Tag Archives: University of Californai at Santa Barbara

Fluid mechanics and fluid identities at Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique Oct. 29, 2013 meeting

Vancouver’s Café Scientifique is being held in the back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), on Tuesday, October 29,  2013 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the talk description (from the Oct. 22, 2013 announcement), Café Scientifique,

Our speaker for the evening will be Prof. Bud Homsy. The title of his talk is:

Fluid mechanics - What do the Red Spot of Jupiter and the flagellar motion of e.coli have in common?

Fluid mechanics – the study of the motion of fluids when acted upon by forces – is capable of describing fluid flows on a very wide range of length and time scales, including the Red Spot (roughly three Earth diameters in size), the Earth’s weather system, locomotion of trains, planes and automobiles, and swimming of fish, sperm, and microorganisms on the smallest scale.  It is safe to say that almost every aspect of human existence depends on fluids and their flow properties.  This talk will illustrate all the flows listed above (and more!) with movies and discussion of the mathematics and physics behind their description and understanding.

I found Bud Homsy’s faculty webpage here in the University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Mathematics where he is visiting or perhaps he has a dual appointment. There’s another faculty webpage at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he’s identified as George Homsy, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Enviromental Engineering. I think it’s the same man; he looks the same in both pictures.

Soybeans and nanoparticles

They seem ubiquitous today but there was a time when hardly anyone living in Canada  knew much about soybeans.  There’s a good essay about soybeans and their cultivation in Canada by Erik Dorff for Statistics Canada, from Dorff’s soybean essay,

Until the mid-1970s, soybeans were restricted by climate primarily to southern Ontario. Intensive breeding programs have since opened up more widespread growing possibilities across Canada for this incredibly versatile crop: The 1.2 million hectares of soybeans reported on the Census of Agriculture in 2006 marked a near eightfold increase in area since 1976, the year the ground-breaking varieties that perform well in Canada’s shorter growing season were introduced.

Soybeans have earned their popularity, with the high-protein, high-oil beans finding use as food for human consumption, animal rations and edible oils as well as many industrial products. Moreover, soybeans, like all legumes, are able to “fix” the nitrogen the plants need from the air. This process of nitrogen fixation is a result of a symbiotic interaction between bacteria microbes that colonize the roots of the soy plant and are fed by the plant. In return, the microbes take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form the plant can use to grow.

This means legumes require little in the way of purchased nitrogen fertilizers produced from expensive natural gas-a valuable property indeed.

Until reading Dorff’s essay, I hadn’t early soybeans had been introduced to the Canadian agricultural sector,

While soybeans arrived in Canada in the mid 1800s-with growing trials recorded in 1893 at the Ontario Agricultural College-they didn’t become a commercial oilseed crop in Canada until a crushing plant was built in southern Ontario in the 1920s, about the same time that the Department of Agriculture (now Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) began evaluating soybean varieties suited for the region. For years, soybeans were being grown in Canada but it wasn’t until the Second World War that Statistics Canada began to collect data showing the significance of the soybean crop, with 4,400 hectares being reported in 1941. In fact, one year later the area had jumped nearly fourfold, to 17,000 hectares…

As fascinating as I find this history, this bit about soybeans and their international importance explain why research about soyboans and nanoparticles is of wide interest (from Dorff’s essay),

The soybean’s valuable characteristics have propelled it into the agricultural mix in many parts of the world. In 2004, soybeans accounted for approximately 35% of the total harvested area worldwide of annual and perennial oil crops according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) but only four countries accounted for nearly 90% of the production with Canada in seventh place at 1.3% (Table 2). Soymeal-the solid, high-protein material remaining after the oil has been extracted during crushing-accounts for over 60% of world vegetable and animal meal production, while soybean oil accounts for 20% of global vegetable oil production.

There’s been a recent study on the impact of nanoparticles on soybeans at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara) according to an Aug. 20, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website, (h/t to Cientifica),

Researchers from University of California in Santa Barbara found manufactured nanoparticles disposed after manufacturing or customer use can end up in agricultural soil and eventually affect soybean crops. Findings of the team that includes academic, government, and corporate researchers from elsewhere in California, Texas, Iowa, New York, and Korea appear online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research aimed to discover potential environmental implications of new industries that produce nanomaterials. Soybeans were chosen as test crops because their prominence in American agriculture — it is the second largest crop in the U.S. and the fifth largest crop worldwide — and its vulnerability to manufactured nanomaterials. The soybeans tested in this study were grown in greenhouses.

The Aug. 20, 2012 UC Santa Barbara press release has additional detail abut why the research was undertaken,

“Our society has become more environmentally aware in the last few decades, and that results in our government and scientists asking questions about the safety of new types of chemical ingredients,” said senior author Patricia Holden, a professor with the Bren School [UC Santa Barbara's Bren School of Environmental Science & Management]. “That’s reflected by this type of research.”

Soybean was chosen for the study due to its importance as a food crop –– it is the fifth largest crop in global agricultural production and second in the U.S. –– and because it is vulnerable to MNMs [manufactured nanomaterials]. The findings showed that crop yield and quality are affected by the addition of MNMs to the soil.

The scientists studied the effects of two common nanoparticles, zinc oxide and cerium oxide, on soybeans grown in soil in greenhouses. Zinc oxide is used in cosmetics, lotions, and sunscreens. Cerium oxide is used as an ingredient in catalytic converters to minimize carbon monoxide production, and in fuel to increase fuel combustion. Cerium can enter soil through the atmosphere when fuel additives are released with diesel fuel combustion.

The zinc oxide nanoparticles may dissolve, or they may remain as a particle, or re-form as a particle, as they are processed through wastewater treatment. At the final stage of wastewater treatment there is a solid material, called biosolids, which is applied to soils in many parts of the U.S. This solid material fertilizes the soil, returning nitrogen and phosphorus that are captured during wastewater treatment. This is also a point at which zinc oxide and cerium oxide can enter the soil.

The scientists noted that the EPA requires pretreatment programs to limit direct industrial metal discharge into publicly owned wastewater treatment plants. However, the research team conveyed that “MNMs –– while measurable in the wastewater treatment plant systems –– are neither monitored nor regulated, have a high affinity for activated sludge bacteria, and thus concentrate in biosolids.”

The authors pointed out that soybean crops are farmed with equipment powered by fossil fuels, and thus MNMs can also be deposited into the soil through exhaust.

The study showed that soybean plants grown in soil that contained zinc oxide bioaccumulated zinc; they absorbed it into the stems, leaves, and beans. Food quality was affected, although it may not be harmful to humans to eat the soybeans if the zinc is in the form of ions or salts, in the plants, according to Holden.

In the case of cerium oxide, the nanoparticles did not bioaccumulate, but plant growth was stunted. Changes occurred in the root nodules, where symbiotic bacteria normally accumulate and convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium, which fertilizes the plant. The changes in the root nodules indicate that greater use of synthetic fertilizers might be necessary with the buildup of MNMs in the soil.

At this point, the researchers don’t know how zinc oxide nanoparticles and cerium oxide nanoparticles currently used in consumer products and elsewhere are likely to affect agricultural lands. The only certainty is that these nanoparticles are used in consumer goods and, according to Holden, they are entering agricultural soil.

The citation for the article,

Soybean susceptibility to manufactured nanomaterials with evidence for food quality and soil fertility interruption by John H. Priester, Yuan Ge, Randall E. Mielke, Allison M. Horst Shelly Cole Moritz, Katherine Espinosa, Jeff Gelb, Sharon L. Walker, Roger M. Nisbet, Youn-Joo An, Joshua P. Schimel, Reid G. Palmer, Jose A. Hernandez-Viezcas, Lijuan Zhao, Jorge L. Gardea-Torresdey, Patricia A. Holden. Published online [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences {PNAS}] before print August 20, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1205431109

The article is open access and available here.


What is a diamond worth?

A couple of diamond-related news items have crossed my path lately causing me to consider diamonds and their social implications. I’ll start first with the news items, according to an April 4, 2012 news item on physorg.com a quantum computer has been built inside a diamond (from the news item),

Diamonds are forever – or, at least, the effects of this diamond on quantum computing may be. A team that includes scientists from USC has built a quantum computer in a diamond, the first of its kind to include protection against “decoherence” – noise that prevents the computer from functioning properly.

I last mentioned decoherence in my July 21, 2011 posting about a joint (University of British Columbia, University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California) project on quantum computing.

According to the April 5, 2012 news item by Robert Perkins for the University of Southern California (USC),

The multinational team included USC professor Daniel Lidar and USC postdoctoral researcher Zhihui Wang, as well as researchers from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Iowa State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The findings were published today in Nature.

The team’s diamond quantum computer system featured two quantum bits, or qubits, made of subatomic particles.

As opposed to traditional computer bits, which can encode distinctly either a one or a zero, qubits can encode a one and a zero at the same time. This property, called superposition, along with the ability of quantum states to “tunnel” through energy barriers, some day will allow quantum computers to perform optimization calculations much faster than traditional computers.

Like all diamonds, the diamond used by the researchers has impurities – things other than carbon. The more impurities in a diamond, the less attractive it is as a piece of jewelry because it makes the crystal appear cloudy.

The team, however, utilized the impurities themselves.

A rogue nitrogen nucleus became the first qubit. In a second flaw sat an electron, which became the second qubit. (Though put more accurately, the “spin” of each of these subatomic particles was used as the qubit.)

Electrons are smaller than nuclei and perform computations much more quickly, but they also fall victim more quickly to decoherence. A qubit based on a nucleus, which is large, is much more stable but slower.

“A nucleus has a long decoherence time – in the milliseconds. You can think of it as very sluggish,” said Lidar, who holds appointments at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Though solid-state computing systems have existed before, this was the first to incorporate decoherence protection – using microwave pulses to continually switch the direction of the electron spin rotation.

“It’s a little like time travel,” Lidar said, because switching the direction of rotation time-reverses the inconsistencies in motion as the qubits move back to their original position.

Here’s an image I downloaded from the USC webpage hosting Perkins’s news item,

The diamond in the center measures 1 mm X 1 mm. Photo/Courtesy of Delft University of Technolgy/UC Santa Barbara

I’m not sure what they were trying to illustrate with the image but I thought it would provide an interesting contrast to the video which follows about the world’s first purely diamond ring,

I first came across this ring in Laura Hibberd’s March 22, 2012 piece for Huffington Post. For anyone who feels compelled to find out more about it, here’s the jeweller’s (Shawish) website.

What with the posting about Neal Stephenson and Diamond Age (aka, The Diamond Age Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; a novel that integrates nanotechnology into a story about the future and ubiquitous diamonds), a quantum computer in a diamond, and this ring, I’ve started to wonder about role diamonds will have in society. Will they be integrated into everyday objects or will they remain objects of desire? My guess is that the diamonds we create by manipulating carbon atoms will be considered everyday items while the ones which have been formed in the bowels of the earth will retain their status.

Environmental decoherence tackled by University of British Columbia and California researchers

The research team at the University of British Columbia (UBC) proved a theory for the prediction and control of environmental decoherence in a complex system (an important step on the way to quantum computing) while researchers performed experiments at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) to prove the theory.  Here’s an explanation of decoherence and its impact on quantum computing from the July 20, 2011 UBC news release,

Quantum mechanics states that matter can be in more than one physical state at the same time – like a coin simultaneously showing heads and tails. In small objects like electrons, physicists have had success in observing and controlling these simultaneous states, called “state superpositions.”

Larger, more complex physical systems appear to be in one consistent physical state because they interact and “entangle” with other objects in their environment. This entanglement makes these complex objects “decay” into a single state – a process called decoherence.

Quantum computing’s potential to be exponentially faster and more powerful than any conventional computer technology depends on switches that are capable of state superposition – that is, being in the “on” and “off” positions at the same time. Until now, all efforts to achieve such superposition with many molecules at once were blocked by decoherence.

The UBC research team, headed by Phil Stamp, developed a theory for predicting and controlling environmental decoherence in the Iron-8 molecule, which is considered a large complex system.

Iron-8 molecule (image provided by UBC)

This next image represents one of two states of decoherence, i. e., the molecule ‘occupies’ only one of two superpositions, spin up or spin down,


Decoherence: occupying either the spin up or spin down position (image provided by UBC)

Here’s how the team at the UCSB proved the theory experimentally,

In their study, Takahashi [Professor Susumu Takahashi is now at the University of Southern California {USC}] and his colleagues investigated single crystals of molecular magnets. Because of their purity, molecular magnets eliminate the extrinsic decoherence, allowing researchers to calculate intrinsic decoherence precisely.

“For the first time, we’ve been able to predict and control all the environmental decoherence mechanisms in a very complex system – in this case a large magnetic molecule,” said Phil Stamp, University of British Columbia professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Pacific Institute of Theoretical Physics.

Using crystalline molecular magnets allowed researchers to build qubits out of an immense quantity of quantum particles rather than a single quantum object – the way most proto-quantum computers are built at the moment.

I did try to find definitions for extrinsic and intrinsic decoherence unfortunately the best I could find is the one provided by USC (from the news item on Nanowerk),

Decoherence in qubit systems falls into two general categories. One is an intrinsic decoherence caused by constituents in the qubit system, and the other is an extrinsic decoherence caused by imperfections of the system - impurities and defects, for example.

I have a conceptual framework of sorts for a ‘qubit system’, I just don’t understand what they mean by ‘system’. I performed an internet search and virtually all of the references I found to intrinsic and extrinsic decoherence cite this news release or, in a few cases, papers written by physicists for other physicists. If anyone could help clarify this question for me, I would much appreciate it.

Leaving extrinsic and intrinsic systems aside, the July 20, 2011 news item on Science Daily provides a little more detail about the experiment,

In the experiment, the California researchers prepared a crystalline array of Iron-8 molecules in a quantum superposition, where the net magnetization of each molecule was simultaneously oriented up and down. The decay of this superposition by decoherence was then observed in time — and the decay was spectacularly slow, behaving exactly as the UBC researchers predicted.

“Magnetic molecules now suddenly appear to have serious potential as candidates for quantum computing hardware,” said Susumu Takahashi, assistant professor of chemistry and physics at the University of Southern California.

Congratulations to all of the researchers involved.

ETA July 22, 2011: I changed the title to correct the grammar.

Nano zero valent iron and groundwater remediation

My interest in nano zero valent iron (nZVI) and site remediation was piqued by a webcast from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). (I commented on the ‘cast in my March 4, 2010 posting [http://www.frogheart.ca/?p=792 {scroll down}]). Yesterday(March 29, 2011), I came across a news item on Business Wire (http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20110329005424/en/AECOM-University-California-Santa-Barbara-UCSB-Continue) about a collaboration between AECOM and the University of California at Santa Barbara for benchmark testing of nZVI. From the news item,

The new AECOM and UCSB bench-scale studies will test use of several zero valent iron (ZVI) products, including nano zero valent iron (nZVI), on the remediation of chlorinated volatile organic compounds (CVOCs) a common contaminant at groundwater remediation sites. nZVI products were selected for the study because they have a much greater surface area than conventional iron powders, which make them more effective in certain site remediation scenarios.

The bench-scale studies will use samples of these new products on groundwater and geologic materials collected from a former manufacturing site to evaluate the morphology or structure of the products as well as their mobility, persistence, and toxicity to aquatic organisms.

According to Dr. Dora Chiang, P.E. Project Design Engineer with AECOM’s environmental practice in Atlanta, “We have had an in situ bioremediation system in place for several years and will be using an nZVI or other ZVI products to supplement biodegradation of the CVOCs. Enhanced non-biological degradation, coupled with ongoing biodegradation of CVOCs, will likely result in a reduction in treatment time by remediating CVOCs to below their respective federal drinking water maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). This new treatment technology may save significant life-cycle cleanup costs while ensuring protection of human health and the environment.”

Dr. Arturo A. Keller, Co-Director of UC Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, will direct the research at UCSB, in coordination with Prof. Hunter Lenihan. Prof. Keller states that “there is great potential in using nZVI and related technologies to solve a wide range of contamination issues. However, we need to determine the potential risks to achieve safe implementation of this important technology.”

Nano zero valent iron is currently being used in site remediation in the US and elsewhere in the world. PEN has an interactive nanoremediation map here (http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/remediation_map/). Just click on one of the ‘balloons’ to get a full description of where, which contaminant, and which type of nanomaterial (e.g. the site in Ontario, Canada lists nZVI) is being used for the cleanup operation.

You can find out more about AECOM here (http://www.aecom.com) from their About page,

AECOM (NYSE: ACM) is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government.

With approximately 45,000 employees around the world, AECOM is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation, and technical excellence in delivering solutions that create, enhance and sustain the world’s built, natural, and social environments.

A Fortune 500 company, AECOM serves clients in more than 100 countries and had revenue of $7.0 billion during the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2010.

AECOM is ranked by Ethisphere as one of the world’s 110 most ethical companies for 2011.

That’s a very big company. As for their ethics, I like to see what they do when the going gets tough. After all, BP Oil had a very good reputation at one point and then they had the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and destroyed that reputation with their subsequent actions.

China’s nanotechnology rise

Eric Berger’s blog, SciGuy, recently highlighted some data about the number of nanotechnology/nanoscience articles published by Chinese researchers. You can see the entry and the table listing the world’s most prolific (overwhelmingly Chinese)  nanotech authors here. It’s interesting to contrast this data with a Nature Nanotechnology editorial from June 2008 where they had tables listing the countries with the most published nanotech articles and the most frequently cited articles. At the time, I thought China was under-represented although I don’t state it explicitly in my comments here.

Berger was inspired to write his commentary after seeing Eric Drexler’s posting on the topic (Oct. 30, 2009) but I’m directing you to Drexler’s followup comments where he provides some context for better understanding the statistics and cites sources that discuss the matter at more length.

The general consensus seems to be that some of China’s nanotech research is world class and the quality of majority of the research papers is either very good or improving rapidly.

There’s also this from the Center for Nanotechnology in Society University of California Santa Barbara (CNS-UCSB) paper, Chinese Nanotechnology Publications (scroll down the page to IRG 4-3 to read the full abstract),

China’s top-down and government-centered approach toward science and technology policy is succeeding in driving academic-publications output. By 2005 China had equaled or possibly surpassed the U.S. in terms of total output for academic/peer-reviewed publications, with a substantial increase in publication rate from around 2003. … We examined US and Chinese nanotechnology trends in the scientific literature and found that Chinese nanotechnology output is growing rapidly and will likely [outperform?] US output in terms of quality as well as quantity within a decade or less (Appelbaum & Parker 2008).

I include this portion of the abstract because  the phrase, “China’s top-down and government-centered approach to science and technology” points to something that’s not explicitly noted in the abstract, cultural and political climate. Nor was it noted in Bruce Alberts’ speech (in my Is science superior? posting) and as Inkbat noted in her comments to that posting. (My apologies to Mr. Alberts if he did make those points, unfortunately his speech is not available on the conference website so I’m depending on attendee reports.)

It’s a tricky matter trying to compare countries. China has more people and presumably more scientists than anyone else, all of which should result in more published articles if the area of research is supported by policy.

One of the issues for Canada is that we have a relatively small population and consequently fewer scientists. I commented on some work done by M. Fatih Yegul (in June 2008) where he contextualizes the number of Canadian articles published on nanotechnology and our focus on collaboration. Here’s part 2 of the series where I mentioned the numbers. (I did not post much material from Yegul’s paper as he was about to present it an international conference and it had yet to be published. I just checked today [Nov.4.09] and cannot confirm publication.)  My comments from part 3 of the series,

It’s all pretty interesting including the suggestion (based on a study that showed Canada as ranking 6th in numbers of science articles published from 1995-2005) that Canada is performing below its own average with regard to nanotechnology research.

I don’t know if the situation in Canada has changed since Yegul wrote and presented his paper but I strongly suspect it has not.

As for the roles that culture, social mores, history, and political environment play, I just can’t manage more than a mention in this posting in an effort to acknowledge their importance.

Do check out Rob Annan’s posting today (Nov. 4, 2009) about Science and Innovation in the wake of the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference.

Alberta and Texas collaborate on nanotechnology and greenish energy; a meta analysis of public perceptions of nanotechnology risks; how scientists think

The Premier of Alberta (Canada), Ed Stelmach, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Rice University (Texas, US) President, David Leebron, to collaborate through nanoAlberta (Alberta Advanced Education and Technology) and the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (Rice University). The two institutions will collaborate in the energy, environmental, medical,  agriculture, and forestry sectors. From the news item on Azonano,

Wade Adams, director of the Smalley Institute, said the interests of nanoAlberta and those of his team at Rice are perfectly aligned. “We want to help them figure out how to extract oil from their resources in a more environmentally friendly way, a more efficient way and one that will cause less damage to their own territory as well as provide oil for the needs of the human race, as they become a more important source of it.”

When I read the title for the item I thought they were referring to green or bio fuels but, as you can see from the quote, the intention is altogether different. From a pragmatic perspective, since we have to depend on fossil fuels for a while longer, it’s best if we can find more environmentally friendly ways to extract it while developing other renewable sources.

This reminds me of the recent invite I received from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) for the Perverse Incentives: The Untold Story of Federal Subsidies for Fossil Fuels event held on Sept. 18, 2009. Unfortunately, the webcast isn’t available quite yet but I think that in light of this memorandum it could be interesting viewing and might provide a critical perspective on the initiative.

PEN is holding another somewhat related event on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at 12:30 pm EST, Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and Biofuels: What does the public think? If you’re in Washington, DC, you can attend the event live but you should RSVP here, otherwise there’s a live webcast which is posted a few days later on their website.  (There’s a PEN event tomorrow, Sept. 23, 2009 at 12 pm to 2:30 pm EST, titled Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation: Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies. If you wish to attend the live event, you can RSVP using the link I’ve posted previously. If you’re interested in this event, in June I posted a more complete description of it here.)

One more Canadian development on the nanotechnology front, a meta analysis of 22 surveys on public perceptions of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology has been published at Nature Online as of Sept. 20, 2009. The article (lead author from the University of British Columbia, Canada)  is behind a paywall but you can read more about it in the news item on Nanowerk (from the news item),

Previous studies have found that new and unknown technologies such as biotechnology tend to be regarded as risky, but that’s not the case for nanotechnology, according to this research. People who thought nanotechnology had more benefits than risks outnumbered those who perceived greater risks by 3 to 1 in this study. The 44 percent of people who didn’t have an opinion either way surprised the researchers. “You don’t normally get that reluctance,” says Terre Satterfield of the University of British Columbia in Canada, lead author of the study and a collaborator with CNS-UCSB [Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara].

In almost three years of scanning, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two announcements that both feature a Canadian nanotechnology development of sorts. This is a banner day!

Topping today off, I’m going to segue into How Scientists Think.  It’s a paper about how scientists creatively problem solve.  From the news item on Physorg.com,

Her [Dr. Nancy J. Nersessian] study of the working methods of scientists helps in understanding how class and instructional laboratory settings can be improved to foster creativity, and how new teaching methods can be developed based on this understanding. These methods will allow science students to master model-based reasoning approaches to problem solving and open the field to many more who do not think of themselves as traditional “scientists.”

I’ve been interested in how scientists think because I’ve been trying to understand why the communication with ‘non scientists’ can be so poor. To some extent I think it is cultural. After years of training in special skills and a special language, scientists are members of a unique occupational culture, which has given birth to many, many subcultures. People who are immersed in their own cultures don’t always realize that the rest of us may not understand what they’re saying very well. (Try reading art criticism if you don’t have an understanding of art history and critical theory.) That’s my short answer and, one of these days, I’m going to write a paper with my long answer.

I had every intention of writing another part of my science communication series today but I have a couple of projects to start or finish and these series postings take more time than I have to spare.

Happy 2009!

I just read ‘How spintronics went from the lab to the iPod’ by W. Patrick McCray in the online January 2009 issue of Nature Nanotechnology, it’s here. The author is in the history department of the University of California at Santa Barbara and he provides an intriguing view of how nanotechnology, electronics, academic, military, and business interests converged in various applications, the best known being the iPod. He also provides a brief history of how the discovery (giant magnetoresistance) was made by two teams independently of each other (but almost simultaneously) who agreed to share credit and ultimately a Nobel prize. (BTW, that last bit contrasts nicely with Crick and Watson with their double helix and the way they took full credit when at least some should have gone to Rosalind Franklin.)

For anyone who doesn’t know about giant magnetoresistance (GMR), we start with magnetoresistance (from the article),

Magnetoresistance, a change in the electrical resistance of a conductor caused by an applied magnetic field was first observed … in 1857 (p. 2)

The source was not discovered until quantum mechanics became an area of interest,

… the physics underlying electron spin — which is the ultimate source of magnetism in most materials — dates back to … the golden era of quantum mechanics. The effect was quite small … but that all changed … in 1988. [One team in Germany and another team in France sandwiched very thin layers {1 nm} of nonmagnetic materials with magnetic materials to observe a significant {10% for one team and 50% for the other team} change in electrical resistance in the presence of a magnetic field. Presumably lowering the resistance which {researchers at IBM realized} meant that disc drives could become smaller and hold more information {which is how we ultimately with an iPod}.

GMR also represented the first example of a new kind of technology called 'spintronics', so-called because it exploits the spin of the electron, as well as its electric charge, store and process information. p. 2 (the stuff in square brackets is my attempt to massage the information so I don't quote the entire article]

Do read the story.