“Living in a Dream,” part of Cambridge Festival (on display March 31 and April 1, 2023 in the UK)

Caption: Dream artwork by Jewel Chang of Anglia Ruskin University, which will be on display at the Cambridge Festival. Credit: Jewel Chang, Anglia Ruskin University

Let’s clear up a few things. First, as noted in the headline, the Cambridge Festival (March 17 – April 2, 2023) is being held in the UK by the University of Cambridge in the town of Cambridge. Second, the specific festival event featured here is a display put together by students and professors at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) and in the town of Cambridge as part of the festival and will be held for two days, March 31 – April 1, 2023.

A March 27, 2023 ARU press release (also on EurekAlert) provides more details about the two day display, Note: Links have been removed,

Dreams are being turned into reality as new research investigating the unusual experiences of people with depersonalisation symptoms is being brought to life in an art exhibition at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge, England.

ARU neuroscientist Dr Jane Aspell has led a major international study into depersonalisation, funded by the Bial Foundation. The “Living in a Dream” project, results from which will be published later this year, found that people who experience depersonalisation symptoms sometimes experience life from a very different perspective, both while awake and while dreaming.

Those experiencing depersonalisation often report feeling as though they are not real and that their body does not belong to them. Dr Aspell’s study, which is the first to examine how people with this disorder experience dreams, collected almost 1,000 dream reports from participants.

Now these dreams have been recreated by eight students from ARU’s MA Illustration course and the artwork will go on display for the first time on 31 March and 1 April as part of the Cambridge Festival.

This collaboration between art and science, led by psychologist Matt Gwyther and illustrator Dr Nanette Hoogslag, with the support of artist and creative technologist Emily Godden, has resulted in 12 original artworks, which have been created using the latest audio-visual technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), and are presented using a mix of audio-visual installation, virtual reality (VR) experiences, and traditional media.

Dr Jane Aspell, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at ARU and Head of the Self and Body Lab, said: “People who experience depersonalisation sometimes feel detached from their self and body, and a common complaint is that it’s like they are watching their own life as a film.

“Because their waking reality is so different, myself and my international collaborators – Dr Anna Ciaunica, Professor Bigna Lenggenhager and Dr Jennifer Windt – were keen to investigate how they experience their dreams.

“People who took part in the study completed daily ‘dream diaries’, and it is fabulous to see how these dreams have been recreated by this group of incredibly talented artists.”

Matt Gwyther added: “Dreams are both incredibly visual and surreal, and you lose so much when attempting to put them into words. By bringing them to life as art, it has not only produced fabulous artwork, but it also helps us as scientists better understand the experiences of our research participants.”

Amongst the artists contributing to the exhibition is MA student Jewel Chang, who has recreated a dream about being chased. When the person woke up, they continued to experience it and were unsure whether they were experiencing the dream or reality.

False awakenings and multiple layers of dreams can be confusing, affecting our perception of time and space. Jewel used AI to create an environment with depth and endless moving patterns that makes the visitor feel trapped in their dream, unable to escape.

Kelsey Wu, meanwhile, used special 3D software and cameras to recreate a dream of floating over hills and forests, and losing balance. The immersive piece, with the audience invited to sit on a grass-covered floor, creates a sense of loss of control of the body, which moves in an abnormal and unbalanced way, and evokes a struggle between illusion and reality as the landscape continuously moves.

Dr Nanette Hoogslag, Course Leader for the MA in Illustration at ARU, said: “This project has been a unique challenge, where students not only applied themselves in supporting scientific research, but investigated and used a range of new technologies, including virtual reality and AI-generated imagery. The final pieces are absolutely remarkable, and also slightly unsettling!”

You can find out more about the 2023 Cambridge Festival here and about the Anglia Ruskin University exhibit, “Living in a Dream: A visual exploration of the self in dreams using AI technology” here.

Sleep helps artificial neural networks (ANNs) to keep learning without “catastrophic forgetting”

A November 18, 2022 news item on phys.org describes some of the latest work on neuromorphic (brainlike) computing from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD or UC San Diego), Note: Links have been removed,

Depending on age, humans need 7 to 13 hours of sleep per 24 hours. During this time, a lot happens: Heart rate, breathing and metabolism ebb and flow; hormone levels adjust; the body relaxes. Not so much in the brain.

“The brain is very busy when we sleep, repeating what we have learned during the day,” said Maxim Bazhenov, Ph.D., professor of medicine and a sleep researcher at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “Sleep helps reorganize memories and presents them in the most efficient way.”

In previous published work, Bazhenov and colleagues have reported how sleep builds rational memory, the ability to remember arbitrary or indirect associations between objects, people or events, and protects against forgetting old memories.

Artificial neural networks leverage the architecture of the human brain to improve numerous technologies and systems, from basic science and medicine to finance and social media. In some ways, they have achieved superhuman performance, such as computational speed, but they fail in one key aspect: When artificial neural networks learn sequentially, new information overwrites previous information, a phenomenon called catastrophic forgetting.

