Category Archives: Mathematics

Geometry and art, an exhibition in Toronto (Canada)

I received this notice from ArtSci Salon mailing (on February 7, 2020 via email),

Geometry is Life

Robin Kingsburgh

February 5 — 16, 2020
Opening Reception: Saturday, February 8, 2 — 5 pm​

Cicada (detail), Robin Kingsburgh (Acrylic on MDF board, 36″ x 38″, 2018)

My work takes inspiration from geometry. For me the square and the circle are starting points. And ending points. The square, defined by the horizontal and the vertical: it’s all you need. The circle: a snake biting its tail; the beginning and end; the still point. Geometric archetypes. But there is no perfect circle; there is no perfect square. The beauty of Pythagoras is within our minds. Rendered by the human hand, the square becomes imperfect, and becomes a part of the human world – where imperfection reigns. The rhythm of imperfection is beauty, where order and chaos dance, and sometimes balance.

Robin Kingsburgh is a trained astronomer (Ph.D. in Astronomy, 1992, University College London). Her artistic education comes from studies at University of Toronto, as well as in the U.K. and France, and has paralleled her scientific development. She currently teaches various Natural Science courses at York University, Toronto. Her scientific background influences her artwork in an indirect, subconscious way, where she employs geometric motifs as a frequent theme. She is a member of Propeller Gallery, where she shows her artwork on a regular basis. She has recently been elected to the Ontario Society of Artists.

There you have it. Have a nice weekend!

ETA February 10, 2020: I’m sorry I forgot to include the address: Propeller Gallery, 30 Abell St Toronto. Wed-Sat 12-6pm, Sun 12-5pm

The latest math stars: honeybees!

Understanding the concept of zero—I still remember climbing that mountain, so to speak. It took the teacher quite a while to convince me that representing ‘nothing’ as a zero was worthwhile. In fact, it took the combined efforts of both my parents and the teacher to convince me to use zeroes as I was prepared to go without. The battle is long since over and I have learned to embrace zero.

I don’t think bees have to be convinced but they too may have a concept of zero. More about that later, here’s the latest abut bees and math from an October 10, 2019 news item on phys.org,

Start thinking about numbers and they can become large very quickly. The diameter of the universe is about 8.8×1023 km and the largest known number—googolplex, 1010100—outranks it enormously. Although that colossal concept was dreamt up by brilliant mathematicians, we’re still pretty limited when it comes to assessing quantities at a glance. ‘Humans have a threshold limit for instantly processing one to four elements accurately’, says Adrian Dyer from RMIT University, Australia; and it seems that we are not alone. Scarlett Howard from RMIT and the Université de Toulouse, France, explains that guppies, angelfish and even honeybees are capable of distinguishing between quantities of three and four, although the trusty insects come unstuck at finer differences; they fail to differentiate between four and five, which made her wonder. According to Howard, honeybees are quite accomplished mathematicians. ‘Recently, honeybees were shown to learn the rules of “less than” and “greater than” and apply these rules to evaluate numbers from zero to six’, she says. Maybe numeracy wasn’t the bees’ problem; was it how the question was posed? The duo publishes their discovery that bees can discriminate between four and five if the training procedure is correct in Journal of Experimental Biology.

An October 10, 2019 The Company of Biologists’ press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, refines the information with more detail,

Dyer explains that when animals are trained to distinguish between colours and objects, some training procedures simply reward the animals when they make the correct decision. In the case of the honeybees that could distinguish three from four, they received a sip of super-sweet sugar water when they made the correct selection but just a taste of plain water when they got it wrong. However, Dyer, Howard and colleagues Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Jair Garcia and Andrew Greentree knew there was an alternative strategy. This time, the bees would be given a bitter-tasting sip of quinine-flavoured water when they got the answer wrong. Would the unpleasant flavour help the honeybees to focus better and improve their maths?

‘[The] honeybees were very cooperative, especially when I was providing sugar rewards’, says Howard, who moved to France each April to take advantage the northern summer during the Australian winter, when bees are dormant. Training the bees to enter a Y-shaped maze, Howard presented the insects with a choice; a card featuring four shapes in one arm and a card featuring a different number of shapes (ranging from one to 10) in the other. During the first series of training sessions, Howard rewarded the bees with a sugary sip when they alighted correctly before the card with four shapes, in contrast to a sip of water when they selected the wrong card. However, when Howard trained a second set of bees she reproved them with a bitter-tasting sip of quinine when they chose incorrectly, rewarding the insects with sugar when they selected the card with four shapes. Once the bees had learned to pick out the card with four shapes, Howard tested whether they could distinguish the card with four shapes when offered a choice between it and cards with eight, seven, six or – the most challenging comparison – five shapes.

Not surprisingly, the bees that had only been rewarded during training struggled; they couldn’t even differentiate between four and eight shapes. However, when Howard tested the honeybees that had been trained more rigorously – receiving a quinine reprimand – their performance was considerably better, consistently picking the card with four shapes when offered a choice between it and cards with seven or eight shapes. Even more impressively, the bees succeeded when offered the more subtle choice between four and five shapes.

So, it seems that honeybees are better mathematicians than had been credited. Unlocking their ability was simply a matter of asking the question in the right way and Howard is now keen to find out just how far counting bees can go.

I’ll get to the link to and citation for the paper in a minute but first, I found more about bees and math (including zero) in this February 7, 2019 article by Jason Daley for The Smithsonian (Note: Links have been removed),

Bees are impressive creatures, powering entire ecosystems via pollination and making sweet honey at the same time, one of the most incredible substances in nature. But it turns out the little striped insects are also quite clever. A new study suggests that, despite having tiny brains, bees understand the mathematical concepts of addition and subtraction.

To test the numeracy of the arthropods, researchers set up unique Y-shaped math mazes for the bees to navigate, according to Nicola Davis at the The Guardian. Because the insects can’t read, and schooling them to recognize abstract symbols like plus and minus signs would be incredibly difficult, the researchers used color to indicate addition or subtraction. …

Fourteen bees spent between four and seven hours completing 100 trips through the mazes during training exercises with the shapes and numbers chosen at random. All of the bees appeared to learn the concept. Then, the bees were tested 10 times each using two addition and two subtraction scenarios that had not been part of the training runs. The little buzzers got the correct answer between 64 and 72 percent of the time, better than would be expected by chance.

Last year, the same team of researchers published a paper suggesting that bees could understand the concept of zero, which puts them in an elite club of mathematically-minded animals that, at a minimum, have the ability to perceive higher and lower numbers in different groups. Animals with this ability include frogs, lions, spiders, crows, chicken chicks, some fish and other species. And these are not the only higher-level skills that bees appear to possess. A 2010 study that Dyer [Adrian Dyer of RMIT University in Australia] also participated in suggests that bees can remember human faces using the same mechanisms as people. Bees also use a complex type of movement called the waggle dance to communicate geographical information to one other, another sophisticated ability packed into a brain the size of a sesame seed.

