrooms, these fungi are thousands of times smaller, which required an advanced X-ray imaging technique available at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), Grenoble, France. The technique is very similar to medical tomography (CT scanning) done at hospitals but in Grenoble the X-ray is produced by electrons accelerated to about the speed of light in an 844 meter long circular tube. A handy comparison: “If I were to use medical X-ray tomography to look at an Olympic village, I would be able to make out only the stadium. With the synchrotron based X-ray tomography, I would be able to distinguish individual blades of grass on the field..”

Diwaker hopes that conservators will be able to use the new insight to develop conservation strategies not just for paper artefacts but for combating biodegradation on a host of other types of cultural heritage materials. And that the developed methods can be extended to other studies related to soft matter.

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

Morphology and characterization of Dematiaceous fungi on a cellulose paper substrate using synchrotron X-ray microtomography, scanning electron microscopy and confocal laser scanning microscopy in the context of cultural heritage by H. M. Szczepanowska, D. Jha, and Th. G. Mathia. Anal. At. Spectrom. (Journal of Analystical Atomic Spetrometry), 2015,30, 651-657 DOI: 10.1039/C4JA00337C First published online 27 Nov 2014

This paper is behind a paywall. By the way, it is part of something the journal calls a themed collection:  Synchrotron radiation and neutrons in art and archaeology. Clicking on the ‘themed collection’ link will give you a view of the collection, i.e., titles, authors and brief abstracts.

Design, architechture, biomimicry, and a transdisciplinary project in the tropics

Getting a design project on the scale of developing a research station for the US Smithsonian Institute’s only research facility outside the US has got to be a thrill—especially if you’re a student looking for experience and résumé-building credits. Students from Arizona State University (ASU) got exactly that opportunity. From the Jan. 13, 2012 news release at ASU,

The graduate students [six teams of students from ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the School of Life Sciences] are partners in the traveling studio program developed by The Design School at ASU, which journeyed to Gamboa, Panama, to collaborate with the program’s partner, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The students’ assignment was to create biomimetic architectural and product-design concepts for a scientific field station on the Gigante Peninsula, a remote spit of land located in the Panama Canal Zone.

Here’s an ASU video of the instructors and students discussing the trip and showing off some of the design concepts,

ASU biologists and designers showcase biomimetic solutions for Smithsonian from ASU News on Vimeo.

ASU is hosting an exhibition of the students’ design concepts (posters) from Jan. 24 – Feb. 9, 2012. You can get more information about that here.

For anyone who’s not able to visit the exhibition and get more details, here’s information about some of the limitations the students were dealing with (from the news release),

The challenge of designing permanent structures on the Gigante Peninsula in Panama tests architects on multiple fronts, says White [Philip White, associate professor and ecological design strategist whose focus, besides teaching, is the development of ecologically intelligent products and systems]. Buildings are subject to insect infestations and periodic flooding. Obtaining sunlight for solar power and room lighting, as well as capturing cross breezes for natural cooling, requires destructive cutting of openings in the forest canopy. Such design challenges are what engaged architectural student Adam Tate’s interest. Tate developed plans [featured in the video] for a mobile research laboratory built on a floating pontoon structure, with joints and springs modeled after elements of the trap-jaw ant.

The exhibit will showcase Tate’s design, along with a backpack inspired by the musculoskeletal structure of the three-toed sloth, an umbrella derived from bats, which will resist wind torsion, and a design for a photovoltaic canopy based on lobster eyes – perfect for the challenges of the low light environment of the jungle.

This is not the only biomimicry project at ASU (from the news release),

Scientists at ASU have been using concepts of biomimicry in various studies across the campuses. For example, Ana Moore and Thomas Moore, both Regents’ Professors at ASU in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, have work that is funded by the National Science Foundation to use bio-inspired approaches to improve solar energy conversion. One of their projects is a photovoltaic cell that utilizes design concepts drawn from photosynthesis in leaves. Scientists Jeff Yarger and Gregory Holland also are deconstructing the molecular makeup of spider silk hoping to create stronger, light-weight materials, such as bulletproof vests and artificial tendons.

I hope one day to see some these designs taken from concept to product.

Vanished; a mystery game

Vanished sounds like a game where you won’t even notice that you’re being educated. (Having looked at a few ‘education’ games, that’s a major kudo from me.)

