Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Owl and the Pussycat’s Edward Lear commemorated in London exhibit

An artist, science illustrator, poet, and more, Edward Lear is being celebrated by Britain’s Royal Society on the bicentenary of his birth as per GrrlScientist’s Aug. 29, 2012 posting on the Guardian Science blogs,

Do you love art, science and books? If so, then the Royal Society has a real treat for you! As of today, the Royal Society is hosting a public display of Edward Lear’s works. Displayed works include rare and valuable books, drawings and lithographs. Edward Lear, a British artist, scientific illustrator, author and poet, is perhaps most famous for his endearing nonsense poetry, particularly “The Owl and the Pussycat”.

I strongly encourage visiting GrrlScientist’s posting as she has a marvelous image of toucans (as illustrated by Lear) and a charming video of a song based on The Owl and the Pussycat.

The exhibition runs from Aug. 29 – October 26, 2012. It’s free to the public but you must arrange an appointment. From the exhibition webpage,

Visiting times
The exhibition is open on Mondays to Fridays from 10am – 5pm. To arrange a visit please call +44 (0)20 7451 2606 or email .

Special weekend opening
The exhibition will also be open on Sat 22 and Sun 23 Sep 2012, when the Royal Society participates in Open House Weekend 2012. No appointment is necessary [sic] for visits during this weekend.

Unfortunately, the Royal Society has a fairly draconian approach to sharing its materials (from their Terms and Conditions webpage),

Intellectual property rights

We are the owner or the lawful representative of the owner of all intellectual property rights in our site, and in the material published on it.  Those works are protected by copyright laws and treaties around the world.  All such rights are reserved.

You may view the Images available on our site provided for the purpose of preview.

You must not use in whole or in part any materials on our site for purposes other than your private, personal use without obtaining a Licence to do so from us.

If you print off, copy or download any part of our site and/ or any materials published on it in breach of these terms, your right to use our site will cease immediately and you must, at our option, return or destroy any copies of the materials you have made. Unauthorised use of our site and/ or materials may lead to the institution of legal proceedings against you.

I trust that copying portions of the exhibition webpage and portions of their Terms and Conditions does not contravene the copyright they are asserting for their materials.

Encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers while opportunities decline in Canada

The problem never seems to get solved. One end of the organization or institution makes a decision without considering the impact on those affected. Take for example the current drive to encourage more students to undertake STEM (science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics) careers when there are few job opportunities (except for engineers).

The University of British Columbia has just announced a science outreach toolkit, from the Aug. 30, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

Outreach programs that offer a taste of real-world science and pair secondary students with enthusiastic young researchers are key to promoting careers in science and technology, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

In a paper published this week in PLoS Computational Biology, UBC researchers document their work on the Genomics Field Trip Program hosted at the Michael Smith Laboratories (MSL). Joanne Fox, Jennifer McQueen and Jody Wright outline the benefits of research-based field trips, offering a blueprint for designing science outreach programs.

The Genomics Field Trip program encourages exploration of the sciences through a full day genomics experience which takes place at the MSL laboratories. Program instructors are typically UBC graduate students who benefit from the experience by developing their ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public. They also develop skills in lesson design and delivery, allowing them to enhance their instructional skills, something that does not always occur in teaching assistantship positions.

Fox hopes the success of the Genomics Field Trip Program will inspire other institutions to develop similar programs. The recommendations included in her paper can be used as a blueprint for science programs and an online genomics toolkit provides valuable information for lesson plans.

“This type of program helps graduate students remember why science is so exciting, and in turn inspires the next generation of scientists,” Fox explains.