If researchers could figure out how bees perform so many complicated tasks with such a limited number of neurons, the research could have implications for both biology and technology, such as machine learning. …

Then again, maybe the honey makers are getting more credit than they deserve. Clint Perry, who studies invertebrate intelligence at the Bee Sensory and Behavioral Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London tells George Dvorsky at Gizmodo that he’s not convinced by the research, and he had similar qualms about the study that suggested bees can understand the concept of zero. He says the bees may not be adding and subtracting, but rather are simply looking for an image that most closely matches the initial one they see, associating it with the sugar reward. …

If you have the time and the interest, definitely check out Daley’s article.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest paper about honeybees and math,

Surpassing the subitizing threshold: appetitive–aversive conditioning improves discrimination of numerosities in honeybees by Scarlett R. Howard, Aurore Avarguès-Weber, Jair E. Garcia, Andrew D. Greentree, Adrian G. Dyer. Journal of Experimental Biology 2019 222: jeb205658 doi: 10.1242/jeb.205658 Published 10 October 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Infinity, time, physics, math, and a play at the Vancouver (Canada) East Cultural Centre, January 7 – 19, 2020

Time seems to be having a moment. (I couldn’t resist. 🙂 If Carlo Rovelli’s 2018 book, The Order of Time, is any indication the topic has attained a new level of interest. The only other evidence I have is that I stumble across essays about time in unlikely places.

Infinity, a play about time and more, has been produced and toured on and off since 2015 when it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play.

Here’s a clip from one of the productions,

Here’s what the publicists at the Cultch (Vancouver East Cultural Centre) have posted about the play on the Events webpage,

A surprising, funny, and revelatory new play about love, sex, and math.

The cynical, skeptical daughter of a theoretical physicist and a composer, Sarah Jean’s clinical approach to love meets with little success. In this absorbing drama infused with science and classical music, three exceptional minds collide like charged particles in an accelerator. Sarah Jean’s hugely talented, yet severely dysfunctional, family will learn that love and time itself are connected in unimaginable ways.

From award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch; featuring two of our country’s most esteemed actors, Jonathon Young and Amy Rutherford, up-and-comer Emily Jane King, and violinist Andréa Tyniec; with original music by visionary composer Njo Kong Kie.

“The play makes you feel as much as it makes you think.”—NOW Toronto

There is a December 23, 2019 preview article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight which gives you some insight into the playwright and her work (Note: There is some profanity in the second paragraph),

Albert Einstein once called time a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, but tell that to a busy playwright who’s juggling deadlines for TV scripts and stage openings with parenting a four-year-old-boy.

“I’m in an insane relationship with time as a mother—this agonized relationship with time,” writer Hannah Moscovitch laments with a laugh, speaking to the Straight from her Halifax home before her show Infinity opens here after the holidays. “This work-life balance: I was like, ‘What the fuck is everybody complaining about?’ Until I had to do it.

“I mean, if I don’t work less I will wreck his childhood. So it’s not like a theoretical ideal that I should have work-life balance,” she continues, sounding as self-effacing, funny, and candidly introspective as some of her best-known female stage characters. And then she reflects more seriously, “Writing Infinity gave me the chance to grapple with that. And now I’m in a constant existential relationship with time; I’m constantly thinking about it. Time is intricately linked to death, they’re inevitably linked. When you come back to time you come back to death.”

In 2008, Ross Manson, artistic director, of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, approached Moscovitch with an article in Harper’s magazine about the history of timekeeping, with the idea of commissioning her to write on the theme. Moscovitch went on to read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe [2013], in which American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, challenges Einstein’s idea of time as illusion.

With Manson’s help, she would go on to meet Smolin as she worked on her play, turning to him as an expert source on the science she was trying to convey in her story. Along the way, she formed a friendship with the man she was once intimidated to meet.

“Oddly enough, while all the specifics are different about what we do, some of the generals are the same,” she explains. “We have no language in common, but we really enjoy hanging out with each other. There’s a critical endeavour in both of our work that is thought-based, and we both very much live in our minds.”

For a more jaundiced view, there’s Conrad Sweatman’s April 5, 2019 review of the play’s script in book form for prairiefire,

The uses and abuses of science in playwriting: a review of Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity 

Hannah Moscovitch is an indie darling of Canadian theatre, and her Dora-winning play Infinity reaffirms her reputation as one of Canada’s brightest, most ambitious playwrights. If this sounds like the sort of detached praise one reads on a student report card, it’s partially because throughout my readings of Infinity I wrestled between admiration and annoyance at its rather academic cleverness. While ultimately it earns my letter of recommendation, Infinity sometimes feels like the dramatic equivalent of a class valedictorian’s graduation speech.

Back to Infinity. In his lively introduction to the play’s script, the famous physicist Lee Smolin, who consulted on the play, describes scientists and artists as“explorers of our common future” and pleads for a more open, friendly exchange between these two camps. (Smolin, vi). It comes off as a conciliatory remark after decades of the ‘science wars’ in academia, and Smolin also lauds Moscovitch for bucking the humanities’ postmodernist trend of knocking science and its practitioners. All fine sentiments. But what does this emphasis on the commonality between art and science mean, if anything, about the relationship between the subjective, social stuff of art and the objective, natural stuff of science? Does it suggest that the scientific method should by employed by playwrights and novelists in the fictional study of human nature, as some of the naturalist novelists of the 19th century believed? 

I have no reason to think that either Smolin or Moscovitch really wish for science to colonize the arts and humanities. …

Infinity is a fine addition to the aforementioned genre of smart, humanistic plays about physicists and mathematicians that had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium. It has some of their same flaws and cerebral charms and belongs more, in spirit, to the comparatively untroubled moment, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Global Recession, and Trump. If, like me, you spent your first years willingly reading serious literature and theatre at length in a humanities department where every text was filtered through the parallax perspectives of postmodern critical theory, you may find refreshing Infinity’s enthusiasm for science and its world of objectivism. You may feel the same way about its avoidance of the crude identity politics, inspired partially by such theory, that’s particularly in vogue in the arts right now: a kind of reactive agitprop in the age of Trump. But with the world staggering right now from one crisis to the next, a contemporary play about Ivy League intellectuals, their theories of time and struggles for authenticity, seems, well, a little untimely. …

Sweatman has identified one of the big problems with using concepts from mathematics and the sciences to inform fiction and art. The romantic poets ran into the same problem as Richard Holmes explores at length in his 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Shelley eventually abandoned his attempts at including science in his poems.

Interestingly, most of us don’t seem to realize that the arts and sciences have been intimately linked for millenia. For example, De rerum natura a multi-volume poem by Roman poet, Lucretius ( (c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE), is a philosophical treatise exploring mind, soul, and the principles of atomism (i.e., atoms).

I hope you enjoy the play, if you choose to go. According to the Events webpage (scroll down), the playwright will be present at two post-show talkbacks.

Techno Art: mathematicians help conserve digital art

For anyone who’s not familiar with the problem, digital art is disappearing or very difficult and/or expensive to access after the technology on which or with which it was created becomes obsolete. Fear not! Mathematicians are coming to the rescue in a joint programme between New York University (NYU) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

From a February 16, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Just as conservators have developed methods to protect traditional artworks, computer scientists have now created means to safeguard computer- or time-based art by following the same preservation principles.

Software- and computer-based works of art are fragile — not unlike their canvas counterparts — as their underlying technologies such as operating systems and programming languages change rapidly, placing these works at risk.

These include Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon (1998-99), Mark Napier’s net.flag (2002), and John F. Simon Jr.’s Unfolding Object (2002),  three online works recently conserved at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through a collaboration with New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Fortunately, just as conservators have developed methods to protect traditional artworks, computer scientists, in collaboration with time-based media conservators, have created means to safeguard computer- or time-based art by following the same preservation principles.

