Tag Archives: University of Toronto

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


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.


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.

Discovering how the liver prevents nanoparticles from reaching cancer cells

There’s a lot of excitement about nanoparticles as enabling a precise drug delivery system but to date results have been disappointing as a team of researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) noted recently (see my April 27, 2016 posting). According to those researchers, one of the main problems with the proposed nanoparticle drug delivery system is that we don’t understand how the body delivers materials to cells and disappointingly few nanoparticles (less than 1%) make their way to tumours. That situation may be changing.

An Aug. 19, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the latest research from the University of Toronto,

The emerging field of nanomedicine holds great promise in the battle against cancer. Particles the size of protein molecules can be customized to carry tumour-targeting drugs and destroy cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.

But here’s the problem: when nanoparticles are administered into the body, more than 99 per cent of them become trapped in non-targeted organs, such as the liver and spleen. These nanoparticles are not delivered to the site of action to carry out their intended function.

To solve this problem, researchers at the University of Toronto and the University Health Network have figured out how the liver and spleen trap intact nanoparticles as they move through the organ. “If you want to unlock the promise of nanoparticles, you have to understand and solve the problem of the liver,” says Dr. Ian McGilvray, a transplant surgeon at the Toronto General Hospital and scientist at the Toronto General Research Institute (TGRI).

An Aug. 15, 2016 University of Toronto news release by Luke Ng, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

In a recent paper in the journal Nature Materials, the researchers say that as nanoparticles move through the liver sinusoid, the flow rate slows down 1,000 times, which increases the interaction of the nanoparticles all of types of liver cells. This was a surprising finding because the current thought is that Kupffer cells, responsible for toxin breakdown in the liver, are the ones that gobbles [sic] up the particles.  This study found that liver B-cells and liver sinusoidal endothelial cells are also involved and that the cell phenotype also matters.

“We know that the liver is the principle organ controlling what gets absorbed by our bodies and what gets filtered out—it governs our everyday biological functions,” says Dr. Kim Tsoi (… [and] research partner Sonya MacParland), a U of T orthopaedic surgery resident, and a first author of the paper, who completed her PhD in biomedical engineering with Warren Chan (IBBME). “But nanoparticle drug delivery is a newer approach and we haven’t had a clear picture of how they interact with the liver—until now.”

Tsoi and MacParland first examined both the speed and location of their engineered nanoparticles as they moved through the liver.

“This gives us a target to focus on,” says MacParland, an immunology post-doctoral fellow at U of T and TGRI. “Knowing the specific cells to modify will allow us to eventually deliver more of the nanoparticles to their intended target, attacking only the pathogens or tumours, while bypassing healthy cells.”

“Many prior studies that have tried to reduce nanomaterial clearance in the liver have focused on the particle design itself,” says Chan. “But our work now gives greater insight into the biological mechanisms underpinning our experimental observations — now we hope to use our fundamental findings to help design nanoparticles that work with the body, rather than against it.”

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

Mechanism of hard-nanomaterial clearance by the liver by Kim M. Tsoi, Sonya A. MacParland, Xue-Zhong Ma, Vinzent N. Spetzler, Juan Echeverri, Ben Ouyang, Saleh M. Fadel, Edward A. Sykes, Nicolas Goldaracena, Johann M. Kaths, John B. Conneely, Benjamin A. Alman, Markus Selzner, Mario A. Ostrowski, Oyedele A. Adeyi, Anton Zilman, Ian D. McGilvray, & Warren C. W. Chan. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4718 Published online 15 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

The Cabinet Project: a call for proposals from Canada’s ArtSci Salon

Thanks to my colleague, Raewyn Turner (artist, New Zealand) for information about this call for proposals. BTW, she and I are talking about putting our own proposal forward but the deadline is Sept. 30, 2016, which isn’t all that far away.

The ArtSci Salon; A Hub for the Arts & Science communities in Toronto and Beyond is soliciting proposals for ‘The Cabinet Project; An artsci exhibition about cabinets‘ to be held *March 30 – May 1* 2017 at the University of Toronto in a series of ‘science cabinets’ found around campus,

Despite being in full sight, many cabinets and showcases at universities and scientific institutions lie empty or underutilized. Located at the entrance of science departments, in proximity of laboratories, or in busy areas of transition, some contain outdated posters, or dusty scientific objects that have been forgotten there for years. Others lie empty, like old furniture on the curb after a move, waiting for a lucky passer-by in need. The ceaseless flow of bodies walking past these cabinets – some running to meetings, some checking their schedule, some immersed in their thoughts – rarely pay attention to them.