The toolkit available here is designed for grade nine classes and it looks to be quite engaging. However, it is a disconcerting effort in light of the current situation for many STEM graduates. Nassif Ghoussoub (a mathematician at the University of British Columbia) in an Aug. 20, 2012 posting on his Piece of Mind blog writes about the diminishing opportunities for postgraduate science work (Note: I have removed links),

Canada’s “Natural Science and Engineering Research Council” has grown uncomfortable with the rapidly dwindling success rate in its postdoctoral fellowship programme, the latest having clocked in at 7.8%. So, it has decided to artificially inflate these rates by limiting the number of times young Canadian scholars can apply for such awards to … once. Never mind that the pathetic $40,000 salary (see comments below for corrections) for a highly trained Canadian post-doc hasn’t changed in more than 25 years, young Canadian scientists will now be fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of living on the fringe of the poverty line while trying to jumpstart their research careers. Welcome to Canada’s new lottery system for deciding the future of the nation’s capacity for advanced study and research.

I guess something needed to be done to cover up the fact that NSERC is now awarding 66% fewer fellowships than it did 5 years ago. Last year, we wondered whether the following numbers reflected a policy shift at NSERC or just collateral damage.

  • (2008) 250 awards/ 1169 applicants
  • (2009) 254 awards/ 1220 applicants
  • (2010) 286 awards/ 1341 applicants
  • (2011) 133 awards/ 1431 applicants
  • (2012) 98 awards/ 1254 applicants

These 98 fellowships are to be shared by 20 scientific disciplines and to be split among the 59 PhD-granting Canadian universities.

This theme is also addressed in an Aug. 24, 2012 posting by Jonathan Thon on the Black Hole blog which is now being hosted by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), Note: I have removed a link,

It should come as no surprise that by increasing the supply of graduate students (and in turn post-doctoral fellows), we have arranged to produce more knowledge workers than we can employ, creating a labor-excess economy that keeps labor costs down and productivity high (How much is a scientist worth?) – but is this what we want? While advantageous in the short-term, there is little room for additional gains and a more efficient and productive system will need to be created if we wish to actualize research-based economic growth.

As for opportunities in the industrial sector, Canada has a longstanding reputation for exceptionally low rates of industrial R&D (research and development).

I’ve yet to see the programme for the 2012 Canadian Science Policy Conference taking place in Calagary (Alberta) from Nov. 5 – 7, 2012 but I’m hoping this will be on the agenda.

In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico

Last year in an Aug. 11, 2011 post I covered some stories about terrorism and nanotechnology in the aftermath of a major bombing in Mexico where two scientists were injured. Leigh Phillips has written a substantive news feature focusing largely on the situation in Mexico.

From the Aug. 29, 2012 news feature (open access) in the journal Nature,

Nature assesses the aftermath of a series of nanotechnology-lab bombings in Mexico — and asks how the country became a target of eco-anarchists.

The shoe-box-sized package was addressed to Armando Herrera Corral. It stated that he was the recipient of an award and it was covered in official-looking stamps. Herrera, a computer scientist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, shook the box a number of times, and something solid jiggled inside. What could it be? He was excited and a little nervous — so much so, that he walked down the hall to the office of a colleague, robotics researcher Alejandro Aceves López, and asked Aceves to open it for him.

Aceves sat down at his desk to tear the box open. So when the 20-centimetre-long pipe bomb inside exploded, on 8 August 2011, Aceves took the full force in his chest. Metal pierced one of his lungs. “He was in intensive care. He was really bad,” says Herrera’s brother Gerardo, a theoretical physicist at the nearby Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav). Armando Herrera Corral, who was standing nearby when the bomb went off, escaped with a burst eardrum and burns to his legs.

As was reported at the time, an eco-anarchist group calling itself ‘Individuals Tending Towards (or To) Savagery’ laid claim to this ‘achievement’.

While there have been attacks elsewhere*, Mexico has experienced more attacks and more violence and the impact is being felt personally and institutionally,

One year on from the bombing at Monterrey Tec, the repercussions are still being felt. Armando Herrera Corral and Aceves will not speak to Nature about what happened. “It’s too sensitive, you understand?” is all Aceves would say. Herrera has left his job as director of the university’s technology park and is now head of postgraduate studies. Other Mexican universities with nanotechnology research programmes have evacuated campuses in response to bomb threats, and universities across the country have introduced stringent security measures. Some researchers are anxious for their own safety; some are furious about being targets. But all the researchers that Nature spoke to in Mexico are adamant that the attacks will not discourage them from their research or dissuade students from entering the field.

