Tag Archives: US

Ora Sound, a Montréal-based startup, and its ‘graphene’ headphones

For all the excitement about graphene there aren’t that many products as Glenn Zorpette notes in a June 20, 2017 posting about Ora Sound and its headphones on the Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website; Note: Links have been removed),

Graphene has long been touted as a miracle material that would deliver everything from tiny, ultralow-power transistors to the vastly long and ultrastrong cable [PDF] needed for a space elevator. And yet, 13 years of graphene development, and R&D expenditures well in the tens of billions of dollars have so far yielded just a handful of niche products. The most notable by far is a line of tennis racquets in which relatively small amounts of graphene are used to stiffen parts of the frame.

Ora Sound, a Montreal-based [Québec, Canada] startup, hopes to change all that. On 20 June [2017], it unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for a new audiophile-grade headphone that uses cones, also known as membranes, made of a form of graphene. “To the best of our knowledge, we are the first company to find a significant, commercially viable application for graphene,” says Ora cofounder Ari Pinkas, noting that the cones in the headphones are 95 percent graphene.


It should be noted that participating in a Kickstarter campaign is an investment/gamble. I am not endorsing Ora Sound or its products. That said, this does look interesting (from the ORA: The World’s First Graphene Headphones Kickstarter campaign webpage),

ORA GQ Headphones uses nanotechnology to deliver the most groundbreaking audio listening experience. Scientists have long promised that one day Graphene will find its way into many facets of our lives including displays, electronic circuits and sensors. ORA’s Graphene technology makes it one of the first companies to have created a commercially viable application for this Nobel-prize winning material, a major scientific achievement.

The GQ Headphones come equipped with ORA’s patented GrapheneQ™ membranes, providing unparalleled fidelity. The headphones also offer all the features you would expect from a high-end audio product: wired/wireless operation, a gesture control track-pad, a digital MEMS microphone, breathable lambskin leather and an ear-shaped design optimized for sound quality and isolated comfort.

They have produced a slick video to promote their campaign,

At the time of publishing this post, the campaign will run for another eight days and has raised $650,949 CAD. This is more than $500,000 dollars over the company’s original goal of $135,000. I’m sure they’re ecstatic but this success can be a mixed blessing. They have many more people expecting a set of headphones than they anticipated and that can mean production issues.

Further, there appears to be only one member of the team with business experience and his (Ari Pinkas) experience includes marketing strategy for a few years and then founding an online marketplace for teachers. I would imagine Pinkas will be experiencing a very steep learning curve. Hopefully, Helge Seetzen, a member of the company’s advisory board will be able to offer assistance. According to Seetzen’s Wikipedia entry, he is a “… German technologist and businessman known for imaging & multimedia research and commercialization,” as well as, having a Canadian educational background and business experience. The rest of the team and advisory board appear to be academics.

The technology

A March 14, 2017 article by Andy Riga for the Montréal Gazette gives a general description of the technology,

A Montreal startup is counting on technology sparked by a casual conversation between two brothers pursuing PhDs at McGill University.

They were chatting about their disparate research areas — one, in engineering, was working on using graphene, a form of carbon, in batteries; the other, in music, was looking at the impact of electronics on the perception of audio quality.

At first glance, the invention that ensued sounds humdrum.

It’s a replacement for an item you use every day. It’s paper thin, you probably don’t realize it’s there and its design has not changed much in more than a century. Called a membrane or diaphragm, it’s the part of a loudspeaker that vibrates to create the sound from the headphones over your ears, the wireless speaker on your desk, the cellphone in your hand.

Membranes are normally made of paper, Mylar or aluminum.

Ora’s innovation uses graphene, a remarkable material whose discovery garnered two scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics but which has yet to fulfill its promise.

“Because it’s so stiff, our membrane gets better sound quality,” said Robert-Eric Gaskell, who obtained his PhD in sound recording in 2015. “It can produce more sound with less distortion, and the sound that you hear is more true to the original sound intended by the artist.

“And because it’s so light, we get better efficiency — the lighter it is, the less energy it takes.”

In January, the company demonstrated its membrane in headphones at the Consumer Electronics Show, a big trade convention in Las Vegas.

Six cellphone manufacturers expressed interest in Ora’s technology, some of which are now trying prototypes, said Ari Pinkas, in charge of product marketing at Ora. “We’re talking about big cellphone manufacturers — big, recognizable names,” he said.

Technology companies are intrigued by the idea of using Ora’s technology to make smaller speakers so they can squeeze other things, such as bigger batteries, into the limited space in electronic devices, Pinkas said. Others might want to use Ora’s membrane to allow their devices to play music louder, he added.

Makers of regular speakers, hearing aids and virtual-reality headsets have also expressed interest, Pinkas said.

Ora is still working on headphones.

Riga’s article offers a good overview for people who are not familiar with graphene.

Zorpette’s June 20, 2017 posting (on Nanoclast) offers a few more technical details (Note: Links have been removed),

During an interview and demonstration in the IEEE Spectrum offices, Pinkas and Robert-Eric Gaskell, another of the company’s cofounders, explained graphene’s allure to audiophiles. “Graphene has the ideal properties for a membrane,” Gaskell says. “It’s incredibly stiff, very lightweight—a rare combination—and it’s well damped,” which means it tends to quell spurious vibrations. By those metrics, graphene soundly beats all the usual choices: mylar, paper, aluminum, or even beryllium, Gaskell adds.

The problem is making it in sheets large enough to fashion into cones. So-called “pristine” graphene exists as flakes, [emphasis mine] perhaps 10 micrometers across, and a single atom thick. To make larger, strong sheets of graphene, researchers attach oxygen atoms to the flakes, and then other elements to the oxygen atoms to cross-link the flakes and hold them together strongly in what materials scientists call a laminate structure. The intellectual property behind Ora’s advance came from figuring out how to make these structures suitably thick and in the proper shape to function as speaker cones, Gaskell says. In short, he explains, the breakthrough was, “being able to manufacture” in large numbers, “and in any geometery we want.”

Much of the R&D work that led to Ora’s process was done at nearby McGill University, by professor Thomas Szkopek of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. Szkopek worked with Peter Gaskell, Robert-Eric’s younger brother. Ora is also making use of patents that arose from work done on graphene by the Nguyen Group at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.

Robert-Eric Gaskell and Pinkas arrived at Spectrum with a preproduction model of their headphones, as well as some other headphones for the sake of comparison. The Ora prototype is clearly superior to the comparison models, but that’s not much of a surprise. …

… In the 20 minutes or so I had to audition Ora’s preproduction model, I listened to an assortment of classical and jazz standards and I came away impressed. The sound is precise, with fine details sharply rendered. To my surprise, I was reminded of planar-magnetic type headphones that are now surging in popularity in the upper reaches of the audiophile headphone market. Bass is smooth and tight. Overall, the unit holds up quite well against closed-back models in the $400 to $500 range I’ve listened to from Grado, Bowers & Wilkins, and Audeze.

Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page (Graphene vs GrapheneQ subsection) offers some information about their unique graphene composite,


Graphene is a new material, first isolated only 13 years ago. Formed from a single layer of carbon atoms, Graphene is a hexagonal crystal lattice in a perfect honeycomb structure. This fundamental geometry makes Graphene ridiculously strong and lightweight. In its pure form, Graphene is a single atomic layer of carbon. It can be very expensive and difficult to produce in sizes any bigger than small flakes. These challenges have prevented pristine Graphene from being integrated into consumer technologies.


At ORA, we’ve spent the last few years creating GrapheneQ, our own, proprietary Graphene-based nanocomposite formulation. We’ve specifically designed and optimized it for use in acoustic transducers. GrapheneQ is a composite material which is over 95% Graphene by weight. It is formed by depositing flakes of Graphene into thousands of layers that are bonded together with proprietary cross-linking agents. Rather than trying to form one, continuous layer of Graphene, GrapheneQ stacks flakes of Graphene together into a laminate material that preserves the benefits of Graphene while allowing the material to be formed into loudspeaker cones.

Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison
Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Comparison

If you’re interested in more technical information on sound, acoustics, soundspeakers, and Ora’s graphene-based headphones, it’s all there on Ora’s Kickstarter campaign page.

The Québec nanotechnology scene in context and graphite flakes for graphene

There are two Canadian provinces that are heavily invested in nanotechnology research and commercialization efforts. The province of Québec has poured money into their nanotechnology efforts, while the province of Alberta has also invested heavily in nanotechnology, it has also managed to snare additional federal funds to host Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT). (This appears to be a current NINT website or you can try this one on the National Research Council website). I’d rank Ontario as being a third centre with the other provinces being considerably less invested. As for the North, I’ve not come across any nanotechnology research from that region. Finally, as I stumble more material about nanotechnology in Québec than I do for any other province, that’s the reason I rate Québec as the most successful in its efforts.

Regarding graphene, Canada seems to have an advantage. We have great graphite flakes for making graphene. With mines in at least two provinces, Ontario and Québec, we have a ready source of supply. In my first posting (July 25, 2011) about graphite mines here, I had this,

Who knew large flakes could be this exciting? From the July 25, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Northern Graphite Corporation has announced that graphene has been successfully made on a test basis using large flake graphite from the Company’s Bissett Creek project in Northern Ontario. Northern’s standard 95%C, large flake graphite was evaluated as a source material for making graphene by an eminent professor in the field at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is doing research making graphene sheets larger than 30cm2 in size using the graphene oxide methodology. The tests indicated that graphene made from Northern’s jumbo flake is superior to Chinese powder and large flake graphite in terms of size, higher electrical conductivity, lower resistance and greater transparency.

Approximately 70% of production from the Bissett Creek property will be large flake (+80 mesh) and almost all of this will in fact be +48 mesh jumbo flake which is expected to attract premium pricing and be a better source material for the potential manufacture of graphene. The very high percentage of large flakes makes Bissett Creek unique compared to most graphite deposits worldwide which produce a blend of large, medium and small flakes, as well as a large percentage of low value -150 mesh flake and amorphous powder which are not suitable for graphene, Li ion batteries or other high end, high growth applications.

Since then I’ve stumbled across more information about Québec’s mines than Ontario’s  as can be seen:

There are some other mentions of graphite mines in other postings but they are tangential to what’s being featured:

  • (my Oct. 26, 2015 posting about St. Jean Carbon and its superconducting graphene and
  • my Feb. 20, 2015 posting about Nanoxplore and graphene production in Québec; and
  • this Feb. 23, 2015 posting about Grafoid and its sister company, Focus Graphite which gets its graphite flakes from a deposit in the northeastern part of Québec).


After reviewing these posts, I’ve begun to wonder where Ora’s graphite flakes come from? In any event, I wish the folks at Ora and their Kickstarter funders the best of luck.

Using only sunlight to desalinate water

The researchers seem to believe that this new desalination technique could be a game changer. From a June 20, 2017 news item on Azonano,

An off-grid technology using only the energy from sunlight to transform salt water into fresh drinking water has been developed as an outcome of the effort from a federally funded research.

The desalination system uses a combination of light-harvesting nanophotonics and membrane distillation technology and is considered to be the first major innovation from the Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), which is a multi-institutional engineering research center located at Rice University.

NEWT’s “nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation” technology (NESMD) integrates tried-and-true water treatment methods with cutting-edge nanotechnology capable of transforming sunlight to heat. …

A June 19, 2017 Rice University news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

More than 18,000 desalination plants operate in 150 countries, but NEWT’s desalination technology is unlike any other used today.

“Direct solar desalination could be a game changer for some of the estimated 1 billion people who lack access to clean drinking water,” said Rice scientist and water treatment expert Qilin Li, a corresponding author on the study. “This off-grid technology is capable of providing sufficient clean water for family use in a compact footprint, and it can be scaled up to provide water for larger communities.”

The oldest method for making freshwater from salt water is distillation. Salt water is boiled, and the steam is captured and run through a condensing coil. Distillation has been used for centuries, but it requires complex infrastructure and is energy inefficient due to the amount of heat required to boil water and produce steam. More than half the cost of operating a water distillation plant is for energy.

An emerging technology for desalination is membrane distillation, where hot salt water is flowed across one side of a porous membrane and cold freshwater is flowed across the other. Water vapor is naturally drawn through the membrane from the hot to the cold side, and because the seawater need not be boiled, the energy requirements are less than they would be for traditional distillation. However, the energy costs are still significant because heat is continuously lost from the hot side of the membrane to the cold.

“Unlike traditional membrane distillation, NESMD benefits from increasing efficiency with scale,” said Rice’s Naomi Halas, a corresponding author on the paper and the leader of NEWT’s nanophotonics research efforts. “It requires minimal pumping energy for optimal distillate conversion, and there are a number of ways we can further optimize the technology to make it more productive and efficient.”

NEWT’s new technology builds upon research in Halas’ lab to create engineered nanoparticles that harvest as much as 80 percent of sunlight to generate steam. By adding low-cost, commercially available nanoparticles to a porous membrane, NEWT has essentially turned the membrane itself into a one-sided heating element that alone heats the water to drive membrane distillation.

“The integration of photothermal heating capabilities within a water purification membrane for direct, solar-driven desalination opens new opportunities in water purification,” said Yale University ‘s Menachem “Meny” Elimelech, a co-author of the new study and NEWT’s lead researcher for membrane processes.

In the PNAS study, researchers offered proof-of-concept results based on tests with an NESMD chamber about the size of three postage stamps and just a few millimeters thick. The distillation membrane in the chamber contained a specially designed top layer of carbon black nanoparticles infused into a porous polymer. The light-capturing nanoparticles heated the entire surface of the membrane when exposed to sunlight. A thin half-millimeter-thick layer of salt water flowed atop the carbon-black layer, and a cool freshwater stream flowed below.

Li, the leader of NEWT’s advanced treatment test beds at Rice, said the water production rate increased greatly by concentrating the sunlight. “The intensity got up 17.5 kilowatts per meter squared when a lens was used to concentrate sunlight by 25 times, and the water production increased to about 6 liters per meter squared per hour.”

Li said NEWT’s research team has already made a much larger system that contains a panel that is about 70 centimeters by 25 centimeters. Ultimately, she said, NEWT hopes to produce a modular system where users could order as many panels as they needed based on their daily water demands.

“You could assemble these together, just as you would the panels in a solar farm,” she said. “Depending on the water production rate you need, you could calculate how much membrane area you would need. For example, if you need 20 liters per hour, and the panels produce 6 liters per hour per square meter, you would order a little over 3 square meters of panels.”

Established by the National Science Foundation in 2015, NEWT aims to develop compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective. NEWT, which is expected to leverage more than $40 million in federal and industrial support over the next decade, is the first NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) in Houston and only the third in Texas since NSF began the ERC program in 1985. NEWT focuses on applications for humanitarian emergency response, rural water systems and wastewater treatment and reuse at remote sites, including both onshore and offshore drilling platforms for oil and gas exploration.

There is a video but it is focused on the NEWT center rather than any specific water technologies,

For anyone interested in the technology, here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation for off-grid water purification by Pratiksha D. Dongare, Alessandro Alabastri, Seth Pedersen, Katherine R. Zodrow, Nathaniel J. Hogan, Oara Neumann, Jinjian Wu, Tianxiao Wang, Akshay Deshmukh,f, Menachem Elimelech, Qilin Li, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas. PNAS {Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] doi: 10.1073/pnas.1701835114 June 19, 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

In scientific race US sees China coming up from rear

Sometime it seems as if scientific research is like a race with everyone competing for first place. As in most sports, there are multiple competitions for various sub-groups but only one important race. The US has held the lead position for decades although always with some anxiety. These days the anxiety is focused on China. A June 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that US dominance is threatened in at least one area of research—the biomedical sector,

American scientific teams still publish significantly more biomedical research discoveries than teams from any other country, a new study shows, and the U.S. still leads the world in research and development expenditures.