“In contrast, the human brain learns continuously and incorporates new data into existing knowledge,” said Bazhenov, “and it typically learns best when new training is interleaved with periods of sleep for memory consolidation.”

Writing in the November 18, 2022 issue of PLOS Computational Biology, senior author Bazhenov and colleagues discuss how biological models may help mitigate the threat of catastrophic forgetting in artificial neural networks, boosting their utility across a spectrum of research interests. 

A November 18, 2022 UC San Diego news release (also one EurekAlert), which originated the news item, adds some technical details,

The scientists used spiking neural networks that artificially mimic natural neural systems: Instead of information being communicated continuously, it is transmitted as discrete events (spikes) at certain time points.

They found that when the spiking networks were trained on a new task, but with occasional off-line periods that mimicked sleep, catastrophic forgetting was mitigated. Like the human brain, said the study authors, “sleep” for the networks allowed them to replay old memories without explicitly using old training data. 

Memories are represented in the human brain by patterns of synaptic weight — the strength or amplitude of a connection between two neurons. 

“When we learn new information,” said Bazhenov, “neurons fire in specific order and this increases synapses between them. During sleep, the spiking patterns learned during our awake state are repeated spontaneously. It’s called reactivation or replay. 

“Synaptic plasticity, the capacity to be altered or molded, is still in place during sleep and it can further enhance synaptic weight patterns that represent the memory, helping to prevent forgetting or to enable transfer of knowledge from old to new tasks.”

When Bazhenov and colleagues applied this approach to artificial neural networks, they found that it helped the networks avoid catastrophic forgetting. 

“It meant that these networks could learn continuously, like humans or animals. Understanding how human brain processes information during sleep can help to augment memory in human subjects. Augmenting sleep rhythms can lead to better memory. 

“In other projects, we use computer models to develop optimal strategies to apply stimulation during sleep, such as auditory tones, that enhance sleep rhythms and improve learning. This may be particularly important when memory is non-optimal, such as when memory declines in aging or in some conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.”

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

Sleep prevents catastrophic forgetting in spiking neural networks by forming a joint synaptic weight representation by Ryan Golden, Jean Erik Delanois, Pavel Sanda, Maxim Bazhenov. PLOS [Computational Biology] DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1010628 Published: November 18, 2022

This paper is open access.

Turning asphaltene into graphene

Asphaltene (or asphaltenes are) is waste material that can be turned into graphene according to scientists at Rice University (Texas, US), from a November 18, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Asphaltenes, a byproduct of crude oil production, are a waste material with potential. Rice University scientists are determined to find it by converting the carbon-rich resource into useful graphene.

Muhammad Rahman, an assistant research professor of materials science and nanoengineering, is employing Rice’s unique flash Joule heating process to convert asphaltenes instantly into turbostratic (loosely aligned) graphene and mix it into composites for thermal, anti-corrosion and 3D-printing applications.

The process makes good use of material otherwise burned for reuse as fuel or discarded into tailing ponds and landfills. Using at least some of the world’s reserve of more than 1 trillion barrels of asphaltene as a feedstock for graphene would be good for the environment as well.

A November 17, 2022 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on this exciting news, Note: Links have been removed,

“Asphaltene is a big headache for the oil industry, and I think there will be a lot of interest in this,” said Rahman, who characterized the process as both a scalable and sustainable way to reduce carbon emissions from burning asphaltene.

Rahman is a lead corresponding author of the paper in Science Advances co-led by Rice chemist James Tour, whose lab developed flash Joule heating, materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan and Md Golam Kibria, an assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary, Canada.

Asphaltenes are 70% to 80% carbon already. The Rice lab combines it with about 20% of carbon black to add conductivity and flashes it with a jolt of electricity, turning it into graphene in less than a second. Other elements in the feedstock, including hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur, are vented away as gases.

“We try to keep the carbon black content as low as possible because we want to maximize the utilization of asphaltene,” Rahman said.

“The government has been putting pressure on the petroleum industries to take care of this,” said Rice graduate student and co-lead author M.A.S.R. Saadi. “There are billions of barrels of asphaltene available, so we began working on this project primarily to see if we could make carbon fiber. That led us to think maybe we should try making graphene with flash Joule heating.”

Assured that Tour’s process worked as well on asphaltene as it did on various other feedstocks, including plastic, electronic waste, tires, coal fly ash and even car parts, the researchers set about making things with their graphene. 

Saadi, who works with Rahman and Ajayan, mixed the graphene into composites, and then into polymer inks bound for 3D printers. “We’ve optimized the ink rheology to show that it is printable,” he said, noting the inks have no more than 10% of graphene mixed in. Mechanical testing of printed objects is forthcoming, he said.