As for reasons why Mexico, to date, has experienced more attacks than other countries,

Reporting by Nature suggests that several broad trends have come together to precipitate the violence. Over the past decade, Mexico has invested heavily in nanotechnology relative to other developing countries, because it sees the field as a route to economic development; mainstream green groups worldwide have grown increasingly concerned about nanotechnology’s health and environmental risks; and there has been a shift towards extreme ideas and tactics among radical environmentalists critical of technology. In Mexico, this has been set against a general background of growing violence and political upheaval.

According to Phillips’ article there were three incidents in 2011 (April, May, and August, respectively)  in Mexico as compared to one attempted attack in Switzerland in 2010. This year, there has been one attack in Europe as I noted in my May 29, 2012 post which featured Andy Coghlan’s article for New Scientist on rising violence against scientists. From Coghlan’s article,

It’s like something out of Kafka. Anti-science anarchists in Italy appear to be ramping up their violent and frankly surreal campaign. Having claimed responsibility for shooting the boss of a nuclear engineering company in Genoa, the group has vowed to target Finmeccanica, the Italian aerospace and defence giant.

In  a diatribe sent on 11 May to Corriere della Sera newspaper on 11 May, the Olga Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation International Revolutionary Front said it shot Roberto Adinolfi, head of Ansaldo Nucleare, in the leg four days earlier. “With this action of ours, we return to you a tiny part of the suffering that you, man of science, are pouring into this world,” the statement said. It also pledged a “campaign of struggle against Finmeccanica, the murderous octopus”.

Coghlan suggests that the focus is being shifted from nanotechnology to nuclear science in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

Philips takes a different tack in the Nature article,

As nanotechnology has been growing in Latin America, a violent eco-anarchist philosophy has taken root among certain radical groups in Mexico. Mexican intelligence services believe that the perpetrators of the bombings last year were mainly young and well educated: their communiqués are littered with references to English-language texts unlikely to have been translated into Spanish.[emphasis mine] Intelligence services say that the eco-anarchist groups have been around for about a decade. They started off protesting against Mexico’s economic and political system by setting off small explosives that destroyed bank machines.But around 2008, certain groups began to adopt an ‘anarcho-primitivist’ perspective. (Locally, they are called primativistas, says Gerardo Herrera Corral.) This philosophy had won little notice until the past few years, but with increasing media reports of looming global climate disaster, some radical green activists have latched on to it. California-based environmental writer Derrick Jensen — whose popular books call for an underground network of ‘Deep Green Resistance’ cells — is a highly influential figure in this otherwise leaderless movement, which argues that industrial civilization is responsible for environmental destruction and must be dismantled.

In their writings, anarcho-primitivist groups often express deep anxiety about a range of advanced research subjects, including genetic engineering, cloning, synthetic biology, geoengineering and neurosciences. But it is nanotechnology, a common subject for science-fiction doomsday scenarios, that most clearly symbolizes to them the power of modern science run amok. “Nanotechnology is the furthest advancement that may yet exist in the history of anthropocentric progress,” the ITS wrote in its first communiqué, in April 2011.

If the perpetrators are young and well-educated then the comment in this excerpt from the article does not follow logically and Phillips does not explain this seeming disparity,

In Mexico, the existing social and political climate may have helped light the fuse, says Miguel Méndez Rojas, coordinator of the department of nanotechnology and molecular engineering at the University of the Americas Puebla in Mexico. He says that the bombings cannot be understood outside the context of what he describes as a dangerous cocktail of poverty and poor education, widespread ignorance of science, ongoing social upheaval and a climate of violence. [emphasis mine]

Phillips’ article goes on to discuss some of the more moderate groups including the Canada-based ETC Group, which has an office in Mexico,

Some researchers in Mexico say that more-moderate groups are stoking fears about nanotechnology. One such body is the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC, pronounced et cetera), a small but vocal non-profit organization based in Ottawa, Canada, which was one of the first to raise concerns about nanotechnology and has to a large extent framed the international discussion. Silvia Ribeiro, the group’s Latin America director, based in Mexico City, says that the organization has no links to the ITS. The bombings were a “sick development”, she says. “These kinds of attacks — they are benefiting the development of nanotechnology,” she says. “It polarized the discussion. Do you want nanotech or the bomb?”

