Tag Archives: University of Chicago

Innovation and two Canadian universities

I have two news bits and both concern the Canadian universities, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Toronto (UofT).

Creative Destruction Lab – West

First, the Creative Destruction Lab, a technology commercialization effort based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, is opening an office in the west according to a Sept. 28, 2016 UBC media release (received via email; Note: Links have been removed; this is a long media release which interestingly does not mention Joseph Schumpeter the man who developed the economic theory which he called: creative destruction),

The UBC Sauder School of Business is launching the Western Canadian version of the Creative Destruction Lab, a successful seed-stage program based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, to help high-technology ventures driven by university research maximize their commercial impact and benefit to society.

“Creative Destruction Lab – West will provide a much-needed support system to ensure innovations formulated on British Columbia campuses can access the funding they need to scale up and grow in-province,” said Robert Helsley, Dean of the UBC Sauder School of Business. “The success our partners at Rotman have had in helping commercialize the scientific breakthroughs of Canadian talent is remarkable and is exactly what we plan to replicate at UBC Sauder.”

Between 2012 and 2016, companies from CDL’s first four years generated over $800 million in equity value. It has supported a long line of emerging startups, including computer-human interface company Thalmic Labs, which announced nearly USD $120 million in funding on September 19, one of the largest Series B financings in Canadian history.

Focusing on massively scalable high-tech startups, CDL-West will provide coaching from world-leading entrepreneurs, support from dedicated business and science faculty, and access to venture capital. While some of the ventures will originate at UBC, CDL-West will also serve the entire province and extended western region by welcoming ventures from other universities. The program will closely align with existing entrepreneurship programs across UBC, including, e@UBC and HATCH, and actively work with the BC Tech Association [also known as the BC Technology Industry Association] and other partners to offer a critical next step in the venture creation process.

“We created a model for tech venture creation that keeps startups focused on their essential business challenges and dedicated to solving them with world-class support,” said CDL Founder Ajay Agrawal, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and UBC PhD alumnus.

“By partnering with UBC Sauder, we will magnify the impact of CDL by drawing in ventures from one of the country’s other leading research universities and B.C.’s burgeoning startup scene to further build the country’s tech sector and the opportunities for job creation it provides,” said CDL Director, Rachel Harris.

CDL uses a goal-setting model to push ventures along a path toward success. Over nine months, a collective of leading entrepreneurs with experience building and scaling technology companies – called the G7 – sets targets for ventures to hit every eight weeks, with the goal of maximizing their equity-value. Along the way ventures turn to business and technology experts for strategic guidance on how to reach goals, and draw on dedicated UBC Sauder students who apply state-of the-art business skills to help companies decide which market to enter first and how.

Ventures that fail to achieve milestones – approximately 50 per cent in past cohorts – are cut from the process. Those that reach their objectives and graduate from the program attract investment from the G7, as well as other leading venture-capital firms.

Currently being assembled, the CDL-West G7 will be comprised of entrepreneurial luminaries, including Jeff Mallett, the founding President, COO and Director of Yahoo! Inc. from 1995-2002 – a company he led to $4 billion in revenues and grew from a startup to a publicly traded company whose value reached $135 billion. He is now Managing Director of Iconica Partners and Managing Partner of Mallett Sports & Entertainment, with ventures including the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park and Mission Rock Development, Comcast Bay Area Sports Network, the San Jose Giants, Major League Soccer, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and a variety of other sports and online ventures.

Already bearing fruit, the Creative Destruction Lab partnership will see several UBC ventures accepted into a Machine Learning Specialist Track run by Rotman’s CDL this fall. This track is designed to create a support network for enterprises focused on artificial intelligence, a research strength at UofT and Canada more generally, which has traditionally migrated to the United States for funding and commercialization. In its second year, CDL-West will launch its own specialist track in an area of strength at UBC that will draw eastern ventures west.

“This new partnership creates the kind of high impact innovation network the Government of Canada wants to encourage,” said Brandon Lee, Canada’s Consul General in San Francisco, who works to connect Canadian innovation to customers and growth capital opportunities in Silicon Valley. “By collaborating across our universities to enhance our capacity to turn the scientific discoveries into businesses in Canada, we can further advance our nation’s global competitiveness in the knowledge-based industries.”

The Creative Destruction Lab is guided by an Advisory Board, co-chaired by Vancouver-based Haig Farris, a pioneer of the Canadian venture capitalist industry, and Bill Graham, Chancellor of Trinity College at UofT and former Canadian cabinet minister.

“By partnering with Rotman, UBC Sauder will be able to scale up its support for high-tech ventures extremely quickly and with tremendous impact,” said Paul Cubbon, Leader of CDL-West and a faculty member at UBC Sauder. “CDL-West will act as a turbo booster for ventures with great ideas, but which lack the strategic roadmap and funding to make them a reality.”

CDL-West launched its competitive application process for the first round of ventures that will begin in January 2017. Interested ventures are encouraged to submit applications via the CDL website at: www.creativedestructionlab.com

Background

UBC Technology ventures represented at media availability

Awake Labs is a wearable technology startup whose products measure and track anxiety in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to better understand behaviour. Their first device, Reveal, monitors a wearer’s heart-rate, body temperature and sweat levels using high-tech sensors to provide insight into care and promote long term independence.

Acuva Technologies is a Vancouver-based clean technology venture focused on commercializing breakthrough UltraViolet Light Emitting Diode technology for water purification systems. Initially focused on point of use systems for boats, RVs and off grid homes in North American market, where they already have early sales, the company’s goal is to enable water purification in households in developing countries by 2018 and deploy large scale systems by 2021.

Other members of the CDL-West G7 include:

Boris Wertz: One of the top tech early-stage investors in North America and the founding partner of Version One, Wertz is also a board partner with Andreessen Horowitz. Before becoming an investor, Wertz was the Chief Operating Officer of AbeBooks.com, which sold to Amazon in 2008. He was responsible for marketing, business development, product, customer service and international operations. His deep operational experience helps him guide other entrepreneurs to start, build and scale companies.

Lisa Shields: Founder of Hyperwallet Systems Inc., Shields guided Hyperwallet from a technology startup to the leading international payments processor for business to consumer mass payouts. Prior to founding Hyperwallet, Lisa managed payments acceptance and risk management technology teams for high-volume online merchants. She was the founding director of the Wireless Innovation Society of British Columbia and is driven by the social and economic imperatives that shape global payment technologies.

Jeff Booth: Co-founder, President and CEO of Build Direct, a rapidly growing online supplier of home improvement products. Through custom and proprietary web analytics and forecasting tools, BuildDirect is reinventing and redefining how consumers can receive the best prices. BuildDirect has 12 warehouse locations across North America and is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. In 2015, Booth was awarded the BC Technology ‘Person of the Year’ Award by the BC Technology Industry Association.

Education:

CDL-west will provide a transformational experience for MBA and senior undergraduate students at UBC Sauder who will act as venture advisors. Replacing traditional classes, students learn by doing during the process of rapid equity-value creation.