April 4, 2011 is the date that the Smithsonian Institute and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) launched an eight-week online game for middle school children that was two years in the making. From the Feb. 22, 2011 MIT news release,

The Smithsonian Institution and MIT announced the April 4 launch of VANISHED, an 8-week online/offline environmental disaster mystery game for middle-school children, meant to inspire engagement and problem solving through science.

Developed and curated by MIT’s Education Arcade (a research group of Comparative Media Studies) and the Smithsonian Institution, VANISHED is a first-of-its-kind experience where participants become investigators racing to solve puzzles and other online challenges, visit museums and collect samples from their neighborhoods to help unlock the secrets of the game. Players can only discover the truth about the environmental disaster by using real scientific methods and knowledge to unravel the game’s secrets.

To navigate through the mystery game’s challenges, participants will gain access to Smithsonian scientists from such diverse disciplines as paleobiology, volcanology, forensic anthropology and entomology.

This project is a consequence of a conclusion reached by researchers at the US National Science Foundation that people learn most of their science informally, i.e., outside the classroom. David Zax’s April 19, 2011 article on the Fast Company website notes,

Over many years, after conducting many surveys, the NSF made an intriguing conclusion: A good deal of the public’s understanding of science derives from outside of the classroom. NSF developed a program in “Informal Science Education,” and Osterweil’s team–jointly housed by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program and its Scheller Teacher Education Program–nabbed an NSF grant to work on a game, back in 2009. Two years later, more than 5,000 students are playing the game, Vanished, and leaving about 4,000 posts a day on the sites forums.

There’s more about Vanished here (including Frequently Asked Questions) and you can register here. The game ends on or about May 31, 2011. It is still possible to sign up. Players must be 10 1/2 to 14 years old. People of other ages may sign up as observers.

Cascio thoughts on augmenting intelligence and some other odds and sods

It’s Jamais Cascio time … again! He’s got an article here in the Atlantic (July/August 2009 issue) about humans surviving because we get smarter. In the past this has been a passive, reactive response to changing environmental conditions but now we’re evolving ourselves in a proactive fashion. From the article,

Yet in one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. The bioethicist James Hughes of Trinity College refers to all of this as “exo­cortical technology,” but you can just think of it as “stuff you already own.” Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable:

Cascio goes on to describe curent and potential augmentations and possibilities. My biggest reservations centre around his enthusiasm for using drugs to augment intelligence. Specifically, he extolls the virtues of modafinil (trade name Provigil) which, according to Cascio, is widely used in the tech community for its intelligence enhancing capabilities and for the fact that you will need to sleep less. Have you ever looked at a Compendium of Pharmaceuticals? It’s a comprehensive listing of drugs that doctors and pharamacists use to see what kinds of side effects and problems a drug can cause? I haven’t looked up this drug but I have done it for others and I’m willing to bet that there are any number of unpleasant side effects possible. As to what impact, long term (decades long?) regular use might have … who knows?

Interestingly some of the enhancements that Cascio attributes to the drug are also described by sages as a consquence of something called awakening,

… I noticed a much greater capacity for clarity and simplicity. My mind became a more subtle tool, a more powerful tool; it coud be used in a very precise way, like a laser. Before this transformation happened, I wouldn’t say my mind operated on that level, so there was some sort of a transformation that led to a new sense of clarity and focus. (pp. 121-2) The End of Your World; uncensored straight talk on the nature of enlightenment by Adyashanti.

For another take on Cascio’s article, go to the Foresight Institute here.

If you are interested in a roundup of Nanotechnology News this week, you can visit the blog ‘This Week in Nanotechnologyhere. Also, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to an event at the Smithsonian. It doesn’t look like there will be a webcast but if you’re in Washington, DC (Wednesday, July 8, 2009, 10 am to 11 am at the Woodrow Wilson Center),

Secretary [of the Smithsonian] Wayne Clough explains how the Smithsonian Institution can make major contributions on issues of national and international concern, particularly global warming and biodiversity, education, and issues of national identity. He discusses how the Institution is connecting in new ways with new audiences.

If you can attend, contact: Maria-Stella.Gatzoulis@wilsoncenter.org.

Have a nice weekend!