ETC wants to see a moratorium on all nanotechnology research, says Ribeiro, who is the lead author on many of the group’s reports criticizing nanotechnology research and commercialization. She says that there have not been enough toxicological studies on engineered nanoparticles, and that no government has developed a regulatory regime that explicitly addresses risk at the nanoscale.

However, ETC also infuriates researchers by issuing warnings of a more speculative nature. For example, it has latched on to the concept of ‘grey goo’ — self-replicating nanorobots run wild — that was raised in the book Engines of Creation (Doubleday, 1986) by nanotechnology engineer Eric Drexler. In ETC’s primer on nanoscale technologies, it says that the “likely future threat is that the merger of living and non-living matter will result in hybrid organisms and products that are not easy to control and behave in unpredictable ways”.

Ribeiro has also criticized genetic modification and vaccination against human papillomavirus in a weekly column in La Jornada. Méndez Rojas says that ETC “promotes beliefs, but they are not based on facts, and we need a public discussion of the facts”.

The impression I’ve had from reading ETC materials is that they are trying to repeat the success they enjoyed with the GMO (genetically modified organisms) and frankenfood campaign and they’d dearly love to whip up some strong feelings about nanotechnology in aid of more regulation.

I’m not a big ETC fan but I do have to note that their research is solid, once you get past the annoying ‘smart ass’ or juvenile attitude in the literature. Yes, they have an agenda but that’s standard. Everyone has an agenda so you always have to check more than one source.  When you analyze it, Phillips’ article is just as emotionally manipulative as the ETC Group’s communications. Including the ETC Group with the eco-anarchists in an article about terrorism and nanotechnology is equivalent to including the journal Nature with North Korea in an article about right-wing, repressive institutions framed from beginning to end to prove a somewhat elusive point.

Scientists in general seem to recognize that there are some legitimate concerns being expressed by the ETC Group and others,

Most nanotechnology researchers acknowledge that some areas of their work raise legitimate environmental, health and safety concerns. The most important response, says Gerardo Herrera Corral, is for scientists to engage with the public to address and dispel concerns. Herrera is head of Mexico’s only experiment at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, and he points to how CERN dealt with public fears that its Large Hadron Collider could create a black hole that would swallow Earth. “We set up a committee to deal with this. We looked into the real dangers. There were journal articles and we answered all the e-mails we got from people. I mean top-level physicists answering thousands of e-mails.”

“But this is work we should all be doing,” says Herrera. “Even if it’s extra work on top of all the other things we have to do. It’s just part of our job now.”

I like the idea of high level scientists taking the time to answer my questions and I imagine others feel the same way, which may go a long way in explaining why CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) has acquired such good will internationally.

Overall, I suspect Phillips is a little over-invested in Mexico’s nanotechnology terrorism. Three incidents in one year suggests something deeply disturbing (and devastating if you are the target) but in an international context, there were only three incidents. If you add up all of the nanotechnology incidents cited in Phillips’ article, there are three bombings (Mexico), one attempted bombing (Switzerland), a successful arson attempt (Mexico), and a few cancelled public debates (France) from 2009 – Fall 2012.

I am inclined to Coghlan’s argument that there is a disturbing trend toward anti-science violence and, it seems to me, it is largely unfocused, nanotechnology here, nuclear science there, biotechnology everywhere, and who knows what else or where else next?

ETA Feb. 21, 2013: Leigh Phillips contacted me to mention that there was a May 28, 2012 article for Nature, Anarchists attack science, which preceded Coghlan’s article for New Scientist and to which Coghlan provides a link. Phillips’ preceding article was subtitled, Armed extremists are targeting nuclear and nanotechnology workers. Phillips opens with the then recent attack on a nuclear engineering executive and subsequently focuses on attacks in the nanotechnology sector.

