Category Archives: Mathematics

Latest Canadian students’ math and reading scores drop, the 2022 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment]) scorecard

It took a while (until December 2023) for the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Cooperation Development) to release its latest (2022) PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores.

Where Canada is concerned the scores seem to be a case of ‘the same old same old as per my October 9, 2013 posting about Canada’s then latest PISA scores, “What happened? 2009 report says Canadian students are leaders in reading, math, and science; 2013 report says Canadian students are dropping out of maths and sciences.”

Onto the 2022 results: you can find the OECD’s November 5, 2023 press release, “Decline in educational performance only partly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” announcing the latest PISA result and there’s this December 5, 2023 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) online news item, which contrasts the 2022 results with the 2018 results, Note: A link has been removed,

Math and reading scores of Canadian students continue to decline steeply, matching a global trend, according to a new study.

The state of global education was given a bleak appraisal in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is the first study to examine the academic progress of 15-year-old students in dozens of countries during the pandemic.

Released Tuesday [December 5, 2023], it finds the average international math score fell by the equivalent of 15 points compared to 2018 scores, while reading scores fell 10 points.

The study found Canada’s overall math scores declined 15 points between 2018 and 2022. According to PISA, which defines a drop of 20 points as losing out on a fully year of learning, that means Canada’s math score dropped by an equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning.

During that same time period, reading scores of Canadian students dropped by 13 points and science by three.

Only 12 per cent of Canadian students were high math achievers, scoring at Level 5 or 6. That’s fewer than some of the top Asian countries and economies: In Singapore, 41 per cent of students performed at the top level; in Hong Kong, 27 per cent; and in Japan and Korea, 23 per cent.

Louis Volante, a professor of education governance at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., believes the pandemic had more of a negative effect on math learning than reading and science.

‘Some provinces declining more than others’

Anna Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, notes that math scores in Canada have been trending in the wrong direction since 2003, “with some provinces declining more than others.”

According to the study, the provinces with the largest drop in math scores since 2018 were Newfoundland Labrador with 29, Nova Scotia with 24, New Brunswick with 23 and Manitoba with 22. Meanwhile, Alberta’s score only dropped by seven and B.C.’s just eight.

“I do think part of the problem is the philosophy of how to teach math,” Stokke told CBC News.

“First of all, we’re not spending enough time on math in schools. And second of all, kids just aren’t getting good instruction in a lot of cases. They’re not getting explicit instruction. They’re not getting enough practice. And that really needs to change.”

A survey of students found about half faced closures of more than three months, but it didn’t always lead to lower scores. There was “no clear difference” in performance trends between countries that had limited closures, including Iceland and Sweden, and those with longer closures, including Brazil and Ireland, according to the report.

Canada still in top 10

Singapore, long seen as an education powerhouse, had the highest scores by far in every subject. It was joined in the upper echelons by other East Asian countries, including Japan and China.

Despite the declines across the subjects, Canada did well compared to the other countries in the report, placing ninth in math, sixth in reading and seventh in science.

Usually given every three years, the latest test was delayed a year because of the pandemic. It was administered in 2022 to a sample of 15-year-olds in 37 countries that are OECD members, plus 44 other partner countries. The test has been conducted since 2000.

In 2022, 81 countries participated, with 23,000 Canadian high school students writing the test.

If you don’t have time to read all of the December 5, 2023 CBC online news item, there’s Quinn Henderson’s succinct December 6, 2023 article for the Daily Hive,

Wendy Hughes (then PhD student) and Sarfaroz Niyozov (then associate professor) both associated with the University of Toronto, presented a critique of PISA in their June 4, 2019 essay on The Conversation,

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) global standardized test of student achievement — is frequently used by commentators to compare and rank national or provincial education systems.

PISA, which has now spread into 80 countries as a best education practice, presents itself as a tool to help countries make their systems more inclusive leading to equitable outcomes. But PISA is far more ambiguous and controversial.

Many academics and educators critique PISA as an economic measurement, not an educational one. The media generally use PISA results to blame and shame school systems. And the way that some politicians, policy-makers and researchers have used PISA is more closely aligned to a political process than an educational one.

You can find the PISA 2022 results here.

Dendritic painting: a physics story

A March 4, 2024 news item on announces research into the physics of using paints and inks in visual art, Note: A link has been removed,

Falling from the tip of a brush suspended in mid-air, an ink droplet touches a painted surface and blossoms into a masterpiece of ever-changing beauty. It weaves a tapestry of intricate, evolving patterns. Some of them resemble branching snowflakes, thunderbolts or neurons, whispering the unique expression of the artist’s vision.

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) researchers set out to analyze the physical principles of this fascinating technique, known as dendritic painting. They took inspiration from the artwork of Japanese media artist, Akiko Nakayama. The work is published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

Caption: Japanese artist Akiko Nakayama manipulates alcohol and inks to create tree-like dendritic patterns during a live painting session. Credit: Photo Credit: Akiko Nakayama

Yes, the ends definitely look tree-like (maybe cedar). A February 29, 2024 Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) press release (also on EurekAlert but published March 1, 2024), which originated the news item, goes on to describe the forces at work and provides instructions for creating your own dendritic paintings, Note: Links have been removed,

During her [Akiko Nakayama] live painting performances, she applies colourful droplets of acrylic ink mixed with alcohol atop a flat surface coated with a layer of acrylic paint. Beautiful fractals – tree-like geometrical shapes that repeat at different scales and are often found in nature – appear before the eyes of the audience. This is a captivating art form driven by creativity, but also by the physics of fluid dynamics.