But American dominance is slowly shrinking, the analysis finds, as China’s skyrocketing investing on science over the last two decades begins to pay off. Chinese biomedical research teams now rank fourth in the world for total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, and the country spent three-quarters what the U.S. spent on research and development during 2015.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows, scientists from the U.S. and other countries increasingly make discoveries and advancements as part of teams that involve researchers from around the world.

A June 15, 2017 Michigan Medicine University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research team’s insights,

The last 15 years have ushered in an era of “team science” as research funding in the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, stagnated. The number of authors has also grown over time. For example, in 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked include 21 or more authors — a number that increased to 12.5 percent in 2015.

The new findings, published in JCI Insight by a team of University of Michigan researchers, come at a critical time for the debate over the future of U.S. federal research funding. The study is based on a careful analysis of original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment from those same years.

The study builds on other work that has also warned of America’s slipping status in the world of science and medical research, and the resulting impact on the next generation of aspiring scientists.

“It’s time for U.S. policy-makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in National Institutes of Health budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest,” says Bishr Omary, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new data-supported opinion piece and chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The analysis charts South Korea’s entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China’s leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. They also track the major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

Meticulous tracking

First author of the study, U-M informationist Marisa Conte, and Omary co-led a team that looked carefully at the currency of modern science: peer-reviewed basic science and clinical research papers describing new findings, published in journals with long histories of accepting among the world’s most significant discoveries.

They reviewed every issue of six top-tier international journals (JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science), and four mid-ranking journals (British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal), chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research.

The analysis included only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes. Author affiliations for corresponding authors and all other authors were recorded by country.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, likely have something to do with this, Omary says.

The authors, who also include Santiago Schnell, Ph.D. and Jing Liu, Ph.D., note that part of their group’s interest in doing the study sprang from their hypothesis that a flat NIH budget is likely to have negative consequences but they wanted to gather data to test their hypothesis.

They also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the U.S. In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch U.S. and other international scientists due to their marked increase in R&D investments.

The same trends appear to be happening in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries the authors studied – where research investing has stayed consistent when measured as a percentage of the U.S. total over the last 15 years.

The authors note that their study is based on data up to 2015, and that in the current 2017 federal fiscal year, funding for NIH has increased thanks to bipartisan Congressional appropriations. The NIH contributes to most of the federal support for medical and basic biomedical research in the U.S. But discussion of cuts to research funding that hinders many federal agencies is in the air during the current debates for the 2018 budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese R&D spending is projected to surpass the U.S. total by 2022.

“Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research,” Omary says. “I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.”

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

Globalization and changing trends of biomedical research output by Marisa L. Conte, Jing Liu, Santiago Schnell, and M. Bishr Omary. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e95206 doi:10.1172/jci.insight.95206 Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 15, 2017)

Copyright © 2017, American Society for Clinical Investigation

This paper is open access.

The notion of a race and looking back to see who, if anyone, is gaining on you reminded me of a local piece of sports lore, the Roger Banister-John Landy ‘Miracle Mile’. In the run up to the 1954 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver, Canada, two runners were known to have broken the 4-minute mile limit (previously thought to have been impossible) and this meeting was considered an historic meeting. Here’s more from the miraclemile1954.com website,

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in the one mile run at the newly constructed Empire Stadium.

Both men had broken the four minute barrier previously that year. Bannister was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6th in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, John Landy became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58.

The world watched eagerly as both men approached the starting blocks. As 35,000 enthusiastic fans looked on, no one knew what would take place on that historic day.

Promoted as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”.

With only 90 yards to go in one of the world’s most memorable races, John Landy glanced over his left shoulder to check his opponent’s position. At that instant Bannister streaked by him to victory in a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy’s second place finish in 3:59.6 marked the first time the four minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

The website hosts an image of the moment memorialized in bronze when Landy looks to his left as Banister passes him on his right,

By Statue: Jack HarmanPhoto: Paul Joseph from vancouver, bc, canada – roger bannister running the four minute mileUploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801121

Getting back to science, I wonder if some day we’ll stop thinking of it as a race where, inevitably, there’s one winner and everyone else loses and find a new metaphor.

Brain stuff: quantum entanglement and a multi-dimensional universe

I have two brain news bits, one about neural networks and quantum entanglement and another about how the brain operates on more than three dimensions.

Quantum entanglement and neural networks

A June 13, 2017 news item on phys.org describes how machine learning can be used to solve problems in physics (Note: Links have been removed),

Machine learning, the field that’s driving a revolution in artificial intelligence, has cemented its role in modern technology. Its tools and techniques have led to rapid improvements in everything from self-driving cars and speech recognition to the digital mastery of an ancient board game.

Now, physicists are beginning to use machine learning tools to tackle a different kind of problem, one at the heart of quantum physics. In a paper published recently in Physical Review X, researchers from JQI [Joint Quantum Institute] and the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) at the University of Maryland showed that certain neural networks—abstract webs that pass information from node to node like neurons in the brain—can succinctly describe wide swathes of quantum systems.

An artist’s rendering of a neural network with two layers. At the top is a real quantum system, like atoms in an optical lattice. Below is a network of hidden neurons that capture their interactions (Credit: E. Edwards/JQI)

A June 12, 2017 JQI news release by Chris Cesare, which originated the news item, describes how neural networks can represent quantum entanglement,

Dongling Deng, a JQI Postdoctoral Fellow who is a member of CMTC and the paper’s first author, says that researchers who use computers to study quantum systems might benefit from the simple descriptions that neural networks provide. “If we want to numerically tackle some quantum problem,” Deng says, “we first need to find an efficient representation.”

On paper and, more importantly, on computers, physicists have many ways of representing quantum systems. Typically these representations comprise lists of numbers describing the likelihood that a system will be found in different quantum states. But it becomes difficult to extract properties or predictions from a digital description as the number of quantum particles grows, and the prevailing wisdom has been that entanglement—an exotic quantum connection between particles—plays a key role in thwarting simple representations.

The neural networks used by Deng and his collaborators—CMTC Director and JQI Fellow Sankar Das Sarma and Fudan University physicist and former JQI Postdoctoral Fellow Xiaopeng Li—can efficiently represent quantum systems that harbor lots of entanglement, a surprising improvement over prior methods.

What’s more, the new results go beyond mere representation. “This research is unique in that it does not just provide an efficient representation of highly entangled quantum states,” Das Sarma says. “It is a new way of solving intractable, interacting quantum many-body problems that uses machine learning tools to find exact solutions.”

Neural networks and their accompanying learning techniques powered AlphaGo, the computer program that beat some of the world’s best Go players last year (link is external) (and the top player this year (link is external)). The news excited Deng, an avid fan of the board game. Last year, around the same time as AlphaGo’s triumphs, a paper appeared that introduced the idea of using neural networks to represent quantum states (link is external), although it gave no indication of exactly how wide the tool’s reach might be. “We immediately recognized that this should be a very important paper,” Deng says, “so we put all our energy and time into studying the problem more.”

The result was a more complete account of the capabilities of certain neural networks to represent quantum states. In particular, the team studied neural networks that use two distinct groups of neurons. The first group, called the visible neurons, represents real quantum particles, like atoms in an optical lattice or ions in a chain. To account for interactions between particles, the researchers employed a second group of neurons—the hidden neurons—which link up with visible neurons. These links capture the physical interactions between real particles, and as long as the number of connections stays relatively small, the neural network description remains simple.

Specifying a number for each connection and mathematically forgetting the hidden neurons can produce a compact representation of many interesting quantum states, including states with topological characteristics and some with surprising amounts of entanglement.