Brandon’s interface “bigdoll” after the 2016–2017 restoration. (C) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

A February 15, 2019 NYU news release, which originated the news item, delves further into the world of digital art preservation and conservation,

“The principles of art conservation for traditional works of art can be applied to decision-making in conservation of software- and computer-based works of art with respect to programming language selection, programming techniques, documentation, and other aspects of software remediation during restoration,” explains Deena Engel, a professor of computer science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Since 2014, she has been working with the Guggenheim Museum’s Conservation Department to analyze, document, and preserve computer-based artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. In 2016, the Guggenheim took more formal steps to ensure the stature of these works by establishing Conserving Computer-Based Art (CCBA), a research and treatment initiative aimed at preserving software and computer-based artworks held by the museum.

“As part of conserving contemporary art, conservators are faced with new challenges as artists use current technology as media for their artworks,” says Engel. “If you think of a word processing document that you wrote 10 years ago, can you still open it and read or print it? Software-based art can be very complex. Museums are tasked with conserving and exhibiting works of art in perpetuity. It is important that museums and collectors learn to care for these vulnerable and important works in contemporary art so that future generations can enjoy them.”

Under this initiative, a team led by Engel and Joanna Phillips, former senior conservator of time-based media at the Guggenheim Museum, and including conservation fellow Jonathan Farbowitz and Lena Stringari, deputy director and chief conservator at the Guggenheim Museum, explore and implement both technical and theoretical approaches to the treatment and restoration of software-based art.

In doing so, they not only strive to maintain the functionality and appeal of the original works, but also follow the ethical principles that guide conservation of traditional artwork, such as sculptures and paintings. Specifically, Engel and Phillips adhere to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Code of Ethics, Guidelines for Practice, and Commentaries, applying these standards to artistic creations that rely on software as a medium.

“For example, if we migrate a work of software-based art from an obsolete programming environment to a current one, our selection and programming decisions in the new programming language and environment are informed in part by evaluating the artistic goals of the medium first used,” explains Engel. “We strive to maintain respect for the artist’s coding style and approach in our restoration.”

So far, Phillips and Engel have completed two restorations of on-line artworks at the museum: Cheang’s Brandon (restored in 2016-2017) and Simon’s Unfolding Object (restored in 2018).

Commissioned by the Guggenheim in 1998, Brandon was the first of three web artworks acquired by the museum. Many features of the work had begun to fail within the fast-evolving technological landscape of the Internet: specific pages were no longer accessible, text and image animations no longer displayed properly, and internal and external links were broken. Through changes implemented by CCBA, Brandon fully resumes its programmed, functional, and aesthetic behaviors. The newly restored artwork can again be accessed at http://brandon.guggenheim.org.

Unfolding Object enables visitors from across the globe to create their own individual artwork online by unfolding the pages of a virtual “object”—a two-dimensional rectangular form—click by click, creating a new, multifaceted shape. Users may also see traces left by others who have previously unfolded the same facets, represented by lines or hash marks. The colors of the object and the background change depending on the time of day, so that two simultaneous users in different time zones are looking at different colors. But because the Java technology used to develop this early Internet artwork is now obsolete, the work was no longer supported by contemporary web browsers and is not easily accessible online.

The CCBA team, in dialogue with the artist, analyzed and documented the artwork’s original source code and aesthetic and functional behaviors before identifying a treatment strategy. The team determined that a migration from the obsolete Java applet code to the contemporary programming language JavaScript was necessary. In place of a complete rewriting of the code, a treatment that art conservators would deem invasive, the CCBA team developed a new migration strategy more in line with contemporary conservation ethics, “code resituation,” which preserves as much of the original source code as possible

About the CCBA

A longtime pioneer in the field of contemporary art conservation, and one of the few institutions in the United States with dedicated staff and lab facilities for the conservation of time-based media art, the Guggenheim established the Conserving Computer-Based Art initiative in 2016. The first program dedicated to this subject at the museum, this multiyear project was created to research and develop better practices for the acquisition, preservation, maintenance, and display of computer-based art. By addressing the challenges of preserving digital artworks, including hardware failure, rapid obsolescence of operating systems, and artists’ custom software, CCBA is tasked with the conservation of 22 computer-based artworks in the Guggenheim collection to ensure long-term storage and access to the public. The CCBA initiative is an opportunity for the Guggenheim to facilitate cross-institutional collaboration towards best-practice development, and CCBA integrates the museum’s ongoing work with the faculty and students of the Department of Computer Science at NYU’s Courant Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Conserving Computer-Based Art is supported by the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, Christie’s, and Josh Elkes.

About the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1937 and is dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of modern and contemporary art through exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications. The Guggenheim international constellation of museums includes the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; and the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. In 2019, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum celebrates 60 years as an architectural icon and “temple of spirit” where radical art and architecture meet. To learn more about the museum and the Guggenheim’s activities around the world, visit guggenheim.org.

About the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences

New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences is a leading center for research and education in mathematics and computer science. The Institute has contributed to domestic and international science and engineering by promoting an integrated view of mathematics and computation. Faculty and students are engaged in a broad range of research activities, which include many areas of mathematics and computer science as well as the application of these disciplines to problems in the biological, physical, and economic sciences. The Courant Institute has played a central role in the development of applied mathematics, analysis, and computer science, and its faculty has received numerous national and international awards in recognition of their extraordinary research accomplishments. For more information, visit http://www.cims.nyu.edu/.

Have fun exploring these relatively newly available art works.

Fields Centre for Quantitative Analysis and Modelling (CQAM) and ArtSci Salon: call for mathematical artworks

Currently, the deadline is July 26, 2019. For information about the call, there’s a July 6, 2019 ArtSci Salon announcement (received via email) about the call). Note: Both the Art/Sci Salon and CQAM are located in Toronto, Ontario but this is not limited to Canadian artists as far as I can tell,

Please, see this quick call!! this is for existing artworks: do you have
any math-related digital work/photography/drawing/ in high res? please
consider submitting!!!

Call for Artworks
Fields CQAM – ArtSci Salon
deadline: July 26, 2019

The Fields Centre for Quantitative Analysis and Modeling and ArtSci
Salon are looking for Mathematically related, Mathematically inspired,
or Mathematically informed artworks to feature on a limited series of
cards and small prints.

Fields CQAM (CQAM https://www.cqam.ca/ … is a research centre
comprised of 11 labs pairing leading researchers and industry from
across Ontario, simultaneously training a new pool of quantitative
scientists while enabling rapid translation of innovations from idea to
implementation. Mathematical modeling data analytics and visualization,
geometry processing and fabrication, health analytics, and human machine
interaction are only a few of the diverse research fields the centre is
engaged in. Please, check their website …for more information.

The artwork will be printed on cards. A limited number of bigger prints
will be distributed to volunteers who have made an outstanding
contribution to Fields CQAM. The selected artist will receive an
honorarium of $300 – $500 [CAD].

GENERAL REQUIREMENTS

– Artworks can engage with a variety of topics in mathematics. For
instance, they can complement themes explored by CQAM labs.

– Acceptable formats are: Black & White or Color digitally generated
artworks (like visualizations, or digitally produced illustrations);
reproductions of paintings and other canvas-based work; photographic
work; drawings and other illustrations etc. Artworks must be high res
(see below)

– Size can vary (5X7in, 4X6in, 5x5in, 3×3 etc., keep in mind that the
artwork must fit a rectangular or squared-shaped – card).

TECHNICAL INSTRUCTIONS

Please, send the following material tracy.barber@cqam.ca via WeTransfer
(use free version) https://wetransfer.com/

– 1 high res (300dpi) image

– a short bio

– a short description of the artwork

The deadline to propose your artwork is July 26, 2019

For more information please contact Tracy Barber (CQAM)
tracy.barber@cqam.ca

Or Roberta Buiani (ArtSci Salon) rbuiani@gmail.com

I’m guessing this art/sci call for artworks is being handled exclusively by the Art/Sci Salon folks since there doesn’t seem to be any additional information about it on the CQAM website.

A day late but better than never: 2019 International Day of Women and Girls in Science

February 11, 2019 was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science but there’s at least one celebratory event that is extended to include February 12. So, I’ll take what I can get and jump on to that bandwagon too. Happy 2019 International Day of Women and Girls in Science—a day late!

To make up fr being late to the party, I have two news items to commemorate the event.

21st Edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO International Awards for Women in Science

From a February 11, 2019 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) press release received via email,

Paris, 11 February [2019]—On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science celebrated on 11 February, the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO have announced the laureates of the 21st International Awards For Women in Science, which honours outstanding women scientists, from all over the world. These exceptional women are recognized for the excellence of their research in the fields of material science, mathematics and computer science.

Each laureate receive €100,000 and their achievements will be celebrated alongside those of 15 promising young women scientists from around the world at an awards ceremony on 14 March [2019] at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

EXTENDING THE AWARD TO MATHEMATICS AND COMPUTER SCIENCE

Mathematics is a prestigious discipline and a source of innovation in many domains, however, it is also one of the scientific fields with the lowest representation of women at the highest level. Since the establishment of the three most prestigious international prizes for the discipline (Fields, Wolf and Abel), only one woman mathematician has been recognized, out of a total of 141 laureates.

The L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO have therefore decided to reinforce their efforts to empower women in science by extending the International Awards dedicated to material science to two more research areas: mathematics and computer science.

Two mathematicians now figure among the five laureates receiving the 2019 For Women in Science Awards: Claire Voisin, one of five women to have received a gold medal from the the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and the first women mathematician to enter the prestigious Collège de France, and Ingrid Daubechies of Duke University (USA), the first woman researcher to head the International Mathematical Union.

FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE: MORE THAN 20-YEARS OF COMMITMENT

In the field of scientific research, the glass ceiling is still a reality: Women only account for 28% of researchers, occupy just 11% of senior academic positions,[4] and number a mere 3% of Nobel Science Prizes

Since 1998, the L’Oréal Foundation, in partnership with UNESCO, has worked to improve the representation of women in scientific careers, upholding the conviction that the world needs science, and science needs women.

In its first 20 years, the For Women in Science programme supported and raised the profiles of 102 laureates and more than 3,000 talented young scientists, both doctoral and post-doctoral candidates, providing them with research fellowships, allocated annually in 117 countries.
 
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO INTERNATIONAL AWARDS FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE
THE FIVE 2019 LAUREATES

AFRICA AND THE ARAB STATES Professor Najat Aoun SALIBA – Analytical and atmospheric chemistry

Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Nature Conservation Center at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Professor Saliba is rewarded for her pioneering work in identifying carcinogenic agents and other toxic air pollutants in the in Middle East, and in modern nicotine delivery systems, such as cigarettes and hookahs. Her innovative work in analytical and atmospheric chemistry will make it possible to address some of the most pressing environmental challenges and help advance public health policies and practices.

ASIA PACIFIC

Professeur Maki KAWAI – Chemistry / Catalysis
Director General, Institute of Molecular Sciences, Tokyo University, Japan, member of the Science Council of Japan 

Professor Maki Kawai is recognized for her ground-breaking work in manipulating molecules at the atomic level, in order to transform materials and create innovative materials. Her exceptional research has contributed to establishing the foundations of nanotechnologies at the forefront of discoveries of new chemical and physical phenomena that stand to address critical environmental issues such as energy efficiency.

LATIN AMERICA

Professor Karen HALLBERG – Physics/ Condensed matter physics
Professor at the Balseiro Institute and Research Director at the Bariloche Atomic Centre, CNEA/CONICET, Argentina

Professor Karen Hallberg is rewarded for developing cutting-edge computational approaches that allow scientists to understand the physics of quantum matter. Her innovative and creative techniques represent a major contribution to understanding nanoscopic systems and new materials.

NORTH AMERICA

Professor Ingrid DAUBECHIES – Mathematics / Mathematical physics
Professor of Mathematics and Electrical and Computer Engineering, Duke University, United States 

Professor Daubechies is recognized for her exceptional contribution to the numerical treatment of images and signal processing, providing standard and flexible algorithms for data compression. Her innovative research on wavelet theory has led to the development of treatment and image filtration methods used in technologies from medical imaging equipment to wireless communication.

EUROPE

Professor Claire VOISIN – Mathematics / Algebraic geometry

Professor at the Collège de France and former researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)

Professor Voisin is rewarded for her outstanding work in algebraic geometry. Her pioneering discoveries have allowed [mathematicians and scientists] to resolve fundamental questions on topology and Hodge structures of complex algebraic varieties.
 
 
L’ORÉAL-UNESCO INTERNATIONAL AWARDS FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE
THE 15  INTERNATIONAL RISING TALENTS OF 2019
 
Among the 275 national and regional fellowship winners we support each year, the For Women in Science programme selects the 15 most promising researchers, all of whom will also be honoured on 14 March 2019.

AFRICA AND THE ARAB STATES

Dr. Saba AL HEIALY – Health sciences

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Dubai, Mohammed Bin Rashid University for Medicine and Health Sciences

Dr. Zohra DHOUAFLI – Neuroscience/ Biochemistry

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Tunisia, Center of Biotechnology of Borj-Cédria

Dr. Menattallah ELSERAFY – Molecular biology/Genetics

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Egypt, Zewail City of Science and Technology

Dr. Priscilla Kolibea MANTE – Neurosciences

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

NORTH AMERICA

Dr. Jacquelyn CRAGG – Health sciences
L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Canada, University of British Columbia
 
LATIN AMERICA

Dr. Maria MOLINA – Chemistry/Molecular biology

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Argentina, National University of Rio Cuart

Dr. Ana Sofia VARELA – Chemistry/Electrocatalysis

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Mexico, Institute of Chemistry, National Autonomous University of Mexico
 
ASIA PACIFIC

Dr. Sherry AW – Neuroscience

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Singapore, Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology

Dr. Mika NOMOTO – Molecular biology / Plant pathology

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Singapore, University of Nagoya

Dr. Mary Jacquiline ROMERO – Quantum physics

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Australia, University of Queensland
 
EUROPE

Dr. Laura ELO – Bioinformatics

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Finland, University of Turku and Åbo Akademi University

Dr. Kirsten JENSEN – Material chemistry, structural analysis

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Denmark, University of Copenhagen

Dr. Biola María JAVIERRE MARTÍNEZ Genomics

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Spain, Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute 

Dr. Urte NENISKYTE – Neuroscience

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Lithuania, University of Vilnius

Dr. Nurcan TUNCBAG – Bioinformatics

L’Oréal-UNESCO regional fellowship Turkey, Middle East Technical University

Congratulations to all!

“Investment in Women in Science for Inclusive Green Growth” (conference) 11 – 12 February 2019

This conference is taking place at UN (United Nations) headquarters in New York City. There is an agenda which includes the talks for February 12, 2019 and they feature a bit of a surprise,

[February 12, 2019]
10.00 – 12.30:
High-Level Panel on:
   
Investment in Science Education for Shaping Society’s Future

Scientists contribute greatly to the economic health and wealth of a nation.
However, worldwide, the levels of participation in science and technology in
school and in post-school education have fallen short of the expectations of
policy-makers and the needs of business, industry, or government.