Rice graduate student Paul Advincula, a member of the Tour lab, is co-lead author of the paper. Co-authors are Rice graduate students Md Shajedul Hoque Thakur, Ali Khater, Jacob Beckham and Minghe Lou, undergraduate Aasha Zinke and postdoctoral researcher Soumyabrata Roy; research fellow Shabab Saad, alumnus Ali Shayesteh Zeraati, graduate student Shariful Kibria Nabil and postdoctoral associate Md Abdullah Al Bari of the University of Calgary; graduate student Sravani Bheemasetti and Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, an associate professor, at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and its 2D Materials of Biofilm Engineering Science and Technology Center; and research assistant Yiwen Zheng and Aniruddh Vashisth, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, of the University of Washington.

The research was funded by the Alberta Innovates for Carbon Fiber Grand Challenge programs, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-19-1-0296), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (W912HZ-21-2-0050) and the National Science Foundation (1849206, 1920954).  

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

Sustainable valorization of asphaltenes via flash joule heating by M.A.S.R. Saadi, Paul A. Advincula, Md Shajedul Hoque Thakur, Ali Zein Khater, Shabab Saad, Ali Shayesteh Zeraati, Shariful Kibria Nabil, Aasha Zinke, Soumyabrata Roy, Minghe Lou, Sravani N. Bheemasetti, Md Abdullah Al Bari, Yiwen Zheng, Jacob L. Beckham, Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Aniruddh Vashisth, Md Golam Kibria, James M. Tour, Pulickel M. Ajayan, and Muhammad M. Rahman. Science Advances 18 Nov 2022 Vol 8, Issue 46 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add3555

This paper is open access.

Treating traumatic muscle loss with tissue nanotransfection

A November 9, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily announces some work from Indiana University (US),

Technology developed by researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine that can change skin tissue into blood vessels and nerve cells has also shown promise as a treatment for traumatic muscle loss.

Tissue nanotransfection is a minimally invasive nanochip device that can reprogram tissue function by applying a harmless electric spark to deliver specific genes in a fraction of a second.

A November 9, 2022 Indiana University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides additional technical details, Note: Links have been removed,

A new study, published in Nature Partner Journals Regenerative Medicine, tested tissue nanotransfection-based gene therapy as a treatment, with the goal of delivering a gene known to be a major driver of muscle repair and regeneration. They found that muscle function improved when tissue nanotransfection was used as a therapy for seven days following volumetric muscle loss in rats. It is the first study to report that tissue nanotransfection technology can be used to generate muscle tissue and demonstrates its benefit in addressing volumetric muscle loss.

Volumetric muscle loss is the traumatic or surgical loss of skeletal muscle that results in compromised muscle strength and mobility. Incapable of regenerating the amount of lost tissue, the affected muscle undergoes substantial loss of function, thus compromising quality of life. A 20 percent loss in mass can result in an up to 90 percent loss in muscle function.

Current clinical treatments for volumetric muscle loss are physical therapy or autologous tissue transfer (using a person’s own tissue), the outcomes of which are promising but call for improved treatment regimens.

“We are encouraged that tissue nanotransfection is emerging as a versatile platform technology for gene delivery, gene editing and in vivo tissue reprogramming,” said Chandan Sen, director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering, associate vice president for research and Distinguished Professor at the IU School of Medicine. “This work proves the potential of tissue nanotransfection in muscle tissue, opening up a new avenue of investigational pursuit that should help in addressing traumatic muscle loss. Importantly, it demonstrates the versatility of the tissue nanotransfection technology platform in regenerative medicine.”

Sen also leads the regenerative medicine and engineering scientific pillar of the IU Precision Health Initiative and is lead author on the new publication.

The Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering is home to the tissue nanotransfection technology for in vivo tissue reprogramming, gene delivery and gene editing. So far, tissue nanotransfection has also been achieved in blood vessel and nerve tissue. In addition, recent work has shown that topical tissue nanotransfection can achieve cell-specific gene editing of skin wound tissue to improve wound closure.

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

Myogenic tissue nanotransfection improves muscle torque recovery following volumetric muscle loss by Andrew Clark, Subhadip Ghatak, Poornachander Reddy Guda, Mohamed S. El Masry, Yi Xuan, Amy Y. Sato, Teresita Bellido & Chandan K. Sen. npj Regenerative Medicine volume 7, Article number: 63 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41536-022-00259-y Published: 20 October 2022

This paper is open access.

This is a very nice image of a delighted Dr. Sen,

Caption Chandan Sen Credit: Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Students from Nakoda Oyade Education Centre and scientists at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) use science to help bison

It’s known as Paskwâwimostos – ᐸᐢᑳᐧᐃᐧᒧᐢᑐᐢ – The Bison Project and is being conducted at Canada’s only synchrotron, the Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Here’s more from a November 24, 2022 CLS news release (also received via email), Note: Links have been removed,

Bison have long held a prominent place in the culture of the Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation, located about 100 kms east of Regina. The once-abundant animals were a vital source of food and furs for the ancestors of today’s Carry the Kettle people.

Now, high school students from Nakoda Oyade Education Centre at Carry the Kettle are using synchrotron imaging to study the health of a local bison herd, with an eye to protecting and growing their numbers.

Armin Eashappie, a student involved in the Bison Project, says the work she and her classmates are doing is a chance to give back to an animal that was once integral to the very existence of her community. “We don’t want them to go extinct, says Eashappie. “They helped us with everything. We got our tools, our clothes, our food from them. We used every single part of the buffalo, nothing was left behind…they
even helped us make our homes – the teepees – we used the hides to cover them up.”

Eashappie’s classmate, Leslie Kaysaywaysemat, says that if their team can identify items the bison are eating that are not good for their health, these could potentially be replaced by other, healthier items. “We want to preserve them and make sure all generations can see how magnificent these creatures are,” he says.

The students, who are participating in the CLS’s Bison Project, gathered samples of bison hair, soil from where the animals graze, and plants they feed on, then analyzed them using the IDEAS beamline at the CLS. The Bison Project, coordinated by the Education group of the CLS, integrates Traditional Knowledge and mainstream science in a transformative research experience for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit

Timothy Eashappie, Elder for the Bison Project, says it’s “awesome” that the students can use the Canadian Light Source machine to learn more about an animal that his people have long taken care of on the prairies. “That’s how we define ourselves – as
Buffalo People,” says Eashappie. “Since the beginning of time, they gave themselves to us, and now these young people are finding out how important these buffalo are to them, because it preserves their language, their culture, and their way of life. And now it’s our turn to take care of the bison.”

Once they’ve completed their analysis, the students will share their findings with the Chief and Council for Carry the Kettle.

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) is a national research facility of the University of Saskatchewan and one of the largest science projects in Canada’s history. More than 1,000 academic, government and industry scientists from around the world use the CLS every year in innovative health, agriculture, environment, and advanced materials research.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI], Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR], the Government of Saskatchewan, and the University of Saskatchewan fund CLS operations.

You can find more about the CLS Bison Project here,

The Bison Project integrates Traditional Knowledge (TK) and mainstream Science in an experience that engages First Nation, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) teachers, students, and communities. The Bison Project creates a unique opportunity to incorporate land-based hunting and herd management, synchrotron science, mainstream science principles and TK.

I found a bit more information about bison and their return in a November 23, 2020 article by Mark A. Bonta for The Daylighter,

For ecologists and environmentalists, it’s more than just a story about the return of a keystone species. 

The bison, it turns out, is an animal that maintains and restores the prairie.

Ecological restoration

Unlike cattle, bison are wallowers, so these powerful animals’ efforts to rid themselves of insect parasites, by rubbing their hide and rolling around on the ground, actually create permanent depressions, called bison wallows, in the landscape. 

These create fertile ground for diverse plant species — and the animals that rely on them. 

Bison also rub against woody plants and kill them off, keeping the prairies open, while their dung fertilizes the soil.

Iconic species like the greater prairie-chicken and the prairie dog all benefit from the restoration of bison. 

Bison herds have also proved highly adaptive to the “new,” post-colonial ecology of the Great Plains.

They are adapting to hunting season, for example, by delaying their migration. This keeps them out of harm’s way — but also increases the risk of human-bison conflicts.

Bonta’s article provides a little more detail about the mixed feelings that the return of the bison have engendered.

Transforming bacterial cells into living computers

If this were a movie instead of a press release, we’d have some ominous music playing over a scene in a pristine white lab. Instead, we have a November 13, 2022 Technion-Israel Institute of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert) where the writer tries to highlight the achievement while downplaying the sort of research (in synthetic biology) that could have people running for the exits,

Bringing together concepts from electrical engineering and bioengineering tools, Technion and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] scientists collaborated to produce cells engineered to compute sophisticated functions – “biocomputers” of sorts. Graduate students and researchers from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology Professor Ramez Daniel’s Laboratory for Synthetic Biology & Bioelectronics worked together with Professor Ron Weiss from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create genetic “devices” designed to perform computations like artificial neural circuits. Their results were recently published in Nature Communications.

The genetic material was inserted into the bacterial cell in the form of a plasmid: a relatively short DNA molecule that remains separate from the bacteria’s “natural” genome. Plasmids also exist in nature, and serve various functions. The research group designed the plasmid’s genetic sequence to function as a simple computer, or more specifically, a simple artificial neural network. This was done by means of several genes on the plasmid regulating each other’s activation and deactivation according to outside stimuli.

What does it mean that a cell is a circuit? How can a computer be biological?

At its most basic level, a computer consists of 0s and 1s, of switches. Operations are performed on these switches: summing them, picking the maximal or minimal value between them, etc. More advanced operations rely on the basic ones, allowing a computer to play chess or fly a rocket to the moon.

In the electronic computers we know, the 0/1 switches take the form of transistors. But our cells are also computers, of a different sort. There, the presence or absence of a molecule can act as a switch. Genes activate, trigger or suppress other genes, forming, modifying, or removing molecules. Synthetic biology aims (among other goals) to harness these processes, to synthesize the switches and program the genes that would make a bacterial cell perform complex tasks. Cells are naturally equipped to sense chemicals and to produce organic molecules. Being able to “computerize” these processes within the cell could have major implications for biomanufacturing and have multiple medical applications.

The Ph.D students (now doctors) Luna Rizik and Loai Danial, together with Dr. Mouna Habib, under the guidance of Prof. Ramez Daniel from the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion, and in collaboration with Prof. Ron Weiss from the Synthetic Biology Center, MIT,  were inspired by how artificial neural networks function. They created synthetic computation circuits by combining existing genetic “parts,” or engineered genes, in novel ways, and implemented concepts from neuromorphic electronics into bacterial cells. The result was the creation of bacterial cells that can be trained using artificial intelligence algorithms.

The group were able to create flexible bacterial cells that can be dynamically reprogrammed to switch between reporting whether at least one of a test chemicals, or two, are present (that is, the cells were able to switch between performing the OR and the AND functions). Cells that can change their programming dynamically are capable of performing different operations under different conditions. (Indeed, our cells do this naturally.) Being able to create and control this process paves the way for more complex programming, making the engineered cells suitable for more advanced tasks. Artificial Intelligence algorithms allowed the scientists to produce the required genetic modifications to the bacterial cells at a significantly reduced time and cost.

Going further, the group made use of another natural property of living cells: they are capable of responding to gradients. Using artificial intelligence algorithms, the group succeeded in harnessing this natural ability to make an analog-to-digital converter – a cell capable of reporting whether the concentration of a particular molecule is “low”, “medium”, or “high.” Such a sensor could be used to deliver the correct dosage of medicaments, including cancer immunotherapy and diabetes drugs.

Of the researchers working on this study, Dr. Luna Rizik and Dr. Mouna Habib hail from the Department of Biomedical Engineering, while Dr. Loai Danial is from the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering. It is bringing the two fields together that allowed the group to make the progress they did in the field of synthetic biology.

This work was partially funded by the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, the Technion’s Lorry I. Lokey interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering, and the [US Department of Defense] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

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

Synthetic neuromorphic computing in living cells by Luna Rizik, Loai Danial, Mouna Habib, Ron Weiss & Ramez Daniel. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 5602 (2022) DOIL https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-33288-8 Published: 24 September 2022

This paper is open access.

Teeny adventures, Latent Life, and photonic writing—a March 28, 2023 talk at 1 pm PT at the University of British Columbia

After reading the latest newsletter (received via email on March 20, 2023), featuring Scott Billings’ talk ‘Latest Life’, from the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Belkin Gallery I was reminded of a book produced at the nanoscale back in 2009 (May 21, 2009 posting; scroll down to the final paragraph) and which I wrote about again in 2012 (October 12, 2012 posting) when ‘Teeny Ted from Turnip Town’ was added to the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest book. (‘Teeny Ted’ also has a Wikipedia entry.)

The March 20, 2023 Belkin Gallery (also known as the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery) newsletter is promoting the next Ars Scientia events (the information can also be found on this webpage),

We hope you’ll join us this spring for talks and presentations related
to our ongoing research projects in art and science, and the
Anthropocene. Over the past years, we have developed a deep and
abiding interdisciplinary research practice related to these themes,
working with diverse disciplines that are fortified through oppositions,
collaborations and the celebration of new perspectives. We have shared
our different fields of experience, expertise and resources to catalyze
meaningful responses to research, pedagogy, communication and outreach,
and in doing so build responses that are more than the sum of their
parts. This methodology of bringing the unique perspectives and
practices of artists and curators to academic units presents an
opportunity to foster new modes of knowledge exchange. In this spirit,
we hope you’ll join us in thinking through these critical areas of

Ars Scientia

Building on exhibitions like The Beautiful Brain and Drift, the Ars Scientia research project connects artists with physicists to explore the intersections between the disciplines of art and science. A collaboration between the Belkin, the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the Blusson Quantum Matter Institute [QMI], [emphases mine] this spring’s artists’ residencies culminate in a series of talks by JG Mair, Scott Billings and Timothy Taylor, followed by a symposium in May with keynote speaker Kavita Philip.

Tuesday, March 28 [2023] at 1 pm [PT]

Artist Talk with Scott Billings

Tuesday, April 4 [2023] at 2 pm [PT]

Artist Talk with Timothy Taylor

Monday, May 15 [2023]

Symposium with keynote by Kavita Philip

I have more details (logistics in particular) about the Scott Billings talk, from the QMI Ars Scientia Artist Talks 2023: Latent Life by Scott Billings events page,

Please join Scott Billings for Latent Life, a presentation based on his recent research in the Ars Scientia residency. Drawing from a 1933 lecture in which Neils Bohr asserts that the impossibility of using a physical explanation for the phenomenon of life is analogous to the insufficiency of using a mechanical analysis to understand phenomena of the atom, Billings will discuss his seemingly conflicting dual practice as both visual artist and mechanical engineer. Reflecting upon a preoccupation with the animality of cinematic machine, among (many) other things, Billings will relay his recent direct experience with photonic writing [emphasis mine] at QMI’s NanoFab Lab and the wonderful new conundrum of making and exhibiting micro-sculptures that are far too small to see with the naked eye.