“I have a deep admiration for scientists, such as Ukichiro Nakaya and Torahiko Terada, who made remarkable contributions to both science and art. I was very happy to be contacted by OIST physicist Chan San To. I am envious of his ability ‘to dialogue’ with the dendritic patterns, observing how they change shape in response to different approaches. Hearing this secret conversation was delightful,” explains Nakayama.

“Painters have often employed fluid mechanics to craft unique compositions. We have seen it with David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jackson Pollock, and Naoko Tosa, just to name a few. In our laboratory, we reproduce and study artistic techniques, to understand how the characteristics of the fluids influence the final outcome,” says OIST Professor Eliot Fried of OIST’s Mechanics and Materials Unit, who likes looking at dendritic paintings from artistic and scientific angles.

In dendritic painting, the droplets made of ink and alcohol experience various forces. One of them is surface tension – the force that makes rain droplets spherical in shape, and allows leaves to float on the surface of a pond. In particular, as alcohol evaporates faster than water, it alters the surface tension of the droplet. Fluid molecules tend to be pulled towards the droplet rim, which has higher surface tension compared to its centre. This is called the Marangoni effect and is the same phenomenon responsible for the formation of wine tears – the droplets or streaks of wine that form on the inside of a wine glass after swirling or tilting.

Secondly, the underlying paint layer also plays an important part in this artistic technique. Dr. Chan tested various types of liquids. For fractals to emerge, the liquid must be a fluid that decreases in viscosity under shear strain, meaning it has to behave somewhat like ketchup. It’s common knowledge that it’s hard to get ketchup out of the bottle unless you shake it. This happens because ketchup’s viscosity changes depending on shear strain. When you shake the bottle, the ketchup becomes less viscous, making it easier to pour it onto your dish. How is this applied to dendritic painting?

“In dendritic painting, the expanding ink droplet shears the underlying acrylic paint layer. It is not as strong as the shaking of a ketchup bottle, but it is still a form of shear strain. As with ketchup, the more stress there is, the easier it is for the ink droplets to flow,” explains Dr. Chan.

“We also showed that the physics behind this dendritic painting technique is similar to how liquid travels in a porous medium, such as soil. If you were to look at the mix of acrylic paint under the microscope, you would see a network of microscopic structures made of polymer molecules and pigments. The ink droplet tends to find its way through this underlying network, travelling through paths of least resistance, that leads to the dendritic pattern,” adds Prof. Fried.

Each dendritic print is one-of-a-kind, but there are at least two key aspects that artists can take into consideration to control the outcome of dendritic painting. The first and most important factor is the thickness of the paint layer spread on the surface. Dr. Chan observed that well-refined fractals appear with paint layer thinner than a half millimetre.

The second factor to experiment with is the concentration of diluting medium and paint in this paint layer. Dr. Chan obtained the most detailed fractals using three parts diluting medium and one part paint, or two parts diluting medium and one part paint. If the concentration of paint is higher, the droplet cannot spread well. Conversely, if the concentration of paint is lower, fuzzy edges will form. 

This is not the first science-meets-art project that members of the Mechanics and Materials Unit have embarked on. For example, they designed and installed a mobile sculpture on the OIST campus. The sculpture exemplifies a family of mechanical devices, called Möbius kaleidocycles, invented in the Unit, which may offer guidelines for designing chemical compounds with novel electronic properties.

Currently, Dr. Chan is also developing novel methods of analysing how the complexity of a sketch or painting evolves during its creation. He and Prof. Fried are optimistic that these methods might be applied to uncover hidden structures in experimentally captured or numerically generated images of flowing fluids.

“Why should we confine science to just technological progress?” wonders Dr. Chan. “I like exploring its potential to drive artistic innovation as well. I do digital art, but I really admire traditional artists. I sincerely invite them to experiment with various materials and reach out to us if they’re interested in collaborating and exploring the physics hidden within their artwork.”

Instructions to create dendritic painting at home

Everybody can have fun creating dendritic paintings. The materials needed include a non-absorbent surface (glass, synthetic paper, ceramics, etc.), a brush, a hairbrush, rubbing alcohol (iso-propyl alcohol), acrylic ink, acrylic paint and pouring medium.

  1. Dilute one part of acrylic paint to two or three parts of  pouring medium, or test other ratios to see how the result changes
  2. Apply this to the non-absorbent surface uniformly using a hairbrush. OIST physicists have found out that the thickness of the paint affects the result. For the best fractals, a layer of paint thinner than half millimetre is recommended.
  3. Mix rubbing alcohol with acrylic ink. The density of the ink may differ for different brands: have a try mixing alcohol and ink in different ratios
  4. When the white paint is still wet (hasn’t dried yet), apply a droplet of the ink with alcohol mix using a brush or another tool, such as a bamboo stick or a toothpick.
  5. Enjoy your masterpiece as it develops before your eyes. 

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

Marangoni spreading on liquid substrates in new media art by San To Chan and Eliot Fried. PNAS Nexus, Volume 3, Issue 2, February 2024, pgae059 DOI: Published: 08 February 2024

This paper is open access.

Simon Fraser University’s (SFU; Vancouver, Canada) Café Scientifique Winter/Spring 2024 events + a 2023 Nobel-themed lecture

There are three upcoming Simon Fraser University (SFU) Café Scientifique events (Zoom) and one upcoming Nobel=themed lecture (in person) according to a January 15, 2024 notice (received via email), Note: All the events are free,

Hello SFU Cafe Scientifique friends!