The neglect of these cabinets seems to confirm well-established ideas about science institutions as recluse spaces where secrecy reigns, and communication with the outside world is either underappreciated or prohibited. But at a closer look, this is not the case: those seemingly ignored and neglected cabinets have fascinating and compelling stories that speak to their mobility, their past uses and their owners; laboratories in their proximity burst of excitement and boredom, frustration and euphoria, their machineries being constantly fabricated, rethought, dismantled or replaced; in these laboratories, individuals, objects and instruments come to life in complicated ways. These objects, human relations and stories are forming complex ecologies that are very much alive.

Here are the objectives (from the Project page),

The Cabinet project seeks to explore and to bring to life historical, anecdotal and imagined stories evoked by scientific objects, their surrounding space and the individuals that inhabit them. The goal is to reflect on, and reverse the stereotypical assumptions about science as inaccessible and secretive, to make the intense creativity existing inside science laboratories visible, and to suggest potential interactions between the sciences and the arts.

We invite artists, scientists and other creative individuals to turn a select number of cabinets across the University of Toronto into small-scale installations. Interventions can use a variety of media and material and engage with a number of disciplines.

The resulting distributed exhibition ( March 2017) will feature dialogues between art and science that engage with objects and instruments created in nearby science labs.

Before you send your proposal, make sure to check the location/size of the cabinets, as well as the UTSIC collection.
Please come back often as more cabinets are added

There’s also the Call for Proposals (from the Project page),

Artists are invited to populate a variety of cabinets around the St. George Campus at the University of Toronto with artworks that

  • interact with objects and instruments that have been fabricated or used in the labs nearby;
  • engage with the history of the cabinets (how they got there, who donated them, what was their initial purpose etc..);
  • narrate imaginary or science fictional stories about the cabinets, the labs in their proximity and the mysterious objects they have produced in the past or are currently producing.

Of course, these are only suggested scenarios. Please, contact us if you have a particular request or idea.

We request that you fill in the online proposal below with a 250 words MAX description, accompanied by 3-4 images that meaningfully describe your work. Please, specify your goals, how you plan to interact with certain objects or a particular environment, and how you plan to install your work, using which media etc..  This project assumes that a meaningful interaction with the surrounding context is established.

The application form is here. Don’t forget to go to the Project page for a list of cabinets and the deadline is Sept. 30, 2016. Good luck to us all!

*’March’ replaced by ‘March 30 – May 1’ on S.1.16 at 1420 PDT.

Vitamin-driven lithium-ion battery from the University of Toronto

It seems vitamins aren’t just good for health, they’re also good for batteries. My Aug. 2, 2016 post on vitamins and batteries focused on work from Harvard, this time the work is from the University of Toronto (Canada). From an Aug. 3, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A team of University of Toronto chemists has created a battery that stores energy in a biologically derived unit, paving the way for cheaper consumer electronics that are easier on the environment.

The battery is similar to many commercially-available high-energy lithium-ion batteries with one important difference. It uses flavin from vitamin B2 as the cathode: the part that stores the electricity that is released when connected to a device.

“We’ve been looking to nature for a while to find complex molecules for use in a number of consumer electronics applications,” says Dwight Seferos, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Polymer Nanotechnology.

“When you take something made by nature that is already complex, you end up spending less time making new material,” says Seferos.

An Aug. 2, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Peter McMahon, which originated the news item, explains further,

To understand the discovery, it’s important to know that modern batteries contain three basic parts:

  • a positive terminal – the metal part that touches devices to power them – connected to a cathode inside the battery casing
  • a negative terminal connected to an anode inside the battery casing
  • an electrolyte solution, in which ions can travel between the cathode and anode electrodes

When a battery is connected to a phone, iPod, camera or other device that requires power, electrons flow from the anode – the negatively charged electrode of the device supplying current – out to the device, then into the cathode and ions migrate through the electrolyte solution to balance the charge. When connected to a charger, this process happens in reverse.

The reaction in the anode creates electrons and the reaction in the cathode absorbs them when discharging. The net product is electricity. The battery will continue to produce electricity until one or both of the electrodes run out of the substance necessary for the reactions to occur.

Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego

While bio-derived battery parts have been created previously, this is the first one that uses bio-derived polymers – long-chain molecules – for one of the electrodes, essentially allowing battery energy to be stored in a vitamin-created plastic, instead of costlier, harder to process, and more environmentally-harmful metals such as cobalt.

“Getting the right material evolved over time and definitely took some test reactions,” says paper co-author and doctoral student Tyler Schon. “In a lot of ways, it looked like this could have failed. It definitely took a lot of perseverance.”

Schon, Seferos and colleagues happened upon the material while testing a variety of long-chain polymers – specifically pendant group polymers: the molecules attached to a ‘backbone’ chain of a long molecule.

“Organic chemistry is kind of like Lego,” he says. “You put things together in a certain order, but some things that look like they’ll fit together on paper don’t in reality. We tried a few approaches and the fifth one worked,” says Seferos.

Building a better power pack

The team created the material from vitamin B2 that originates in genetically-modified fungi using a semi-synthetic process to prepare the polymer by linking two flavin units to a long-chain molecule backbone.

