Tag Archives: UK

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.

I hear the proteins singing

Points to anyone who recognized the paraphrasing of the title for the well-loved, Canadian movie, “I heard the mermaids singing.” In this case, it’s all about protein folding and data sonification (from an Oct. 20, 2016 news item on phys.org),

Transforming data about the structure of proteins into melodies gives scientists a completely new way of analyzing the molecules that could reveal new insights into how they work – by listening to them. A new study published in the journal Heliyon shows how musical sounds can help scientists analyze data using their ears instead of their eyes.

The researchers, from the University of Tampere in Finland, Eastern Washington University in the US and the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, believe their technique could help scientists identify anomalies in proteins more easily.

An Oct. 20, 2016 Elsevier Publishing press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We are confident that people will eventually listen to data and draw important information from the experiences,” commented Dr. Jonathan Middleton, a composer and music scholar who is based at Eastern Washington University and in residence at the University of Tampere. “The ears might detect more than the eyes, and if the ears are doing some of the work, then the eyes will be free to look at other things.”

Proteins are molecules found in living things that have many different functions. Scientists usually study them visually and using data; with modern microscopy it is possible to directly see the structure of some proteins.

Using a technique called sonification, the researchers can now transform data about proteins into musical sounds, or melodies. They wanted to use this approach to ask three related questions: what can protein data sound like? Are there analytical benefits? And can we hear particular elements or anomalies in the data?

They found that a large proportion of people can recognize links between the melodies and more traditional visuals like models, graphs and tables; it seems hearing these visuals is easier than they expected. The melodies are also pleasant to listen to, encouraging scientists to listen to them more than once and therefore repeatedly analyze the proteins.

The sonifications are created using a combination of Dr. Middleton’s composing skills and algorithms, so that others can use a similar process with their own proteins. The multidisciplinary approach – combining bioinformatics and music informatics – provides a completely new perspective on a complex problem in biology.

“Protein fold assignment is a notoriously tricky area of research in molecular biology,” said Dr. Robert Bywater from the Francis Crick Institute. “One not only needs to identify the fold type but to look for clues as to its many functions. It is not a simple matter to unravel these overlapping messages. Music is seen as an aid towards achieving this unraveling.”

The researchers say their molecular melodies can be used almost immediately in teaching protein science, and after some practice, scientists will be able to use them to discriminate between different protein structures and spot irregularities like mutations.

Proteins are the first stop, but our knowledge of other molecules could also benefit from sonification; one day we may be able to listen to our genomes, and perhaps use this to understand the role of junk DNA [emphasis mine].

About 97% of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) has been known for some decades as ‘junk DNA’. In roughly 2012, that was notion was challenged as Stephen S. Hall wrote in an Oct. 1, 2012 article (Hidden Treasures in Junk DNA; What was once known as junk DNA turns out to hold hidden treasures, says computational biologist Ewan Birney) for Scientific American.

Getting back to  2016, here’s a link to and a citation for ‘protein singing’,

Melody discrimination and protein fold classification by  Robert P. Bywater, Jonathan N. Middleton. Heliyon 20 Oct 2016, Volume 2, Issue 10 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e0017

This paper is open access.

Here’s what the proteins sound like,

Supplementary Audio 3 for file for Supplementary Figure 2 1r75 OHEL sonification full score. [downloaded from the previously cited Heliyon paper]

Joanna Klein has written an Oct. 21, 2016 article for the New York Times providing a slightly different take on this research (Note: Links have been removed),

“It’s used for the concert hall. It’s used for sports. It’s used for worship. Why can’t we use it for our data?” said Jonathan Middleton, the composer at Eastern Washington University and the University of Tampere in Finland who worked with Dr. Bywater.

Proteins have been around for billions of years, but humans still haven’t come up with a good way to visualize them. Right now scientists can shoot a laser at a crystallized protein (which can distort its shape), measure the patterns it spits out and simulate what that protein looks like. These depictions are difficult to sift through and hard to remember.

