Tag Archives: zombies

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2015 meeting in San Jose, CA from Feb. 12 -16, 2014

The theme for the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting is Innovations, Information, and Imaging and you can find the program here. A few of the talks and presentations caught my eye and I’m starting with the plenary lectures as these reflect, more or less, the interpretation of the theme and set the tone for the meeting.

Plenary lectures

President’s Address
Thursday, 12 February 2015: 6:00 PM-7:30 PM

Dr. Gerald Fink’s work in genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology has advanced our understanding of gene regulation, mutation, and recombination. He developed a technique for transforming yeast that allowed researchers to introduce a foreign piece of genetic material into yeast cells and study the inheritance and expression of that DNA. [emphasis mine] The technique, fundamental to genetic engineering, laid the groundwork for the commercial use of yeast as biological factories for manufacturing vaccines and other drugs, and set the stage for genetic engineering in all organisms. Fink chaired a National Research Council Committee that produced the 2003 report Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism: Confronting the Dual Use Dilemma, recommending practices to prevent the potentially destructive application of biotechnology research while enabling legitimate research. …

I did not include Dr.Fink’s many, many professional attributes but rest assured Dr. Fink has founded at least one research group, received many professional honours, and has multiple degrees.

Back to the plenary lectures,

Daphne Koller: The Online Revolution: Learning Without Limits
Plenary Lecture
Friday, 13 February 2015: 5:00 PM-6:00 PM

Dr. Daphne Koller is the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University and president and co-founder of Coursera, an online education platform. Her research focus is artificial intelligence and its applications in the biomedical sciences. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Koller completed her Ph.D. at Stanford under the supervision of Joseph Halpern and performed postdoctoral research at University of California, Berkeley. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2004 and was awarded the first ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Sciences. She co-authored, with Nir Friedman, a textbook on probabilistic graphical models and offered a free online course on the subject. She and Andrew Ng, a fellow Stanford computer science professor, launched Coursera in 2012. Koller and Ng were recognized on the 2013 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world.

David Baker: Post-Evolutionary Biology: Design of Novel Protein Structures, Functions, and Assemblies

Plenary Lecture

Saturday, 14 February 2015: 5:00 PM-6:00 PM

Dr. David Baker is a biochemist and computational biologist whose research focuses on the prediction and design of macromolecular structures and functions. He is the director of the Rosetta Commons, a consortium of labs and researchers that develop the Rosetta biomolecular structure prediction and design program, which has been extended to the distributed computing project Rosetta@Home and the online computer game Foldit. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and completed postdoctoral work in biophysics at University of California, San Francisco. Baker has received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize; the Sackler International Prize in Biophysics; the Overton Prize from the International Society of Computational Biology; the Feynman Prize from the Foresight Institute; and the Centenary Award from the Biochemical Society. He is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[emphasis mine]

I found the mention of the Foresight Institute (a nanotechnology organization founded by Eric Drexler and Christine Petersen) quite interesting. The title of Baker’s presentation certainly brings to mind, synthetic biology.

Back to the plenary lectures,

Neil Shubin: Finding Your Inner Fish
Plenary Lecture
Monday, 16 February 2015: 8:30 AM-9:30 AM

Dr. Neil Shubin is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who researches the origin of animal anatomical features. He has done field work in Greenland, Africa, Asia, and North America. One of his discoveries, Tiktaalik roseae, has been described as the “missing link” between fish and land animals. He has also done important work on the developmental biology of limbs, and he uses his diverse fossil findings to devise hypotheses on how anatomical transformations occurred by way of genetic and morphogenetic processes. He is a fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He earned a Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University. Shubin’s popular science book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body was adapted for a PBS documentary series in 2014.

Here are a few presentations from the main program; this first one is a ‘conference within a conference’,

Citizen Science 2015, Day One
Pre-registration required
Wednesday, 11 February 2015: 8:30 AM-5:00 PM

Citizen science is a partnership between everyday people and professional scientists to investigate pressing questions about the world. Citizen Science 2015 invites anyone interested in such collaborations to participate in a two-day pre-conference before the AAAS Annual Meeting. All involved in any aspect of citizen science are welcome, including researchers, project leaders, educators, evaluators, designers and makers, volunteers, and more–representing a wide variety of disciplines. Join people from across the field of citizen science to discuss designing, implementing, sustaining, evaluating, and participating in projects. Share your project innovations and questions. Citizen Science 2015 is the inaugural conference and gathering of the newly formed Citizen Science Association (CSA). For additional information, including Citizen Science Conference registration, visit www.citizenscienceassociation.org.