This allows for a green battery with high capacity and high voltage – something increasingly important as the ‘Internet of Things’ continues to link us together more and more through our battery-powered portable devices.

“It’s a pretty safe, natural compound,” Seferos adds. “If you wanted to, you could actually eat the source material it comes from.”

B2’s ability to be reduced and oxidized makes its well-suited for a lithium ion battery.

“B2 can accept up to two electrons at a time,” says Seferos. “This makes it easy to take multiple charges and have a high capacity compared to a lot of other available molecules.”

A step to greener electronics

“It’s been a lot of trial-and-error,” says Schon. “Now we’re looking to design new variants that can be recharged again and again.”

While the current prototype is on the scale of a hearing aid battery, the team hopes their breakthrough could lay the groundwork for powerful, thin, flexible, and even transparent metal-free batteries that could support the next wave of consumer electronics.

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

Bio-Derived Polymers for Sustainable Lithium-Ion Batteries by Tyler B. Schon, Andrew J. Tilley, Colin R. Bridges, Mark B. Miltenburg, and Dwight S. Seferos. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201602114 Version of Record online: 14 JUL 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

D-PLACE: an open access database of places, language, culture, and enviroment

In an attempt to be a bit more broad in my interpretation of the ‘society’ part of my commentary I’m including this July 8, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

An international team of researchers has developed a website at d-place.org to help answer long-standing questions about the forces that shaped human cultural diversity.

D-PLACE — the Database of Places, Language, Culture and Environment — is an expandable, open access database that brings together a dispersed body of information on the language, geography, culture and environment of more than 1,400 human societies. It comprises information mainly on pre-industrial societies that were described by ethnographers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A July 8, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Human cultural diversity is expressed in numerous ways: from the foods we eat and the houses we build, to our religious practices and political organisation, to who we marry and the types of games we teach our children,” said Kathryn Kirby, a postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Geography at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study. “Cultural practices vary across space and time, but the factors and processes that drive cultural change and shape patterns of diversity remain largely unknown.

“D-PLACE will enable a whole new generation of scholars to answer these long-standing questions about the forces that have shaped human cultural diversity.”

Co-author Fiona Jordan, senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Bristol and one of the project leads said, “Comparative research is critical for understanding the processes behind cultural diversity. Over a century of anthropological research around the globe has given us a rich resource for understanding the diversity of humanity – but bringing different resources and datasets together has been a huge challenge in the past.

“We’ve drawn on the emerging big data sets from ecology, and combined these with cultural and linguistic data so researchers can visualise diversity at a glance, and download data to analyse in their own projects.”

D-PLACE allows users to search by cultural practice (e.g., monogamy vs. polygamy), environmental variable (e.g. elevation, mean annual temperature), language family (e.g. Indo-European, Austronesian), or region (e.g. Siberia). The search results can be displayed on a map, a language tree or in a table, and can also be downloaded for further analysis.

It aims to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions.

D-PLACE was developed by an international team of scientists interested in cross-cultural research. It includes researchers from Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human history in Jena Germany, University of Auckland, Colorado State University, University of Toronto, University of Bristol, Yale, Human Relations Area Files, Washington University in Saint Louis, University of Michigan, American Museum of Natural History, and City University of New York.

The diverse team included: linguists; anthropologists; biogeographers; data scientists; ethnobiologists; and evolutionary ecologists, who employ a variety of research methods including field-based primary data collection; compilation of cross-cultural data sources; and analyses of existing cross-cultural datasets.

“The team’s diversity is reflected in D-PLACE, which is designed to appeal to a broad user base,” said Kirby. “Envisioned users range from members of the public world-wide interested in comparing their cultural practices with those of other groups, to cross-cultural researchers interested in pushing the boundaries of existing research into the drivers of cultural change.”

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

D-PLACE: A Global Database of Cultural, Linguistic and Environmental Diversity by Kathryn R. Kirby, Russell D. Gray, Simon J. Greenhill, Fiona M. Jordan, Stephanie Gomes-Ng, Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Damián E. Blasi, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Dan Leehr, Bobbi S. Low, Joe McCarter, William Divale, Michael C. Gavin.  PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0158391 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0158391 Published July 8, 2016.

This paper is open access.

You can find D-PLACE here.

While it might not seem like that there would be a close link between anthropology and physics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that information can be mined for more contemporary applications. For example, someone who wants to make a case for a more diverse scientific community may want to develop a social science approach to the discussion. The situation in my June 16, 2016 post titled: Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons, could  be extended into a discussion and educational process using data from D-Place and other sources to make the point,

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

More generally, with D-PLACE and the recently announced Trans-Atlantic Platform (see my July 15, 2016 post about it), it seems Canada’s humanities and social sciences communities are taking strides toward greater international collaboration and a more profound investment in digital scholarship.

Taking DNA beyond genetics with living computers and nanobots

You might want to keep a salt shaker with you while reading a June 7, 2016 essay by Matteo Palma (Queen Mary’s University of London) about nanotechnology and DNA on The Conversation website (h/t June 7, 2016 news item on Nanowerk).

This is not a ‘hype’ piece as Palma backs every claim with links to the research while providing a good overview of some very exciting work but the mood is a bit euphoric so you may want to keep the earlier mentioned salt shaker nearby.

Palma offers a very nice beginner introduction especially helpful for someone who only half-remembers their high school biology (from the June 7, 2016 essay)

DNA is one of the most amazing molecules in nature, providing a way to carry the instructions needed to create almost any lifeform on Earth in a microscopic package. Now scientists are finding ways to push DNA even further, using it not just to store information but to create physical components in a range of biological machines.

Deoxyribonucleic acid or “DNA” carries the genetic information that we, and all living organisms, use to function. It typically comes in the form of the famous double-helix shape, made up of two single-stranded DNA molecules folded into a spiral. Each of these is made up of a series of four different types of molecular component: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C).

Genes are made up from different sequences of these building block components, and the order in which they appear in a strand of DNA is what encodes genetic information. But by precisely designing different A,G,T and C sequences, scientists have recently been able to develop new ways of folding DNA into different origami shapes, beyond the conventional double helix.

This approach has opened up new possibilities of using DNA beyond its genetic and biological purpose, turning it into a Lego-like material for building objects that are just a few billionths of a metre in diameter (nanoscale). DNA-based materials are now being used for a variety of applications, ranging from templates for electronic nano-devices, to ways of precisely carrying drugs to diseased cells.

He highlights some Canadian work,

Designing electronic devices that are just nanometres in size opens up all sorts of possible applications but makes it harder to spot defects. As a way of dealing with this, researchers at the University of Montreal have used DNA to create ultrasensitive nanoscale thermometers that could help find minuscule hotspots in nanodevices (which would indicate a defect). They could also be used to monitor the temperature inside living cells.

The nanothermometers are made using loops of DNA that act as switches, folding or unfolding in response to temperature changes. This movement can be detected by attaching optical probes to the DNA. The researchers now want to build these nanothermometers into larger DNA devices that can work inside the human body.

He also mentions the nanobots that will heal your body (according to many works of fiction),

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have used DNA to design and build a nanosized robot that acts as a drug delivery vehicle to target specific cells. The nanorobot comes in the form of an open barrel made of DNA, whose two halves are connected by a hinge held shut by special DNA handles. These handles can recognise combinations of specific proteins present on the surface of cells, including ones associated with diseases.

When the robot comes into contact with the right cells, it opens the container and delivers its cargo. When applied to a mixture of healthy and cancerous human blood cells, these robots showed the ability to target and kill half of the cancer cells, while the healthy cells were left unharmed.

Palma is describing a very exciting development and there are many teams worldwide working on ways to make drugs more effective and less side effect-ridden. However there does seem to be a bit of a problem with targeted drug delivery as noted in my April 27, 2016 posting,

According to an April 27, 2016 news item on Nanowerk researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) along with their collaborators in the US (Harvard Medical School) and Japan (University of Tokyo) have determined that less than 1% of nanoparticle-based drugs reach their intended destination …

Less than 1%? Admittedly, nanoparticles are not the same as nanobots but the problem is in the delivery, from my April 27, 2016 posting,

… the authors argue that, in order to increase nanoparticle delivery efficiency, a systematic and coordinated long-term strategy is necessary. To build a strong foundation for the field of cancer nanomedicine, researchers will need to understand a lot more about the interactions between nanoparticles and the body’s various organs than they do today. …

I imagine nanobots will suffer a similar fate since the actual delivery mechanism to a targeted cell is still a mystery.

I quite enjoyed Palma’s essay and appreciated the links he provided. My only proviso, keep a salt shaker nearby. That rosy future is going take a while to get here.

Encapsulation of proteins in nanoparticles no longer necessary for time release?

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada) have developed a technique for the therapeutic use of proteins that doesn’t require ‘nanoencapsulation’ although nanoparticles are still used according to a May 27, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A U of T [University of Toronto] Engineering team has designed a simpler way to keep therapeutic proteins where they are needed for long periods of time. The discovery is a potential game-changer for the treatment of chronic illnesses or injuries that often require multiple injections or daily pills.

For decades, biomedical engineers have been painstakingly encapsulating proteins in nanoparticles to control their release. Now, a research team led by University Professor Molly Shoichet has shown that proteins can be released over several weeks, even months, without ever being encapsulated. In this case the team looked specifically at therapeutic proteins relevant to tissue regeneration after stroke and spinal cord injury.

“It was such a surprising and unexpected discovery,” said co-lead author Dr. Irja Elliott Donaghue, who first found that the therapeutic protein NT3, a factor that promotes the growth of nerve cells, was slowly released when just mixed into a Jello-like substance that also contained nanoparticles. “Our first thought was, ‘What could be happening to cause this?'”

A May 27, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert) by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, provides more in depth explanation,

Proteins hold enormous promise to treat chronic conditions and irreversible injuries — for example, human growth hormone is encapsulated in these tiny polymeric particles, and used to treat children with stunted growth. In order to avoid repeated injections or daily pills, researchers use complicated strategies both to deliver proteins to their site of action, and to ensure they’re released over a long enough period of time to have a beneficial effect.

This has long been a major challenge for protein-based therapies, especially because proteins are large and often fragile molecules. Until now, investigators have been treating proteins the same way as small drug molecules and encapsulating them in polymeric nanoparticles, often made of a material called poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) or PLGA.

As the nanoparticles break down, the drug molecules escape. The same process is true for proteins; however, the encapsulating process itself often damages or denatures some of the encapsulated proteins, rendering them useless for treatment. Skipping encapsulation altogether means fewer denatured proteins, making for more consistent protein therapeutics that are easier to make and store.

“This is really exciting from a translational perspective,” said PhD candidate Jaclyn Obermeyer. “Having a simpler, more reliable fabrication process leaves less room for complications with scale-up for clinical use.”

The three lead authors, Elliott Donoghue, Obermeyer and Dr. Malgosia Pakulska have shown that to get the desired controlled release, proteins only need to be alongside the PLGA nanoparticles, not inside them. …

“We think that this could speed up the path for protein-based drugs to get to the clinic,” said Elliott Donaghue.

The mechanism for this encapsulation-free controlled release is surprisingly elegant. Shoichet’s group mixes the proteins and nanoparticles in a Jello-like substance called a hydrogel, which keeps them localized when injected at the site of injury. The positively charged proteins and negatively charged nanoparticles naturally stick together. As the nanoparticles break down they make the solution more acidic, weakening the attraction and letting the proteins break free.

“We are particularly excited to show long-term, controlled protein release by simply controlling the electrostatic interactions between proteins and polymeric nanobeads,” said Shoichet. “By manipulating the pH of the solution, the size and number of nanoparticles, we can control release of bioactive proteins. This has already changed and simplified the protein release strategies that we are pursuing in pre-clinical models of disease in the brain and spinal cord.”

“We’ve learned how to control this simple phenomena,” Pakulska said. “Our next question is whether we can do the opposite—design a similar release system for positively charged nanoparticles and negatively charged proteins.”

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

Encapsulation-free controlled release: Electrostatic adsorption eliminates the need for protein encapsulation in PLGA nanoparticles by Malgosia M. Pakulska, Irja Elliott Donaghue, Jaclyn M. Obermeyer, Anup Tuladhar, Christopher K. McLaughlin, Tyler N. Shendruk, and Molly S. Shoichet. Science Advances  27 May 2016: Vol. 2, no. 5, e1600519 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600519

This paper appears to be open access.

Dr. Molly Shoichet was featured here in a May 11, 2015 posting about the launch of her Canada-wide science communication project Research2.Reality.

Split some water molecules and save solar and wind (energy) for a future day

Professor Ted Sargent’s research team at the University of Toronto has a developed a new technique for saving the energy harvested by sun and wind farms according to a March 28, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

We can’t control when the wind blows and when the sun shines, so finding efficient ways to store energy from alternative sources remains an urgent research problem. Now, a group of researchers led by Professor Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering may have a solution inspired by nature.

The team has designed the most efficient catalyst for storing energy in chemical form, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, just like plants do during photosynthesis. Oxygen is released harmlessly into the atmosphere, and hydrogen, as H2, can be converted back into energy using hydrogen fuel cells.

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

Discovering a better way of storing energy from solar and wind farms is “one of the grand challenges in this field,” Ted Sargent says (photo above by Megan Rosenbloom via flickr) Courtesy: University of Toronto

A March 24, 2016 University of Toronto news release by Marit Mitchell, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Today on a solar farm or a wind farm, storage is typically provided with batteries. But batteries are expensive, and can typically only store a fixed amount of energy,” says Sargent. “That’s why discovering a more efficient and highly scalable means of storing energy generated by renewables is one of the grand challenges in this field.”

You may have seen the popular high-school science demonstration where the teacher splits water into its component elements, hydrogen and oxygen, by running electricity through it. Today this requires so much electrical input that it’s impractical to store energy this way — too great proportion of the energy generated is lost in the process of storing it.

This new catalyst facilitates the oxygen-evolution portion of the chemical reaction, making the conversion from H2O into O2 and H2 more energy-efficient than ever before. The intrinsic efficiency of the new catalyst material is over three times more efficient than the best state-of-the-art catalyst.