Supporting venture development at UBC:

CDL-west will work closely with venture creation programs across UBC to complete the continuum of support aimed at maximizing venture value and investment. It will draw in ventures that are being or have been supported and developed in programs that span campus, including:

University Industry Liaison Office which works to enable research and innovation partnerships with industry, entrepreneurs, government and non-profit organizations.

e@UBC which provides a combination of mentorship, education, venture creation, and seed funding to support UBC students, alumni, faculty and staff.

HATCH, a UBC technology incubator which leverages the expertise of the UBC Sauder School of Business and entrepreneurship@UBC and a seasoned team of domain-specific experts to provide real-world, hands-on guidance in moving from innovative concept to successful venture.

Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, a program base at the UBC Sauder Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing focused on developing ventures with the goal of creating positive social and environmental impact.

About the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto:

The Creative Destruction Lab leverages the Rotman School’s leading faculty and industry network as well as its location in the heart of Canada’s business capital to accelerate massively scalable, technology-based ventures that have the potential to transform our social, industrial, and economic landscape. The Lab has had a material impact on many nascent startups, including Deep Genomics, Greenlid, Atomwise, Bridgit, Kepler Communications, Nymi, NVBots, OTI Lumionics, PUSH, Thalmic Labs, Vertical.ai, Revlo, Validere, Growsumo, and VoteCompass, among others. For more information, visit www.creativedestructionlab.com

About the UBC Sauder School of Business

The UBC Sauder School of Business is committed to developing transformational and responsible business leaders for British Columbia and the world. Located in Vancouver, Canada’s gateway to the Pacific Rim, the school is distinguished for its long history of partnership and engagement in Asia, the excellence of its graduates, and the impact of its research which ranks in the top 20 globally. For more information, visit www.sauder.ubc.ca

About the Rotman School of Management

The Rotman School of Management is located in the heart of Canada’s commercial and cultural capital and is part of the University of Toronto, one of the world’s top 20 research universities. The Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables graduates to tackle today’s global business and societal challenges. For more information, visit www.rotman.utoronto.ca.

It’s good to see a couple of successful (according to the news release) local entrepreneurs on the board although I’m somewhat puzzled by Mallett’s presence since, if memory serves, Yahoo! was not doing that well when he left in 2002. The company was an early success but utterly dwarfed by Google at some point in the early 2000s and these days, its stock (both financial and social) has continued to drift downwards. As for Mallett’s current successes, there is no mention of them.

Reuters Top 100 of the world’s most innovative universities

After reading or skimming through the CDL-West news you might think that the University of Toronto ranked higher than UBC on the Reuters list of the world’s most innovative universities. Before breaking the news about the Canadian rankings, here’s more about the list from a Sept, 28, 2016 Reuters news release (receive via email),

Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University top the second annual Reuters Top 100 ranking of the world’s most innovative universities. The Reuters Top 100 ranking aims to identify the institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and help drive the global economy. Unlike other rankings that often rely entirely or in part on subjective surveys, the ranking uses proprietary data and analysis tools from the Intellectual Property & Science division of Thomson Reuters to examine a series of patent and research-related metrics, and get to the essence of what it means to be truly innovative.

In the fast-changing world of science and technology, if you’re not innovating, you’re falling behind. That’s one of the key findings of this year’s Reuters 100. The 2016 results show that big breakthroughs – even just one highly influential paper or patent – can drive a university way up the list, but when that discovery fades into the past, so does its ranking. Consistency is key, with truly innovative institutions putting out groundbreaking work year after year.

Stanford held fast to its first place ranking by consistently producing new patents and papers that influence researchers elsewhere in academia and in private industry. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ranked #2) were behind some of the most important innovations of the past century, including the development of digital computers and the completion of the Human Genome Project. Harvard University (ranked #3), is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and has produced 47 Nobel laureates over the course of its 380-year history.

Some universities saw significant movement up the list, including, most notably, the University of Chicago, which jumped from #71 last year to #47 in 2016. Other list-climbers include the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology (#73 to #44) and South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University (#66 to #46).

The United States continues to dominate the list, with 46 universities in the top 100; Japan is once again the second best performing country, with nine universities. France and South Korea are tied in third, each with eight. Germany has seven ranked universities; the United Kingdom has five; Switzerland, Belgium and Israel have three; Denmark, China and Canada have two; and the Netherlands and Singapore each have one.

You can find the rankings here (scroll down about 75% of the way) and for the impatient, the University of British Columbia ranked 50th and the University of Toronto 57th.

The biggest surprise for me was that China, like Canada, had two universities on the list. I imagine that will change as China continues its quest for science and innovation dominance. Given how they tout their innovation prowess, I had one other surprise, the University of Waterloo’s absence.

Curbing police violence with machine learning

A rather fascinating Aug. 1, 2016 article by Hal Hodson about machine learning and curbing police violence has appeared in the New Scientist journal (Note: Links have been removed),

None of their colleagues may have noticed, but a computer has. By churning through the police’s own staff records, it has caught signs that an officer is at high risk of initiating an “adverse event” – racial profiling or, worse, an unwarranted shooting.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina is piloting the system in an attempt to tackle the police violence that has become a heated issue in the US in the past three years. A team at the University of Chicago is helping them feed their data into a machine learning system that learns to spot risk factors for unprofessional conduct. The department can then step in before risk transforms into actual harm.

The idea is to prevent incidents in which officers who are stressed behave aggressively, for example, such as one in Texas where an officer pulled his gun on children at a pool party after responding to two suicide calls earlier that shift. Ideally, early warning systems would be able to identify individuals who had recently been deployed on tough assignments, and divert them from other sensitive calls.

According to Hodson, there are already systems, both human and algorithmic, in place but the goal is to make them better,

The system being tested in Charlotte is designed to include all of the records a department holds on an individual – from details of previous misconduct and gun use to their deployment history, such as how many suicide or domestic violence calls they have responded to. It retrospectively caught 48 out of 83 adverse incidents between 2005 and now – 12 per cent more than Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s existing early intervention system.

More importantly, the false positive rate – the fraction of officers flagged as being under stress who do not go on to act aggressively – was 32 per cent lower than the existing system’s. “Right now the systems that claim to do this end up flagging the majority of officers,” says Rayid Ghani, who leads the Chicago team. “You can’t really intervene then.”

There is some cautious optimism about this new algorithm (Note: Links have been removed),

Frank Pasquale, who studies the social impact of algorithms at the University of Maryland, is cautiously optimistic. “In many walks of life I think this algorithmic ranking of workers has gone too far – it troubles me,” he says. “But in the context of the police, I think it could work.”

Pasquale says that while such a system for tackling police misconduct is new, it’s likely that older systems created the problem in the first place. “The people behind this are going to say it’s all new,” he says. “But it could be seen as an effort to correct an earlier algorithmic failure. A lot of people say that the reason you have so much contact between minorities and police is because the CompStat system was rewarding officers who got the most arrests.”

CompStat, short for Computer Statistics, is a police management and accountability system that was used to implement the “broken windows” theory of policing, which proposes that coming down hard on minor infractions like public drinking and vandalism helps to create an atmosphere of law and order, bringing serious crime down in its wake. Many police researchers have suggested that the approach has led to the current dangerous tension between police and minority communities.