Revolutionary Vision: Implants, Prosthetics, Smart Glasses, and the Telescopic Contact Lens
Friday, 13 February 2015: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide. Age-related macular degeneration alone is the leading cause of blindness among older adults in the western world. These facts leave no question as to why the brightest minds in science and engineering are setting their sights on vision through new electronics, retinal prosthesis, wearable technologies, and even telescopic contact lenses. Researchers are bringing into focus novel electronics such as systems on plastic, which are deformable and implantable, zero-power, and wireless and have numerous applications for sight and vision. Retinal prosthesis combined with video goggles pulsing near-infrared light, meanwhile, have restored up to half of normal acuity in rats. This symposium showcases and demos the latest prototypes tackling form as well as function: smart glasses with novel display architecture that make them small and light while maintaining an optimal field of view. These breakthroughs not only help subjects see but also hold promise for noninvasive continuous monitoring of eye health. Scientists will reveal the first-ever telescopic contact lens, which magnifies 2.8 times and offers hope for millions suffering from macular degeneration and seeking alternatives to bulky glasses and invasive surgery. These advances reveal the great promise that science holds for the visually impaired — truly a sight to behold.
Organizer:
Megan Williams, swissnex
Co-organizers:
Christian Simm, swissnex
and Melanie Picard, swissnex
Moderator:
Christian Simm, swissnex
Speakers:
Daniel Palanker, Stanford University
Restoration of Sight with Photovoltaic Subretinal Prosthesis
Eric Tremblay, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL)
Smart Glasses and Telescopic Contact Lenses for Macular Degeneration
Giovanni Antonio Salvatore, ETH Zurich
The Next Technological Leap in Electronics

Celebration of 2015: The International Year of Light
Friday, 13 February 2015: 8:30 AM-11:30 AM

In recognition that light-based science and technologies play a critical role in our daily lives, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring 2015 the International Year of Light. The UN resolution states that “applications of light science and technology are vital for existing and future advances in medicine, energy, information and communications, fiber optics, astronomy, agriculture, archaeology, entertainment, and culture.” Hundreds of science and engineering organizations across the globe signed on in support of the International Year of Light 2015 and will be raising awareness of light-based science and technology throughout the year. This symposium brings together speakers from diverse fields to illustrate the many sectors that are influenced by optics and photonics.
Organizer:
Martha Paterson, The Optical Society (OSA)
Co-organizers:
Anthony Johnson, University of Maryland
and Phil Bucksbaum, Stanford University
Moderator:
Anthony Johnson, University of Maryland
Speakers:
Elizabeth Hillman, Columbia University
Optics in Neuroscience
Warren Warren, Duke University
Applying Nonlinear Laser Microscopy to Melanoma Diagnosis and Renaissance Art Imaging
Uwe Bergmann, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
X-Ray Laser Research: Lighting Our Future
Alan Eli Willner, University of Southern California
Optical Communications
Christopher Stratas , Flextronics
LED Lighting and Energy Efficiency
R. Rox Anderson, Harvard Medical School
Lasers in Medicine

I last mentioned the upcoming International Year of Light in a Nov. 7, 2014 post about the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISENet) newsletter. For anyone who has difficulty connecting nano with light, remember the Lycurgus Cup (Sept. 21, 2010 post) infused with gold and silver nanoparticles and which appears either green or red depending on how the light is shone?

Back to the programme,

The Future of the Internet: Meaning and Names or Numbers?
The Future of Computing
Friday, 13 February 2015: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM

Information-centric networking (ICN) is a new, disruptive technology that holds the promise of eliminating many of the internet’s current technical shortcomings. The idea is based on two simple concepts: addressing information by its name rather than by its location, and adding computation and memory to the network, especially at the edge. The implications for network architects are far reaching and offer both elegant solutions and perplexing implementation challenges. The field of ICN research is active, including hundreds of projects at leading academic, industrial, and government laboratories around the world. This session will explore the motivations and current state-of-the-art in ICN research from multiple perspectives and approaches. The speakers in this session have contributed to every facet of the internet’s evolution since its inception.
Organizer:
Glenn T. Edens, PARC Xerox
Co-Organizer:
J.J. Garcia-Luna-Aceves, University of California, Santa Cruz
Speakers:
Vinton Cerf, Google Inc.
Digital Vellum
David Oran, Cisco Systems
Information-Centric Networking: Is It Ready for Prime Time? Will It Ever Be?
Glenn T. Edens, PARC Xerox
Information-Centric Networking: Towards a Reliable and Robust 21st Century Internet

It seems odd that the speakers come from industry/business exclusively.