Beyond its potential as a tool in numerical simulations, the new framework allowed Deng and collaborators to prove some mathematical facts about the families of quantum states represented by neural networks. For instance, neural networks with only short-range interactions—those in which each hidden neuron is only connected to a small cluster of visible neurons—have a strict limit on their total entanglement. This technical result, known as an area law, is a research pursuit of many condensed matter physicists.

These neural networks can’t capture everything, though. “They are a very restricted regime,” Deng says, adding that they don’t offer an efficient universal representation. If they did, they could be used to simulate a quantum computer with an ordinary computer, something physicists and computer scientists think is very unlikely. Still, the collection of states that they do represent efficiently, and the overlap of that collection with other representation methods, is an open problem that Deng says is ripe for further exploration.

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

Quantum Entanglement in Neural Network States by Dong-Ling Deng, Xiaopeng Li, and S. Das Sarma. Phys. Rev. X 7, 021021 – Published 11 May 2017

This paper is open access.

Blue Brain and the multidimensional universe

Blue Brain is a Swiss government brain research initiative which officially came to life in 2006 although the initial agreement between the École Politechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IBM was signed in 2005 (according to the project’s Timeline page). Moving on, the project’s latest research reveals something astounding (from a June 12, 2017 Frontiers Publishing press release on EurekAlert),

For most people, it is a stretch of the imagination to understand the world in four dimensions but a new study has discovered structures in the brain with up to eleven dimensions – ground-breaking work that is beginning to reveal the brain’s deepest architectural secrets.

Using algebraic topology in a way that it has never been used before in neuroscience, a team from the Blue Brain Project has uncovered a universe of multi-dimensional geometrical structures and spaces within the networks of the brain.

The research, published today in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, shows that these structures arise when a group of neurons forms a clique: each neuron connects to every other neuron in the group in a very specific way that generates a precise geometric object. The more neurons there are in a clique, the higher the dimension of the geometric object.

“We found a world that we had never imagined,” says neuroscientist Henry Markram, director of Blue Brain Project and professor at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, “there are tens of millions of these objects even in a small speck of the brain, up through seven dimensions. In some networks, we even found structures with up to eleven dimensions.”

Markram suggests this may explain why it has been so hard to understand the brain. “The mathematics usually applied to study networks cannot detect the high-dimensional structures and spaces that we now see clearly.”

If 4D worlds stretch our imagination, worlds with 5, 6 or more dimensions are too complex for most of us to comprehend. This is where algebraic topology comes in: a branch of mathematics that can describe systems with any number of dimensions. The mathematicians who brought algebraic topology to the study of brain networks in the Blue Brain Project were Kathryn Hess from EPFL and Ran Levi from Aberdeen University.

“Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time. It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures – the trees in the forest – and see the empty spaces – the clearings – all at the same time,” explains Hess.

In 2015, Blue Brain published the first digital copy of a piece of the neocortex – the most evolved part of the brain and the seat of our sensations, actions, and consciousness. In this latest research, using algebraic topology, multiple tests were performed on the virtual brain tissue to show that the multi-dimensional brain structures discovered could never be produced by chance. Experiments were then performed on real brain tissue in the Blue Brain’s wet lab in Lausanne confirming that the earlier discoveries in the virtual tissue are biologically relevant and also suggesting that the brain constantly rewires during development to build a network with as many high-dimensional structures as possible.

When the researchers presented the virtual brain tissue with a stimulus, cliques of progressively higher dimensions assembled momentarily to enclose high-dimensional holes, that the researchers refer to as cavities. “The appearance of high-dimensional cavities when the brain is processing information means that the neurons in the network react to stimuli in an extremely organized manner,” says Levi. “It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building then razing a tower of multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes (3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc. The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates.”

The big question these researchers are asking now is whether the intricacy of tasks we can perform depends on the complexity of the multi-dimensional “sandcastles” the brain can build. Neuroscience has also been struggling to find where the brain stores its memories. “They may be ‘hiding’ in high-dimensional cavities,” Markram speculates.


About Blue Brain

The aim of the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss brain initiative founded and directed by Professor Henry Markram, is to build accurate, biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the rodent brain, and ultimately, the human brain. The supercomputer-based reconstructions and simulations built by Blue Brain offer a radically new approach for understanding the multilevel structure and function of the brain. http://bluebrain.epfl.ch

About Frontiers

Frontiers is a leading community-driven open-access publisher. By taking publishing entirely online, we drive innovation with new technologies to make peer review more efficient and transparent. We provide impact metrics for articles and researchers, and merge open access publishing with a research network platform – Loop – to catalyse research dissemination, and popularize research to the public, including children. Our goal is to increase the reach and impact of research articles and their authors. Frontiers has received the ALPSP Gold Award for Innovation in Publishing in 2014. http://www.frontiersin.org.

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

Cliques of Neurons Bound into Cavities Provide a Missing Link between Structure and Function by Michael W. Reimann, Max Nolte, Martina Scolamiero, Katharine Turner, Rodrigo Perin, Giuseppe Chindemi, Paweł Dłotko, Ran Levi, Kathryn Hess, and Henry Markram. Front. Comput. Neurosci., 12 June 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fncom.2017.00048

This paper is open access.

2017 S.NET annual meeting early bird registration open until July 14, 2017

The Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies (S.NET), which at one time was known as the Society for the Study of Nano and other Emerging Technologies, is holding its 2017 annual meeting in Arizona, US. Here’s more from a July 4, 2017 S.NET notice (received via email),

We have an exciting schedule planned for our 2017 meeting in Phoenix,
Arizona. Our confirmed plenary speakers –Professors Langdon Winner,
Alfred Nordmann and Ulrike Felt– and a diverse host of researchers from
across the planet promise to make this conference intellectually
engaging, as well as exciting.

If you haven’t already, make sure to register for the conference and the

I tried to find more information about the meeting and discovered the meeting theme here in the February 2017 S.NET Newsletter,

October 9-11, 2017, Arizona State University, Tempe (USA)

Conference Theme: Engaging the Flux

Even the most seemingly stable entities fluctuate over time. Facts and artifacts, cultures and constitutions, people and planets. As the new and the old act, interact and intra-act within broader systems of time, space and meaning, we observe—and necessarily engage with—the constantly changing forms of socio-technological orders. As scholars and practitioners of new and emerging sciences and technologies, we are constantly tracking these moving targets, and often from within them. As technologists and researchers, we are also acutely aware that our research activities can influence the developmental trajectories of our objects of concern and study, as well as ourselves, our colleagues and the governance structures in which we live and work.

“Engaging the Flux” captures this sense that ubiquitous change is all about us, operative at all observable scales. “Flux” points to the perishability of apparently natural orders, as well as apparently stable technosocial orders. In embracing flux as its theme, the 2017 conference encourages participants to examine what the widely acknowledged acceleration of change reverberating across the planet means for the production of the technosciences, the social studies of knowledge production, art practices that engage technosciences and public deliberations about the societal significance of these practices in the contemporary moment.

This year’s conference theme aims to encourage us to examine the ways we—as scholars, scientists, artists, experts, citizens—have and have not taken into account the myriad modulations flowing and failing to flow from our engagements with our objects of study. The theme also invites us to anticipate how the conditions that partially structure these engagements may themselves be changing.

Our goal is to draw a rich range of examinations of flux and its implications for technoscientific and technocultural practices, broadly construed. Questions of specific interest include: Given the pervasiveness of political, ecological and technological fluctuations, what are the most socially responsible roles for experts, particularly in the context of policymaking? What would it mean to not merely accept perishability, but to lean into it, to positively embrace the going under of technological systems? What value can imaginaries offer in developing navigational capacities in periods of accelerated change? How can young and junior researchers —in social sciences, natural sciences, humanities or engineering— position themselves for meaningful, rewarding careers given the complementary uncertainties? How can the growing body of research straddling art and science communities help us make sense of flux and chart a course through it? What types of recalibrations are called for in order to speak effectively to diverse, and increasingly divergent, publics about the value of knowledge production and scientific rigor?