Ghani has not forgotten the human dimension,

One thing Ghani is certain of is that the interventions will need to be decided on and delivered by humans. “I would not want any of those to be automated,” he says. “As long as there is a human in the middle starting a conversation with them, we’re reducing the chance for things to go wrong.”

h/t Terkko Navigator

I have written about police and violence here in the context of the Dallas Police Department and its use of a robot in a violent confrontation with a sniper, July 25, 2016 posting titled: Robots, Dallas (US), ethics, and killing.

Small, soft, and electrically functional: an injectable biomaterial

This development could be looked at as a form of synthetic biology without the genetic engineering. From a July 1, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Ideally, injectable or implantable medical devices should not only be small and electrically functional, they should be soft, like the body tissues with which they interact. Scientists from two UChicago labs set out to see if they could design a material with all three of those properties.

The material they came up with, published online June 27, 2016, in Nature Materials, forms the basis of an ingenious light-activated injectable device that could eventually be used to stimulate nerve cells and manipulate the behavior of muscles and organs.

“Most traditional materials for implants are very rigid and bulky, especially if you want to do electrical stimulation,” said Bozhi Tian, an assistant professor in chemistry whose lab collaborated with that of neuroscientist Francisco Bezanilla on the research.

The new material, in contrast, is soft and tiny — particles just a few micrometers in diameter (far less than the width of a human hair) that disperse easily in a saline solution so they can be injected. The particles also degrade naturally inside the body after a few months, so no surgery would be needed to remove them.

A July 1, 2016 University of Chicago news release (also on EurekAlert) by , which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Each particle is built of two types of silicon that together form a structure full of nano-scale pores, like a tiny sponge. And like a sponge, it is squishy — a hundred to a thousand times less rigid than the familiar crystalline silicon used in transistors and solar cells. “It is comparable to the rigidity of the collagen fibers in our bodies,” said Yuanwen Jiang, Tian’s graduate student. “So we’re creating a material that matches the rigidity of real tissue.”

The material constitutes half of an electrical device that creates itself spontaneously when one of the silicon particles is injected into a cell culture, or, eventually, a human body. The particle attaches to a cell, making an interface with the cell’s plasma membrane. Those two elements together — cell membrane plus particle — form a unit that generates current when light is shined on the silicon particle.

“You don’t need to inject the entire device; you just need to inject one component,” João L. Carvalho-de-Souza , Bezanilla’s postdoc said. “This single particle connection with the cell membrane allows sufficient generation of current that could be used to stimulate the cell and change its activity. After you achieve your therapeutic goal, the material degrades naturally. And if you want to do therapy again, you do another injection.”

The scientists built the particles using a process they call nano-casting. They fabricate a silicon dioxide mold composed of tiny channels — “nano-wires” — about seven nanometers in diameter (less than 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) connected by much smaller “micro-bridges.” Into the mold they inject silane gas, which fills the pores and channels and decomposes into silicon.

And this is where things get particularly cunning. The scientists exploit the fact the smaller an object is, the more the atoms on its surface dominate its reactions to what is around it. The micro-bridges are minute, so most of their atoms are on the surface. These interact with oxygen that is present in the silicon dioxide mold, creating micro-bridges made of oxidized silicon gleaned from materials at hand. The much larger nano-wires have proportionately fewer surface atoms, are much less interactive, and remain mostly pure silicon. [I have a note regarding ‘micro’ and ‘nano’ later in this posting.]

“This is the beauty of nanoscience,” Jiang said. “It allows you to engineer chemical compositions just by manipulating the size of things.”

Web-like nanostructure

Finally, the mold is dissolved. What remains is a web-like structure of silicon nano-wires connected by micro-bridges of oxidized silicon that can absorb water and help increase the structure’s softness. The pure silicon retains its ability to absorb light.

Transmission electron microscopy image shows an ordered nanowire array. The 100-nanometer scale bar is 1,000 times narrower than a hair. Courtesy of Tian Lab

Transmission electron microscopy image shows an ordered nanowire array. The 100-nanometer scale bar is 1,000 times narrower than a hair. Courtesy of
Tian Lab

The scientists have added the particles onto neurons in culture in the lab, shone light on the particles, and seen current flow into the neurons which activates the cells. The next step is to see what happens in living animals. They are particularly interested in stimulating nerves in the peripheral nervous system that connect to organs. These nerves are relatively close to the surface of the body, so near-infra-red wavelength light can reach them through the skin.

Tian imagines using the light-activated devices to engineer human tissue and create artificial organs to replace damaged ones. Currently, scientists can make engineered organs with the correct form but not the ideal function.

To get a lab-built organ to function properly, they will need to be able to manipulate individual cells in the engineered tissue. The injectable device would allow a scientist to do that, tweaking an individual cell using a tightly focused beam of light like a mechanic reaching into an engine and turning a single bolt. The possibility of doing this kind of synthetic biology without genetic engineering [emphasis mine] is enticing.

“No one wants their genetics to be altered,” Tian said. “It can be risky. There’s a need for a non-genetic system that can still manipulate cell behavior. This could be that kind of system.”

Tian’s graduate student Yuanwen Jiang did the material development and characterization on the project. The biological part of the collaboration was done in the lab of Francisco Bezanilla, the Lillian Eichelberger Cannon Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, by postdoc João L. Carvalho-de-Souza. They were, said Tian, the “heroes” of the work.

I was a little puzzled about the use of the word ‘micro’ in a context suggesting it was smaller than something measured at the nanoscale. Dr. Tian very kindly cleared up my confusion with this response in a July 4, 2016 email,

In fact, the definition of ‘micro’ and ’nano’ have been quite ambiguous in literature. For example, microporous materials (e.g., zeolite) usually refer to materials with pore sizes of less than 2 nm — this is defined based on IUPAC [International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry] definition (http://goldbook.iupac.org/M03853.html). We used ‘micro-bridges’ because they come from the ‘micropores’ in the original template.

Thank you Dr. Tian for that very clear reply and Steve Koppes for forwarding my request to Dr. Tian!

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

Heterogeneous silicon mesostructures for lipid-supported bioelectric interfaces by Yuanwen Jiang, João L. Carvalho-de-Souza, Raymond C. S. Wong, Zhiqiang Luo, Dieter Isheim, Xiaobing Zuo, Alan W. Nicholls, Il Woong Jung, Jiping Yue, Di-Jia Liu, Yucai Wang, Vincent De Andrade, Xianghui Xiao, Luizetta Navrazhnykh, Dara E. Weiss, Xiaoyang Wu, David N. Seidman, Francisco Bezanilla, & Bozhi Tian. Nature Materials (2016)  doi:10.1038/nmat4673 Published online 27 June 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I gather animal testing will be the next step as they continue to develop this exciting technology. Good luck!

$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

Science in the 21st Century: how short should your abstracts be and what about litigation?

Writing tips for abstracts

A May 1, 2015 news item on phys.org  profiles research that contradicts every writing tip you’ve ever gotten about abstracts for your science research,

When writing the abstracts for journal articles, most scientists receive similar advice: keep it short, dry, and simple. But a new analysis by University of Chicago researchers of over one million abstracts finds that many of these tips backfire, producing abstracts cited less than their long, flowery, and jargon-filled peers.