“There’s no simple equation like e=mc2,” said Dr. Bywater. “You have to do a lot of spade work to predict a protein structure.”

Dr. Bywater had been interested in assigning sounds to proteins since the 1990s. After hearing a song Dr. Middleton had composed called “Redwood Symphony,” which opens with sounds derived from the tree’s DNA, he asked for his help.

Using a process called sonification (which is the same thing used to assign different ringtones to texts, emails or calls on your cellphone) the team took three proteins and turned their folding shapes — a coil, a turn and a strand — into musical melodies. Each shape was represented by a bunch of numbers, and those numbers were converted into a musical code. A combination of musical sounds represented each shape, resulting in a song of simple patterns that changed with the folds of the protein. Later they played those songs to a group of 38 people together with visuals of the proteins, and asked them to identify similarities and differences between them. The two were surprised that people didn’t really need the visuals to detect changes in the proteins.

Plus, I have more about data sonification in a Feb. 7, 2014 posting regarding a duet based on data from Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft.

Finally, I hope my next Steep project will include  sonification of data on gold nanoparticles. I will keep you posted on any developments.

The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

The last time I featured memrisors and a neuronal network it was in an April 22, 2016 posting about Russian research in that field. This latest work comes from the UK’s University of Southampton. From a Sept. 27, 2016 news item on phys.org,

New research, led by the University of Southampton, has demonstrated that a nanoscale device, called a memristor, could be the ‘missing link’ in the development of implants that use electrical signals from the brain to help treat medical conditions.

Monitoring neuronal cell activity is fundamental to neuroscience and the development of neuroprosthetics – biomedically engineered devices that are driven by neural activity. However, a persistent problem is the device being able to process the neural data in real-time, which imposes restrictive requirements on bandwidth, energy and computation capacity.

In a new study, published in Nature Communications, the researchers showed that memristors could provide real-time processing of neuronal signals (spiking events) leading to efficient data compression and the potential to develop more precise and affordable neuroprosthetics and bioelectronic medicines.

A Sept. 27, 2016 University of Southampton press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Memristors are electrical components that limit or regulate the flow of electrical current in a circuit and can remember the amount of charge that was flowing through it and retain the data, even when the power is turned off.

Lead author Isha Gupta, Postgraduate Research Student at the University of Southampton, said: “Our work can significantly contribute towards further enhancing the understanding of neuroscience, developing neuroprosthetics and bio-electronic medicines by building tools essential for interpreting the big data in a more effective way.”

The research team developed a nanoscale Memristive Integrating Sensor (MIS) into which they fed a series of voltage-time samples, which replicated neuronal electrical activity.

Acting like synapses in the brain, the metal-oxide MIS was able to encode and compress (up to 200 times) neuronal spiking activity recorded by multi-electrode arrays. Besides addressing the bandwidth constraints, this approach was also very power efficient – the power needed per recording channel was up to 100 times less when compared to current best practice.

Co-author Dr Themis Prodromakis, Reader in Nanoelectronics and EPSRC Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton said: “We are thrilled that we succeeded in demonstrating that these emerging nanoscale devices, despite being rather simple in architecture, possess ultra-rich dynamics that can be harnessed beyond the obvious memory applications to address the fundamental constraints in bandwidth and power that currently prohibit scaling neural interfaces beyond 1,000 recording channels.”

The Prodromakis Group at the University of Southampton is acknowledged as world-leading in this field, collaborating among others with Leon Chua (a Diamond Jubilee Visiting Academic at the University of Southampton), who theoretically predicted the existence of memristors in 1971.

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

Real-time encoding and compression of neuronal spikes by metal-oxide memristors by Isha Gupta, Alexantrou Serb, Ali Khiat, Ralf Zeitler, Stefano Vassanelli, & Themistoklis Prodromakis. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12805 doi:10.1038/ncomms12805 Published  26 September 2016

This is an open access paper.