There are a few more details about the conference here on the  S.NET 2017 meeting registration page,

The ​2017 ​S. ​NET ​conference ​is ​held ​in ​Phoenix, ​Arizona ​(USA) ​and ​hosted ​by ​Arizona ​State ​University. ​ ​This ​year’s ​meeting ​will ​provide ​a ​forum ​for ​scholarly ​engagement ​and ​reflection ​on ​the ​meaning ​of ​coupled ​socio-technical ​change ​as ​a ​contemporary ​political ​phenomenon, ​a ​recurrent ​historical ​theme, ​and ​an ​object ​of ​future ​anticipation. ​ ​

HOTEL ​BLOCK ​- ​the ​new ​Marriott ​in ​downtown ​Phoenix ​has ​reserved ​rooms ​at ​$139 ​(single) ​or ​$159 ​(double ​bed). ​ ​ ​Please ​use ​the ​link ​on ​the ​S.Net ​home ​page ​to ​book ​your ​room. ​ ​

REGISTRATION ​for ​non-students: ​ ​
Early ​bird ​pricing ​is ​available ​until ​Saturday, ​July ​14, ​2017. ​ ​
Registration ​increases ​to ​$220 ​starting ​Sunday, ​July ​15, ​2017. ​
Start Your Registration
Select registrant type *
Select registrant type *
Faculty/Postdoc/private industry/gov employee ($175) Details
Student – submitting abstract or poster ($50)
Student – not submitting abstract or poster ($100)

There you have it.

A question of consciousness: Facebotlish (a new language); a July 5, 2017 rap guide performance in Vancouver, Canada; Tom Stoppard’s play; and a little more

This would usually be a simple event announcement but with the advent of a new, related (in my mind if no one else’s) development on Facebook, this has become a roundup of sorts.

Facebotlish (Facebook’s chatbots create their own language)

The language created by Facebook’s chatbots, Facebotlish, was an unintended consequence—that’s right Facebook’s developers did not design a language for the chatbots or anticipate its independent development, apparently.  Adrienne LaFrance’s June 20, 2017 article for theatlantic.com explores the development and the question further,

Something unexpected happened recently at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research lab. Researchers who had been training bots to negotiate with one another realized that the bots, left to their own devices, started communicating in a non-human language.

In order to actually follow what the bots were saying, the researchers had to tweak their model, limiting the machines to a conversation humans could understand. (They want bots to stick to human languages because eventually they want those bots to be able to converse with human Facebook users.) …

Here’s what the language looks like (from LaFrance article),

Here’s an example of one of the bot negotiations that Facebook observed:Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have 0 to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

It is incomprehensible to humans even after being tweaked, even so, some successful negotiations can ensue.

Facebook’s researchers aren’t the only one to come across the phenomenon (from LaFrance’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

Other AI researchers, too, say they’ve observed machines that can develop their own languages, including languages with a coherent structure, and defined vocabulary and syntax—though not always actual meaningful, by human standards.

In one preprint paper added earlier this year [2017] to the research repository arXiv, a pair of computer scientists from the non-profit AI research firm OpenAI wrote about how bots learned to communicate in an abstract language—and how those bots turned to non-verbal communication, the equivalent of human gesturing or pointing, when language communication was unavailable. (Bots don’t need to have corporeal form to engage in non-verbal communication; they just engage with what’s called a visual sensory modality.) Another recent preprint paper, from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Virginia Tech, describes an experiment in which two bots invent their own communication protocol by discussing and assigning values to colors and shapes—in other words, the researchers write, they witnessed the “automatic emergence of grounded language and communication … no human supervision!”

The implications of this kind of work are dizzying. Not only are researchers beginning to see how bots could communicate with one another, they may be scratching the surface of how syntax and compositional structure emerged among humans in the first place.

LaFrance’s article is well worth reading in its entirety especially since the speculation is focused on whether or not the chatbots’ creation is in fact language. There is no mention of consciousness and perhaps this is just a crazy idea but is it possible that these chatbots have consciousness? The question is particularly intriguing in light of some of philosopher David Chalmers’ work (see his 2014 TED talk in Vancouver, Canada: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness/transcript?language=en runs roughly 18 mins.); a text transcript is also featured. There’s a condensed version of Chalmers’ TED talk offered in a roughly 9 minute NPR (US National Public Radio) interview by Gus Raz. Here are some highlights from the text transcript,

So we’ve been hearing from brain scientists who are asking how a bunch of neurons and synaptic connections in the brain add up to us, to who we are. But it’s consciousness, the subjective experience of the mind, that allows us to ask the question in the first place. And where consciousness comes from – that is an entirely separate question.

DAVID CHALMERS: Well, I like to distinguish between the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem.

RAZ: This is David Chalmers. He’s a philosopher who coined this term, the hard problem of consciousness.

CHALMERS: Well, the easy problems are ultimately a matter of explaining behavior – things we do. And I think brain science is great at problems like that. It can isolate a neural circuit and show how it enables you to see a red object, to respondent and say, that’s red. But the hard problem of consciousness is subjective experience. Why, when all that happens in this circuit, does it feel like something? How does a bunch of – 86 billion neurons interacting inside the brain, coming together – how does that produce the subjective experience of a mind and of the world?

RAZ: Here’s how David Chalmers begins his TED Talk.


CHALMERS: Right now, you have a movie playing inside your head. It has 3-D vision and surround sound for what you’re seeing and hearing right now. Your movie has smell and taste and touch. It has a sense of your body, pain, hunger, orgasms. It has emotions, anger and happiness. It has memories, like scenes from your childhood, playing before you. This movie is your stream of consciousness. If we weren’t conscious, nothing in our lives would have meaning or value. But at the same time, it’s the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe. Why are we conscious?

RAZ: Why is consciousness more than just the sum of the brain’s parts?

CHALMERS: Well, the question is, you know, what is the brain? It’s this giant complex computer, a bunch of interacting parts with great complexity. What does all that explain? That explains objective mechanism. Consciousness is subjective by its nature. It’s a matter of subjective experience. And it seems that we can imagine all of that stuff going on in the brain without consciousness. And the question is, where is the consciousness from there? It’s like, if someone could do that, they’d get a Nobel Prize, you know?

RAZ: Right.

CHALMERS: So here’s the mapping from this circuit to this state of consciousness. But underneath that is always going be the question, why and how does the brain give you consciousness in the first place?


CHALMERS: Right now, nobody knows the answers to those questions. So we may need one or two ideas that initially seem crazy before we can come to grips with consciousness, scientifically. The first crazy idea is that consciousness is fundamental. Physicists sometimes take some aspects of the universe as fundamental building blocks – space and time and mass – and you build up the world from there. Well, I think that’s the situation we’re in. If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals – space, time – the natural thing to do is to postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental – a fundamental building block of nature. The second crazy idea is that consciousness might be universal. This view is sometimes called panpsychism – pan, for all – psych, for mind. Every system is conscious. Not just humans, dogs, mice, flies, but even microbes. Even a photon has some degree of consciousness. The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking. You know, it’s not that a photon is wracked with angst because it’s thinking, oh, I’m always buzzing around near the speed of light. I never get to slow down and smell the roses. No, not like that. But the thought is, maybe photons might have some element of raw subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness.

RAZ: So this is a pretty big idea – right? – like, that not just flies, but microbes or photons all have consciousness. And I mean we, like, as humans, we want to believe that our consciousness is what makes us special, right – like, different from anything else.

CHALMERS: Well, I would say yes and no. I’d say the fact of consciousness does not make us special. But maybe we’ve a special type of consciousness ’cause you know, consciousness is not on and off. It comes in all these rich and amazing varieties. There’s vision. There’s hearing. There’s thinking. There’s emotion and so on. So our consciousness is far richer, I think, than the consciousness, say, of a mouse or a fly. But if you want to look for what makes us distinct, don’t look for just our being conscious, look for the kind of consciousness we have. …

Intriguing, non?