Date & time: March 28 [2023], 1:00-2:00pm [PT]

Location: 311, Brimacombe Building (2355 East Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4)

For more information on this event, please click here.

Photonic writing and sculpture? I’m guessing the word ‘writing’ in this context doesn’t mean what it usually means. Still, it did bring back memories of the world’s smallest book. I always did wonder about the point of producing book that couldn’t be read without expensive equipment. And now, there’s sculpture that can’t be seen.

I hope Billings’s talk will shed some light on this phenomenon of artists and writers creating objects than cannot be seen with the naked eye. Scientists do this sort of thing for fun but the motivation for writers and artists seems to be about proving something and not at all about play.

To make carbon nanotubes (CNTs), reach like a giraffe

Caption: There are dozens of varieties of nanotubes, each with a characteristic diameter and structural twist, or chiral angle. Carbon nanotubes are grown on catalytic particles using batch production methods that produce the entire gamut of chiral varieties, but Rice University scientists have come up with a new strategy for making batches with a single, desired chirality. Their theory shows chiral varieties can be selected for production when catalytic particles are drawn away at specific speeds by localized feedstock supply. The illustration depicts this and an analogous process 19th-century scientists used to describe the evolution of giraffes’ long necks due to the gradual selection of abilities to reach progressively higher for food. Credit: Illustration by Ksenia Bets/Rice University

A November 9, 2022 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert) announces the Holy Grail (I’ve lost track of how many have been reached) has been achieved for growing batches of carbon nanotubes,

Like a giraffe stretching for leaves on a tall tree, making carbon nanotubes reach for food as they grow may lead to a long-sought breakthrough.

Materials theorists Boris Yakobson and Ksenia Bets at Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering show how putting constraints on growing nanotubes could facilitate a “holy grail” of growing batches with a single desired chirality.

Their paper in Science Advances describes a strategy by which constraining the carbon feedstock in a furnace would help control the “kite” growth of nanotubes. In this method, the nanotube begins to form at the metal catalyst on a substrate, but lifts the catalyst as it grows, resembling a kite on a string.

Carbon nanotube walls are basically graphene, its hexagonal lattice of atoms rolled into a tube. Chirality refers to how the hexagons are angled within the lattice, between 0 and 30 degrees. That determines whether the nanotubes are metallic or semiconductors. The ability to grow long nanotubes in a single chirality could, for instance, enable the manufacture of highly conductive nanotube fibers or semiconductor channels of transistors.

Normally, nanotubes grow in random fashion with single and multiple walls and various chiralities. That’s fine for some applications, but many need “purified” batches that require centrifugation or other costly strategies to separate the nanotubes.

The researchers suggested hot carbon feedstock gas fed through moving nozzles could effectively lead nanotubes to grow for as long as the catalyst remains active. Because tubes with different chiralities grow at different speeds, they could then be separated by length, and slower-growing types could be completely eliminated.

One additional step that involves etching away some of the nanotubes could then allow specific chiralities to be harvested, they determined.

The lab’s work to define the mechanisms of nanotube growth led them to think about whether the speed of growth as a function of individual tubes’ chirality could be useful. The angle of “kinks” in the growing nanotubes’ edges determines how energetically amenable they are to adding new carbon atoms.

“The catalyst particles are moving as the nanotubes grow, and that’s principally important,” said lead author Bets, a researcher in Yakobson’s group. “If your feedstock keeps moving away, you get a moving window where you’re feeding some tubes and not the others.”

The paper’s reference to Lamarck giraffes — a 19th-century theory of how they evolved such long necks — isn’t entirely out of left field, Bets said.  

“It works as a metaphor because you move your ‘leaves’ away and the tubes that can reach it continue growing fast, and those that cannot just die out,” she said. “Eventually, all the nanotubes that are just a tiny bit slow will ‘die.’”

Speed is only part of the strategy. In fact, they suggest nanotubes that are a little slower should be the target to assure a harvest of single chiralities.

Because nanotubes of different chiralities grow at their own rates, a batch would likely exhibit tiers. Chemically etching the longest nanotubes would degrade them, preserving the next level of tubes. Restoring the feedstock could then allow the second-tier nanotubes to continue growing until they are ready to be culled, Bets said.

“There are three or four laboratory studies that show nanotube growth can be reversed, and we also know it can be restarted after etching,” she said. “So all the parts of our idea already exist, even if some of them are tricky. Close to equilibrium, you will have the same proportionality between growth and etching speeds for the same tubes. If it’s all nice and clean, then you can absolutely, precisely pick the tubes you target.”

The Yakobson lab won’t make them, as it focuses on theory, not experimentation. But other labs have turned past Rice theories into products like boron buckyballs.

“I’m pretty sure every single one of our reviewers were experimentalists, and they didn’t see any contradictions to it working,” Bets said. “Their only complaint, of course, was that they would like experimental results right now, but that’s not what we do.”

She hopes more than a few labs will pick up the challenge. “In terms of science, it’s usually more beneficial to give ideas to the crowd,” Bets said. “That way, those who have interest can do it in 100 different variations and see which one works. One guy trying it might take 100 years.”

Yakobson added, “We don’t want to be that ‘guy.’ We don’t have that much time.”

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

Single-chirality nanotube synthesis by guided evolutionary selection by Boris I. Yakobson and Ksenia V. Bets. Science Advances 9 Nov 2022 Vol 8, Issue 45 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add4627

This paper is open access.

A nontraditional artificial synaptic device and roadmap for Chinese research into neuromorphic devices

A November 9, 2022 Science China Press press release on EurekAlert announces a new approach to developing neuromorphic (brainlike) devices,

Neuromorphic computing is an information processing model that simulates the efficiency of the human brain with multifunctionality and flexibility. Currently, artificial synaptic devices represented by memristors have been extensively used in neural morphological computing, and different types of neural networks have been developed. However, it is time-consuming and laborious to perform fixing and redeploying of weights stored by traditional artificial synaptic devices. Moreover, synaptic strength is primarily reconstructed via software programming and changing the pulse time, which can result in low efficiency and high energy consumption in neural morphology computing applications.

In a novel research article published in the Beijing-based National Science Review, Prof. Lili Wang from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and her colleagues present a novel hardware neural network based on a tunable flexible MXene energy storage (FMES) system. The system comprises flexible postsynaptic electrodes and MXene nanosheets, which are connected with the presynaptic electrodes using electrolytes. The potential changes in the ion migration process and adsorption in the supercapacitor can simulate information transmission in the synaptic gap. Additionally, the voltage of the FMES system represents the synaptic weight of the connection between two neurons.

Researchers explored the changes of paired-pulse facilitation under different resistance levels to investigate the effect of resistance on the advanced learning and memory behavior of the artificial synaptic system of FMES. The results revealed that the larger the standard deviation, the stronger the memory capacity of the system. In other words, with the continuous improvement of electrical resistance and stimulation time, the memory capacity of the artificial synaptic system of FMES is gradually improved. Therefore, the system can effectively control the accumulation and dissipation of ions by regulating the resistance value in the system without changing the external stimulus, which is expected to realize the coupling of sensing signals and storage weight.

The FMES system can be used to develop neural networks and realize various neural morphological computing tasks, making the recognition accuracy of handwritten digit sets reach 95%. Additionally, the FMES system can simulate the adaptivity of the human brain to achieve adaptive recognition of similar target data sets. Following the training process, the adaptive recognition accuracy can reach approximately 80%, and avoid the time and energy loss caused by recalculation.

“In the future, based on this research, different types of sensors can be integrated on the chip to further realize multimodal sensing computing integrated architecture.” Prof. Lili Wang stated, “The device can perform low-energy calculations, and is expected to solve the problems of high write noise, nonlinear difference, and diffusion under zero bias voltage in certain neural morphological systems.”

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

Neuromorphic-computing-based adaptive learning using ion dynamics in flexible energy storage devices by Shufang Zhao, Wenhao Ran, Zheng Lou, Linlin Li, Swapnadeep Poddar, Lili Wang, Zhiyong Fan, Guozhen Shen. National Science Review, Volume 9, Issue 11, November 2022, nwac158, EOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwac158 Published: 13 August 2022

This paper is open access.

The future (or roadmap for) of Chinese research on neuromorphic engineering

While I was trying (unsuccessfully) to find a copy of the press release on the issuing agency’s website, I found this paper,

2022 roadmap on neuromorphic devices & applications research in China by Qing Wan, Changjin Wan, Huaqiang Wu, Yuchao Yang, Xiaohe Huang, Peng Zhou, LinChen, Tian-Yu Wang, Yi Li, Kanhao Xue, Yuhui He, Xiangshui Miao, Xi Li, Chenchen Xie, Houpeng Chen, Z. T. Song, Hong Wang, Yue Hao, Junyao Zhang, Jia Huang, Zheng Yu Ren, Li Qiang Zhu, Jianyu Du, Chen Ge, Yang Liu, Guanglong Ding, Ye Zhou, Su-Ting Han, Guosheng Wang, Xiao Yu, Bing Chen, Zhufei Chu, Lunyao Wang, Yinshui Xia, Chen Mu, Feng Lin, Chixiao Chen, Bojun Cheng, Yannan Xing, Weitao Zeng, Hong Chen, Lei Yu, Giacomo Indiveri and Ning Qiao. Neuromorphic Computing and Engineering DOI: 10.1088/2634-4386/ac7a5a *Accepted Manuscript online 20 June 2022 • © 2022 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd

The paper is open access.

*From the IOP’s Definitions of article versions: Accepted Manuscript is ‘the version of the article accepted for publication including all changes made as a result of the peer review process, and which may also include the addition to the article by IOP of a header, an article ID, a cover sheet and/or an ‘Accepted Manuscript’ watermark, but excluding any other editing, typesetting or other changes made by IOP and/or its licensors’.*

This is neither the published version nor the version of record.