For anyone who’s interested in better understanding memristors, there’s an interview with Forrest H Bennett III in my April 7, 2010 posting and you can always check Wikipedia.

Concrete proof that materials at the nanoscale behave differently than materials at any other scale

I hadn’t realized this still needed to be proved but it’s always good to have your misconceptions adjusted. Here’s more about the work from the University of Cambridge in a Sept. 30, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Scientists have long suspected that the way materials behave on the nanoscale – that is when particles have dimensions of about 1–100 nanometres – is different from how they behave on any other scale. A new paper in the journal Chemical Science provides concrete proof that this is the case.

The laws of thermodynamics govern the behaviour of materials in the macro world, while quantum mechanics describes behaviour of particles at the other extreme, in the world of single atoms and electrons.

A Sept. 29, 2016 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, hones in on the peculiarities of the nanoscale,

In the middle, on the order of around 10–100,000 molecules, something different is going on. Because it’s such a tiny scale, the particles have a really big surface-area-to-volume ratio. This means the energetics of what goes on at the surface become very important, much as they do on the atomic scale, where quantum mechanics is often applied.

Classical thermodynamics breaks down. But because there are so many particles, and there are many interactions between them, the quantum model doesn’t quite work either.

And because there are so many particles doing different things at the same time, it’s difficult to simulate all their interactions using a computer. It’s also hard to gather much experimental information, because we haven’t yet developed the capacity to measure behaviour on such a tiny scale.

This conundrum becomes particularly acute when we’re trying to understand crystallisation, the process by which particles, randomly distributed in a solution, can form highly ordered crystal structures, given the right conditions.

Chemists don’t really understand how this works. How do around 1018 molecules, moving around in solution at random, come together to form a micro- to millimetre size ordered crystal? Most remarkable perhaps is the fact that in most cases every crystal is ordered in the same way every time the crystal is formed.

However, it turns out that different conditions can sometimes yield different crystal structures. These are known as polymorphs, and they’re important in many branches of science including medicine – a drug can behave differently in the body depending on which polymorph it’s crystallised in.

What we do know so far about the process, at least according to one widely accepted model, is that particles in solution can come together to form a nucleus, and once a critical mass is reached we see crystal growth. The structure of the nucleus determines the structure of the final crystal, that is, which polymorph we get.

What we have not known until now is what determines the structure of the nucleus in the first place, and that happens on the nanoscale.

In this paper, the authors have used mechanochemistry – that is milling and grinding – to obtain nanosized particles, small enough that surface effects become significant. In other words, the chemistry of the nanoworld – which structures are the most stable at this scale, and what conditions affect their stability, has been studied for the first time with carefully controlled experiments.

And by changing the milling conditions, for example by adding a small amount of solvent, the authors have been able to control which polymorph is the most stable. Professor Jeremy Sanders of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who led the work, said “It is exciting that these simple experiments, when carried out with great care, can unexpectedly open a new door to understanding the fundamental question of how surface effects can control the stability of nanocrystals.”

Joel Bernstein, Global Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at NYU Abu Dhabi, and an expert in crystal growth and structure, explains: “The authors have elegantly shown how to experimentally measure and simulate situations where you have two possible nuclei, say A and B, and determine that A is more stable. And they can also show what conditions are necessary in order for these stabilities to invert, and for B to become more stable than A.”

“This is really news, because you can’t make those predictions using classical thermodynamics, and nor is this the quantum effect. But by doing these experiments, the authors have started to gain an understanding of how things do behave on this size regime, and how we can predict and thus control it. The elegant part of the experiment is that they have been able to nucleate A and B selectively and reversibly.”

One of the key words of chemical synthesis is ‘control’. Chemists are always trying to control the properties of materials, whether that’s to make a better dye or plastic, or a drug that’s more effective in the body. So if we can learn to control how molecules in a solution come together to form solids, we can gain a great deal. This work is a significant first step in gaining that control.

Nicely written!

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

Solvation and surface effects on polymorph stabilities at the nanoscale by A. M. Belenguer, G. I. Lampronti, A. J. Cruz-Cabeza, C. A. Hunter, and J. K. M. Sanders. Chem. Sci., 2016, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6SC03457H First published online 02 Sep 2016

This paper is open access.

Given that the news release mentions crystals, this lovely image illustrates the press release,

 Snow Crystal Landscape Credit: Peter Gorges

Snow Crystal Landscape Credit: Peter Gorges

Graphene Malaysia 2016 gathering and Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020

Malaysia is getting ready to host a graphene conference according to an Oct. 10, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

The Graphene Malaysia 2016 [Nov. 8 – 9, 2016] (www.graphenemalaysiaconf.com) is jointly organized by NanoMalaysia Berhad and Phantoms Foundation. The conference will be centered on graphene industry interaction and collaborative innovation. The event will be launched under the National Graphene Action Plan 2020 (NGAP 2020), which will generate about 9,000 jobs and RM20 (US$4.86) billion GNI impact by the year 2020.

First speakers announced:
Murni Ali (Nanomalaysia, Malaysia) | Francesco Bonaccorso (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy) | Antonio Castro Neto (NUS, Singapore) | Antonio Correia (Phantoms Foundation, Spain)| Pedro Gomez-Romero (ICN2 (CSIC-BIST), Spain) | Shu-Jen Han (Nanoscale Science & Technology IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, USA) | Kuan-Tsae Huang (AzTrong, USA/Taiwan) | Krzysztof Koziol (FGV Cambridge Nanosystems, UK) | Taavi Madiberk (Skeleton Technologies, Estonia) | Richard Mckie (BAE Systems, UK) | Pontus Nordin (Saab AB, Saab Aeronautics, Sweden) | Elena Polyakova (Graphene Laboratories Inc., USA) | Ahmad Khairuddin Abdul Rahim (Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), Malaysia) | Adisorn Tuantranont (Thailand Organic and Printed Electronics Innovation Center, Thailand) |Archana Venugopal (Texas Instruments, USA) | Won Jong Yoo (Samsung-SKKU Graphene-2D Center (SSGC), South Korea) | Hongwei Zhu (Tsinghua University, China)

You can check for more information and deadlines in the Nanotechnology Now Oct. 10, 2016 news item.

The Graphene Malalysia 2016 conference website can be found here and Malaysia’s National Graphene Action Plan 2020, which is well written, can be found here (PDF).  This portion from the executive summary offers some insight into Malyasia’s plans to launch itself into the world of high income nations,

Malaysia’s aspiration to become a high-income nation by 2020 with improved jobs and better outputs is driving the country’s shift away from “business as usual,” and towards more innovative and high value add products. Within this context, and in accordance with National policies and guidelines, Graphene, an emerging, highly versatile carbon-based nanomaterial, presents a unique opportunity for Malaysia to develop a high value economic ecosystem within its industries.  Isolated only in 2004, Graphene’s superior physical properties such as electrical/ thermal conductivity, high strength and high optical transparency, combined with its manufacturability have raised tremendous possibilities for its application across several functions and make it highly interesting for several applications and industries.  Currently, Graphene is still early in its development cycle, affording Malaysian companies time to develop their own applications instead of relying on international intellectual property and licenses.

Considering the potential, several leading countries are investing heavily in associated R&D. Approaches to Graphene research range from an expansive R&D focus (e.g., U.S. and the EU) to more focused approaches aimed at enhancing specific downstream applications with Graphene (e.g., South Korea). Faced with the need to push forward a multitude of development priorities, Malaysia must be targeted in its efforts to capture Graphene’s potential, both in terms of “how to compete” and “where to compete”. This National Graphene Action Plan 2020 lays out a set of priority applications that will be beneficial to the country as a whole and what the government will do to support these efforts.