Vancouver premiere of Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Baba Brinkman, former Vancouverite and current denizen of New York City, is back in town offering a new performance at the Rio Theatre (1680 E. Broadway, near Commercial Drive). From a July 5, 2017 Rio Theatre event page and ticket portal,

Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Wednesday, July 5 [2017] at 6:30pm PDT

Baba Brinkman’s new hip-hop theatre show “Rap Guide to Consciousness” is all about the neuroscience of consciousness. See it in Vancouver at the Rio Theatre before it goes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August [2017].

This event also features a performance of “Off the Top” with Dr. Heather Berlin (cognitive neuroscientist, TV host, and Baba’s wife), which is also going to Edinburgh.

Wednesday, July 5
Doors 6:00 pm | Show 6:30 pm

Advance tickets $12 | $15 at the door

*All ages welcome!
*Sorry, Groupons and passes not accepted for this event.

“Utterly unique… both brilliantly entertaining and hugely informative” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Broadway Baby

“An education, inspiring, and wonderfully entertaining show from beginning to end” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Mumble Comedy

There’s quite the poster for this rap guide performance,

In addition to  the Vancouver and Edinburgh performance (the show was premiered at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May 2017; see Simon Topping’s very brief review in this May 10, 2017 posting on the reviewshub.com), Brinkman is raising money (goal is $12,000US; he has raised a little over $3,000 with approximately one month before the deadline) to produce a CD. Here’s more from the Rap Guide to Consciousness campaign page on Indiegogo,

Brinkman has been working with neuroscientists, Dr. Anil Seth (professor and co-director of Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science) and Dr. Heather Berlin (Brinkman’s wife as noted earlier; see her Wikipedia entry or her website).

There’s a bit more information about the rap project and Anil Seth in a May 3, 2017 news item by James Hakner for the University of Sussex,

The research frontiers of consciousness science find an unusual outlet in an exciting new Rap Guide to Consciousness, premiering at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival.

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, has teamed up with New York-based ‘peer-reviewed rapper’ Baba Brinkman, to explore the latest findings from the neuroscience and cognitive psychology of subjective experience.

What is it like to be a baby? We might have to take LSD to find out. What is it like to be an octopus? Imagine most of your brain was actually built into your fingertips. What is it like to be a rapper kicking some of the world’s most complex lyrics for amused fringe audiences? Surreal.

In this new production, Baba brings his signature mix of rap comedy storytelling to the how and why behind your thoughts and perceptions. Mixing cutting-edge research with lyrical performance and projected visuals, Baba takes you through the twists and turns of the only organ it’s better to donate than receive: the human brain. Discover how the various subsystems of your brain come together to create your own rich experience of the world, including the sights and sounds of a scientifically peer-reviewed rapper dropping knowledge.

The result is a truly mind-blowing multimedia hip-hop theatre performance – the perfect meta-medium through which to communicate the dazzling science of consciousness.

Baba comments: “This topic is endlessly fascinating because it underlies everything we do pretty much all the time, which is probably why it remains one of the toughest ideas to get your head around. The first challenge with this show is just to get people to accept the (scientifically uncontroversial) idea that their brains and minds are actually the same thing viewed from different angles. But that’s just the starting point, after that the details get truly amazing.”

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist and award-winning playwright, best known for his “Rap Guide” series of plays and albums. Baba has toured the world and enjoyed successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and off-Broadway in New York. The Rap Guide to Religion was nominated for a 2015 Drama Desk Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience” and The Rap Guide to Evolution (“Astonishing and brilliant” NY Times), won a Scotsman Fringe First Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination for “Outstanding Solo Performance”. The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos premiered in Edinburgh in 2015, followed by a six-month off-Broadway run in 2016.

Baba is also a pioneer in the genre of “lit-hop” or literary hip-hop, known for his adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh. He is a recent recipient of the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for his efforts to improve the public understanding of evolutionary biology.

Anil Seth is an internationally renowned researcher into the biological basis of consciousness, with more than 100 (peer-reviewed!) academic journal papers on the subject. Alongside science he is equally committed to innovative public communication. A Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow (from 2016) and the 2017 British Science Association President (Psychology), Professor Seth has co-conceived and consulted on many science-art projects including drama (Donmar Warehouse), dance (Siobhan Davies dance company), and the visual arts (with artist Lindsay Seers). He has also given popular public talks on consciousness at the Royal Institution (Friday Discourse) and at the main TED conference in Vancouver. He is a regular presence in print and on the radio and is the recipient of awards including the BBC Audio Award for Best Single Drama (for ‘The Sky is Wider’) and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize (for EyeBenders). This is his first venture into rap.

Professor Seth said: “There is nothing more familiar, and at the same time more mysterious than consciousness, but research is finally starting to shed light on this most central aspect of human existence. Modern neuroscience can be incredibly arcane and complex, posing challenges to us as public communicators.

“It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to work with Baba on this project over the last year. I never thought I’d get involved with a rap artist – but hearing Baba perform his ‘peer reviewed’ breakdowns of other scientific topics I realized here was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Interestingly, Seth has another Canadian connection; he’s a Senior Fellow of the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR; Wikipedia entry). By the way, the institute  was promised $93.7M in the 2017 Canadian federal government budget for the establishment of a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy (see my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% of the way and look for the highlighted dollar amount). You can find out more about the Azrieli programme here and about CIFAR on its website.

The Hard Problem (a Tom Stoppard play)

Brinkman isn’t the only performance-based artist to be querying the concept of consciousness, Tom Stoppard has written a play about consciousness titled ‘The Hard Problem’, which debuted at the National Theatre (UK) in January 2015 (see BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online’s Jan. 29, 2015 roundup of reviews). A May 25, 2017 commentary by Andrew Brown for the Guardian offers some insight into the play and the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

There is a lovely exchange in Tom Stoppard’s play about consciousness, The Hard Problem, when an atheist has been sneering at his girlfriend for praying. It is, he says, an utterly meaningless activity. Right, she says, then do one thing for me: pray! I can’t do that, he replies. It would betray all I believe in.

So prayer can have meanings, and enormously important ones, even for people who are certain that it doesn’t have the meaning it is meant to have. In that sense, your really convinced atheist is much more religious than someone who goes along with all the prayers just because that’s what everyone does, without for a moment supposing the action means anything more than asking about the weather.

The Hard Problem of the play’s title is a phrase coined by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers to describe the way in which consciousness arises from a physical world. What makes it hard is that we don’t understand it. What makes it a problem is slightly different. It isn’t the fact of consciousness, but our representations of consciousness, that give rise to most of the difficulties. We don’t know how to fit the first-person perspective into the third-person world that science describes and explores. But this isn’t because they don’t fit: it’s because we don’t understand how they fit. For some people, this becomes a question of consuming interest.

There are also a couple of video of Tom Stoppard, the playwright, discussing his play with various interested parties, the first being the director at the National Theatre who tackled the debut run, Nicolas Hytner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7J8rWu6HJg (it runs approximately 40 mins.). Then, there’s the chat Stoppard has with previously mentioned philosopher, David Chalmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BPY2c_CiwA (this runs approximately 1 hr. 32 mins.).

I gather ‘consciousness’ is a hot topic these days and, in the venacular of the 1960s, I guess you could describe all of this as ‘expanding our consciousness’. Have a nice weekend!

A nano fabrication technique used to create next generation heart valve

I am going to have take the researchers’ word that these somehow lead to healthy heart valve tissue,

In rotary jet spinning technology, a rotating nozzle extrudes a solution of extracellular matrix (ECM) into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. By using a series of mandrels with different sizes, the manufacturing process becomes fully scalable and is able to provide JetValves for all age groups and heart sizes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

From a May 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The human heart beats approximately 35 million times every year, effectively pumping blood into the circulation via four different heart valves. Unfortunately, in over four million people each year, these delicate tissues malfunction due to birth defects, age-related deteriorations, and infections, causing cardiac valve disease.