Comics, Zombies, and Hip-Hop: Leveraging Pop Culture for Science Engagement
Friday, 13 February 2015: 1:00 PM-2:30 PM

Access to quality scientific information is progressively more important in society today. The critical ways information can be used range from increasing scientific literacy and developing the public’s understanding of behaviors that promote health and well-being, to increasing interest in careers in science and success in school — particularly among students traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Traditional forms of scientific communication — textbooks, talks, and articles in the lay press — succeed at reaching some, but leave many others in the dark. Recent research also indicates that scientists have a narrow view of outreach, mostly considering it as simply giving a talk at a school. However, new forms of culturally relevant engagement for K-12 students are emerging — comic books with rich scientific content that have been demonstrated to increase student engagement, novel workshops (for settings in and out of school) that interweave STEM  exploration with creative writing to build students’ scientific and written literacy, and connecting hip-hop culture and the classroom through rap — while engaging students as co-teachers and translators to help their peers learn science.
Organizer:
Rebecca L. Smith, University of California
Co-Organizer:
Kishore Hari, University of California
Moderator:
Rebecca L. Smith, University of California
Speakers:
Judy Diamond, University of Nebraska State Museum
Engaging Teenagers with Science Through Comics
Julius Diaz Panoriñgan, 826LA
Developing Multiple Literacies with Zombies, Space Exploration, and Superheroes
Tom McFadden, Nueva School
Science Rapping from Auckland to Oakland

Tom McFadden, one of the speakers, has been mentioned here on more than one occasion (most recently in a May 30, 2014 post).

Back to the program,

Citizen Science from the Zooniverse: Cutting-Edge Research with 1 Million Scientists
Friday, 13 February 2015: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM

Citizen science (CS) involves public participation and engagement in scientific research in a way that makes it possible to perform tasks that a small number of researchers could not accomplish alone, makes the research more democratic, and potentially educates the participants. Volunteers simply need access to a computer or tablet to become involved and assist research activities. The presence of massive online datasets and the availability of high-speed internet access provide many opportunities for citizen scientists to work on projects analyzing and interpreting data — especially images — in astronomy, biology, climate science, and other fields. The growing phenomenon of CS has drawn the interest of social scientists who study the efficacy of CS projects, motivations of participants, and applications to industry and policymaking. CS clearly has considerable potential in the era of big data. Galaxy Zoo is an example of a successful CS project; it invites volunteers to visually classify the shapes and structures of galaxies seen in images from optical surveys. The project resulted in catalogs of hundreds of thousands of classified galaxies, allowing for novel statistical analyses and the identification of rare objects. Its popularity led to the Zooniverse, a suite of projects in a diverse and interdisciplinary range of fields. This symposium will demonstrate how CS is becoming a vital tool and highlight the work of a variety of researchers.
Organizer:
Ramin A. Skibba, University of California
Speakers:
Laura Whyte, Adler Planetarium
Introduction to Citizen Science and the Zooniverse
Brooke Simmons, University of Oxford
The Scientific Impact of Galaxy Zoo
Alexandra Swanson, University of Minnesota
Photographing Carnivores with Snapshot Serengeti
Kevin Wood, University of Washington
Old Weather: Studying Historical Weather Patterns with Ship Logbooks
Paul Pharoah, University of Cambridge
Contributing to Cancer Research with Cell Slider
Philip Marshall, Stanford University
Using Space Warps To Find Gravitational Lenses

The Zooniverse has been mentioned here before, most recently in a March 17, 2014 post about the TED 2014 conference held in Vancouver (Canada),

Robert Simpson talked about citizen science, the Zooniverse project, and astronomy.  I have mentioned Zooniverse here (a Jan. 17, 2012 posting titled: Champagne galaxy, drawing bubbles for science and a Sept. 17, 2013 posting titled: Volunteer on the Plankton Portal and help scientists figure out ways to keep the ocean healthy.  Simpson says there are 1 million people participating in various Zooniverse projects and he mentioned that in addition to getting clicks and time from people, they’ve also gotten curiosity. That might seem obvious but he went on to describe a project (the Galaxy Zoo project) where the citizen scientists became curious about certain phenomena they were observing and as a consequence of their curiosity an entirely new type of galaxy was discovered, a pea galaxy. From the Pea Galaxy Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

A Pea galaxy, also referred to as a Pea or Green Pea, might be a type of Luminous Blue Compact Galaxy which is undergoing very high rates of star formation.[1] Pea galaxies are so-named because of their small size and greenish appearance in the images taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

Pea Galaxies were first discovered in 2007 by the volunteer users within the forum section of the online astronomy project Galaxy Zoo (GZ).[2]

Here’s the last presentation I’m featuring in this post and it has a ‘nano’ flavour,

Beyond Silicon: New Materials for 21st Century Electronics
Saturday, 14 February 2015: 8:00 AM-9:30 AM

Silicon Valley gets its name from the element found at the heart of all microelectronics. For decades, pure silicon single crystals have been the basis for computer chips. But as chips become smaller and faster, doubling the number of transistors on integrated circuits every two years in accordance with Moore’s law, silicon is nearing its practical limits. Scientists are exploring radical new materials and approaches to take over where silicon leaves off — from graphene, a honeycombed sheet of carbon just one atom thick, to topological insulators that conduct electricity perfectly on their surfaces and materials that use the electron’s spin, rather than its charge, to store information. Beyond graphene, scientists are investigating relatively new types of two-dimensional materials that have graphene-like structures and are also semiconducting, making them a natural fit for advanced electronics. This session will describe theoretical and experimental progress in materials beyond silicon that hold promise for continued improvement in computer performance.
Organizer:
Glennda Chui, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
Discussant:
Shoucheng Zhang, Stanford University
Speakers:
Stuart S.P. Parkin, IBM Research
Spintronic and Ionitronic Materials and Devices
Joshua Goldberger, Ohio State University
Beyond Graphene: Making New Two-Dimensional Materials for Future Electronics
Elsa Reichmanis, Georgia Institute of Technology
Active Organic and Polymer Materials for Flexible Electronics

There are some very intriguing presentations and one theme not featured here: data visualization (several presentations about visualizing data and/or science can be found). you can explore for yourself, here’s the online program.

Rising from the dead: the inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products

The inventory of nanotechnology-based consumer products or the Consumer Products Inventory (CPI) is still cited in articles about nanotechnology and its pervasive use in consumer products despite the fact that the inventory was effectively rendered inactive (i.e., dead) in 2009 and that  it was a voluntary system with no oversight, meaning whoever made the submission to the inventory could make any claims they wanted. Now that it’s 2013, things are about to change according to an Oct. 28, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

As a resource for consumers, scientists, and policy makers, the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN) has joined the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to renew and expand the Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory, an important source of information about products using nanomaterials.

“We want people to appreciate the revolution, such as in electronics and medicine. But we also want them to be informed,” said Nina Quadros, a research scientist at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and associate director of VTSuN, who leads a team of Virginia Tech faculty members and students on this project. Todd Kuiken, senior program associate, and David Rajeski, director of the science and technology innovation program, lead this project at the Wilson Center.

The Oct. 28, 2013 Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) news release by Susan Trulove (which originated the news item),provides a brief history of the inventory and a description of its revivification,

The Wilson Center and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology created the inventory in 2005. It grew from 54 to more than 1,000 products, many of which have come and gone. The inventory became the most frequently cited resource, showcasing the widespread applications of nanotechnology. However, in 2009, the project was no longer funded.

“I used it in publications and presentations when talking about all the ways nano is part of people’s lives in consumer products,” said Matthew Hull, who manages the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science’s investment portfolio in nanoscale science and engineering, which includes the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. “But the inventory was criticized by researchers, regulators, and manufacturers for the lack of scientific information available to support product claims.”

In a meeting with his friend, Andrew Maynard, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, who had initiated the inventory when he was at the Wilson Center, Hull proposed leveraging Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology resources to improve the inventory.

“My role was to ask ‘what if’ and [the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology] ran with it,” said Hull.

A partnership was formed and, with funding from the Virginia Tech institute, the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology restructured the inventory to improve the reliability, functionality, and scientific credibility of the database.

“Specifically, we added scientific significance and usefulness by including qualitative and quantitative descriptors for the products and the nanomaterials contained in these products, such as size, concentration, and potential exposure routes,” said Quadros. For example, an intentional exposure route would be the way a medicine is administered. An unintentional exposure would be when a child chews on a toy that has been treated with silver nanoparticles that are used as an antimicrobial. The potential health effect of nanomaterials on children was Quadros doctoral research and she used the inventory to find products designed for children that use nanomaterials, such as plush toys.

“One of the best things about the new version of the inventory is the additional information and the ability to search by product type or the type of nanomaterial,” she said. “When researchers were first attempting to assess the potential environmental impacts of nanotechnology, one main challenge was understanding how these nanomaterials might end up in the environment in the first place. After searching the CPI and seeing the vast applications of nanotechnologies in consumer products it was easier to narrow down scenarios.”

For example, Quadros said many silver nanoparticles are used in clothing for antimicrobial protection, so we can infer that some silver nanoparticles may end up in wastewater treatment plants after clothes washing. This helped justify some of the research on the effects of silver nanoparticle in the biological wastewater treatment processes. Currently, the inventory lists 188 products under the ‘clothing’ category.”

This team also included published scientific data related to those products, where available, and developed a metric to assess the reliability of the data on each inventory entry.

The team interviewed more than 50 nanotechnology experts with more than 350 combined years of experience in nanotechnology, Quadros said. “Their answers provided valuable guidance to help us address diverse stakeholder needs.”

In addition, the site’s users can log in and add information based on their own expertise. “Anyone can suggest edits. The curator and reviewer will approve the edits, and then the new information will go live,” Quadros said.

“We’ve added the horsepower of [the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology], but opened it by means of crowdsourcing to new information, such as refuting or supporting claims made about products,” Hull said.

“The goal of this work is to create a living, growing inventory for the exchange of accurate information on nano­enabled consumer products,” Quadros said. “Improved information sharing will allow citizens, manufacturers, scientists, policymakers, and others to better understand how nanotechnology is being used in the consumer marketplace,” she said.

As of October 2013,

The inventory currently lists more than 1,600 consumer products that claim to contain nanotechnology or have been found to contain nanomaterials.

Quadros will give a presentation about the inventory at the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization conference in Santa Barbara on Nov. 3-5 and will present to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation in the spring.

Key collaborators at Virginia Tech are Sean McGinnis, an associate research professor in the materials science and engineering department; Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering; her postdoc, Eric Vejerano, who was instrumental in development of product categories; and Michael Hochella, a university distinguished professor in the geosciences department and Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology director.

You can find the Consumer Products Inventory here where it is still hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The website for the Second Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization Conference where Quadros will be presenting can be found here and is where this conference description can be found,

The objective of this conference is to bring together scientific experts from academia, industry, and government agencies from around the world to present and discuss current research findings on the subject of nanotechnology and sustainability.

The conference program will address the critical aspects of sustainable nanotechnology such as life cycle assessment, green synthesis, green energy, industrial partnerships, environmental and biological fate, and the overall sustainability of engineered nanomaterials. In principle, this involves the fundamental/applied research on the chemistry of producing new green nanomaterials; eco-manufacturing processing of nanomaterials and products, using nanotechnology to benefit society, and examining possible harmful effects of nanotechnology.

The conference will also foster new collaborations between academic and industrial participants. This community of users, researchers and developers of engineered nanomaterials will provide a long-term, scientific assessment of where the science is for sustainable nano, where it should be heading, and what steps academics, government agencies and others can take now to reach targeted goals. In addition, the conference will serve as the platform to initiate the formation of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO), a non-profit, international professional society dedicated to advancing sustainable nanotechnology through education, research, and promotion of responsible development of nanotechnology.

Finally because I can resist no longer, especially so near to Hallowe’en, I guess you could call the ‘renewed’ CPI, a zombie CPI as it’s back from the dead and it needs brains,

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Zombies in Moscow, 26 April 2009 Credit: teujene [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zombies_in_Moscow.jpg]

Physicists at CERN film Decay—their first zombie movie?

Decay, the movie, seems to have been released in late November 2012.  It is, according to the Nov. 1, 2012 preview article written by Rebecca Pahle for The Mary Sue website, a project developed by physics students working at CERN’s (European Particle Physics Laboratory) Large Hadron Collider facility.

There are a lot of zombie movies out there. But Decay is the only one filmed in CERN, a.k.a. the home of the Large Hadron Collider. The film is the brainchild (mmmm… brains) of Luke Thompson and Clara Nellist, both Ph.D. students in physics, who despite having no filmmaking experience decided that, dammit, they were going to make a film about exposure to the Higgs Boson particle turning people into zombies. (If that sounds critical, it’s unintentional—jumping in and just doing it is a time-honored method for indie film.)