Details are offered in the news release,

The new catalyst is made of abundant and low-cost metals tungsten, iron and cobalt, which are much less expensive than state-of-the-art catalysts based on precious metals. It showed no signs of degradation over more than 500 hours of continuous activity, unlike other efficient but short-lived catalysts. …

“With the aid of theoretical predictions, we became convinced that including tungsten could lead to a better oxygen-evolving catalyst. Unfortunately, prior work did not show how to mix tungsten homogeneously with the active metals such as iron and cobalt,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Dr. Bo Zhang … .

“We invented a new way to distribute the catalyst homogenously in a gel, and as a result built a device that works incredibly efficiently and robustly.”

This research united engineers, chemists, materials scientists, mathematicians, physicists, and computer scientists across three countries. A chief partner in this joint theoretical-experimental studies was a leading team of theorists at Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory under the leadership of Dr. Aleksandra Vojvodic. The international collaboration included researchers at East China University of Science & Technology, Tianjin University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Canadian Light Source and the Beijing Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

“The team developed a new materials synthesis strategy to mix multiple metals homogeneously — thereby overcoming the propensity of multi-metal mixtures to separate into distinct phases,” said Jeffrey C. Grossman, the Morton and Claire Goulder and Family Professor in Environmental Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This work impressively highlights the power of tightly coupled computational materials science with advanced experimental techniques, and sets a high bar for such a combined approach. It opens new avenues to speed progress in efficient materials for energy conversion and storage.”

“This work demonstrates the utility of using theory to guide the development of improved water-oxidation catalysts for further advances in the field of solar fuels,” said Gary Brudvig, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Yale University and director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute.

“The intensive research by the Sargent group in the University of Toronto led to the discovery of oxy-hydroxide materials that exhibit electrochemically induced oxygen evolution at the lowest overpotential and show no degradation,” said University Professor Gabor A. Somorjai of the University of California, Berkeley, a leader in this field. “The authors should be complimented on the combined experimental and theoretical studies that led to this very important finding.”

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

Homogeneously dispersed, multimetal oxygen-evolving catalysts by Bo Zhang, Xueli Zheng, Oleksandr Voznyy, Riccardo Comin, Michal Bajdich, Max García-Melchor, Lili Han, Jixian Xu, Min Liu, Lirong Zheng, F. Pelayo García de Arquer, Cao Thang Dinh, Fengjia Fan, Mingjian Yuan, Emre Yassitepe, Ning Chen, Tom Regier, Pengfei Liu, Yuhang Li, Phil De Luna, Alyf Janmohamed, Huolin L. Xin, Huagui Yang, Aleksandra Vojvodic, Edward H. Sargent. Science  24 Mar 2016: DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf1525

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of Toronto (Canada) researchers and lab-grown heart and liver tissue (person-on-a-chip)

Usually called ‘human-on-a-chip’, a team at the University of Toronto have developed a two-organ ‘person on a chip’ according to a March 7, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at U of T [University of Toronto] Engineering have developed a new way of growing realistic human tissues outside the body. Their “person-on-a-chip” technology, called AngioChip, is a powerful platform for discovering and testing new drugs, and could eventually be used to repair or replace damaged organs.

Professor Milica Radisic (IBBME, ChemE), graduate student Boyang Zhang and the rest of the team are among those research groups around the world racing to find ways to grow human tissues in the lab, under conditions that mimic a real person’s body. They have developed unique methods for manufacturing small, intricate scaffolds for individual cells to grow on. These artificial environments produce cells and tissues that resemble the real thing more closely than those grown lying flat in a petri dish.

The team’s recent creations have included BiowireTM—an innovative method of growing heart cells around a silk suture—as well as a scaffold for heart cells that snaps together like sheets of Velcro. But AngioChip takes tissue engineering to a whole new level. “It’s a fully three-dimensional structure complete with internal blood vessels,” says Radisic. “It behaves just like vasculature, and around it there is a lattice for other cells to attach and grow.” …

A March 7, 2016 University of Toronto news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the AngioChip,

Zhang built the scaffold out of POMaC, a polymer that is both biodegradable and biocompatible. The scaffold is built out of a series of thin layers, stamped with a pattern of channels that are each about 50 to 100 micrometres wide. The layers, which resemble the computer microchips, are then stacked into a 3D structure of synthetic blood vessels. As each layer is added, UV light is used to cross-link the polymer and bond it to the layer below.

When the structure is finished, it is bathed in a liquid containing living cells. The cells quickly attach to the inside and outside of the channels and begin growing just as they would in the human body.

“Previously, people could only do this using devices that squish the cells between sheets of silicone and glass,” says Radisic. “You needed several pumps and vacuum lines to run just one chip. Our system runs in a normal cell culture dish, and there are no pumps; we use pressure heads to perfuse media through the vasculature. The wells are open, so you can easily access the tissue.”