Today, clinicians use either artificial prostheses or fixed animal and cadaver-sourced tissues to replace defective valves. While these prostheses can restore the function of the heart for a while, they are associated with adverse comorbidity and wear down and need to be replaced during invasive and expensive surgeries. Moreover, in children, implanted heart valve prostheses need to be replaced even more often as they cannot grow with the child.

A team lead by Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently developed a nanofiber fabrication technique to rapidly manufacture heart valves with regenerative and growth potential. In a paper published in Biomaterials, Andrew Capulli, Ph.D. and colleagues fabricated a valve-shaped nanofiber network that mimics the mechanical and chemical properties of the native valve extracellular matrix (ECM). To achieve this, the team used the Parker lab’s proprietary rotary jet spinning technology — in which a rotating nozzle extrudes an ECM solution into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. “Our setup is like a very fast cotton candy machine that can spin a range of synthetic and natural occurring materials. In this study, we used a combination of synthetic polymers and ECM proteins to fabricate biocompatible JetValves that are hemodynamically competent upon implantation and support cell migration and re-population in vitro. Importantly, we can make human-sized JetValves in minutes — much faster than possible for other regenerative prostheses,” said Parker.

A May 18,2017 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of Jetvalves,

To further develop and test the clinical potential of JetValves, Parker’s team collaborated with the translational team of Simon P. Hoerstrup, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which is a partner institution with the Wyss Institute. As a leader in regenerative heart prostheses, Hoerstrup and his team in Zurich have previously developed regenerative, tissue-engineered heart valves to replace mechanical and fixed-tissue heart valves. In Hoerstrup’s approach, human cells directly deposit a regenerative layer of complex ECM on biodegradable scaffolds shaped as heart valves and vessels. The living cells are then eliminated from the scaffolds resulting in an “off-the-shelf” human matrix-based prostheses ready for implantation.

In the paper, the cross-disciplinary team successfully implanted JetValves in sheep using a minimally invasive technique and demonstrated that the valves functioned properly in the circulation and regenerated new tissue. “In our previous studies, the cell-derived ECM-coated scaffolds could recruit cells from the receiving animal’s heart and support cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, tissue regeneration, and even animal growth. While these valves are safe and effective, their manufacturing remains complex and expensive as human cells must be cultured for a long time under heavily regulated conditions. The JetValve’s much faster manufacturing process can be a game-changer in this respect. If we can replicate these results in humans, this technology could have invaluable benefits in minimizing the number of pediatric re-operations,” said Hoerstrup.

In support of these translational efforts, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth. The team is also working towards a GMP-grade version of their customizable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing process that would enable deployment to a large patient population. In addition, the new heart valve would be compatible with minimally invasive procedures to serve both pediatric and adult patients.

The project will be led jointly by Parker and Hoerstrup. Parker is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Hoerstrup is Chair and Director of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM), Co-Director of the recently founded Wyss Translational Center Zurich and a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member.

Since JetValves can be manufactured in all desired shapes and sizes, and take seconds to minutes to produce, the team’s goal is to provide customized, ready-to-use, regenerative heart valves much faster and at much lower cost than currently possible.

“Achieving the goal of minimally invasive, low-cost regenerating heart valves could have tremendous impact on patients’ lives across age-, social- and geographical boundaries. Once again, our collaborative team structure that combines unique and leading expertise in bioengineering, regenerative medicine, surgical innovation and business development across the Wyss Institute and our partner institutions, makes it possible for us to advance technology development in ways not possible in a conventional academic laboratory,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

This scanning electron microscopy image shows how extracellular matrix (ECM) nanofibers generated with JetValve technology are arranged in parallel networks with physical properties comparable to those found in native heart tissue. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

JetValve: Rapid manufacturing of biohybrid scaffolds for biomimetic heart valve replacement by Andrew K. Capulli, Maximillian Y. Emmert, Francesco S. Pasqualini, b, Debora Kehl, Etem Caliskan, Johan U. Lind, Sean P. Sheehy, Sung Jin Park, Seungkuk Ahn, Benedikt Webe, Josue A. Goss. Biomaterials Volume 133, July 2017, Pages 229–241  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.04.033

This paper is behind a paywall.

Light-based computation made better with silver

It’s pretty amazing to imagine a future where computers run on light but according to a May 16, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily the idea is not beyond the realms of possibility,

Tomorrow’s computers will run on light, and gold nanoparticle chains show much promise as light conductors. Now Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich scientists have demonstrated how tiny spots of silver could markedly reduce energy consumption in light-based computation.

Today’s computers are faster and smaller than ever before. The latest generation of transistors will have structural features with dimensions of only 10 nanometers. If computers are to become even faster and at the same time more energy efficient at these minuscule scales, they will probably need to process information using light particles instead of electrons. This is referred to as “optical computing.”

The silver serves as a kind of intermediary between the gold particles while not dissipating energy. Capture: Liedl/Hohmann (NIM)

A March 15, 2017 LMU press release (also one EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a current use of light in telecommunications technology and this latest research breakthrough (the discrepancy in dates is likely due to when the paper was made available online versus in print),

Fiber-optic networks already use light to transport data over long distances at high speed and with minimum loss. The diameters of the thinnest cables, however, are in the micrometer range, as the light waves — with a wavelength of around one micrometer — must be able to oscillate unhindered. In order to process data on a micro- or even nanochip, an entirely new system is therefore required.

One possibility would be to conduct light signals via so-called plasmon oscillations. This involves a light particle (photon) exciting the electron cloud of a gold nanoparticle so that it starts oscillating. These waves then travel along a chain of nanoparticles at approximately 10% of the speed of light. This approach achieves two goals: nanometer-scale dimensions and enormous speed. What remains, however, is the energy consumption. In a chain composed purely of gold, this would be almost as high as in conventional transistors, due to the considerable heat development in the gold particles.

A tiny spot of silver

Tim Liedl, Professor of Physics at LMU and PI at the cluster of excellence Nanosystems Initiative Munich (NIM), together with colleagues from Ohio University, has now published an article in the journal Nature Physics, which describes how silver nanoparticles can significantly reduce the energy consumption. The physicists built a sort of miniature test track with a length of around 100 nanometers, composed of three nanoparticles: one gold nanoparticle at each end, with a silver nanoparticle right in the middle.

The silver serves as a kind of intermediary between the gold particles while not dissipating energy. To make the silver particle’s plasmon oscillate, more excitation energy is required than for gold. Therefore, the energy just flows “around” the silver particle. “Transport is mediated via the coupling of the electromagnetic fields around the so-called hot spots which are created between each of the two gold particles and the silver particle,” explains Tim Liedl. “This allows the energy to be transported with almost no loss, and on a femtosecond time scale.”

Textbook quantum model

The decisive precondition for the experiments was the fact that Tim Liedl and his colleagues are experts in the exquisitely exact placement of nanostructures. This is done by the DNA origami method, which allows different crystalline nanoparticles to be placed at precisely defined nanodistances from each other. Similar experiments had previously been conducted using conventional lithography techniques. However, these do not provide the required spatial precision, in particular where different types of metals are involved.

In parallel, the physicists simulated the experimental set-up on the computer – and had their results confirmed. In addition to classical electrodynamic simulations, Alexander Govorov, Professor of Physics at Ohio University, Athens, USA, was able to establish a simple quantum-mechanical model: “In this model, the classical and the quantum-mechanical pictures match very well, which makes it a potential example for the textbooks.”

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

Hotspot-mediated non-dissipative and ultrafast plasmon passage by Eva-Maria Roller, Lucas V. Besteiro, Claudia Pupp, Larousse Khosravi Khorashad, Alexander O. Govorov, & Tim Liedl. Nature Physics (2017) doi:10.1038/nphys4120 Published online 15 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Art masterpieces are turning into soap

This piece of research has made a winding trek through the online science world. First it was featured in an April 20, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert,

A good art dealer can really clean up in today’s market, but not when some weird chemistry wreaks havoc on masterpieces. Art conservators started to notice microscopic pockmarks forming on the surfaces of treasured oil paintings that cause the images to look hazy. It turns out the marks are eruptions of paint caused, weirdly, by soap that forms via chemical reactions. Since you have no time to watch paint dry, we explain how paintings from Rembrandts to O’Keefes are threatened by their own compositions — and we don’t mean the imagery.