Globally, much of the Graphene-related commercial innovation to date has been upstream, with producers developing techniques to manufacture Graphene at scale. There has also been some development in downstream sectors, as companies like Samsung, Bayer MaterialScience, BASF and Siemens explore product enhancement with Graphene in lithium-ion battery anodes and flexible displays, and specialty plastic and rubber composites. However the speed of development has been uneven, offering Malaysian industries willing to invest in innovation an opportunity to capture the value at stake. Since any innovation action plan has to be tailored to the needs and ambitions of local industry, Malaysia will focus its Graphene action plan initially on larger domestic industries (e.g., rubber) and areas already being targeted by the government for innovation such as energy storage for electric vehicles and conductive inks.

In addition to benefiting from the physical properties of Graphene, Malaysian downstream application providers may also capture the benefits of a modest input cost advantage for the domestic production of Graphene.  One commonly used Graphene manufacturing technique, the chemical vapour deposition (CVD) production method, requires methane as an input, which can be sourced economically from local biomass. While Graphene is available commercially from various producers around the world, downstream players may be able to enjoy some cost advantage from local Graphene supply. In addition, co-locating with a local producer for joint product development has the added benefit of speeding up the R&D lifecycle.

That business about finding downstream applications could also to the Canadian situation where we typically offer our resources (upstream) but don’t have an active downstream business focus. For example, we have graphite mines in Ontario and Québec which supply graphite flakes for graphene production which is all upstream. Less well developed are any plans for Canadian downstream applications.

Finally, it was interesting to note that the Phantoms Foundation is organizing this Malaysian conference since the same organization is organizing the ‘2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition’ (you can find out more about the Oct. 18 – 20, 2016 event in my Sept. 23, 2016 posting). I think the Malaysians have a better title for their conference, far less unwieldy.

Space cloth (Zephlinear): a new technique for producing textiles

A lightweight zephlinear scarf with LEDs Courtesy: Nottingham Trent University

A lightweight zephlinear [space cloth]  scarf with LEDs Courtesy: Nottingham Trent University

What makes the scarf in the preceding image unusual is that the yarn hasn’t been knitted or woven. A Sept. 21, 2016 news item on phys.org describes the work,

Sonia Reynolds invented ‘space cloth’ – the first non-woven material made from yarn. It has a strong potential for use as a smart textile due to its unique structure with space to encase copper wiring, light emitting diodes (LEDs) and more.

Ms Reynolds brought the idea to Nottingham Trent University’s Advanced Textile Research Group and is now undertaking a PhD in the subject to further develop the fabric’s novel manufacturing process under the direction of Professor Tilak Dias and Dr Amanda Briggs-Goode, of the School of Art and Design.

Scientifically named Zephlinear, unlike traditional woven or knitted materials which are made by the interloping or interlacing of yarns, it is made by a newly established technique known as yarn surface entanglement.

A Sept. 21, 2016 Nottingham Trent University press release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Ms Reynolds said: “This is a real breakthrough for the textiles industry. It’s the first non-woven material made from yarn and promises major benefits for the future of clothing, and more.

“Because of the material’s linear channels of yarn, it has great potential to be used as a smart textile. In particular, we believe it lends itself well to being embedded with microcapsules containing medication or scent, to either help deliver drugs to specific parts of the body or to create antibacterial and aromatic clothing.

“As the material is visually different, it has potential to be used for other applications as well, such as wall coverings, in addition to clothing.

“And because it’s much less labour intensive to make than knit or weave fabrics, it’s a more environmentally friendly material to produce as well.”

The name, Zephlinear, derives from the merger of two words, zephyr and linear. It was given the nickname ‘space cloth’ due to its appearance and its e-textile capabilities.

The material – which is patent pending – was recently presented at the Wearable Technology Show, USA, by Ms Reynolds.