Though Thompson and Nellist got permission to shoot their film in CERN, the just-released trailer makes it very clear that officials there in no way endorse it. (Which—of course they wouldn’t. But they let them shoot there! How cool is that?)

Here’s the movie trailer,


J. Bryan Lowder’s Dec. 12, 2012 article for Slate describes some of Lowder’s experiences as a science writing intern dealing with myths about science and the filmmaking team’s motivations (laughing at science horror myths),

Back when I was a science writing intern at a major U.S. lab, there was a short list of words we were cautioned never to use in our public articles. Radiation was at the top of that list, not because the lab produced it in dangerous amounts (actually, it produced less than exists normally in nature), but because when people read the word, they freak out. The public’s fear—and by extension, this lab’s fear of talking about—radiation is understandable, but it’s also unreasonable and reveals a disappointing ignorance of science. …

Burton DeWilde, a physics Ph.D. and Decay’s director of photography/editor (and a friend of mine), explained the genesis of the project in an email:

The idea of filming a zombie movie at CERN was originally conceived by Luke Thompson (writer-director) and Hugo Day (props master) while exploring the lab’s creepy labyrinth of underground maintenance tunnels. It was agreed that they would make an excellent setting for a horror film. From there, the story evolved into a cheeky riff on the black hole hysteria: “The LHC didn’t produce earth-devouring black holes after all—but have you considered brain-devouring zombies?” Concerns about the Higgs in particular and clichés of mad scientists were also mixed in. We took all these worries to a totally ridiculous place.

And Decay is totally ridiculous, in the best sense of the word. The 75-min, $3,500 movie is remarkably well-made, given the creative team’s lack of experience. It’s studded with all the gratuitous gore, cheap shocks, and absurd plot twists that zombie fans crave. Science nerds and those who love them will bask in its shameless use of sci-fi clichés like “the results are inconclusive at best,” and “my research is too important!”

You can view the whole movie by clicking the link to Lowder’s article where it is embedded, visiting this Dec. 11, 2012 posting on The Mary Sue website, or going to the Decay website.

Zombies are a very hot topic in popular culture these days as per this Nov. 12, 2012 posting on this website which mentions my presentation ‘Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements’ at the S.NET 2012 (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) conference in Enschede, Holland.

BTW, Mary Sue is a term used to describe a female character who is perfect. From the Urban Dictionary definition,

  1. A female character who is so perfect that she is annoying. The name originated in a very short Star Trek story that mocked the sort of female characters who showed up in fanfiction. It usually refers to original female characters put into fanfiction, but can refer to any character. …
  2. An original character (fem.) in fanfic or an original story, usually on the internet, who is far superior to all other characters. She is typically beautiful, intelligent, kind, and in all other ways “perfect”. She usually serves as an important part in a pivotal plot element (ie: a prophecy) and becomes romantically involved with the author’s favourite character in the story. The internet fiction world runs rampant with these characters. …

Do go to the Urban Dictionary to reed the examples of ‘Mary Sue’ characters as they are very funny. The male equivalent may be called Marty Stu, Gary Stu, or Marty Sam.

Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements at the 4th annual S.NET conference

My proposal, Zombies, brains, collapsing boundaries, and entanglements, for the 4th annual S.NET (Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies) conference was accepted. Mentioned in my Feb. 9, 2012 posting, the conference will be held at the University of Twente (Netherlands) from Oct. 22 – 25, 2012.

Here’s the abstract I provided,

The convergence between popular culture’s current fascination with zombies and their appetite for human brains (first established in the 1985 movie, Night of the Living Dead) and an extraordinarily high level of engagement in brain research by various medical and engineering groups around the world is no coincidence

Amongst other recent discoveries, the memristor (a concept from nanoelectronics) is collapsing the boundaries between humans and machines/robots and ushering in an age where humanistic discourse must grapple with cognitive entanglements.

Perceptible only at the level of molecular electronics (nanoelectronics), the memristor was a theoretical concept until 2008. Traditionally in electrical engineering, there are three circuit elements: resistors, inductors, and capacitors. The new circuit element, the memristor, was postulated in a paper by Dr. Leon Chua in 1971 to account for anomalies that had been experienced and described in the literature since the 1950s.

According to Chua’s theory and confirmed by the research team headed by R. Stanley Williams, the memristor remembers how much and when current has been flowing. The memristor is capable of an in-between state similar to certain brain states and this capacity lends itself to learning. As some have described it, the memristor is a synapse on a chip making neural computing a reality and/or the possibility of repairing brains stricken with neurological conditions. In other words, with post-human engineering exploiting discoveries such as the memristor we will have machines/robots that can learn and think and human brains that could incorporate machines.

As Jacques Derrida used the zombie to describe a state that this is neither life nor death as undecidable, the memristor can be described as an agent of transformation conferring robots with the ability to learn (a human trait) thereby rendering them as undecidable, i.e., neither machine nor life. Mirroring its transformative agency in robots, the memristor could also confer the human brain with machine/robot status and undecidability when used for repair or enhancement.

The memristor moves us past Jacques Derrida’s notion of undecidability as largely theoretical to a world where we confront this reality in a type of cognitive entanglement on a daily basis.

You can find the preliminary programme here.  My talk is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 in one of the last sessions for the conference, 11 – 12:30 pm in the Tracing Transhuman Narratives strand.

I do see a few names I recognize, Wickson, Pat (Roy)  Mooney and Youtie. I believe Wickson is Fern Wickson from the University of Bergen last mentioned here in a Jul;y 7, 2010 posting about nature, nanotechnology, and metaphors. Pat Roy Mooney is from The ETC Group (an activist or civil society group) and was last mentioned here in my Oct. 7, 2011 posting), and I believe Youtie is Jan Youtie who wss mentioned in my March 29, 2012 posting about nanotechnology, economic impacts, and full life cycle assessments.

Whose Electric Brain? the video

After a few fits and starts, the video of my March 15, 2012 presentation to the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars at Simon Fraser University has been uploaded to Vimeo. Unfortunately the original recording was fuzzy (camera issues) so we (camera operator, director, and editor, Sama Shodjai [[email protected]]) and I rerecorded the presentation and this second version is the one we’ve uploaded.

Whose Electric Brain? (Presentation) from Maryse de la Giroday on Vimeo.

I’ve come across a few errors; at one point, I refer to Buckminster Fuller as Buckminster Fullerene and I state that the opening image visualizes a neuron from someone with Parkinson’s disease, I should have said Huntingdon’s disease. Perhaps, you’ll come across more, please do let me know. If this should become a viral sensation (no doubt feeding a pent up demand for grey-haired women talking about memristors and brains), it’s important that corrections be added.

Finally, a big thank you to Mark Dwor who provides my introduction at the beginning, the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars whose grant made the video possible, and Simon Fraser University.

ETA March 29, 2012: This is an updated version of the presentation I was hoping to give at ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Arts) 2011 in Istanbul. Sadly, I was never able to raise all of the funds I needed for that venture. The funds I raised separately from the CAIS grant are being held until I can find another suitable opportunity to present my work.

Black Rooster and nanotechnology

The entertainment industry seems to be using nanotechnology as a ready-to-hand narrative device (as per my NEW-GEN Oct. 17, 2011 posting and my Deus Ex: Human Revolution Aug. 18, 2011 posting, amongst others). The latest offering is Patient Zero from Black Rooster Creations. From the Oct. 18, 2011 media release on PRWeb,

Black Rooster Creations has launched its website with a viral campaign and three major book releases written by screenwriter Jim Beck featuring zombies, superheroes, and yes, even bugs.

The first release, Patient Zero, serves as a cautionary tale that mixes old school zombies with new school technology. Narrated by the zombie virus itself, the story follows single father Robert Forrester, who is brought back to life as one of the living dead after a botched experiment involving nanotechnology. [emphasis mine] His transformation is slow, first appearing as a skin rash and advanced arthritis, and he quickly begins to lose control.

Beck stated, “The idea for Patient Zero came to me after ingesting numerous forms of zombie lore and realizing that many of them shared the same basic formula of an unexplained outbreak, followed by a group of people trying to survive. I wanted to tell a more personal story about a single father trying to protect his son and defend their home while coming to grips with his own transformation. I also liked the contrast between zombification and nanotechnology, and telling the story from the point of view of the virus will provide readers with an insight rarely seen in the world of zombies.”

I could be wrong here but I don’t have the impression that this work is well grounded in science still, that doesn’t mean that it won’t be fun. You can go to the Black Rooster Creations website to get more information.

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for ethicalcorp.com (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.