“What I think is funny is there’s this disconnect between what you’d like to read, and what scientists actually cite,” said Stefano Allesina, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of Chicago, Computation Institute fellow and faculty, and senior author of the study. “It’s very suggestive that we should not trust writing tips we take for granted.”

During a seminar for incoming graduate students on how to write effective abstracts, Allesina wondered whether there was hard evidence for the “rules” that were taught. So Allesina and Cody Weinberger, a University of Chicago undergraduate, gathered hundreds of writing suggestions from scientific literature and condensed them into “Ten Simple Rules,” including “Keep it short,” “Keep it simple,” “Signal novelty and importance,” and “Show confidence.”

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

Ten Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science by Cody J. Weinberger, James A. Evans, & Stefano Allesina. PLOS Published: April 30, 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004205

This is an open access journal.

From the paper (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists receive (and offer) much advice on how to write an effective paper that their colleagues will read, cite, and celebrate [2–15]. Fundamentally, the advice is similar to that given to journalists: keep the text short, simple, bold, and easy to understand. Many resources recommend the parsimonious use of adjectives and adverbs, the use of present tense, and a consistent style. Here we put this advice to the test, and measure the impact of certain features of academic writing on success, as proxied by citations.

The abstract epitomizes the scientific writing style, and many journals force their authors to follow a formula—including a very strict word-limit, a specific organization into paragraphs, and even the articulation of particular sentences and claims (e.g., “Here we show that…”).

For our analysis, we collected more than one million abstracts from eight disciplines, spanning 17 years. The disciplines were chosen so that biology was represented by three allied fields (Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics). We drew upon a wide range of comparison disciplines, namely Analytic Chemistry, Condensed Matter Physics, Geology, Mathematics, and Psychology (see table in S1 Text). We measured whether certain features of the abstract consistently led to more (or fewer) citations than expected, after accounting for other factors that certainly influence citations, such as article age (S1 Fig), number of authors and references, and the journal in which it was published.

Here are some of the results (from the paper),

We find that shorter abstracts (fewer words [R1a] and fewer sentences [R1b]) consistently lead to fewer citations, with short sentences (R2) being beneficial only in Mathematics and Physics. Similarly, using more (rather than fewer) adjectives and adverbs is beneficial (R5). Also, writing an abstract with fewer common (R3a) or easy (R3b) words results in more citations.

The use of the present tense (R4) is beneficial in Biology and Psychology, while it has a negative impact in Chemistry and Physics, possibly reflecting differences in disciplinary culture.

While matching the keywords (R6) leads to universally negative outcomes, signaling the novelty and importance of the work (R7) has positive effects. The use of superlatives (R8) is also positive, while avoiding “hedge” words is negative in Biology and Physics, but positive in Chemistry.

Finally, choosing “pleasant,” “active,” and “easy to imagine” words (R10) has positive effects across the board.

The issue the researchers particularized from the results may not be what you expect (from the paper),

… Despite the fact that anybody in their right mind would prefer to read short, simple, and well-written prose with few abstruse terms, when building an argument and writing a paper, the limiting step is the ability to find the right article. For this, scientists rely heavily on search techniques, especially search engines, where longer and more specific abstracts are favored. Longer, more detailed, prolix prose is simply more available for search. This likely explains our results, and suggests the new landscape of linguistic fitness in 21st century science. …

It seems to me that while prolix prose’s popularity, predtaing search engines and the internet, is now being reinforced by our digital media. In short, while there are many complaints about digital media and shortened attention spans, it seems that in some cases digital media is encouraging wordiness.

Litigation and research

A May 1, 2015 posting by Michael Halpern for the Guardian science blogs sheds light on some legal tactics that lend themselves quite well to intimidating science researchers (Note: Links have been removed),

In 2009, a law firm representing Philip Morris submitted freedom of information requests to the University of Stirling for the work of three scientists – Gerard Hastings, Anne Marie Mackintosh and Linda Bauld – who were studying the impact of tobacco marketing on adolescents. They sought all primary data, questionnaires, handbooks and documents related to the researchers’ work, much of which was confidential.

Although the requests were eventually dropped due to negative publicity, responding to and challenging them cost the scientists and the university’s lawyers many weeks of work. “The stress of all this is considerable,” the scientists involved, wrote afterwards. “We are not lawyers and, like most civilians, find the law abstruse and the overt threat of serious punishment extremely disconcerting.”

This was no isolated incident. Activists and corporations of all political stripes in a growing number of countries are increasingly harassing and intimidating university scientists, using public information laws which were originally designed for citizens to understand the workings of government.

In an editorial in this week’s Science magazine, climate scientist Michael Mann and I explore this problem and ask a pressing question: how do we balance public accountability with the privacy essential for scientific inquiry?

The post is well worth reading in its entirety as Halpern goes on to describe the situation in more detail.

Spinal cords, brains, implants, and remote control

I have two items about implants and brains and an item about being able to exert remote control of the brain, all of which hint at a cyborg future for at least a few of us.

e-Dura, the spinal column, and the brain

The first item concerns some research, at the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) which features flexible electronics. From a March 24, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have developed the e-Dura—a tiny skinlike device that attaches directly to damaged spinal cords. By sending out small electrical pulses, it stimulates the cord as if it were receiving signals from the brain, thus allowing movement.

“The purpose of the neuro-prosthesis is to excite the neurons that are on the spinal cord below the site of the injury and activate them, just like if they were receiving information from the brain,” says Stéphanie Lacour, a professor at the institute.

A January 8, 2015 (?) EPFL press release provides more information about the research,

EPFL scientists have managed to get rats walking on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. But applying this method to humans would require multifunctional implants that could be installed for long periods of time on the spinal cord without causing any tissue damage. This is precisely what the teams of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine have developed. Their e-Dura implant is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The small device closely imitates the mechanical properties of living tissue, and can simultaneously deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances. The risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been drastically reduced. An article about the implant will appear in early January [2015] in Science Magazine.

So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock; they cannot be applied long term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope, otherwise known as the “dura mater,” because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against these rigid devices. After a while, this repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection.

Here’s what the implant looks like,

Courtesy: EPFL

Courtesy: EPFL

The press release describes how the implant is placed (Note: A link has been removed),

Flexible and stretchy, the implant developed at EPFL is placed beneath the dura mater, directly onto the spinal cord. Its elasticity and its potential for deformation are almost identical to the living tissue surrounding it. This reduces friction and inflammation to a minimum. When implanted into rats, the e-Dura prototype caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. More rigid traditional implants would have caused significant nerve tissue damage during this period of time.

The researchers tested the device prototype by applying their rehabilitation protocol — which combines electrical and chemical stimulation – to paralyzed rats. Not only did the implant prove its biocompatibility, but it also did its job perfectly, allowing the rats to regain the ability to walk on their own again after a few weeks of training.

“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury,” explains Lacour, co-author of the paper, and holder of EPFL’s Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology.

The press release goes on to describe the engineering achievements,

Developing the e-Dura implant was quite a feat of engineering. As flexible and stretchable as living tissue, it nonetheless includes electronic elements that stimulate the spinal cord at the point of injury. The silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched. The electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. Finally, a fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances – neurotransmitters in this case – that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.