Using the platform, the team has built model versions of both heart and liver tissues that function like the real thing. “Our liver actually produced urea and metabolized drugs,” says Radisic. They can connect the blood vessels of the two artificial organs, thereby modelling not just the organs themselves, but the interactions between them. They’ve even injected white blood cells into the vessels and watched as they squeezed through gaps in the vessel wall to reach the tissue on the other side, just as they do in the human body.

The news release also mentions potential markets and the work that needs to be accomplished before AngioChip is available for purchase,

AngioChip has great potential in the field of pharmaceutical testing. Current drug-testing methods, such as animal testing and controlled clinical trials, are costly and fraught with ethical concerns. Testing on lab-grown human tissues would provide a realistic model at a fraction of the cost, but this area of research is still in its infancy. “In the last few years, it has become possible to order cultures of human cells for testing, but they’re grown on a plate, a two-dimensional environment,” says Radisic. “They don’t capture all the functional hallmarks of a real heart muscle, for example.”

A more realistic platform like AngioChip could enable drug companies to detect dangerous side effects and interactions between organ compartments long before their products reach the market, saving countless lives. It could also be used to understand and validate the effectiveness of current drugs and even to screen libraries of chemical compounds to discover new drugs. Through TARA Biosystems Inc., a spin-off company co-founded by Radisic, the team is already working on commercializing the technology.

In future, Radisic envisions her lab-grown tissues being implanted into the body to repair organs damaged by disease. Because the cells used to seed the platform can come from anyone, the new tissues could be genetically identical to the intended host, reducing the risk of organ rejection. Even in its current form, the team has shown that the AngioChip can be implanted into a living animal, its artificial blood vessels connected to a real circulatory system. The polymer scaffolding itself simply biodegrades after several months.

The team still has much work to do. Each AngioChip is currently made by hand; if the platform is to be used industrially, the team will need to develop high-throughput manufacturing methods to create many copies at once. Still, the potential is obvious. “It really is multifunctional, and solves many problems in the tissue engineering space,” says Radisic. “It’s truly next-generation.”

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

Biodegradable scaffold with built-in vasculature for organ-on-a-chip engineering and direct surgical anastomosis by Boyang Zhang, Miles Montgomery, M. Dean Chamberlain, Shinichiro Ogawa, Anastasia Korolj, Aric Pahnke, Laura A. Wells, Stéphane Massé, Jihye Kim, Lewis Reis, Abdul Momen, Sara S. Nunes, Aaron R. Wheeler, Kumaraswamy Nanthakumar, Gordon Keller, Michael V. Sefton, & Milica Radisic. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4570 Published online 07 March 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

The researchers have made two images illustrating their work available. There’s this still image,

These tiny polymer scaffolds contain channels that are about 100 micrometres wide, about the same diameter as a human hair. When seeded with cells, the channels act as artificial blood vessels. By mimicking tissues in the human heart and other organs, these scaffolds provide a new way to test drugs for potentially dangerous side effects. (Image: Tyler Irving/Boyang Zhang/Kevin Soobrian)

These tiny polymer scaffolds contain channels that are about 100 micrometres wide, about the same diameter as a human hair. When seeded with cells, the channels act as artificial blood vessels. By mimicking tissues in the human heart and other organs, these scaffolds provide a new way to test drugs for potentially dangerous side effects. (Image: Tyler Irving/Boyang Zhang/Kevin Soobrian)

Perhaps more intriguing is this one,


When seeded with heart cells, the flexible polymer scaffold contracts with a regular rhythm, just like real heart tissue. (Image: Boyang Zhang)

I have mentioned ‘human-on-a-chip’ projects many times here and as the news release writer notes, there is an international race. My July 1, 2015 posting (cross-posted from the June 30, 2015 posting [Testing times: the future of animal alternatives] on the International Innovation blog [a CORDIS-listed project dissemination partner for FP7 and H2020 projects]) notes a couple of those projects,

Organ-on-a-chip projects use stem cells to create human tissues that replicate the functions of human organs. Discussions about human-on-a-chip activities – a phrase used to describe 10 interlinked organ chips – were a highlight of the 9th World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing held in Prague, Czech Republic, last year. One project highlighted at the event was a joint US National Institutes of Health (NIH), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project led by Dan Tagle that claimed it would develop functioning human-on-a-chip by 2017. However, he and his team were surprisingly close-mouthed and provided few details making it difficult to assess how close they are to achieving their goal.

By contrast, Uwe Marx – Leader of the ‘Multi-Organ-Chip’ programme in the Institute of Biotechnology at the Technical University of Berlin and Scientific Founder of TissUse, a human-on-a-chip start-up company – claims to have sold two-organ chips. He also claims to have successfully developed a four-organ chip and that he is on his way to building a human-on-a-chip. Though these chips remain to be seen, if they are, they will integrate microfluidics, cultured cells and materials patterned at the nanoscale to mimic various organs, and will allow chemical testing in an environment that somewhat mirrors a human.