Research shows that it is strongest and most efficient when created from natural yarns such as one hundred per cent wool, hair and wool/silk mixtures, though it can also be made from synthetic yarns.

Professor Dias, who leads the university’s Advanced Textiles Research Group, said: “Zephlinear is a remarkable development in an industry which is advancing at an incredible pace.

“We believe it has huge potential for textiles, and we have already found that it combines well with e-textile technologies such as heated textiles or textiles with embedded LEDs.

“As a fabric it is very lightweight and flexible, and it retracts back to its original shape well after it has been stretched.

“We’re very much looking forward to developing the material further and feel certain that it will help provide people with smarter and more environmentally friendly clothing in the future”.

Here’s an image of Sonia Reynolds with another Zephlinear scarf,

Sonia Reynolds with a zephlinear scarf Courtesy Nottingham Trent University

Sonia Reynolds with a zephlinear scarf Courtesy Nottingham Trent University

This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘smart’ or ‘e’ textile that works better when a natural fiber is used.

Replacing the indium tin oxide (ITO) electrodes in smartphones?

Physicists have developed silver nanowires that could be used to replace the indium tin oxide electrodes found in touchscreens for smartphones, tablets, and more. From a Sept. 14, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Physicists at the University of Sussex are at an advanced stage of developing alternative touchscreen technology to overcome the shortfall in the traditional display, phone and tablet material that relies on electrodes made from indium tin oxide (ITO).

They have now shown that not only is the material suitable for touchscreens, but that it is possible to produce extremely small patterns (pixels), small enough for high definition LCD displays, such as smartphones and the next generation of television and computer screens.

The study, led by Sussex Professor of Experimental Physics Alan Dalton, investigates some of the intricacies of patterning silver nanowire films to produce detailed electrode structures. …

A Sept. 13, 2016 University of Sussex press release, which originated the news item, describes why this research presents some exciting possibilities (Note: Links have been removed),

Previous research by Professor Dalton’s group has shown that silver nanowires not only match the transmittances and conductivities of ITO films but exceed them. This makes the material very attractive for touch screens. However, the group have now shown, for the first time, that this type of nanomaterial is compatible with more demanding applications such as LCD and OLED displays.

Professor Dalton said: “Display technologies such as LCD and OLED form images using pixels. Each pixel of these displays is further broken down into subpixels; typically, one each for red, green and blue colours. In the display in a smartphone, for example, these subpixels are less than a sixth of the width of a human hair – which is also similar in length to the silver nanowires used in our research.”

Dr Matthew Large, the lead author of the paper, expanded: “In this research we have applied a mathematical technique to work out the smallest subpixel size we can make without affecting the properties of our nanowire electrodes. This method was originally developed to describe how phase changes like freezing happen in very small spaces, The results tell us how to tune our nanowires to meet the requirements of any given application.”

In collaboration with their industrial partners, M-SOLV based in Oxford, the team – which is now looking to apply these research results to commercial projects – has also demonstrated that the incorporation of silver nanowires into a multi-touch sensor actually reduces the production cost and energy usage.

Professor Dalton said: “Silver nanowire and silver nanowire/graphene hybrids are probably the most viable alternatives to existing technologies. Others scientists have studied several alternative materials, but the main issue is that the majority of other materials do not effectively compete with ITO or they are too costly to produce, at least at the moment.”

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

Finite-size scaling in silver nanowire films: design considerations for practical devices by Matthew J. Large, Maria Cann, Sean P. Ogilvie, Alice A. K. King, Izabela Jurewicz, and Alan B. Dalton. Nanoscale, (issue 28) 2016,8, 13701-13707 DOI: 10.1039/C6NR03960J First published online 27 Jun 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 16, 2016 posting (on his Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) adds some new detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The field of nanomaterials vying to replace indium tin oxide (ITO) as the transparent conductor that controls display pixels in touch screen displays is getting crowded. We’ve seen materials including carbon nanotubes, silver nanowires, and graphene promoted as the heir apparent for this application.