Coelacanth (a living fish fossil) may provide clue to making artificial organs for transplantation

An ancient fish called a ‘living fossil’ has helped researchers understand the basics of stem cells. This will further stem cell research and be a step in the direction of creating artificial organs. The coelacanth fish is 400 million years old. Photo: Canva. Courtesy: university of Copenhagen

A December 12, 2022 University of Copenhagen press release (also on EurekAlert) describes work which may have an impact on organ transplants,

A beating heart. A complicated organ that pumps blood around the body of animals and humans. Not exactly something you associate with a Petri dish in a laboratory.

But that may change in the future, and save the lives of people whose own organs fail. And the research is now one step closer to that.

To design artificial organs you first have to understand stem cells and the genetic instructions that govern their remarkable properties.

Professor Joshua Mark Brickman at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Medicine (reNEW) has unearthed the evolutionary origins of a master gene that acts on a network of genes instructing stem cells.

“The first step in stem cell research is to understand the gene regulatory network that supports so-called pluripotent stem cells. Understanding how their function was perfected in evolution can help provide knowledge about how to construct better stem cells,” says Joshua Mark Brickman.

Pluripotent stem cells are stem cells that can develop into all other cells. For example, heart cells. If we understand how the pluripotent stem cells develop into a heart, then we are one step closer to replicating this process in a laboratory.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are non-specialized cells found in all multicellular organisms. Stem cells have two properties that distinguish them from other cell types. On the one hand, stem cells can undergo an unlimited number of cell divisions (mitoses), and on the other hand, stem cells have the ability to mature (differentiate) into several cell types.

A pluripotent stem cell is a cell that can develop into any other cell, such as a heart cell, hair cell or eye cell.

A ‘living fossil’ is the key to understanding stem cells

The pluripotent property of stem cells – meaning that the cells can develop into any other cell – is something that has traditionally been associated with mammals.

Now Joshua Mark Brickman and his colleagues have found that the master gene that controls stem cells and supports pluripotency also exists in a fish called coelacanth. In humans and mice this gene is called OCT4 and they found that the coelacanth version could replace the mammalian one in mouse stem cells.

In addition to the fact that the coelacanth is in a different class from mammals, it has also been called a ‘living fossil,’ since approximately 400 million years ago it developed into the form it has today. It has fins shaped like limbs and is therefore thought to resemble the first animals to move from the sea onto land.

“By studying its cells, you can go back in evolution, so to speak,” explains Assistant Professor Molly Lowndes.

Assistant Professor Woranop Sukparangsi continues: “The central factor controlling the gene network in stem cells is found in the coelacanth. This shows that the network already existed early in evolution, potentially as far back as 400 million years ago.”

And by studying the network in other species, such as this fish, the researchers can distill what the basic concepts that support a stem cell are.

“The beauty of moving back in evolution is that the organisms become simpler. For example, they have only one copy of some essential genes instead of many versions. That way, you can start to separate what is really important for stem cells and use that to improve how you grow stem cells in a dish,” says PhD student Elena Morganti.

Sharks, mice and kangaroos

In addition to the researchers finding out that the network around stem cells is much older than previously thought, and found in ancient species, they also learned how exactly evolution has modified the network of genes to support pluripotent stem cells.

The researchers looked at the stem cell genes from over 40 animals. For example sharks, mice and kangaroos. The animals were selected to provide a good sampling of the main branch points in evolution.

The researchers used artificial intelligence to build three-dimensional models of the different OCT4 proteins. The researchers could see that the general structure of the protein is maintained across evolution. While the regions of these proteins known to be important for stem cells do not change, species-specific differences in apparently unrelated regions of these proteins alter their orientation, potentially affecting how well it supports pluripotency.

“This a very exciting finding about evolution that would not have been possible prior to the advent of new technologies. You can see it as evolution cleverly thinking, we don not tinker with the ‘engine in the car’, but we can move the engine around and improve the drive train to see if it makes the car go faster,” says Joshua Mark Brickman.

The study is a collaborative project spanning Australia, Japan and Europe, with vital strategic partnerships with the groups of Sylvie Mazan at the Oceanological Observatory of Banyuls-sur-Mer in France and professor Guillermo Montoya at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at University of Copenhagen.

Caption: Coelacanth-fish and other animals. Credit: By Woranop Sukparangsi Courtesy: University of Copenhagen

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

Evolutionary origin of vertebrate OCT4/POU5 functions in supporting pluripotency by Woranop Sukparangsi, Elena Morganti, Molly Lowndes, Hélène Mayeur, Melanie Weisser, Fella Hammachi, Hanna Peradziryi, Fabian Roske, Jurriaan Hölzenspies, Alessandra Livigni, Benoit Gilbert Godard, Fumiaki Sugahara, Shigeru Kuratani, Guillermo Montoya, Stephen R. Frankenberg, Sylvie Mazan & Joshua M. Brickman. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 5537 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-32481-z Published: 21 September 2022

This paper is open access.