The implant can also be used to monitor electrical impulses from the brain in real time. When they did this, the scientists were able to extract with precision the animal’s motor intention before it was translated into movement.

“It’s the first neuronal surface implant designed from the start for long-term application. In order to build it, we had to combine expertise from a considerable number of areas,” explains Courtine, co-author and holder of EPFL’s IRP Chair in Spinal Cord Repair. “These include materials science, electronics, neuroscience, medicine, and algorithm programming. I don’t think there are many places in the world where one finds the level of interdisciplinary cooperation that exists in our Center for Neuroprosthetics.”

For the time being, the e-Dura implant has been primarily tested in cases of spinal cord injury in paralyzed rats. But the potential for applying these surface implants is huge – for example in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management. The scientists are planning to move towards clinical trials in humans, and to develop their prototype in preparation for commercialization.

EPFL has provided a video of researcher Stéphanie Lacour describing e-Dura and expressing hopes for its commercialization,

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

Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces by Ivan R. Minev, Pavel Musienko, Arthur Hirsch, Quentin Barraud, Nikolaus Wenger, Eduardo Martin Moraud, Jérôme Gandar, Marco Capogrosso, Tomislav Milekovic, Léonie Asboth, Rafael Fajardo Torres, Nicolas Vachicouras, Qihan Liu, Natalia Pavlova, Simone Duis, Alexandre Larmagnac, Janos Vörös, Silvestro Micera, Zhigang Suo, Grégoire Courtine, Stéphanie P. Lacour. Science 9 January 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6218 pp. 159-163 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260318

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotube fibres could connect to the brain

Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) are excited about the possibilities that carbon nanotube fibres offer in the field of implantable electronics for the brain. From a March 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Carbon nanotube fibers invented at Rice University may provide the best way to communicate directly with the brain.

The fibers have proven superior to metal electrodes for deep brain stimulation and to read signals from a neuronal network. Because they provide a two-way connection, they show promise for treating patients with neurological disorders while monitoring the real-time response of neural circuits in areas that control movement, mood and bodily functions.

New experiments at Rice demonstrated the biocompatible fibers are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system, according to the researchers. They could replace much larger electrodes currently used in devices for deep brain stimulation therapies in Parkinson’s disease patients.

They may also advance technologies to restore sensory or motor functions and brain-machine interfaces as well as deep brain stimulation therapies for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression, the researchers wrote.

A March 25, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The fibers created by the Rice lab of chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali consist of bundles of long nanotubes originally intended for aerospace applications where strength, weight and conductivity are paramount.

The individual nanotubes measure only a few nanometers across, but when millions are bundled in a process called wet spinning, they become thread-like fibers about a quarter the width of a human hair.

“We developed these fibers as high-strength, high-conductivity materials,” Pasquali said. “Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realized that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk. Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”

The simultaneous arrival in 2012 of Caleb Kemere, a Rice assistant professor who brought expertise in animal models of Parkinson’s disease, and lead author Flavia Vitale, a research scientist in Pasquali’s lab with degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering, prompted the investigation.

“The brain is basically the consistency of pudding and doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes,” Kemere said. “The dream is to have electrodes with the same consistency, and that’s why we’re really excited about these flexible carbon nanotube fibers and their long-term biocompatibility.”

Weeks-long tests on cells and then in rats with Parkinson’s symptoms proved the fibers are stable and as efficient as commercial platinum electrodes at only a fraction of the size. The soft fibers caused little inflammation, which helped maintain strong electrical connections to neurons by preventing the body’s defenses from scarring and encapsulating the site of the injury.

The highly conductive carbon nanotube fibers also show much more favorable impedance – the quality of the electrical connection — than state-of-the-art metal electrodes, making for better contact at lower voltages over long periods, Kemere said.

The working end of the fiber is the exposed tip, which is about the width of a neuron. The rest is encased with a three-micron layer of a flexible, biocompatible polymer with excellent insulating properties.

The challenge is in placing the tips. “That’s really just a matter of having a brain atlas, and during the experiment adjusting the electrodes very delicately and putting them into the right place,” said Kemere, whose lab studies ways to connect signal-processing systems and the brain’s memory and cognitive centers.

Doctors who implant deep brain stimulation devices start with a recording probe able to “listen” to neurons that emit characteristic signals depending on their functions, Kemere said. Once a surgeon finds the right spot, the probe is removed and the stimulating electrode gently inserted. Rice carbon nanotube fibers that send and receive signals would simplify implantation, Vitale said.

The fibers could lead to self-regulating therapeutic devices for Parkinson’s and other patients. Current devices include an implant that sends electrical signals to the brain to calm the tremors that afflict Parkinson’s patients.

“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Vitale said. “Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”

Kemere foresees a closed-loop system that can read neuronal signals and adapt stimulation therapy in real time. He anticipates building a device with many electrodes that can be addressed individually to gain fine control over stimulation and monitoring from a small, implantable device.

“Interestingly, conductivity is not the most important electrical property of the nanotube fibers,” Pasquali said. “These fibers are intrinsically porous and extremely stable, which are both great advantages over metal electrodes for sensing electrochemical signals and maintaining performance over long periods of time.”

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

Neural Stimulation and Recording with Bidirectional, Soft Carbon Nanotube Fiber Microelectrodes by Flavia Vitale, Samantha R. Summerson, Behnaam Aazhang, Caleb Kemere, and Matteo Pasquali. ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01060 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

The paper is open access provided you register on the website.

Remote control for stimulation of the brain

Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and freelance science writer, has written a March 24, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network focusing on neuronal remote control,

Two teams of scientists have developed new ways of stimulating neurons with nanoparticles, allowing them to activate brain cells remotely using light or magnetic fields. The new methods are quicker and far less invasive than other hi-tech methods available, so could be more suitable for potential new treatments for human diseases.

Researchers have various methods for manipulating brain cell activity, arguably the most powerful being optogenetics, which enables them to switch specific brain cells on or off with unprecedented precision, and simultaneously record their behaviour, using pulses of light.

This is very useful for probing neural circuits and behaviour, but involves first creating genetically engineered mice with light-sensitive neurons, and then inserting the optical fibres that deliver light into the brain, so there are major technical and ethical barriers to its use in humans.

Nanomedicine could get around this. Francisco Bezanilla of the University of Chicago and his colleagues knew that gold nanoparticles can absorb light and convert it into heat, and several years ago they discovered that infrared light can make neurons fire nervous impulses by heating up their cell membranes.

Polina Anikeeva’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a slightly different approach, using spherical iron oxide particles that give off heat when exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

Although still in the experimental stages, research like this may eventually allow for wireless and minimally invasive deep brain stimulation of the human brain. Bezanilla’s group aim to apply their method to develop treatments for macular degeneration and other conditions that kill off light-sensitive cells in the retina. This would involve injecting nanoparticles into the eye so that they bind to other retinal cells, allowing natural light to excite them into firing impulses to the optic nerve.

Costandi’s article is intended for an audience that either understands the science or can deal with the uncertainty of not understanding absolutely everything. Provided you fall into either of those categories, the article is well written and it provides links and citations to the papers for both research teams being featured.