Now, researchers at the University of Sussex in England have introduced a strong contender into the battle to replace indium tin oxide: a hybrid material consisting of silver nanowires that are linked together with graphene.

“The hybrid material is a lot cheaper due to the fact that we only need to use a fraction of the nanowires normally required to attain the properties of ITO,” …

Making the impossible possible: on demand and by design, atomic scale pipes

This research on pipes from the University of Manchester will probably never finds its way into plumbing practices but, apparently, is of great interest in fundamental research. From a Sept. 7, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Materials containing tiny capillaries and cavities are widely used in filtration, separation and many other technologies, without which our modern lifestyle would be impossible. Those materials are usually found by luck or accident rather than design. It has been impossible to create artificial capillaries with atomic-scale precision.

Now a Manchester group led by postdoctoral researcher Radha Boya and Nobel laureate Andre Geim show how to make the impossible possible, as reported in Nature.

A Sept. 7, 2016 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,  provides a description of the technology,

The new technology is elegant, adaptable and strikingly simple. In fact, it is a kind of antipode of the famous material graphene. When making graphene, people often take a piece of graphite and use Scotch tape to extract a single atomic plane of carbon atoms, graphene. The remaining graphite is discarded.

In this new research, Manchester scientists similarly extracted a strip of graphene from graphite, but discarded the graphene and focused on what was left: an ultra-thin cavity within the graphite crystal.

Such atomic scale cavities can be made from various materials to achieve not only a desired size but also to choose properties of capillary walls. They can be atomically smooth or rough, hydrophilic or hydrophobic, insulating or conductive, electrically charged or neutral; the list goes on.

The voids can be made as cavities (to confine various substances) or open-ended tunnels (to transport different gases and liquids), which is of huge interest for fundamental research and many applications. It is limited only by imagination what such narrow tunnels with designer properties can potentially do for us.

Properties of materials at this truly atomic scale are expected to be quite different from those we are familiar with in our macroscopic world. To demonstrate that this is the case of their atomic-scale voids, the Manchester group tested how water runs through those ultra-narrow pipes.

To everyone’s surprise, they found water to flow with little friction and at high speed, as if the channels were many thousands times wider than they actually are.

Radha Boya commented ‘This is an entirely new type of nanoscale systems. Such capillaries were never imagined, even in theory. No one thought that this degree of accuracy in design could be possible. New filtration, desalination, gas separation technologies are kind of obvious directions but there are so many others to explore’.

Sir Andre added ‘Making something useful out of an empty space is certainly cute. Finding that this space offers so much of new science is flabbergasting. Even with hindsight, I did not expect the idea to work so well. There are myriads of possibilities for research and development, which now need to be looked at. We are stunned by the choice.’

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

Molecular transport through capillaries made with atomic-scale precision by B. Radha, A. Esfandiar, F. C. Wang, A. P. Rooney, K. Gopinadhan, A. Keerthi, A. Mishchenko, A. Janardanan, P. Blake, L. Fumagalli, M. Lozada-Hidalgo, S. Garaj, S. J. Haigh, I. V. Grigorieva, H. A. Wu, & A. K. Geim. Nature (2016)  doi:10.1038/nature19363 Published online 07 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Sniffing for art conservation

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has produced a video titled, “How that ‘old book smell’ could save priceless artifacts” according to their Sept. 6, 2016 news release on EurekAlert,

Odor-detecting devices like Breathalyzers have been used for years to determine blood-alcohol levels in drunk drivers. Now, researchers are using a similar method to sniff out the rate of decay in historic art and artifacts. By tracking the chemicals in “old book smell” and similar odors, conservators can react quickly to preserve priceless art and artifacts at the first signs of decay. In this Speaking of Chemistry, Sarah Everts explains how cultural-heritage science uses the chemistry of odors to save books, vintage jewelry and even early Legos. …

Here’s the video,

Heritage Smells, the UK project mentioned in the video, is now completed but it was hosted by the University of Strathclyde and more project information can be found here.

What’s a science historian doing in the field of synthetic biology?

Dominic Berry’s essay on why he, a science historian, is involved in a synthetic biology project takes some interesting twists and turns, from a Sept. 2, 2016 news item on phys.org,

What are synthetic biologists doing to plants, and what are plants doing to synthetic biology? This question frames a series of laboratory observations that I am pursuing across the UK as part of the Engineering Life project, which is dedicated to exploring what it might mean to engineer biology. I contribute to the project through a focus on plant scientists and my training in the history and philosophy of science. For plant scientists the engineering of biology can take many forms not all of which are captured by the category ‘synthetic biology’. Scientists that aim to create modified organisms are more inclined to refer to themselves as the latter, while other plant scientists will emphasise an integration of biological work with methods or techniques from engineering without adopting the identity of synthetic biologist. Accordingly, different legacies in the biosciences (from molecular biology to biomimetics) can be drawn upon depending on the features of the project at hand. These category and naming problems are all part of a larger set of questions that social and natural scientists continue to explore together. For the purposes of this post the distinctions between synthetic biology and the broader engineering of biology do not matter greatly, so I will simply refer to synthetic biology throughout.

Berry’s piece was originally posted Sept. 1, 2016 by Stephen Burgess on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Synbio (Synthetic Biology blog). In this next bit Berry notes briefly why science historians and scientists might find interaction and collaboration fruitful (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem strange that a historian is focused so closely on the present. However, I am not alone, and one recent author has picked out projects that suggest it is becoming a trend. This is only of interest for readers of the PLOS Synbio blog because it flags up that there are historians of science available for collaboration (hello!), and plenty of historical scholarship to draw upon to see your work in a new light, or rediscover forgotten research programs, or reconsider current practices, precisely as a recent Nature editorial emphasised for all sciences.

The May 17, 2016 Nature editorial ‘Second Thoughts’, mentioned in Berry’s piece, opens provocatively and continues in that vein (Note: A link has been removed),

The thought experiment has a noble place in research, but some thoughts are deemed more noble than others. Darwin and Einstein could let their minds wander and imagine the consequences of certain actions or natural laws. But scientists and historians who try to estimate what might have happened if, say, Darwin had fallen off the Beagle and drowned, are often accused of playing parlour games.

What if Darwin had toppled overboard before he joined the evolutionary dots? That discussion seems useful, because it raises interesting questions about the state of knowledge, then and now, and how it is communicated and portrayed. In his 2013 book Darwin Deleted — in which the young Charles is, indeed, lost in a storm — the historian Peter Bowler argued that the theory of evolution would have emerged just so, but with the pieces perhaps placed in a different order, and therefore less antagonistic to religious society.

In this week’s World View, another historian offers an alternative pathway for science: what if the ideas of Gregor Mendel on the inheritance of traits had been challenged more robustly and more successfully by a rival interpretation by the scientist W. F. R. Weldon? Gregory Radick argues that a twentieth-century genetics driven more by Weldon’s emphasis on environmental context would have weakened the dominance of the current misleading impression that nature always trumps nurture.

Here is Berry on the importance of questions,

The historian can ask: What traditions and legacies are these practitioners either building on or reacting against? How do these ideas cohere (or remain incoherent) for individuals and laboratories? Is a new way of understanding and investigating biology being created, and if so, where can we find evidence of it? Have biologists become increasingly concerned with controlling biological phenomena rather than understanding them? How does the desire to integrate engineering with biology sit within the long history of the establishment of biological science over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Berry is an academic and his piece reflects an academic writing style with its complicated sentence structures and muted conclusions. If you have the patience, it is a good read on a topic that isn’t discussed all that often.