We are back with a brand new line up for our Cafe Scientifique discussion series.  Zoom invites will be sent closer to the event dates [emphasis mine].  We hope you can join us.

All event information and registration links on this page:

Café Scientifique: Why Do Babies Get Sick? A Systems Biology Approach to Developing Diagnostics and Therapeutics for Neonatal Sepsis. 

Tuesday, January 30, 5:00-6:30pm over Zoom 

Around the world five newborn babies die each second from life-threatening infections. Unfortunately there is no fast or easy way to tell which microbes are involved. Molecular Biology and Biochemistry assistant professor Amy Lee will share how we can use genomics and machine learning approaches to tackle this challenge.
Register here.

Cafe Scientifique: From data to dollars: A journey through financial modelling
Tuesday, February 27, 5:00-6:30 pm over Zoom 

Financial modelling involves using mathematical and statistical techniques to understand future financial scenarios, helping individuals and businesses make informed decisions about their investments. Join Dr. Jean-François Bégin as he explores how these models can empower us to navigate the complexities of financial markets.

Register here:

Cafe Scientifique: Overtraining and the Everyday Athlete
Tuesday, April 30, 5:00-6:30 pm over Zoom 

What happens when we train too hard, don’t take enough time to recover, or underfuel while exercising, and how that applies to both elite athletes and just your “everyday athlete.” Join Dr. Alexandra Coates from our Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology Department in this interesting discussion.

Register here:

Missed our last Café Scientifique talk [Decoding how life senses and responds to carbon dioxide gas] with Dustin King? [SFU Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Dustin King’s Indigenous background is central to his work and relationship with the biochemical research he conducts. He brings Indigenous ways of knowing and a two-eye seeing approach to critical questions about humanity’s impact upon the natural world …] Watch it on YouTube:

The ‘2023 Nobel Prize Lectures’ being presented by SFU do not feature the 2023 winners but rather, SFU experts in the relevant field, from the January 15, 2024 SFU Café Scientifique notice (received via email),


Location: Science World Theatre 1455 Quebec Street Vancouver, BC V6A 3Z7


Wednesday, March 6, 2024 

6:30-7:30 pm Refreshments, 7:30-9:30 pm Lectures 

Celebrate the 2023 Nobel awardees in Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine!

SFU experts will explain Nobel laureates’ award-winning research and its significance to our everyday lives. 

Featured presenters are

*Mark Brockman from Molecular Biology and Biochemistry for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology;

*Byron Gates from Chemistry for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and

*Shawn Sederberg from the School of Engineering Science for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Register here:

For anyone who has trouble remembering who and why the winners were awarded a 2023 Nobel Prize, here’s a webpage devoted to the 2023 winners.

Consciousness, energy, and matter

Credit: Rice University [downloaded from]

There’s an intriguing approach tying together ideas about consciousness, artificial intelligence, and physics in an October 8, 2023 news item on,

With the rise of brain-interface technology and artificial intelligence that can imitate brain functions, understanding the nature of consciousness and how it interacts with reality is not just an age-old philosophical question but also a salient challenge for humanity.

An October 9, 2023 University of Technology Sydney (UTS) press release (also on EurekAlert but published on October 8, 2023), which originated the news item, delves further into the subject matter, Note: Links have been removed,

Can AI become conscious, and how would we know? Should we incorporate human or animal cells, such as neurons, into machines and robots? Would they be conscious and have subjective experiences? Does consciousness reduce to physicalism, or is it fundamental? And if machine-brain interaction influenced you to commit a crime, or caused a crime, would you be responsible beyond a reasonable doubt? Do we have a free will?

AI and computer science specialist Dr Mahendra Samarawickrama, winner of the Australian Computer Society’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Professional of the year, has applied his knowledge of physics and artificial neural networks to this thorny topic.

He presented a peer-reviewed paper on fundamental physics and consciousness at the 11th International Conference on Mathematical Modelling in Physical Sciences, Unifying Matter, Energy and Consciousness, which has just been published in the AIP (the American Institute of Physics) Conference Proceedings. 

“Consciousness is an evolving topic connected to physics, engineering, neuroscience and many other fields. Understanding the interplay between consciousness, energy and matter could bring important insights to our fundamental understanding of reality,” said Dr Samarawickrama.

“Einstein’s dream of a unified theory is a quest that occupies the minds of many theoretical physicists and engineers. Some solutions completely change existing frameworks, which increases complexity and creates more problems than it solves.

“My theory brings the notion of consciousness to fundamental physics such that it complements the current physics models and explains the time, causality, and interplay of consciousness, energy and matter.

“I propose that consciousness is a high-speed sequential flow of awareness subjected to relativity. The quantised energy of consciousness can interplay with matter creating reality while adhering to laws of physics, including quantum physics and relativity.

“Awareness can be seen in life, AI and even physical realities like entangled particles. Studying consciousness helps us be aware of and differentiate realities that exist in nature,” he said. 

Dr Samarawickrama is an honorary Visiting Scholar in the School of Computer Science at the University of Technology Sydney, where he has contributed to UTS research on data science and AI, focusing on social impact.