Taken together, the research at EPFL, Rice University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides a clue as to how much money and intellectual power is being directed at the brain.

* EurekAlert link added on March 26, 2015.

New ways to think about water

This post features two items about water both of which suggest we should reconsider our ideas about it. This first item concerns hydrogen bonds and coordinated vibrations. From a July 16 2014 news item on Azonano,

Using a newly developed, ultrafast femtosecond infrared light source, chemists at the University of Chicago have been able to directly visualize the coordinated vibrations between hydrogen-bonded molecules — the first time this sort of chemical interaction, which is found in nature everywhere at the molecular level, has been directly visualized. They describe their experimental techniques and observations in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP [American Institute of Physics] Publishing.

“These two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy techniques provide a new avenue to directly visualize both hydrogen bond partners,” said Andrei Tokmakoff, the lab’s primary investigator. “They have the spectral content and bandwidth to really interrogate huge parts of the vibrational spectrum of molecules. It’s opened up the ability to look at how very different types of vibrations on different molecules interact with one another.”

A July 15, 2014 AIP news release by John Arnst (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Tokmakoff and his colleagues sought to use two-dimensional infrared spectroscopy to directly characterize structural parameters such as intermolecular distances and hydrogen-bonding configurations, as this information can be encoded in intermolecular cross-peaks that spectroscopy detects between solute-solvent vibrations.

“You pluck on the bonds of one molecule and watch how it influences the other,” Tokmakoff said. “In our experiment, you’re basically plucking on both because they’re so strongly bound.”

Hydrogen bonds are typically perceived as the attractive force between the slightly negative and slightly positive ends of neutrally-charged molecules, such as water. While water stands apart with its unique polar properties, hydrogen bonds can form between a wide range of molecules containing electronegative atoms and range from weakly polar to nearly covalent in strength. Hydrogen bonding plays a key role in the action of large, biologically-relevant molecules and is often an important element in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals.

For their initial visualizations, Tokmakoff’s group used N-methylacetamide, a molecule called a peptide that forms medium-strength hydrogen-bonded dimers in organic solution due to its polar nitrogen-hydrogen and carbon-oxygen tails. By using a targeted three-pulse sequence of mid-infrared light and apparatus described in their article, Tokmakoff’s group was able to render the vibrational patterns of the two peptide units.

“All of the internal vibrations of hydrogen bonded molecules that we look at become intertwined, inextricably; you can’t think of them as just a simple sum of two parts,” Tokmakoff said.

More research is being planned while Tokmakoff suggests that water must be rethought from an atomistic perspective (from the news release),

Future work in Tokmakoff’s group involves visualizing the dynamics and structure of water around biological molecules such as proteins and DNA.

“You can’t just think of the water as sort of an amorphous solvent, you really have to at least on some level think of it atomistically and treat it that way,” Tokmakoff said. “And if you believe that, it has huge consequences all over the place, particularly in biology, where so much computational biology ignores the fact that water has real structure and real quantum mechanical properties of its own.”

The researchers have provided an illustration of hydrogen’s vibrating bonds,

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison. CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

The hydrogen-bonding interaction causes the atoms on each individual N-methylacetamide molecule to vibrate in unison.
CREDIT: L. De Marco/UChicago

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

Direct observation of intermolecular interactions mediated by hydrogen bonding by Luigi De Marco, Martin Thämer, Mike Reppert, and Andrei Tokmakoff. J. Chem. Phys. 141, 034502 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4885145

This paper is open access. (I was able to view the entire HTML version.)

A July 15, 2014 University of Southampton press release on EurekAlert offers another surprise about water,

University of Southampton researchers have found that rainwater can penetrate below the Earth’s fractured upper crust, which could have major implications for our understanding of earthquakes and the generation of valuable mineral deposits.

The reason that water’s ability to penetrate below the earth’s upper crust is a surprise (from the news release),

It had been thought that surface water could not penetrate the ductile crust – where temperatures of more than 300°C and high pressures cause rocks to flex and flow rather than fracture – but researchers, led by Southampton’s Dr Catriona Menzies, have now found fluids derived from rainwater at these levels.

The news release also covers the implications of this finding,

Fluids in the Earth’s crust can weaken rocks and may help to initiate earthquakes along locked fault lines. They also concentrate valuable metals such as gold. The new findings suggest that rainwater may be responsible for controlling these important processes, even deep in the Earth.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, GNS Science (New Zealand), the University of Otago, and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre studied geothermal fluids and mineral veins from the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where the collision of two tectonic plates forces deeper layers of the earth closer to the surface.

The team looked into the origin of the fluids, how hot they were and to what extent they had reacted with rocks deep within the mountain belt.

“When fluids flow through the crust they leave behind deposits of minerals that contain a small amount of water trapped within them,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Catriona, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre. “We have analysed these waters and minerals to identify where the fluids deep in the crust came from.

“Fluids may come from a variety of sources in the crust. In the Southern Alps fluids may flow upwards from deep in the crust, where they are released from hot rocks by metamorphic reactions, or rainwater may flow down from the surface, forced by the high mountains above. We wanted to test the limits of where rainwater may flow in the crust. Although it has been suggested before, our data shows for the first time that rainwater does penetrate into rocks that are too deep and hot to fracture.”

Surface-derived waters reaching such depths are heated to over 400°C and significantly react with crustal rocks. However, through testing the researchers were able to establish the water’s meteoric origin.

Funding for this research, which has been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, was provided by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC). Catriona and her team are now looking further at the implications of their findings in relation to earthquake cycles as part of the international Deep Fault Drilling Project [DFDP], which aims to drill a hole through the Alpine Fault at a depth of about 1km later this year.

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

Incursion of meteoric waters into the ductile regime in an active orogen by Catriona D. Menzies, Damon A.H. Teagle, Dave Craw, Simon C. Cox, Adrian J. Boyce, Craig D. Barrie, and Stephen Roberts. Earth and Planetary Science Letters Volume 399, 1 August 2014, Pages 1–13 DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2014.04.046

Open Access funded by Natural Environment Research Council

This is the first time I’ve seen the funding agency which made the paper’s open access status possible cited.

From the quantum to the cosmos; an event at Vancouver’s (Canada) Science World

ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers & Professionals in Western Canada) sent out an April 9, 2014 announcement,

FROM THE QUANTUM TO THE COSMOS

May 7 [2014] “Unveiling the Universe” lecture registration now open:

Join Science World and TRIUMF on Wednesday, May 7, at Science World at TELUS World of Science in welcoming Professor Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, for his lecture on how the laws of quantum physics at the tiniest distances relate to structures in the universe at the largest scales. He also will highlight recent spectacular results into the nature of the Big Bang from the orbiting Planck satellite and the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope.

Doors open at 6:15pm and lecture starts at 7pm. It will be followed by an audience Q&A session.

Tickets are free but registration is required. Details on the registration page (link below)
See http://www.eventbrite.ca/o/unveiling-the-universe-lecture-series-2882137721?s=23658359 for more information.

You can go here to the Science World website for more details and another link for tickets,

Join Science World, TRIUMF and guest speaker Dr Rocky Kolb on Wednesday, May 7 [2014], for another free Unveiling the Universe public lecture about the inner space/outer space connection that may hold the key to understanding the nature of dark matter, dark energy and the mysterious seeds of structure that grew to produce everything we see in the cosmos.

I notice Kolb is associated with the Fermi Lab, which coincidentally is where TRIUMF’s former director, Nigel Lockyer is currently located. You can find out more about Kolb on his personal webpage, where I found this description from his repertoire of talks,

Mysteries of the Dark Universe
Ninety-five percent of the universe is missing! Astronomical observations suggest that most of the mass of the universe is in a mysterious form called dark matter and most of the energy in the universe is in an even more mysterious form called dark energy. Unlocking the secrets of dark matter and dark energy will illuminate the nature of space and time and connect the quantum with the cosmos.

Perhaps this along with the next bit gives you a clearer idea of what Kolb will be discussing. He will also be speaking at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory of particle and nuclear physics, from the events page,

Wed ,2014-05-07    14:00    Colloquium    Rocky Kolb, Fermilab     Auditorium    The Decade of the WIMP
Abstract:    The bulk of the matter in the present universe is dark. The most attractive possibility for the nature of the dark matter is a new species of elementary particle known as a WIMP (a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle). After a discussion of how a WIMP might fit into models of particle physics, I will review the current situation with respect to direct detection, indirect detection, and collider production of WIMPs. Rapid advances in the field should enable us to answer by the end of the decade whether our universe is dominated by WIMPs.

You may want to get your tickets soon as other lectures in the Unveiling the Universe series have gone quickly.

Water desalination to be researched at Oman’s newly opened Nanotechnology Laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University

Before getting to the news, here’s some information (for those who may not be familiar with the country) about the Sultanate of Oman and why this water desalination project is very important. From the Oman Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Oman (Listeni/oʊˈmɑːn/ oh-MAAN; Arabic: عمان‎ ʻUmān), officially called the Sultanate of Oman (Arabic: سلطنة عُمان‎ Salṭanat ʻUmān), is an Arab state in southwest Asia on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It has a strategically important position at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It is bordered by the United Arab Emirates to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west, and Yemen to the southwest and also shares a marine border with Iran. The coast is formed by the Arabian Sea on the southeast and the Gulf of Oman on the northeast. The Madha and Musandam exclaves are surrounded by the UAE on their land borders, with the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman forming Musandam’s coastal boundaries.

From the 17th century, Oman had its own empire, and vied with Portugal and Britain for influence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. At its peak in the 19th century, Omani influence or control extended across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran, and modern-day Pakistan, and as far south as Zanzibar.[7] As its power declined in the 20th century, the sultanate came under heavy influence from the United Kingdom, though Oman was never formally part of the British Empire, or a British protectorate.

Oman has a hot climate and very little rainfall. Annual rainfall in Muscat averages 100 mm (3.9 in), falling mostly in January. The Dhofar Mountains area receives seasonal rainfall (from late June to late September) as a result of the monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean saturated with cool moisture and heavy fog.[39] The mountain areas receive more plentiful rainfall, and annual rainfall on the higher parts of the Jabal Akhdar probably exceeds 400 mm (15.7 in).[40] Some parts of the coast, particularly near the island of Masirah, sometimes receive no rain at all within the course of a year. The climate generally is very hot, with temperatures reaching around 50 °C (122.0 °F) (peak) in the hot season, from May to September.

The Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Information’s Omanet.om website offers this about water (from the Water webpage),

Oman is in the world’s arid belt and depends on groundwater and its limited rainfall . The demand for water continues to rise.   A national water resources conservation plan has been drawn up to further rationalise and improve water consumption practices and explore for new groundwater reserves. The Sultanate now has a complete, up-to-date and properly documented database covering all the country’s available and potential water resources, together with details of their status and conditions. Studies on new ways of rationalising water consumption are ongoing.

 Water Resources Management

The approach here is the emphasis on making judicious use of available water resources and reducing waste.

The management plan includes:

Reduction of water loss to the sea or desert

Providing potable water in communities

Developing and improving aflaj systems

Intensification of studies

Changing land use in some regions

Increasing recovery rates of water loss

Implementation of awareness programs

The fact that there is a Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC)suggests an important problem especially in this region. (If you know of any collaborative water projects for other regions, please do let me know about them in the Comments.) From the MEDRC homepage,

MEDRC is a Center of Excellence in Desalination and Water  Reuse Technology established in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, December 1996.

MEDRC Mission Statement

The mission of MEDRC is to contribute to the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa by promoting and supporting the use of desalination to satisfy the needs of the people of this region for available, affordable, clean fresh water for human use and economic development. This is done through the advancement of desalination technology, education in the technology and training in its use, technology transfer, technical assistance, and building cooperation between nations to form the joint projects and international relationships necessary to meet the needs for fresh water.

The Peace Process to resolve the issues of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority that have troubled the Middle East for almost a century included the establishment of MEDRC to assist in meeting the fresh water needs of the parties involved. This is still the first priority of MEDRC. However, MEDRC’s activities extend to and benefit the entire region and beyond. MEDRC is advancing the use of desalination and waste water reuse thru regional and international cooperation to overcome current and future world water supply deficiencies.

The MEDRC also has a 6 pp. PDF titled: Overview on Desalinated Water in the Sultanate of Oman. So this news about a nanotechnology lab opening in Oman which is focused on water desalination is big news, from the Feb. 19, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The Nanotechnology laboratory at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman, as a part of The Research Council (TRC ) Chair in Nanotechnology for Water Desalination, was officially opened yesterday under the patronage of Dr Hilal bin Ali al Hinai, Secretary-General of TRC. The state-of-the-art laboratory of the TRC Chair, contains wet-chemistry facilities and analytical equipment rooms, and has been built in a single workspace on the College of Engineering premises. Talking about the activities of the Chair in terms of research and related activities, Prof Joydeep Dutta, the Chair Professor, said that research and development focused on the application of nanoparticles, nanomaterials and desalination processes.

A Feb. 18, 2014 news item in the Oman Observer provides additional detail,

“The Chair aims at innovative research suited to the region, education and training of highly qualified personnel and in increasing public and industrial awareness of nanotechnology, amongst others. The current research group is involved in developing applications that address the needs of those who are without — clean drinking water, cheap energy, unspoiled food and the other necessities required to provide for a decent living. The Chair is focusing on dedicated research and development issues addressing water desalination-both of seawater as well as brackish water”, he said. At present, a few broad themes for research were identified in consultation with the technical committee and work is continuing along these themes. The research themes are “Designer metal-oxide nanostructures”, “Capacitive desalination with functionalised nanostructures”, “Condensation induced renewable desalting”, and “Functionalised micro or nano membranes”.

The unifying concept in the laboratory is to make use of inexpensive wet-chemical methods to fabricate innovative materials and futuristic device components with an eye on its application in water desalination and water treatment. …

Although dated Feb. 19, 2014, a news release on the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) website appears to have originated the news item on the Nanowerk website and on the Osman Observer website.