As for where the University of Toronto efforts fit into the race, I don’t know for sure. It’s the first time I’ve come across a reference to liver tissue producing urea but I believe there’s at least one other team in China which has achieved a three-dimensional, more lifelike aspect for liver tissue in my Jan. 29, 2016 posting ‘Constructing a liver’.

A demonstration of quantum surrealism

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) has announced some intriguing new research results. A Feb. 19, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily gets the ball rolling,

New research demonstrates that particles at the quantum level can in fact be seen as behaving something like billiard balls rolling along a table, and not merely as the probabilistic smears that the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests. But there’s a catch — the tracks the particles follow do not always behave as one would expect from “realistic” trajectories, but often in a fashion that has been termed “surrealistic.”

A Feb. 19, 2016 CIFAR news release by Kurt Kleiner, which originated the news item, offers the kind of explanation that allows an amateur such as myself to understand the principles (while I’m reading it), thank you Kurt Kleiner,

In a new version of an old experiment, CIFAR Senior Fellow Aephraim Steinberg (University of Toronto) and colleagues tracked the trajectories of photons as the particles traced a path through one of two slits and onto a screen. But the researchers went further, and observed the “nonlocal” influence of another photon that the first photon had been entangled with.

The results counter a long-standing criticism of an interpretation of quantum mechanics called the De Broglie-Bohm theory. Detractors of this interpretation had faulted it for failing to explain the behaviour of entangled photons realistically. For Steinberg, the results are important because they give us a way of visualizing quantum mechanics that’s just as valid as the standard interpretation, and perhaps more intuitive.

“I’m less interested in focusing on the philosophical question of what’s ‘really’ out there. I think the fruitful question is more down to earth. Rather than thinking about different metaphysical interpretations, I would phrase it in terms of having different pictures. Different pictures can be useful. They can help shape better intuitions.”

At stake is what is “really” happening at the quantum level. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can never know both a particle’s position and momentum with complete certainty. And when we do interact with a quantum system, for instance by measuring it, we disturb the system. So if we fire a photon at a screen and want to know where it will hit, we’ll never know for sure exactly where it will hit or what path it will take to get there.

The standard interpretation of quantum mechanics holds that this uncertainty means that there is no “real” trajectory between the light source and the screen. The best we can do is to calculate a “wave function” that shows the odds of the photon being in any one place at any time, but won’t tell us where it is until we make a measurement.

Yet another interpretation, called the De Broglie-Bohm theory, says that the photons do have real trajectories that are guided by a “pilot wave” that accompanies the particle. The wave is still probabilistic, but the particle takes a real trajectory from source to target. It doesn’t simply “collapse” into a particular location once it’s measured.

In 2011 Steinberg and his colleagues showed that they could follow trajectories for photons by subjecting many identical particles to measurements so weak that the particles were barely disturbed, and then averaging out the information. This method showed trajectories that looked similar to classical ones — say, those of balls flying through the air.

But critics had pointed out a problem with this viewpoint. Quantum mechanics also tells us that two particles can be entangled, so that a measurement of one particle affects the other. The critics complained that in some cases, a measurement of one particle would lead to an incorrect prediction of the trajectory of the entangled particle. They coined the term “surreal trajectories” to describe them.

In the most recent experiment, Steinberg and colleagues showed that the surrealism was a consequence of non-locality — the fact that the particles were able to influence one another instantaneously at a distance. In fact, the “incorrect” predictions of trajectories by the entangled photon were actually a consequence of where in their course the entangled particles were measured. Considering both particles together, the measurements made sense and were consistent with real trajectories.

Steinberg points out that both the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics and the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation are consistent with experimental evidence, and are mathematically equivalent. But it is helpful in some circumstances to visualize real trajectories, rather than wave function collapses, he says.

An image illustrating the work has been provided,

On the left, a still image from an animation of reconstructed trajectories for photons going through a double-slit. A second photon “measures” which slit each photon traversed, so no interference results on the screen. The image on the right shows the polarisation of this second, “probe." Credit: Dylan Mahler Courtesy: CIFAR

On the left, a still image from an animation of reconstructed trajectories for photons going through a double-slit. A second photon “measures” which slit each photon traversed, so no interference results on the screen. The image on the right shows the polarisation of this second, “probe.” Credit: Dylan Mahler Courtesy: CIFAR

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

Experimental nonlocal and surreal Bohmian trajectories by Dylan H. Mahler, Lee Rozema, Kent Fisher, Lydia Vermeyden, Kevin J. Resch, Howard M. Wiseman, and Aephraim Steinberg. Science Advances  19 Feb 2016: Vol. 2, no. 2, e1501466 DOI: 10.1126/science.1501466

This article appears to be open access.