“Research in this field could pave the way towards the development of conscious AI, with robots that are aware and have the ability to think becoming a reality. We want to ensure that artificial intelligence is ethical and responsible in emerging solutions,” Dr Samarawickrama said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper Samarawickrama presented at the 11th International Conference on Mathematical Modelling in Physical Sciences, Unifying Matter, Energy and Consciousness,

Unifying matter, energy and consciousness by Mahendra Samarawickrama. AIP Conf. Proc. Volume 2872, Issue 1, 28 September 2023, 110001 (2023) DOI:

This paper is open access.

The researcher has made a video of his presentation and further information available,

It’s a little bit over my head but hopefully repeated viewings and readings will help me better understand Dr. Samarawickrama’s work.

Arithmetic and its biological roots

Randolph Grace’s (Professor of Psychology, University of Canterbury, England) August 14, 2023 essay for The Conversation delves into an interesting question,

Why have humans invented the same arithmetic, over and over again? Could arithmetic be a universal truth waiting to be discovered?

The point is made (from Grace’s August 14, 2023 essay), Note: A link has been removed,

Humans have been making symbols for numbers for more than 5,500 years. More than 100 distinct notation systems are known to have been used by different civilisations, including Babylonian, Egyptian, Etruscan, Mayan and Khmer.

The remarkable fact is that despite the great diversity of symbols and cultures, all are based on addition and multiplication. For example, in our familiar Hindu-Arabic numerals: 1,434 = (1 x 1000) + (4 x 100) + (3 x 10) + (4 x 1).

Why have humans invented the same arithmetic, over and over again? Could arithmetic be a universal truth waiting to be discovered?

Grace describes a biological phenomenon to support his proposal (from Grace’s August 14, 2023 essay), Note: Links have been removed,

Bees provide a clue

We proposed a new approach based on the assumption that arithmetic has a biological origin.

Many non-human species, including insects, show an ability for spatial navigation which seems to require the equivalent of algebraic computation. For example, bees can take a meandering journey to find nectar but then return by the most direct route, as if they can calculate the direction and distance home.

A graph that shows a bee's zig-zag flight and the direct route home.
Bees can integrate their zig-zag flight path to calculate the straightest route back to the hive. Nicola J. Morton, CC BY-SA

How their miniature brain (about 960,000 neurons) achieves this is unknown. These calculations might be the non-symbolic precursors of addition and multiplication, honed by natural selection as the optimal solution for navigation.

Arithmetic may be based on biology and special in some way because of evolution’s fine-tuning.

He goes on to describe how he and his colleagues tested their hypothesis (read the essay) and concludes with this (from Grace’s August 14, 2023 essay), Note: A link has been removed,

Although this structure [how our perception is structured] is shared with other animals, only humans have invented mathematics. It is humanity’s most intimate creation, a realisation in symbols of the fundamental nature and creativity of the mind.

In this sense, mathematics is both invented (uniquely human) and discovered (biologically-based). The seemingly miraculous success of mathematics in the physical sciences hints that our mind and the world are not separate, but part of a common unity.

The arc of mathematics and science points toward non-dualism, a philosophical concept that describes how the mind and the universe as a whole are connected, and that any sense of separation is an illusion. This is consistent with many spiritual traditions (Taoism, Buddhism) and Indigenous knowledge systems such as mātauranga Māori.

Here’s a link to (or PDF for Grace’s paper) and a citation for the paper,

The Psychological Scaffolding of Arithmetic by Matt Grice, Simon Kemp, Nicola J. Morton, Randolph C. Grace. Psychological Review DOI: Advance online publication June 26, 2023

This paper is open access.

6th annual Girls and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) Summit at Science World in Vancouver (Canada)

Thanks to Rebecca Bollwitt and the October 24, 2023 posting on her Miss 604 blog for the news about the 2023 (or 6th annual) Girls and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) Summit. From Alexis Miles’s October 24, 2023 post,

The 6th annual Girls and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and math), presented by STEMCELL Technologies, is taking place at Science World November 4th [2023].

Girls and STEAM at Science World
Date: Saturday, November 4, 2023
Time: 7:45am to 4:00pm
Location: Science World (1455 Quebec Street, Vancouver)
Admission: Registration is open online for girls aged 12 to 14.

300 young girls, aged 12-14, will take over the Science World dome in a day of hands-on activities, enriching workshops, inspiring mentorship sessions and a keynote presentation.

This year’s keynote presentation features Andini Makosinski, Filipina-Polish Canadian inventor best known for her invention of the Hollow Flashlight that runs off the heat of the human hand, and theeDrink, a coffee mug that harvests the excess heat of a hot drink and converts it into electricity to charge a phone. The inspiration for Andini’s flashlight came from her friend in the Philippines, who had failed a grade in school because she had no light or electricity to study with at night.

A September 25, 2023 STEMCELL Technologies news release announces the company’s participation and support for the event,

STEMCELL Technologies, Canada’s largest biotechnology company, is pleased to announce it will be the presenting partner of the Girls and STEAM Summit at Science World in Vancouver.

The Summit, which takes place on November 4, 2023, is a full-day event with workshops, hands-on activities, a keynote presentation, and sessions with experienced mentors who work in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and design, and math).

“Science is about so much more than what happens in the laboratory. It provides a lens that can instill a deep-seated curiosity in young minds and enrich every aspect of our lives,” said Sharon Louis, Senior Vice President of Research and Development, STEMCELL. “Scientific education – in the classroom and out in the world – can lead to life-changing experiences and limitless opportunities for young women and girls. STEMCELL is proud to support the Girls and STEAM program to make science more accessible, and help ignite the passion of the next generation of scientists and leaders.”