The continuing concern to find the reasons why young people decide not to
study science and technology is a critical one if we are to solve the underlying
problem.  Furthermore, while science and technology play key roles in today’s
global economy and leveling the playing field among various demographics,
young people particularly girls are turning away from science subjects. Clearly,
raising interest in science among young people is necessary for increasing the
number of future science professionals, as well as, providing opportunities for
all citizens of all countries to understand and use science in their daily lives.

To achieve sustainable development throughout the world, education policy
makers need to allocate high priority and considerable resources to the
teaching of science and technology in a manner that allows students to learn
science in a way that is practiced and experienced in the real world by real
scientists and engineers. Furthermore, to accomplish this goal, sustained
support is needed to increase and improve teacher training and professional
learning for STEM educators. By meeting these two needs, we can better
accomplish the ultimate aim which is to educate the scientists, technologists,
technicians, and leaders on whom future economic development is perceived to
depend over a sustained period of time.


In line with the 2019 High-Level Political Forum, this session will discuss
SDG [Sustainable development goal] 4 with special focus on Science Education.

Reforming the science curriculum to promote learning science the way it is practiced and experienced in the real world by real scientists and engineers.

Providing quality and prepared teachers for every child to include increasing the number of women and other underrepresented demographic role models for students.

Considering how science education provides us with a scientifically adept society, one ready to understand, critique and mold the future of research, as well as, serving as an integral part of feeding into the pipeline for future scientists.

Identifying factors influencing participation in science, engineering and technology as underrepresented populations including young girls make the transition from school to higher education

Parallel Panel
10.00 – 13.00:
   
Girls in Science for Sustainable Development: Vision to Action

This Panel will be convened by young change-makers and passionate girls in
science advocates from around the world to present their vision on how they can
utilize science to achieve sustainable development goals.  Further, girls in
science will experience interacting and debating with UN Officials, Diplomates,
women in science and corporate executives.   

This Panel will strive to empower, educate and embolden the potential of every
girl.  The aim of this Panel is give girls the opportunity to gain core leadership
skills, training in community-building and advocacy.


In line with the 2019 United Nations High-Level Political Forum, Girls in
Science will focus around:
SDG 4 aims to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. How can we improve science education around the world? What resources or opportunities would be effective in achieving this goal? And How can we use technology to improve science education and opportunities for students around the world?

Nearly ½ of the world population live in poverty. SDG 8 aims to promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all. What is the importance of STEM for girls and women for economic growth and how do we encourage and implement this? What role does science and technology play in reducing poverty around the world?

SDG 10 aims to reduce inequalities around the world. What are some current inequalities that girls are facing and what can be done to ameliorate this?

Following the Paris Agreement a few years back, climate change has become an increasingly discussed topic; SDG 13 focuses on climate action. What is the significance of this Sustainable Development Goal today and what contribution does women and girls in science make on this issue?

What is being done in your communities to solve the SDGs in this respect? Has it been effective? Why or why not? Would it be effective in other countries? What are some issues you or people you know face in your country in relation to these concerns?

Chairs: Sthuthi Satish and Huaxuan Chen

Mentor: Andrew Muetze – International Educator, Switzerland

Remarks:
HRH Princess Dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite

Ms. Chantal Line Carpentier

13.00 – 14.45: Lunch Break

15.00 – 16.30:

High-Level Session on: The Science of Fashion for Sustainable Development

Fashion embodies human pleasure, creativity, social codes and technologies
that have enabled societies to prosper, laid burdens on the environment and
caused competition for arable land.  No single actor, action nor technology is
sufficient to shift us away from the environmental and social challenges
embedded in the fashion industry – nor to meet the demands for sustainable
development of society at large. However, scientific and technological
developments are important for progress towards sustainable fashion.  This
Panel aims to shed light on the role of science, technology, engineering and
mathematics skills for fashion and sustainability.

16.45 – 18.00: Closing Session
Summary of Panels and Sessions by Chairs and Moderators

Introducing the International Framework and Action Plan for Member States to Approve and Adopt

Announcing the Global Fund for Women and Girls in Science

It’s good to see the UN look at fashion and sustainability. The ‘fashion’ session makes the endeavour seem a little less stuffy.

Scientometrics and science typologies

Caption: As of 2013, there were 7.8 million researchers globally, according to UNESCO. This means that 0.1 percent of the people in the world professionally do science. Their work is largely financed by governments, yet public officials are not themselves researchers. To help governments make sense of the scientific community, Russian mathematicians have devised a researcher typology. The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” Credit: Lion_on_helium/MIPT Press Office

A June 28, 2018 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT; Russia) press release (also on EurekAlert) announces some intriguing research,

Researchers in various fields, from psychology to economics, build models of human behavior and reasoning to categorize people. But it does not happen as often that scientists undertake an analysis to classify their own kind.

However, research evaluation, and therefore scientist stratification as well, remain highly relevant. Six years ago, the government outlined the objective that Russian scientists should have 50 percent more publications in Web of Science- and Scopus-indexed journals. As of 2011, papers by researchers from Russia accounted for 1.66 percent of publications globally. By 2015, this number was supposed to reach 2.44%. It did grow but this has also sparked a discussion in the scientific community about the criteria used for evaluating research work.

The most common way of gauging the impact of a researcher is in terms of his or her publications. Namely, whether they are in a prestigious journal and how many times they have been cited. As with any good idea, however, one runs the risk of overdoing it. In 2005, U.S. physicist Jorge Hirsch proposed his h-index, which takes into account the number of publications by a given researcher and the number of times they have been cited. Now, scientists are increasingly doubting the adequacy of using bibliometric data as the sole independent criterion for evaluating research work. One obvious example of a flaw of this metric is that a paper can be frequently cited to point out a mistake in it.

Scientists are increasingly under pressure to publish more often. Research that might have reasonably been published in one paper is being split up into stages for separate publication. This calls for new approaches to the evaluation of work done by research groups and individual authors. Similarly, attempts to systematize the existing methods in scientometrics and stratify scientists are becoming more relevant, too. This is arguably even more important for Russia, where the research reform has been stretching for years.

One of the challenges in scientometrics is identifying the prominent types of researchers in different fields. A typology of scientists has been proposed by Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Professor Pavel Chebotarev, who also heads the Laboratory of Mathematical Methods for Multiagent Systems Analysis at the Institute of Control Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Ilya Vasilyev, a master’s student at MIPT.

In their paper, the two authors determined distinct types of scientists based on an indirect analysis of the style of research work, how papers are received by colleagues, and what impact they make. A further question addressed by the authors is to what degree researcher typology is affected by the scientific discipline.

“Each science has its own style of work. Publication strategies and citation practices vary, and leaders are distinguished in different ways,” says Chebotarev. “Even within a given discipline, things may be very different. This means that it is, unfortunately, not possible to have a universal system that would apply to anyone from a biologist to a philologist.”

“All of the reasonable systems that already exist are adjusted to particular disciplines,” he goes on. “They take into account the criteria used by the researchers themselves to judge who is who in their field. For example, scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences are divided into five groups based on what research they do, and they see a direct comparison of members of different groups as inadequate.”

The study was based on the citation data from the Google Scholar bibliographic database. To identify researcher types, the authors analyzed citation statistics for a large number of scientists, isolating and interpreting clusters of similar researchers.

Chebotarev and Vasilyev looked at the citation statistics for four groups of researchers returned by a Google Scholar search using the tags “Mathematics,” “Physics,” and “Psychology.” The first 515 and 556 search hits were considered in the case of physicists and psychologists, respectively. The authors studied two sets of mathematicians: the top 500 hits and hit Nos. 199-742. The four sets thus included frequently cited scientists from three disciplines indicating their general field of research in their profiles. Citation dynamics over each scientist’s career were examined using a range of indexes.

The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” The leaders are experienced scientists widely recognized in their fields for research that has secured an annual citation count increase for them. The successors are young scientists who have more citations than toilers. The latter earn their high citation metrics owing to yearslong work, but they lack the illustrious scientific achievements.

Among the top 500 researchers indicating mathematics as their field of interest, 52 percent accounted for toilers, with successors and leaders making up 25.8 and 22.2 percent, respectively.

For physicists, the distribution was slightly different, with 48.5 percent of the set classified as toilers, 31.7 percent as successors, and 19.8 percent as leaders. That is, there were more successful young scientists, at the expense of leaders and toilers. This may be seen as a confirmation of the solitary nature of mathematical research, as compared with physics.

Finally, in the case of psychologists, toilers made up 47.7 percent of the set, with successors and leaders accounting for 18.3 and 34 percent. Comparing the distributions for the three disciplines investigated in the study, the authors conclude that there are more young achievers among those doing mathematical research.

A closer look enabled the authors to determine a more fine-grained cluster structure, which turned out to be remarkably similar for mathematicians and physicists. In particular, they identified a cluster of the youngest and most successful researchers, dubbed “precocious,” making up 4 percent of the mathematicians and 4.3 percent of the physicists in the set, along with the “youth” — successful researchers whose debuts were somewhat less dramatic: 29 and 31.7 percent of scientists doing math and physics research, respectively. Two further clusters were interpreted as recognized scientific authorities, or “luminaries,” and experienced researchers who have not seen an appreciable growth in the number of citations recently. Luminaries and the so-called inertia accounted for 52 and 15 percent of mathematicians and 50 and 14 percent of physicists, respectively.

There is an alternative way of clustering physicists, which recognizes a segment of researchers, who “caught the wave.” The authors suggest this might happen after joining major international research groups.

Among psychologists, 18.3 percent have been classified as precocious, though not as young as the physicists and mathematicians in the corresponding group. The most experienced and respected psychology researchers account for 22.5 percent, but there is no subdivision into luminaries and inertia, because those actively cited generally continue to be. Relatively young psychologists make up 59.2 percent of the set. The borders between clusters are relatively blurred in the case of psychology, which might be a feature of the humanities, according to the authors.

“Our pilot study showed even more similarity than we’d expected in how mathematicians and physicists are clustered,” says Chebotarev. “Whereas with psychology, things are noticeably different, yet the breakdown is slightly closer to math than physics. Perhaps, there is a certain connection between psychology and math after all, as some people say.”

“The next stage of this research features more disciplines. Hopefully, we will be ready to present the new results soon,” he concludes.

I think that they are attempting to create a new way of measuring scientific progress (scientometrics) by establishing a more representative means of measuring individual contributions based on the analysis they provide of the ways in which these ‘typologies’ are expressed across various disciplines.

For anyone who wants to investigate further, you will need to be able to read Russian. You can download the paper from here on MathNet.ru,.

Here’s my best attempt at a citation for the paper,

Making a typology of scientists on the basis of bibliometric data by I. Vasilyev, P. Yu. Chebotarev. Large-scale System Control (UBS), 2018, Issue 72, Pages 138–195 (Mi ubs948)

I’m glad to see this as there is a fair degree of dissatisfaction about the current measures for scientific progress used in any number of reports on the topic. As far as I can tell, this dissatisfaction is felt internationally.

How the technology of writing shaped Roman thought

I have two bits about the Romans: the first is noted in the head for this posting and the second is about a chance to experience a Roman style classroom.

Empire of Letters

This January 8, 2019 news item on phys.org announces a book about how the technology of writing influenced how ancient Romans saw the world and provides a counterpoint to the notion that the ancient world (in Europe) was relentlessly oral in nature,

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest surviving scientific treatise written in Latin. Composed around 55 B.C.E., the text is a lengthy piece of contrarianism. Lucreutius was in the Epicurean school of philosophy: He wanted an account of the world rooted in earthly matter, rather than explanations based on the Gods and religion

Among other things, Lucretius believed in atomism, the idea that the world and cosmos consisted of minute pieces of matter, rather than four essential elements. To explain this point, Lucretius asked readers to think of bits of matter as being like letters of the alphabet. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin—probably derived from the grouping of L,M, and N in the alphabet

To learn these elements of writing, students would copy out tables of letters and syllables, which Lucretius thought also served as a model for understanding the world, since matter and letters could be rearranged in parallel ways. For instance, Lucretius wrote, wood could be turned into fire by adding a little heat, while the word for wood, “lingum,” could be turned into the world for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters.

Students taking this analogy to heart would thus learn “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” says Stephanie Frampton, an associate professor of literature at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in a new book on writing in the Roman world.

Moreover, Frampton emphasizes, the fact that students were learning all this specifically through writing exercises is a significant and underappreciated point in our understanding of ancient Rome: Writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world.

A January 3, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin — the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.”

Frampton explores this and other connections between writing and Roman society in her new work, “Empire of Letters,” published last week by Oxford University Press [according to their webpage, the paper version will be published on February 4, 2019; the e-book is now available for purchase].

The book is a history of technology itself, as Frampton examines the particulars of Roman books — which often existed as scrolls back then — and their evolution over time. But a central focus of the work is how those technologies influenced how the Romans “thought about thought,” as she says.

Moreover, as Frampton notes, she is studying the history of Romans as “literate creatures,” which means studying the tools of writing used not just in completed works, but in education, too. The letter tables detailed by Lucretius are just one example of this. Romans also learned to read and write using wax tablets that they could wipe clean after exercises.

The need to wipe such tablets clean drove the Roman emphasis on learning the art of memory — including the “memory palace” method, which uses visualized locations for items to remember them, and which is still around today. For this reason Cicero, among other Roman writers, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.”
As Frampton writes in the book, such tablets also produced “an intimate and complex relationship with memory” in the Roman world, and meant that “memory was a fundamental part of literary composition.”  

Tablets also became a common Roman metaphor for how our brains work: They thought “the mind is like a wax tablet where you can write and erase and rewrite,” Frampton says. Understanding this kind of relationship between technology and the intellect, she thinks, helps us get that much closer to life as the Romans lived it

“I think it’s analagous to early computing,” Frampton says. “The way we talk about the mind now is that it’s a computer. … We think about the computer in the same way that [intellectuals] in Rome were thinking about writing on wax tablets.”

As Frampton discusses in the book, she believes the Romans did produce a number of physical innovations to the typical scroll-based back of the classic world, including changes in layout, format, coloring pigments, and possibly even book covers and the materials used as scroll handles, including ivory.

“The Romans were engineers, that’s [one thing] they were famous for,” Frampton says. “They are quite interesting and innovative in material culture.”

Looking beyond “Empire of Letters” itself, Frampton will co-teach an MIT undergraduate course in 2019, “Making Books,” that looks at the history of the book and gets students to use old technologies to produce books as they were once made. While that course has previously focused on printing-press technology, Frampton will help students go back even further in time, to the days of the scroll and codex, if they wish. All these reading devices, after all, were important innovations in their day.

“I’m working on old media,” Frampton says, “But those old media were once new.” [emphasis mine]

While the technologies Carolyn Marvin was writing about were not quite as old Frampton’s, she too noted the point about old and new technology in her 1990 book “When Old Technologies Were New” published by the Oxford University Press in 1990.

Getting back to Frampton, she has founded an organization known as the Materia Network, which is focused on (from @materianetwork’s Twitter description) “New Approaches to Material Text in the Roman World is a conference series and network for scholars of books and writing in Classical antiquity.”

You can find Materia here. They do have a Call for Proposals but I believe the deadline should read: December 20, 2018 (not 2019) since the conference will be held in April 2019).

Also, you can purchase the ebook or print version of Frampton’s Empire of Letters from the Oxford University Press here.

I have a couple of final comments. (1) The grand daddy of oral and literate culture discussion is Walter J. Ong and I’m referring specifically to his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy. BTW, in addition to being a English Literature professor, the man was a Jesuit priest.

Reading Ancient Schoolroom

(2) The University of Reading (UK) has organized over the last few years, although they skipped in 2018, a series of events known as Reading Ancient Schoolroom (my August 9, 2018 posting features the ‘schoolroom’). The 2019 event is taking place January 23 – 25, 2019. You can find out more about the 2019 opportunity here. For anyone who can’t get to the UK easily, here’s a video of the Reading Ancient Schoolroom,

According to the description on YouTube,

UniofReading

Published on Feb 22, 2018

The Reading Ancient Schoolroom is a historically accurate reconstruction of an ancient schoolroom. It gives modern children an immersive experience of antiquity, acting the part of ancient children, wearing their clothes and using their writing equipment. It was developed by Eleanor Dickey at the University of Reading. Find out more at: www.readingancientschoolroom.com

There you have it.

The roles mathematics and light play in cellular communication

These are two entirely different types of research but taken together they help build a picture about how the cells in our bodies function.

Cells and light

An April 30, 2018 news item on phys.org describes work on controlling biology with light,

Over the past five years, University of Chicago chemist Bozhi Tian has been figuring out how to control biology with light.

A longterm science goal is devices to serve as the interface between researcher and body—both as a way to understand how cells talk among each other and within themselves, and eventually, as a treatment for brain or nervous system disorders [emphasis mine] by stimulating nerves to fire or limbs to move. Silicon—a versatile, biocompatible material used in both solar panels and surgical implants—is a natural choice.

In a paper published April 30 in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Tian’s team laid out a system of design principles for working with silicon to control biology at three levels—from individual organelles inside cells to tissues to entire limbs. The group has demonstrated each in cells or mice models, including the first time anyone has used light to control behavior without genetic modification.

“We want this to serve as a map, where you can decide which problem you would like to study and immediately find the right material and method to address it,” said Tian, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Researchers built this thin layer of silicon lace to modulate neural signals when activated by light. Courtesy of Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian

An April 30, 2018 University of Chicago news release by Louise Lerner, which originated the news item, describes the work in greater detail,

The scientists’ map lays out best methods to craft silicon devices depending on both the intended task and the scale—ranging from inside a cell to a whole animal.

For example, to affect individual brain cells, silicon can be crafted to respond to light by emitting a tiny ionic current, which encourages neurons to fire. But in order to stimulate limbs, scientists need a system whose signals can travel farther and are stronger—such as a gold-coated silicon material in which light triggers a chemical reaction.

The mechanical properties of the implant are important, too. Say researchers would like to work with a larger piece of the brain, like the cortex, to control motor movement. The brain is a soft, squishy substance, so they’ll need a material that’s similarly soft and flexible, but can bind tightly against the surface. They’d want thin and lacy silicon, say the design principles.

The team favors this method because it doesn’t require genetic modification or a power supply wired in, since the silicon can be fashioned into what are essentially tiny solar panels. (Many other forms of monitoring or interacting with the brain need to have a power supply, and keeping a wire running into a patient is an infection risk.)

They tested the concept in mice and found they could stimulate limb movements by shining light on brain implants. Previous research tested the concept in neurons.

“We don’t have answers to a number of intrinsic questions about biology, such as whether individual mitochondria communicate remotely through bioelectric signals,” said Yuanwen Jiang, the first author on the paper, then a graduate student at UChicago and now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. “This set of tools could address such questions as well as pointing the way to potential solutions for nervous system disorders.”

Other UChicago authors were Assoc. Profs. Chin-Tu Chen and Chien-Min Kao, Asst. Prof Xiaoyang, postdoctoral researchers Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Xiang Gao, Jiping Yue, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, Bing Liu and Yin Fang, graduate students Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, and Edward Sudzilovsky, and undergraduate student George Freyermuth.

Other researchers on the paper hailed from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The researchers have also made this video illustrating their work,

via Gfycat Tiny silicon nanowires (in blue), activated by light, trigger activity in neurons. (Courtesy Yuanwen Jiang and Bozhi Tian)

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

Rational design of silicon structures for optically controlled multiscale biointerfaces by Yuanwen Jiang, Xiaojian Li, Bing Liu, Jaeseok Yi, Yin Fang, Fengyuan Shi, Xiang Gao, Edward Sudzilovsky, Ramya Parameswaran, Kelliann Koehler, Vishnu Nair, Jiping Yue, KuangHua Guo, Yin Fang, Hsiu-Ming Tsai, George Freyermuth, Raymond C. S. Wong, Chien-Min Kao, Chin-Tu Chen, Alan W. Nicholls, Xiaoyang Wu, Gordon M. G. Shepherd, & Bozhi Tian. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2018) doi:10.1038/s41551-018-0230-1 Published: 30 April 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

Mathematics and how living cells ‘think’

This May 2, 2018 Queensland University of Technology (QUT; Australia) press release is also on EurekAlert,

How does the ‘brain’ of a living cell work, allowing an organism to function and thrive in changing and unfavourable environments?

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher Dr Robyn Araujo has developed new mathematics to solve a longstanding mystery of how the incredibly complex biological networks within cells can adapt and reset themselves after exposure to a new stimulus.

Her findings, published in Nature Communications, provide a new level of understanding of cellular communication and cellular ‘cognition’, and have potential application in a variety of areas, including new targeted cancer therapies and drug resistance.

Dr Araujo, a lecturer in applied and computational mathematics in QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, said that while we know a great deal about gene sequences, we have had extremely limited insight into how the proteins encoded by these genes work together as an integrated network – until now.

“Proteins form unfathomably complex networks of chemical reactions that allow cells to communicate and to ‘think’ – essentially giving the cell a ‘cognitive’ ability, or a ‘brain’,” she said. “It has been a longstanding mystery in science how this cellular ‘brain’ works.

“We could never hope to measure the full complexity of cellular networks – the networks are simply too large and interconnected and their component proteins are too variable.

“But mathematics provides a tool that allows us to explore how these networks might be constructed in order to perform as they do.

“My research is giving us a new way to look at unravelling network complexity in nature.”

Dr Araujo’s work has focused on the widely observed function called perfect adaptation – the ability of a network to reset itself after it has been exposed to a new stimulus.

“An example of perfect adaptation is our sense of smell,” she said. “When exposed to an odour we will smell it initially but after a while it seems to us that the odour has disappeared, even though the chemical, the stimulus, is still present.

“Our sense of smell has exhibited perfect adaptation. This process allows it to remain sensitive to further changes in our environment so that we can detect both very feint and very strong odours.

“This kind of adaptation is essentially what takes place inside living cells all the time. Cells are exposed to signals – hormones, growth factors, and other chemicals – and their proteins will tend to react and respond initially, but then settle down to pre-stimulus levels of activity even though the stimulus is still there.

“I studied all the possible ways a network can be constructed and found that to be capable of this perfect adaptation in a robust way, a network has to satisfy an extremely rigid set of mathematical principles. There are a surprisingly limited number of ways a network could be constructed to perform perfect adaptation.

“Essentially we are now discovering the needles in the haystack in terms of the network constructions that can actually exist in nature.

“It is early days, but this opens the door to being able to modify cell networks with drugs and do it in a more robust and rigorous way. Cancer therapy is a potential area of application, and insights into how proteins work at a cellular level is key.”

Dr Araujo said the published study was the result of more than “five years of relentless effort to solve this incredibly deep mathematical problem”. She began research in this field while at George Mason University in Virginia in the US.

Her mentor at the university’s College of Science and co-author of the Nature Communications paper, Professor Lance Liotta, said the “amazing and surprising” outcome of Dr Araujo’s study is applicable to any living organism or biochemical network of any size.

“The study is a wonderful example of how mathematics can have a profound impact on society and Dr Araujo’s results will provide a set of completely fresh approaches for scientists in a variety of fields,” he said.

“For example, in strategies to overcome cancer drug resistance – why do tumours frequently adapt and grow back after treatment?

“It could also help understanding of how our hormone system, our immune defences, perfectly adapt to frequent challenges and keep us well, and it has future implications for creating new hypotheses about drug addiction and brain neuron signalling adaptation.”

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

The topological requirements for robust perfect adaptation in networks of any size by Robyn P. Araujo & Lance A. Liotta. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1757 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04151-6 Published: 01 May 2018

This paper is open access.

(Merry Christmas!) Japanese tree frogs inspire hardware for the highest of tech: a swarmalator

First, the frog,

[Japanese Tree Frog] By 池田正樹 (talk)masaki ikeda – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4593224

I wish they had a recording of the mating calls for Japanese tree frogs since they were the inspiration for mathematicians at Cornell University (New York state, US) according to a November 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

How does the Japanese tree frog figure into the latest work of noted mathematician Steven Strogatz? As it turns out, quite prominently.

“We had read about these funny frogs that hop around and croak,” said Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics. “They form patterns in space and time. Usually it’s about reproduction. And based on how the other guy or guys are croaking, they don’t want to be around another one that’s croaking at the same time as they are, because they’ll jam each other.”

A November 15, 2017 Cornell University news release (also on EurekAlert but dated November 17, 2017) by Tom Fleischman, which originated the news item, details how the calls led to ‘swarmalators’ (Note: Links have been removed),

Strogatz and Kevin O’Keeffe, Ph.D. ’17, used the curious mating ritual of male Japanese tree frogs as inspiration for their exploration of “swarmalators” – their term for systems in which both synchronization and swarming occur together.

Specifically, they considered oscillators whose phase dynamics and spatial dynamics are coupled. In the instance of the male tree frogs, they attempt to croak in exact anti-phase (one croaks while the other is silent) while moving away from a rival so as to be heard by females.

This opens up “a new class of math problems,” said Strogatz, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow. “The question is, what do we expect to see when people start building systems like this or observing them in biology?”

Their paper, “Oscillators That Sync and Swarm,” was published Nov. 13 [2017] in Nature Communications. Strogatz and O’Keeffe – now a postdoctoral researcher with the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – collaborated with Hyunsuk Hong from Chonbuk National University in Jeonju, South Korea.

Swarming and synchronization both involve large, self-organizing groups of individuals interacting according to simple rules, but rarely have they been studied together, O’Keeffe said.

“No one had connected these two areas, in spite of the fact that there were all these parallels,” he said. “That was the theoretical idea that sort of seduced us, I suppose. And there were also a couple of concrete examples, which we liked – including the tree frogs.”

Studies of swarms focus on how animals move – think of birds flocking or fish schooling – while neglecting the dynamics of their internal states. Studies of synchronization do the opposite: They focus on oscillators’ internal dynamics. Strogatz long has been fascinated by fireflies’ synchrony and other similar phenomena, giving a TED Talk on the topic in 2004, but not on their motion.

“[Swarming and synchronization] are so similar, and yet they were never connected together, and it seems so obvious,” O’Keeffe said. “It’s a whole new landscape of possible behaviors that hadn’t been explored before.”

Using a pair of governing equations that assume swarmalators are free to move about, along with numerical simulations, the group found that a swarmalator system settles into one of five states:

  • Static synchrony – featuring circular symmetry, crystal-like distribution, fully synchronized in phase;
  • Static asynchrony – featuring uniform distribution, meaning that every phase occurs everywhere;
  • Static phase wave – swarmalators settle near others in a phase similar to their own, and phases are frozen at their initial values;
  • Splintered phase wave – nonstationary, disconnected clusters of distinct phases; and
  • Active phase wave – similar to bidirectional states found in biological swarms, where populations split into counter-rotating subgroups; also similar to vortex arrays formed by groups of sperm.

Through the study of simple models, the group found that the coupling of “sync” and “swarm” leads to rich patterns in both time and space, and could lead to further study of systems that exhibit this dual behavior.

“This opens up a lot of questions for many parts of science – there are a lot of things to try that people hadn’t thought of trying,” Strogatz said. “It’s science that opens doors for science. It’s inaugurating science, rather than culminating science.”

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

Oscillators that sync and swarm by Kevin P. O’Keeffe, Hyunsuk Hong, & Steven H. Strogatz. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 1504 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-01190-3 Published online: 15 November 2017

This paper is open access.

One last thing, these frogs have also inspired WiFi improvements (from the Japanese tree frog Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Journalist Toyohiro Akiyama carried some Japanese tree frogs with him during his trip to the Mir space station in December 1990.[citation needed] Calling behavior of the species was used to create an algorithm for optimizing Wi-Fi networks.[3]

While it’s not clear in the Wikipedia entry, the frogs were part of an experiment. Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper about the experiment, along with an abstract,

The Frog in Space (FRIS) experiment onboard Space Station Mir: final report and follow-on studies by Yamashita, M.; Izumi-Kurotani, A.; Mogami, Y.; Okuno,k M.; Naitoh, T.; Wassersug, R. J. Biol Sci Space. 1997 Dec 11(4):313-20.

Abstract

The “Frog in Space” (FRIS) experiment marked a major step for Japanese space life science, on the occasion of the first space flight of a Japanese cosmonaut. At the core of FRIS were six Japanese tree frogs, Hyla japonica, flown on Space Station Mir for 8 days in 1990. The behavior of these frogs was observed and recorded under microgravity. The frogs took up a “parachuting” posture when drifting in a free volume on Mir. When perched on surfaces, they typically sat with their heads bent backward. Such a peculiar posture, after long exposure to microgravity, is discussed in light of motion sickness in amphibians. Histological examinations and other studies were made on the specimens upon recovery. Some organs, such as the liver and the vertebra, showed changes as a result of space flight; others were unaffected. Studies that followed FRIS have been conducted to prepare for a second FRIS on the International Space Station. Interspecific diversity in the behavioral reactions of anurans to changes in acceleration is the major focus of these investigations. The ultimate goal of this research is to better understand how organisms have adapted to gravity through their evolution on earth.

The paper is open access.