I have previously written about water in the Middle East within the context of a June 25, 2013 post regarding a research collaboration between the University of Chicago and Ben Gurion University in Israel. I managed to include a bit about Palestine and its very serious water problem (the Gaza’s sole aquifer may be unusable by 2016) in that post, about 3/4 of the way down.

Nanotechnology-enabled water resource collaboraton between Israel and Chicago

A June 25, 2013 news item on Azonano describes a collaborative agreement between the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) to work together and fund nanotechnology-enabled solutions for more water in the Middle East and elsewhere,

The University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will begin funding a series of ambitious research collaborations that apply the latest discoveries in nanotechnology to create new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020.

The announcement came June 23 following a meeting in Jerusalem among Israeli President Shimon Peres, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi and leading scientists in the field. The joint projects will explore innovative solutions at the water-energy nexus, developing more efficient ways of using water to produce energy and using energy to treat and deliver clean water.

There are more details in the June 23, 2013 University of Chicago news release, which originated the news item (Note: Links have been removed),

The University of Chicago also brings to the effort two powerful research partners already committed to clean water research: the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

“We feel it is critical to bring outstanding scientists together to address water resource challenges that are being felt around the world, and will only become more acute over time,” said Zimmer. “Our purification challenges in the Great Lakes region right now are different from some of the scarcity issues some of our colleagues at Ben-Gurion are addressing, but our combined experience will be a tremendous asset in turning early-stage technologies into innovative solutions that may have applications far beyond local issues.”

“Clean, plentiful water is a strategic issue in the Middle East and the world at large, and a central research focus of our university for more than three decades,” said Carmi. “We believe that this partnership will enhance state-of-the-art science in both universities, while having a profound effect on the sustainable availability of clean water to people around the globe.”

The first wave of research proposals include fabricating new materials tailored to remove contaminants, bacteria, viruses and salt from drinking water at a fraction of the cost of current technologies; biological engineering that will help plants maximize their own drought-resistance mechanisms; and polymers that can change the water retention properties of soil in agriculture.

UChicago, BGU and Argonne have jointly committed more than $1 million in seed money over the next two years to support inaugural projects, with the first projects getting under way this fall.

One proposed project would attempt to devise multi-functional and anti-fouling membranes for water purification. These membranes, engineered at the molecular level, could be switched or tuned to remove a wide range of biological and chemical contaminants and prevent the formation of membrane-fouling bacterial films. Keeping those membranes free of fouling would extend their useful lives and decrease energy usage while reducing the operational cost of purifying water.

Another proposal focuses on developing polymers for soil infusion or seed coatings to promote water retention. Such polymers conjure visions of smart landscapes that can substantially promote agricultural growth while reducing irrigation needs.

Officials from both the U.S. and Israel hailed the collaboration as an example of the potential for collaborative innovation that can improve quality of life and boost economic vitality.

You can read more about the University of Chicago’s March 8, 2013 memorandum of understanding with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in this March 19,2013 University of Chicago news article by Steve Koppes.

Sidenote: In early May 2013, internationally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking participated in an ‘academic’ boycott of Israel over its position on Palestine. The May 9, 2013 article, Stephen Hawking: Furore deepens over Israel boycott, by Harriet Sherwood, Matthew Kalman, and Sam Jones for the Guardian newspaper reveals some of the content of Hawking’s letter to the organizers and his reasons for participating in the boycott,

Hawking, a world-renowned scientist and bestselling author who has had motor neurone disease for 50 years, cancelled his appearance at the high-profile Presidential Conference, which is personally sponsored by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, after a barrage of appeals from Palestinian academics.

The full text of the letter [from Hawking], dated 3 May, said: “I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

But Palestinians welcomed Hawking’s decision. “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”

Steve Caplan in a May 13, 2013 piece (Occam’s Corner hosted by the Guardian) explained why he profoundly disagreed with Hawking’s position (Note: Links have been removed),

My respect for Hawking as a scientist and person of enormous courage has made my dismay at his recent decision all the greater. In these very virtual pages I have previously opined on the folly of imposing an academic boycott on Israel. The UK, which sports many of the supporters of this policy – dubiously known as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – also appears to be particularly fertile ground for anti-Semitism. To what degree British anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel BDS lobby and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies are related is an inordinately complex question, but it is clear that anti-Semitism plays a role among some BDS supporters.

The decision by Hawking to join the boycotters of Israel and Israeli academics is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the conference is being hosted in honor of the 90th birthday of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. More than any other Israeli leader, Peres has been committed to negotiations and comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. At 90, despite his figurehead position, Peres remains steadfastly optimistic in his relentless goal of a fair two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

Caplan’s summary of how the ‘Palestine problem’ was created and how we got to the current state of affairs is one of most the clear-headed I’ve seen,

Pinning the blame on one side with a propaganda machine and a sleeve full of slogans is easy to do, but there is nothing simple or straightforward about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the very birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the mode by which the Palestinian refugee problem was created has been debated intensely by historians. There is little question that a combination of intimidation by Israelis and acquiescence of the refugees to calls by Palestinian and Arab leaders to flee (and return with the victorious Arab armies) were the major causes of Palestinian uprooting.

To what degree was each side responsible? The Palestinians and Arab countries initiated the war in 1948, vetoing by force the United Nations Partition Plan to divide the country between Israelis and Palestinians – in an attempt to prevent any Jewish state from arising. And at the time, Israelis doubtlessly showed little concern at the growing numbers of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes. And later, after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis displayed poor judgment (that unfortunately continues to this day) in allowing her citizens to build settlements in these conquered territories.

Both sides have suffered from poor leadership over the years.

Caplan also discusses the relationship between Israel’s government and its academics as he explains why he is opposed academic boycotts,

… in any case, Israeli academics and scientists are neither government mouthpieces nor puppets. There have frequently been serious disagreements between the government and the universities in Israel, highlighting the independence of Israel’s academic institutions. One such example is the Israeli government’s decision last year to upgrade the status of a college built in Ariel – a town inside the West Bank – to that of a university. This was vehemently opposed by Israel’s institutions of higher learning (and by perhaps 50% of the general population).

A second example is the unsuccessful attempt by the Israeli government to shut down Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government – which was attacked for its leftist views. The rallying opposition and petition by Israeli academics across the country who warned of the danger to academic freedom helped prevent the department’s closure.

You’ll note the reference to Ben-Gurion University in that last paragraph excerpted from Caplan’s piece, which brings this posting back to where it started, collaboration between two universities to come up with solutions that address problems with access to water. In the end, I am inclined to agree with Caplan that we need to open up and maintain the lines of communication.

ETA June 27, 2013: There is no hint in the University of Chicago news releases that these water projects will benefit any parties other than Israel and the US but it is tempting to hope that this work might also have an impact in Palestine given its current water crisis there as described in a June 26, 2013 news item in the World Bulletin (Note: Links have been removed),

A tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, the Gaza Strip is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave unliveable in just a few years.

With 90-95 percent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents.

But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 percent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished Gaza Strip to buy bottled water at a premium.

“There is a crisis. There is a serious deficit in the water resources in Gaza and there is a serious deterioration in the water quality,” said Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).

A NASA study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic km of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount of water held in the Dead Sea – making an already bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the United Nations warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020.

H/T June 26, 2013 Reuters news item.