About STEMCELL Technologies

STEMCELL Technologies supports life sciences research with more than 2,500 specialized reagents, tools, and services. STEMCELL offers high-quality cell culture media, cell separation technologies, instruments, accessory products, educational resources, and contract assay services that are used by scientists performing stem cell, immunology, cancer, regenerative medicine, and cellular therapy research globally.

[downloaded from]

You can register here.

Researchers at University of Montéal decode how molecules “talk” to each

An August 15, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily breaks news from the University of Montréal,

Two molecular languages at the origin of life have been successfully recreated and mathematically validated, thanks to pioneering work by Canadian scientists at Université de Montréal.

Fascinating, non? An August 15, 2023 Université de Montréal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explaining how this leads to nanotechnology-enabled applications, Note: A link has been removed,

Published this week in the Journal of American Chemical Society, the breakthrough opens new doors for the development of nanotechnologies with applications ranging from biosensing, drug delivery and molecular imaging.

Living organisms are made up of billions of nanomachines and nanostructures that communicate to create higher-order entities able to do many essential things, such as moving, thinking, surviving and reproducing.

“The key to life’s emergence relies on the development of molecular languages – also called signalling mechanisms – which ensure that all molecules in living organisms are working together to achieve specific tasks,” said the study’s principal investigator, UdeM bioengineering professor Alexis Vallée-Bélisle.

In yeasts, for example, upon detecting and binding a mating pheromone, billions of molecules will communicate and coordinate their activities to initiate union, said Vallée-Bélisle, holder of a Canada Research Chair in Bioengineering and Bionanotechnology.

“As we enter the era of nanotechnology, many scientists believe that the key to designing and programming more complex and useful artificial nanosystems relies on our ability to understand and better employ molecular languages developed by living organisms,” he said.

Two types of languages

One well-known molecular language is allostery. The mechanism of this language is “lock-and-key”: a molecule binds and modifies the structure of another molecule, directing it to trigger or inhibit an activity.

Another, lesser-known molecular language is multivalency, also known as the chelate effect. It works like a puzzle: as one molecule binds to another, it facilitates (or not) the binding of a third molecule by simply increasing its binding interface.

Although these two languages are observed in all molecular systems of all living organisms, it is only recently that scientists have started to understand their rules and principles – and so use these languages to design and program novel artificial nanotechnologies.

“Given the complexity of natural nanosystems, before now nobody was able to compare the basic rules, advantage or limitations of these two languages on the same system,” said Vallée-Bélisle.

To do so, his doctoral student Dominic Lauzon, first author of the study, had the idea of creating a DNA-based molecular system that could function using both languages. “DNA is like Lego bricks for nanoengineers,” said Lauzon. “It’s a remarkable molecule that offers simple, programmable and easy-to-use chemistry.”

Simple mathematical equations to detect antibodies

The researchers found that simple mathematical equations could well describe both languages, which unravelled the parameters and design rules to program the communication between molecules within a nanosystem.

For example, while the multivalent language enabled control of both the sensitivity and cooperativity of the activation or deactivation of the molecules, the corresponding allosteric translation only enabled control of the sensitivity of the response.

With this new understanding at hand, the researchers used the language of multivalency to design and engineer a programmable antibody sensor that allows the detection of antibodies over different ranges of concentration.

“As shown with the recent pandemic, our ability to precisely monitor the concentration of antibodies in the general population is a powerful tool to determine the people’s individual and collective immunity,” said Vallée-Bélisle.

In addition to expanding the synthetic toolbox to create the next generation of nanotechnology, the scientist’s discovery also shines a light on why some natural nanosystems may have selected one language over another to communicate chemical information.

Caption; The illustration depicts two chemical languages at the basis of molecular communication. The same white molecule, represented as a lock, is activated either via allostery (top) or multivalency (bottom). The allosteric activator (cyan) induces a conformational change of the lock while the multivalent activator provides the missing part of the lock, both enabling the activation by the key (pink). Credit: Monney Medical Media / Caitlin Monney

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

Programing Chemical Communication: Allostery vs Multivalent Mechanism by Dominic Lauzon and Alexis Vallée-Bélisle. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2023, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: Online Publication Date: August 15, 2023 © 2023 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Simon Fraser University’s (SFU; Canada) Café Scientifique Fall 2023 events: first event is Sept. 26, 2023

From a September 7, 2023 SFU Café Scientifique announcement of their Fall 2023 event schedule (received via email),

We hope you had a great summer and are all excited for a brand new fall line-up:

SFU Café Scientifique lectures and discussions on Zoom 

Tuesdays from 5:00-6:30pm, Zoom invites are sent to those who register.

Email for inquires.

Sept 26, 2023 Vance Williams, Chemistry

Title: (Un)Natural Beauty: Art, Science and Technology

Description: While art is often described in opposition to science and technology, in reality, these disciplines are mutually supporting and reinforcing explorations of the natural and constructed world. In this presentation, I will examine the intersection of art and science and the often blurry distinction between the scientist and the artist.

[Register here for September 26, 2023 event]

October 24, 2023 Ailene MacPherson, Mathematics

Title: Who, What, Where, When, and Why: the power of genomics in public health

Description: Within days of first being identified the full genome sequence of SARS Cov-2 was published online. Here we discuss the extraordinary power and limitations of genomics for understanding disease spread and for designing effective public health interventions.