Here’s the video,

Interestingly, this seems to be based on a May 23, 2016 article by Sarah Everts for Chemical and Engineering News (an American Society publication) Note: Links have been removed,

When conservator Petria Noble first peered at Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” under a microscope back in 1996, she was surprised to find pockmarks across the nearly 400-year-old painting’s surface.

Each tiny crater was just a few hundred micrometers in diameter, no wider than the period at the end of this sentence. The painting’s surface was entirely riddled with these curious structures, giving it “a dull, rather hazy, gritty surface,” Noble says.

A structure of lead nonanoate.

The crystal structures of metal soaps vary: Shown here is lead nonanoate, based on a structure solved by Cecil Dybowski at the University of Delaware and colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dashed lines are nearest oxygen neighbors.

This concerned Noble, who was tasked with cleaning the masterpiece with her then-colleague Jørgen Wadum at the Mauritshuis museum, the painting’s home in The Hague.

When Noble called physicist Jaap Boon, then at the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter in Amsterdam, to help figure out what was going on, the researchers unsuspectingly embarked on an investigation that would transform the art world’s understanding of aging paint.

More recently this ‘metal soaps in paintings’ story has made its way into a May 16, 2017 news item on phys.org,

An oil painting is not a permanent and unchangeable object, but undergoes a very slow change in the outer and inner structure. Metal soap formation is of great importance. Joen Hermans has managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints: a big step towards better preservation of works of art. He graduated cum laude on Tuesday 9 May [2017] at the University of Amsterdam with NWO funding from the Science4Arts program.

A May 15, 2017 Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) press release, which originated the phys.org news item, provides more information about Hermans’ work (albeit some of this is repetitive),

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 - 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, c. 1660 – 1661 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Paint can fade, varnish can discolour and paintings can collect dust and dirt. Joen Hermans has examined the chemical processes behind ageing processes in paints. ‘While restorers do their best to repair any damages that have occurred, the fact remains that at present we do not know enough about the molecular structure of ageing oil paint and the chemical processes they undergo’, says Hermans. ‘This makes it difficult to predict with confidence how paints will react to restoration treatments or to changes in a painting’s environment.’

‘Sand grains’ In the red tiles of 'View of Delft' by Johannes Vermeer shows 'lead soap spheres' (Annelies van Loon, UvA/Mauritshuis)‘Sand grains’ In the red tiles of ‘View of Delft’ by Johannes Vermeer shows ‘lead soap spheres’ (Annelies van Loon, UvA/Mauritshuis)

Visible to the naked eye

Hermans explains that in its simplest form, oil paint is a mixture of pigment and drying oil, which forms the binding element. Colour pigments are often metal salts. ‘When the pigment and the drying oil are combined, an incredibly complicated chemical process begins’, says Hermans, ‘which continues for centuries’. The fatty acids in the oil form a polymer network when exposed to oxygen in the air. Meanwhile, metal ions react with the oil on the surface of the grains of pigment.

‘A common problem when conserving oil paintings is the formation of what are known as metal soaps’, Hermans continues. These are compounds of metal ions and fatty acids. The formation of metal soaps is linked to various ways in which paint deteriorates, as when it becomes increasingly brittle, transparent or forms a crust on the paint surface. Hermans: ‘You can see clumps of metal soap with the naked eye on some paintings, like Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp or Vermeer’s View of Delft’. Around 70 per cent of all oil paintings show signs of metal soap formation.’

Conserving valuable paintings

Hermans has studied in detail how metal soaps form. He began by defining the structure of metal soaps. One of the things he discovered was that the process that causes metal ions to move in the painting is crucial to the speed at which the painting ages. Hermans also managed to recreate the molecular structure of old oil paints, making it possible to simulate and study the behaviour of old paints without actually having to remove samples from Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Hermans hopes this knowledge will contribute towards a solid foundation for the conservation of valuable works of art.

I imagine this will make anyone who owns an oil painting or appreciates paintings in general pause for thought and the inclination to utter a short prayer for conservators to find a solution.

The ultimate natural sunscreen

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, sunscreen season is on the horizon. While the “ultimate natural sunscreen” researchers from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have developed is a long way from the marketplace, this is encouraging news (from a May 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Chemists, materials scientists and nanoengineers at UC San Diego have created what may be the ultimate natural sunscreen.

In a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Central Science, they report the development of nanoparticles that mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes, melanin-producing cell structures that protect our skin, eyes and other tissues from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

“Basically, we succeeded in making a synthetic version of the nanoparticles that our skin uses to produce and store melanin and demonstrated in experiments in skin cells that they mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego, who headed the team of researchers. The achievement has practical applications.

A May 17, 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, delves into the research,

“Defects in melanin production in humans can cause diseases such as vitiligo and albinism that lack effective treatments,” Gianneschi added.

Vitiligo develops when the immune system wrongly attempts to clear normal melanocytes from the skin, effectively stopping the production of melanocytes. Albinism is due to genetic defects that lead to either the absence or a chemical defect in tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Both of these diseases lack effective treatments and result in a significant risk of skin cancer for patients.

“The widespread prevalence of these melanin-related diseases and an increasing interest in the performance of various polymeric materials related to melanin prompted us to look for novel synthetic routes for preparing melanin-like materials,” Gianneschi said.

UC San Diego Ultimate natural sunscreenThe scientists found that the synthetic nanoparticles were taken up in tissue culture by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin. Photo by Yuran Huang and Ying Jones/UC San Diego

Melanin particles are produced naturally in many different sizes and shapes by animals—for iridescent feathers in birds or the pigmented eyes and skin of some reptiles. But scientists have discovered that extracting melanins from natural sources is a difficult and potentially more complex process than producing them synthetically.

Gianneschi and his team discovered two years ago that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles could be developed in a precisely controllable manner to mimic the performance of natural melanins used in bird feathers.

“We hypothesized that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles would mimic naturally occurring melanosomes and be taken up by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin,” said Gianneschi.

In healthy humans, melanin is delivered to keratinocytes in the skin after being excreted as melanosomes from melanocytes.

The UC San Diego scientists prepared melanin-like nanoparticles through the spontaneous oxidation of dopamine—developing biocompatible, synthetic analogues of naturally occurring melanosomes. Then they studied their update, transport, distribution and ultraviolet radiation-protective capabilities in human keratinocytes in tissue culture.

The researchers found that these synthetic nanoparticles were not only taken up and distributed normally, like natural melanosomes, within the keratinocytes, they protected the skin cells from DNA damage due to ultraviolet radiation.

“Considering limitations in the treatment of melanin-defective related diseases and the biocompatibility of these synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles in terms of uptake and degradation, these systems have potential as artificial melanosomes for the development of novel therapies, possibly supplementing the biological functions of natural melanins,” the researchers said in their paper.

The other co-authors of the study were Yuran Huang and Ziying Hu of UC San Diego’s Materials Science and Engineering Program, Yiwen Li and Maria Proetto of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Xiujun Yue of the Department of Nanoengineering; and Ying Jones of the Electron Microscopy Core Facility.

The UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization has filed a patent application on the use of polydopamine-based artificial melanins as an intracellular UV-shield. Companies interested in commercializing this invention should contact Skip Cynar at invent@ucsd.edu

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

Mimicking Melanosomes: Polydopamine Nanoparticles as Artificial Microparasols by
Yuran Huang, Yiwen Li, Ziying Hu, Xiujun Yue, Maria T. Proetto, Ying Jones, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. ACS Cent. Sci., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00230 Publication Date (Web): May 18, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper,