Monthly Archives: October 2008

Talking nano

I’ve come across a couple interesting blog postings and a podcast about the journalistic, marketing, and communication problems posed by nanotechnology. First here’s my take as informed by reading the postings and listening to the podcast. The journalistic issue is that nanotechnology is one of those science stories that are tough to sell because if people don’t understand at least some of the underlying scientific principles making  nanotechnology very hard to discuss without a lot of ‘educational detail’ and that kind of detail can limit your potential audience.  You can find another perspective on this by Howard Lovy here.

From a marketing communications or public relations perspective, there’s a lot of promising research that suggests beneficial applications and/or potentially serious risks. It’s hard to tell if the word nano will be perceived as good, bad, or descriptive (e.g. electronic is a neutral description whereas atomic and nuclear have accrued negative connotations). Here‘s another take on the issue.

Making the whole writing/journalism/marketing communication/activism (aside: activists also want to stake nanotechnology territory) thing even harder is the (generally accepted but not official) definition of nanotechnology is a measurement. This fact is still debated within the scientific community (some don’t accept the current definition) and it doesn’t mean much to most people outside the scientific community. As for why it matters? We need ways to discuss things that affect us and it seems that if scientists have their way, nanotechnology will. For more about why it’s important to find ways to talk about nanotechnology, go here for a podcast interview with Stine Grodal, a professor at Boston University.

Multimedia Nano

Nano Today held an art competition for work to be featured on the six issues they’ll be publishing in 2009. Here’s one of the winners,

Pine tree-like nanowires

Spiraling pine tree-like PbS nanowires are evidence of nanowire growth driven by screw dislocations without the help of metal catalysts. Screw dislocation drives the rapid growth of the nanowire tree trunk and causes the lattice of the trunks to twist (called “Eshelby Twist”) and their epitaxial branches to spiral. See Science 2008, 320, 1060.
Matthew J. Bierman, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

And one of the runners up,

Nano Flower

The micrograph shows FeSEM image of ZnO nanoflower developed by ultrasonication method. The ZnO nanopetals have grown in all directions giving it an appearance of flower.
Prashant KR Singh and Ankit Mittal, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, India

They had over three hundred entries in the competition and you can see more winners and runners up here. Source for the images was Nano Today. You can also check out the Nano Werk article which alerted me to the art competition.

If your tastes run more to the audio side, Oxford University is producing podcasts on a variety topics. The series I’m excited about is called, “Caging Shrodinger’s Cat – Quantum Nanotechnology.” The series of three podcasts is here.

Synthetic Biology webcast

Just got an invite to: Synthetic Biology: Coming Up Fast! the latest webcast/live event from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). It will take place Friday, November 14, 2008 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm ET. According to the press release,

Synthetic biology is being touted by scientists and venture capitalists as “the next big thing.”  Researchers claim to be on the brink of creating artificial life in a laboratory and making the world’s first synthetic microbes.  The first blockbuster synbio drug–an affordable cure for malaria–is expected on the market by 2010.  And a whole new biofuels industry spawned by synthetic biologists that promises to conquer the globe’s energy problems seems just around the corner.

The speakers are,

Denise Caruso, former New York Times columnist and longtime analyst of technology-based issues and industries, will explore this question with the Center for American Progress’s Rick Weiss.  Caruso is the author of Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet (2006).  Weiss recently left The Washington Post after a distinguished career as one of the country’s foremost science journalists.

David Rejeski, PEN executive director, will be moderating. If you’re in the Washington, DC area you can attend but you do need to rsvp otherwise there’s the live webcast (or if the timing is bad, they will make post it later but it can take a few days). For more information, check here.

Updates on Nanotech BC and Visible Verse

Dr. Jim Dangerfield will be talking about creating new products and new markets in the forestry sector at Nanotech BC’s Friday, November 7, 2008 breakfast meeting, from 8 am to 10 am at the Listel Hotel, 1300 Robson St., Vancouver. Dangerfield is the executive Vice President of FP Innovations and he will be highlighting nanotechnology breakthroughs and applications in as they pertain to pulp & paper, wood products, and “value-added” products.  Tickets are $25 + GST in advance and $30 + GST at the door. Pre- registration isn’t open yet but do check Nanotech BC’s website at as it should be available soon.

Update of an update: It’s now possible to buy the tickets for Nanotech BC’s Nov. 7, 2008 event “Wood you believe it? Nanotechnology Transforms the Forest Products Sector. Go here for more details and to purchase tickets.

I just confirmed that Visible Verse the video poetry festival Heather Haley organizes is going to be on Thursday, November 6, 2008 starting at 7:30 pm at Pacific Cinematheque (1131 Howe St., Vancouver). The programme looks pretty interesting with heavy representation from Canada. There are some entries from the US, one from the UK, one from India, and one from Finland. There’ll be a live performance by BC poet, Susan Cormier. One of the video poetry highlights is a 30 minute piece by Henry Ferrinni based on Jack Kerouac’s classic (considered by some to be his masterpiece), Dr. Sax. You can’t get advance tickets yet but do keep an eye on Pacific Cinematheque’s website at

Nano definitions, jazz performances, and Visible Verse

Andrew Maynard has a brief discussion on the new ISO standard nano definitions which were released earlier in September. (The technical specification document (ISO/TS 27687:2008) is the one you want to get if you’re interested in these kinds of things. ) I was particularly intrigued by Maynard’s discussion of the classification scheme (I used to work in libraries and classification schemes and, as a consequence, have a great interest in the topic) where he discusses nano-objects and how this category solves a problem with defining nano particles. He also discusses a new report form the ISO (ISO Technical Report 12885) on health and safety practices relevant to nanotechnology. I’d suggest you check out Maynard’s blog at SafeNano.

Laura Werth a Vancouver jazz singer who I’ve mentioned before has a couple of performances next week. On Thursday, October 30th, she’ll be at the “Toast to Mandela” event at the VanCity Theatre (1181 Seymour St., Vancouver), 6 pm, tickets $50. It’s a fundraiser for “Education without Borders”. She’ll also be appearing at Capones Restauarant and Jazz Club (1141 Hamilton St., Vancouver) on Friday, October 31 and Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008. There’s no cover charge. If you want to hear Laura, try her site.

If you’re interested in video poetry, Heather Haley is hosting “Visible Verse” again this year at Pacific Cinematheque (1131 Howe St., Vancouver).  Oops, I had a link here but Cinematheque hasn’t got the 2008 Visible Verse programme and ticket purchasing information on their website yet.

Science Cafe in Alberta, more science policy thoughts, and the Netherlands publishes a nano intiative

I wish I could be in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) next Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Unicorn (pub?) on 304 8th Avenue SouthWest. They’re having an informal event called “Nanotoxicology; is the use of nanoparticles putting human and environmental health at risk?” Speakers include Lori Sheremeta from the National Institute of Nanotechnology and David Cramb, Nanoscience Program Director, University of Calgary. For more details, go here.

I read (skimmed) through Canada’s science policy document, “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage” and policy is really not my thing but a few things did strike me. First, basic science is given remarkably short shrift as the emphasis is strongly on scientific applications that can be brought to market in the foreseeable future. As I recall, none of the funding initiatives mentioned were focused on basic science. How are we going to keep a science alive if we don’t support theorists, thinkers. and dreamers?

If you think about it, a lot of the nanotechnology applications that will be coming to market in the near future are based in quantum theory much of which got its start about 100 years ago at the beginning of the 20th Century (Einstein and all that). It’s taken us 100 years or so to get from theory to developing every day applications.

Next,  nanotechnology is mentioned twice (p. 55 and p. 71) in the report but only briefly.  The primary focus for Canada’s scientific efforts will be in: (a) environmental science and technologies, (b) natural resources and energy, (c) health and related life sciences and technologies, and (d) information and communications technologies.

Finally, there are two paragraphs on intellectual property and copyright (intriguing in light of the government’s latest and very strange piece of proposed copyright legislation which, if enforced, would turn at least 80% [my estimate] of Canada’s population into criminals). Back to the report, they want to offer protection (presumable for the fruits of Canadian scientific labour)  through a modern system of patent and copyright laws while ensuring innovation.

I’m not sure what they mean by modern but RIM (Blackberry is their big product)) got caught by someone (viewed by many as a patent troll) in the US and had to pay big time when the US judge found in the alleged troll’s favour. (Patent trolls are people who file hundreds and thousands of patents for everything they can think of, do little to no original work of their own, and then look for opportunities to sue a successful company in an area where they claim their patent has been infringed. This is an international phenomenon and not confined to Canada and the US.) It seems to me that the modern system of copyright and patent protection is getting increasingly complex and in threatening to strangle innovation and creativity. I’ve certainly run into problems in my own work and in my Sept. 29, 2008 blog posting I gave a link to a report that suggests that Canada’s current intellectual property laws are stifling innovation and cutting off whole areas of scientific research. (Their focus was biotechnology but the ideas are applicable to many areas.)

Long posting today! Finally, the Netherlands Nano Initiative has been published and the strategists are advising that 1 billion Euros be invested over 10 years (between 2010 and 2020). (Note: that’s actually 11 years.) There’s more detail here and if you can read Dutch, there’s a lot more here.

Science and technology policy in Canada and I got my MA

I was having a chat with a physicist a few weeks ago about science policy and then , voila, I found an article about it in Backbone Magazine a week later. It’s called “The Research Race” and as you might expect, we do well in some things and not so well in others. The overall tone is alarmist.

According to the article even though Canada has gone from 15th to 13th place according to OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) statistics which measure performance based on investment in R & D (research and development) as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product) we have a problem. Of course, our ratio has remained flat and that must mean the reason we rose was because other countries had decreased their investment. In other words, our ranking rose despite our lack of added effort. The weird thing is that the writer doesn’t point this out explicitly when it would reinforce the points being made further on. (Aside: I’ve had this happen  when I’m writing about something new to me. It’s so easy to miss that sort of linking thought when you’re processing a lot of new information and trying to write it up under a deadline.)

The point being driven home is that we need a comprehensive strategy that supports science and technology with a view to commercialization. Let’s not forget, BackBone is distributed with the Globe and Mail and that newspaper’s main focus has always been business so the conclusion is no surprise. For details and charts, the article is here.

The article also notes that the federal government does have a strategy document called, “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage.” The summary, pamphlet, and full report are here. I’ll be writing about that tomorrow.

National Science and Technology Week and funding support to join ISTP trade mission to China

I was a bit surprised to find out that Canada is having a National Science and Technology Week, Oct. 17 – 26, 2008. I guess calling it a ‘week’ seemed like a better idea that ’10 days’. Plus, they don’t appear to have an advertising budget as there was no publicity in daily or community newspapers where I’d ordinarily expect to find out about such an event. Luckily I’m on the GenomeBC mailing list and they have a special event for this week (part of the Genome Canada International Conference also being held this week) that’s called: “The Genetic Test Results are in … now what?” It’s going to be held in Vancouver at Telus Science World, 1455 Quebec St. on Weds., Oct. 22, 2008 from 7:30 to 9:30. Speakers are Dr. Elaine Mardis, Washington University at St. Louis; Dr. Darren Platt, human genemoics scientist and former senior director of research at 23 & Me; and Dr. Wylie Burke, University of Washington (Seattle). It’s free but you do have to pre-register (and last year’s event held during this week was packed so you might want to consider doing that). For more information and pre-registration, go here.

International Science and Partnership Canada (ISTP Canada) has funding for SME businesses who want to participate in a trade mission to Nanjing (Jiangsu), China  for the First International Technology Transfer and Commercialization Conference to be held Nov. 6 – 8, 2008. ISTP Canada will provide 50% of the cost of an economy class fare and their counterparts in China will take care of all other expenses for the duration of the conference in China. Full details from the news release are available from Nanotech BC and also from ISTP Canada.

Transformation optics and RockSalt poetry

According to today’s (Oct. 17, 2008) issue of Science, there’s a new field called Transformation Optics. Vladimir M. Shalaev wrote the article which lays out an explanation referencing Einstein’s theory of general relativity where space and time are curved but applying the notion to curving light in arbitrary fashion. Shalaev also discusses some exciting applications including the invisibility cloaks that have been discussed in the blogosphere for the last while. The article titled “Transforming Light” is in the Perspectives section of the magazine. Note: It is behind a paywall. You can find more information about the article and proposed applications here.

The first anthology of BC poetry in 30 years, RockSalt, is being launched with readings from the anthology, which includes over 100 BC poets, on Oct. 23, 2008 at 7 pm at the Agro Cafe (1363 Railspur Alley) on Granville Island . The list of poets who’ll be reading selections on Thurs. (Oct. 23) includes: Heather Haley, Harold Rhenisch, Kate Braid, Mona Fertig, Kuldip Gill, etc.

New $15M electron microscope lands at McMaster University, Ontario

McMaster University (at their Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy) is the first post secondary institution in the world to get a new electron microscope which offers scientists the ability to see atoms in sharper detail than possible with other microscopes. The Titan 80-300 Cubed microscope was shipped from the Netherlands and received at the university in June 2008 and is available to researchers across the country. There are currently plans for projects such as developing more efficient batteries, looking at how air pollution particles damage lungs, and creating higher density memory storage. For more details you can see an Oct. 15, 2008 article in the Globe & Mail here (note: they put their articles behind a paywall shortly after they make them public) or you can try here (note: scroll down). I had no luck finding information on the McMaster site or on the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy. Finally, the most powerful electron microscope is owned by the US Department of Energy but unlike the one at McMaster it is not commercially available.