[Register here for October 24, 2023 event]

November 28, 2023 Dustin King, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

Title: Decoding how life senses and responds to carbon dioxide gas.

Description: Dustin King’s Indigenous background is central to his work and relationship with the biochemical research he conducts. He brings Indigenous ways of knowing and a two-eye seeing approach to critical questions about humanity’s impact upon the natural world. 

Join Dr. King on a microscopic journey into intricate cellular systems, which make use of CO2 in incredible ways. The presence of CO2 on Earth has given rise to a diverse evolutionary tree, with plants and animals developing ingenious methods for harnessing and using CO2 in their unique habitats. We travel from the depths of the ocean floor to the air we breathe, to understand the implications of increasing CO2 levels in nature and in daily human life.

[Register here for November 28, 2023 event]

I wouldn’t have thought art/science or, as it sometimes called, sciart was a particularly obscure concept these days but it’s a good reminder that much depends on the community from which you draw your audience.

Punctuation: a universal complement to the mathematical perfection of language

Before getting to the research into mathematics and punctuation, I’m setting the scene with snippets from a February 13, 2023 online article by Dan Falk for Aperio magazine, which seems to function both as a magazine and an advertisement for postdoctoral work in Israel funded by the Azrieli Foundation,

Four centuries ago, Galileo famously described the physical world as a realm that was rooted in mathematics. The universe, he wrote, “cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word.”

Since Galileo’s time, scientists and philosophers have continued to ponder the question of why mathematics is so shockingly effective at describing physical phenomena. No one would deny that this is a deep question, but for philosopher Balthasar Grabmayr, an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Haifa, even deeper questions lie beneath it. Why does mathematics work at all? Does mathematics have limits? And if it does, what can we say about those limits?

Grabmayr found his way to this field from a very different passion: music. Growing up in Vienna, he attended a music conservatory and was set on becoming a classical musician. Eventually, he began to think about what made music work, and then began to think about musical structure. “I started to realize that, actually, what I’m interested in — what I found so attractive in music — is basically mathematics,” he recalls. “Mathematics is the science of structure. I was completely captured by that.”

One of Grabmayr’s main areas of research involves Gödel coding, a technique that, roughly put, allows mathematics to study itself. Gödel coding lets you convert statements about a system of rules or axioms into statements within the original system.

Gödel coding is named for the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel, who in the 1930s developed his famous “incompleteness theorems,” which point to the inherent limitations of mathematics. Although expressed as an equation, Gödel’s proof was based on the idea that a sentence such as “This statement is unprovable” is both true and unprovable. As Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Gödel declares, he “demonstrated that in every formal system of arithmetic there are true statements that nevertheless cannot be proved. The result was an upheaval that spread far beyond mathematics, challenging conceptions of the nature of the mind.”

Grabmayr’s work builds on the program that Gödel began nearly a century ago. “What I’m really interested in is what the limitations of mathematics are,” he says. “What are the limits of what we can prove? What are the limits of what we can express in formal languages? And what are the limits of what we can calculate using computers?” (That last remark shows that Gödel coding is of interest well beyond the philosophy of mathematics. “We’re surrounded by it,” says Grabmayr. “I mean, without Gödel coding there wouldn’t be any computers.”)

Another potential application is in cognitive science and the study of the mind. Psychologists and other scientists have long debated to what extent the mind is, or is not, like a computer. When we “think,” are we manipulating symbols the way a computer does? The jury is still out on that question, but Grabmayr believes his work can at least point toward some answers. “Cognitive science is based on the premise that we can use computational models to capture certain phenomena of the brain,” he says. “Artificial intelligence, also, is very much concerned with trying to formally capture our reasoning, our thinking processes.”

Albert Visser, a philosopher and logician at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and one of Grabmayr’s PhD supervisors, sees a number of potential payoffs for this research. “Balthasar’s work has some overspill to computer science and linguistics, since it involves a systematic reflection both on coding and on the nature of syntax,” he says. “The discussion of ideas from computer science and linguistics in Balthasar’s work is also beneficial in the other direction. [emphases mine]

Now for the research into punctuation in European languages. From an April 19, 2023 Henryk Niewodniczanski Institute of Nuclear Physics Polish Academy of Sciences press release (also on EurekAlert but published April 20, 2023),

A moment’s hesitation… Yes, a full stop here – but shouldn’t there be a comma there? Or would a hyphen be better? Punctuation can be a nuisance; it is often simply neglected. Wrong! The most recent statistical analyses paint a different picture: punctuation seems to “grow out” of the foundations shared by all the (examined) languages, and its features are far from trivial.

To many, punctuation appears as a necessary evil, to be happily ignored whenever possible. Recent analyses of literature written in the world’s current major languages require us to alter this opinion. In fact, the same statistical features of punctuation usage patterns have been observed in several hundred works written in seven, mainly Western, languages. Punctuation, all ten representatives of which can be found in the introduction to this text, turns out to be a universal and indispensable complement to the mathematical perfection of every language studied. Such a remarkable conclusion about the role of mere commas, exclamation marks or full stops comes from an article by scientists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN) in Cracow, published in the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals.

“The present analyses are an extension of our earlier results on the multifractal features of sentence length variation in works of world literature. After all, what is sentence length? It is nothing more than the distance to the next specific punctuation mark –  the full stop. So now we have taken all punctuation marks under a statistical magnifying glass, and we have also looked at what happens to punctuation during translation,” says Prof. Stanislaw Drozdz (IFJ PAN, Cracow University of Technology).

Two sets of texts were studied. The main analyses concerning punctuation within each language were carried out on 240 highly popular literary works written in seven major Western languages: English (44), German (34), French (32), Italian (32), Spanish (32), Polish (34) and Russian (32). This particular selection of languages was based on a criterion: the researchers assumed that no fewer than 50 million people should speak the language in question, and that the works written in it should have been awarded no fewer than five Nobel Prizes for Literature. In addition, for the statistical validity of the research results, each book had to contain at least 1,500 word sequences separated by punctuation marks. A separate collection was prepared to observe the stability of punctuation in translation. It contained 14 works, each of which was available in each of the languages studied (two of the 98 language versions, however, were omitted due to their unavailability). In total, authors in both collections included such writers as Conrad, Dickens, Doyle, Hemingway, Kipling, Orwell, Salinger, Woolf, Grass, Kafka, Mann, Nietzsche, Goethe, La Fayette, Dumas, Hugo, Proust, Verne, Eco, Cervantes, Sienkiewicz or Reymont.

The attention of the Cracow researchers was primarily drawn to the statistical distribution of the distance between consecutive punctuation marks. It soon became evident that in all the languages studied, it was best described by one of the precisely defined variants of the Weibull distribution. A curve of this type has a characteristic shape: it grows rapidly at first and then, after reaching a maximum value, descends somewhat more slowly to a certain critical value, below which it reaches zero with small and constantly decreasing dynamics. The Weibull distribution is usually used to describe survival phenomena (e.g. population as a function of age), but also various physical processes, such as increasing fatigue of materials.

“The concordance of the distribution of word sequence lengths between punctuation marks with the functional form of the Weibull distribution was better the more types of punctuation marks we included in the analyses; for all marks the concordance turned out to be almost complete. At the same time, some differences in the distributions are apparent between the different languages, but these merely amount to the selection of slightly different values for the distribution parameters, specific to the language in question. Punctuation thus seems to be an integral part of all the languages studied,” notes Prof. Drozdz, only to add after a moment with some amusement: “…and since the Weibull distribution is concerned with phenomena such as survival, it can be said with not too much tongue-in-cheek that punctuation has in its nature a literally embedded struggle for survival.”

The next stage of the analyses consisted of determining the hazard function. In the case of punctuation, it describes how the conditional probability of success – i.e. the probability of the next punctuation mark – changes if no such mark has yet appeared in the analysed sequence. The results here are clear: the language characterised by the lowest propensity to use punctuation is English, with Spanish not far behind; Slavic languages proved to be the most punctuation-dependent. The hazard function curves for punctuation marks in the six languages studied appeared to follow a similar pattern, they differed mainly in vertical shift.

German proved to be the exception. Its hazard function is the only one that intersects most of the curves constructed for the other languages. German punctuation thus seems to combine the punctuation features of many languages, making it a kind of Esperanto punctuation. The above observation dovetails with the next analysis, which was to see whether the punctuation features of original literary works can be seen in their translations. As expected, the language most faithfully transforming punctuation from the original language to the target language turned out to be German.

In spoken communication, pauses can be justified by human physiology, such as the need to catch one’s breath or to take a moment to structure what is to be said next in one’s mind. And in written communication?

“Creating a sentence by adding one word after another while ensuring that the message is clear and unambiguous is a bit like tightening the string of a bow: it is easy at first, but becomes more demanding with each passing moment. If there are no ordering elements in the text (and this is the role of punctuation), the difficulty of interpretation increases as the string of words lengthens. A bow that is too tight can break, and a sentence that is too long can become unintelligible. Therefore, the author is faced with the necessity of ‘freeing the arrow’, i.e. closing a passage of text with some sort of punctuation mark. This observation applies to all the languages analysed, so we are dealing with what could be called a linguistic law,” states Dr Tomasz Stanisz (IFJ PAN), first author of the article in question.

Finally, it is worth noting that the invention of punctuation is relatively recent – punctuation marks did not occur at all in old texts. The emergence of optimal punctuation patterns in modern written languages can therefore be interpreted as the result of their evolutionary advancement. However, the excessive need for punctuation is not necessarily a sign of such sophistication. English and Spanish, contemporarily the most universal languages, appear, in the light of the above studies, to be less strict about the frequency of punctuation use. It is likely that these languages are so formalised in terms of sentence construction that there is less room for ambiguity that would need to be resolved with punctuation marks.

The Henryk Niewodniczański Institute of Nuclear Physics (IFJ PAN) is currently one of the largest research institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences. A wide range of research carried out at IFJ PAN covers basic and applied studies, from particle physics and astrophysics, through hadron physics, high-, medium-, and low-energy nuclear physics, condensed matter physics (including materials engineering), to various applications of nuclear physics in interdisciplinary research, covering medical physics, dosimetry, radiation and environmental biology, environmental protection, and other related disciplines. The average yearly publication output of IFJ PAN includes over 600 scientific papers in high-impact international journals. Each year the Institute hosts about 20 international and national scientific conferences. One of the most important facilities of the Institute is the Cyclotron Centre Bronowice (CCB), which is an infrastructure unique in Central Europe, serving as a clinical and research centre in the field of medical and nuclear physics. In addition, IFJ PAN runs four accredited research and measurement laboratories. IFJ PAN is a member of the Marian Smoluchowski Kraków Research Consortium: “Matter-Energy-Future”, which in the years 2012-2017 enjoyed the status of the Leading National Research Centre (KNOW) in physics. In 2017, the European Commission granted the Institute the HR Excellence in Research award. As a result of the categorization of the Ministry of Education and Science, the Institute has been classified into the A+ category (the highest scientific category in Poland) in the field of physical sciences.

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

Universal versus system-specific features of punctuation usage patterns in major Western languages by Tomasz Stanisz, Stanisław Drożdż, and Jarosław Kwapień. Chaos, Solitons & Fractals Volume 168, March 2023, 113183 DOI:

This paper is behind a paywall but the publishers do offer a preview of sorts.

There is also an earlier, less polished, open access version on the free peer review website arXiv,

Universal versus system-specific features of punctuation usage patterns in~major Western~languages by Tomasz Stanisz, Stanislaw Drozdz, Jaroslaw Kwapie. arXiv:2212.11182 [cs.CL] (or arXiv:2212.11182v1 [cs.CL] for this version) DOI: Postede Wed, 21 Dec 2022 16:52:10 UTC (1,073 KB)

Ada Lovelace’s skills (embroidery, languages, and more) led to her pioneering computer work in the 19th century

This is a cleaned up version of the Ada Lovelace story,

A pioneer in the field of computing, she has a remarkable life story as noted in this October 13, 2014 posting, and explored further in this October 13, 2015 posting (Ada Lovelace “… manipulative, aggressive, a drug addict …” and a genius but was she likable?) published to honour the 200th anniversary of her birth.

In a December 8, 2022 essay for The Conversation, Corinna Schlombs focuses on skills other than mathematics that influenced her thinking about computers (Note: Links have been removed),

Growing up in a privileged aristocratic family, Lovelace was educated by home tutors, as was common for girls like her. She received lessons in French and Italian, music and in suitable handicrafts such as embroidery. Less common for a girl in her time, she also studied math. Lovelace continued to work with math tutors into her adult life, and she eventually corresponded with mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan at London University about symbolic logic.

Lovelace drew on all of these lessons when she wrote her computer program – in reality, it was a set of instructions for a mechanical calculator that had been built only in parts.

The computer in question was the Analytical Engine designed by mathematician, philosopher and inventor Charles Babbage. Lovelace had met Babbage when she was introduced to London society. The two related to each other over their shared love for mathematics and fascination for mechanical calculation. By the early 1840s, Babbage had won and lost government funding for a mathematical calculator, fallen out with the skilled craftsman building the precision parts for his machine, and was close to giving up on his project. At this point, Lovelace stepped in as an advocate.

To make Babbage’s calculator known to a British audience, Lovelace proposed to translate into English an article that described the Analytical Engine. The article was written in French by the Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea and published in a Swiss journal. Scholars believe that Babbage encouraged her to add notes of her own.

In her notes, which ended up twice as long as the original article, Lovelace drew on different areas of her education. Lovelace began by describing how to code instructions onto cards with punched holes, like those used for the Jacquard weaving loom, a device patented in 1804 that used punch cards to automate weaving patterns in fabric.

Having learned embroidery herself, Lovelace was familiar with the repetitive patterns used for handicrafts. Similarly repetitive steps were needed for mathematical calculations. To avoid duplicating cards for repetitive steps, Lovelace used loops, nested loops and conditional testing in her program instructions.

Finally, Lovelace recognized that the numbers manipulated by the Analytical Engine could be seen as other types of symbols, such as musical notes. An accomplished singer and pianist, Lovelace was familiar with musical notation symbols representing aspects of musical performance such as pitch and duration, and she had manipulated logical symbols in her correspondence with De Morgan. It was not a large step for her to realize that the Analytical Engine could process symbols — not just crunch numbers — and even compose music.

… Lovelace applied knowledge from what we today think of as disparate fields in the sciences, arts and the humanities. A well-rounded thinker, she created solutions that were well ahead of her time.

If you have time, do check out Schlombs’ essay (h/t December 9, 2022 news item on

For more about Jacquard looms and computing, there’s Sarah Laskow’s September 16, 2014 article for The Atlantic, which includes some interesting details (Note: Links have been removed),

…, one of the very first machines that could run something like what we now call a “program” was used to make fabric. This machine—a loom—could process so much information that the fabric it produced could display pictures detailed enough that they might be mistaken for engravings.

Like, for instance, the image above [as of March 3, 2023, the image is not there]: a woven piece of fabric that depicts Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the inventor of the weaving technology that made its creation possible. As James Essinger recounts in Jacquard’s Web, in the early 1840s Charles Babbage kept a copy at home and would ask guests to guess how it was made. They were usually wrong.

.. At its simplest, weaving means taking a series of parallel strings (the warp) lifting a selection of them up, and running another string (the weft) between the two layers, creating a crosshatch. …

The Jacquard loom, though, could process information about which of those strings should be lifted up and in what order. That information was stored in punch cards—often 2,000 or more strung together. The holes in the punch cards would let through only a selection of the rods that lifted the warp strings. In other words, the machine could replace the role of a person manually selecting which strings would appear on top. Once the punch cards were created, Jacquard looms could quickly make pictures with subtle curves and details that earlier would have take months to complete. …

… As Ada Lovelace wrote him: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

For anyone who’s very curious about Jacquard looms, there’s a June 25, 2019 Objects and Stories article (Programming patterns: the story of the Jacquard loom) on the UK’s Science and Industry Museum (in Manchester) website.