* ‘While there have been other attacks ‘ changed to ‘While there have been attacks elsewhere’, on Aug. 9, 2015.

University of Liverpool announces work on HIV/AIDS nanomedicines

Given that Vancouver (Canada) is a world centre for HIV/AIDS  research (courtesy of Dr. Julio Montaner‘s work), the Aug. 30, 2012 news item on Nanowerk  about nanomedicines being developed at the University of Liverpool, which are less toxic therapeutic alternatives to current HIV/AIDS medications, caught my eye. From the news item,

Scientists at the University of Liverpool are leading a £1.65 million project to produce and test the first nanomedicines for treating HIV/AIDS.

There aren’t many details about how they are going to produce these nanomedicines other than what’s in these paragraphs in the Aug. 30, 2012 University of Liverpool news release,

The research project, funded by the [UK] Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), aims to produce cheaper, more effective medicines which have fewer side effects and are easier to give to newborns and children.

The new therapy options were generated by modifying existing HIV treatments, called antiretrovirals (ARVs). The University has recently produced ARV drug particles at the nanoscale which potentially reduce the toxicity and variability in the response different patients have to therapies. Drug nanoparticles have been shown to allow smaller doses in other disease areas which opens up possibilities to reduce drug side-effects and the risk of drug resistance. Nanoscale objects are less than one micron in size – a human hair is approximately 80 microns in diameter.

If I read the news release for this project rightly, there aren’t any immediate plans for making these nanomedicines widely available for treatment (from the University of Liverpool news release),

The project aims to deliver highly valuable data within three years and provide a platform for continual development and testing during that time

Elsewhere in the news release they do mention clinical trials,

Professor Andrew Owen, from the University’s Department of Molecular and Clinical Pharmacology, added: “We have integrated an assessment of pharmacology and safety early in the research and this has allowed us to rapidly progress lead options for clinical trials. The work has been conducted with the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Drug Safety Science also based at the University.”

“Our data so far looks really exciting, offering the potential to reduce the doses required to control the HIV virus.  This work builds on initiatives by Médecins Sans Frontières and other groups to seek ways to improve ARV therapy and could have real benefits for the safety of ARVs globally. Importantly we also hope to reduce the costs of therapy for resource-limited countries where the burden of disease is highest.”

Interestingly, the other mention of taking this medicine into the field is in a  photo caption for the research team’s other featured member,

Professor Steve Rannard: “This project is the first step towards taking nanomedicine options out of our labs and into the clinic”

Good luck to them all!

Sensing at the zeptoscale

My favourite measurement is anything that’s prefixed by ‘zepto’. (Note: At 9:04 am PDT I edited my original lede sentence to correct an awkward construction.] I think it’s the ‘z’ (zed) that appeals to me so greatly. Happily for me, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) have published “Selective Visual Detection of TNT at the Sub-Zeptomole Level” [behind a paywall] in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Here’s more about the research from the Aug. 27, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

… Indian scientists have now introduced a specific detection method for the explosive TNT that can be used to detect even a single molecule.

Thalappil Pradeep, Ammu Mathew, and P. R. Sajanlal at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras use an ingenious combination of micro- and nanostructures as sensors: gold mesoflowers, flower-shaped gold particles about 4 µm in size, act as supports for silver clusters, tiny clumps of exactly 15 silver atoms embedded in the protein bovine serum albumin. When irradiated with light of the right wavelength, the silver clusters luminesce, giving off red light. The gold of the mesoflower supports intensifies the fluorescence. Their unique shape is a particular advantage, because it is easy to unambiguously identify under an optical microscope, unlike spherical particles.

How low can you go? The visual detection of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene and Hg2+ at the sub-zeptomole level is demonstrated. This was achieved using a hybrid material that allowed for the development of a single-particle, single-molecule detection technique, which may be the ultimate in ultra-trace sensitivity with selectivity. (Downloaded from

There are more details and a larger version of the image at Nanowerk.

Pourable electronics?

A group of scientists at Ruhr Universtät Bochum (RUB) have won a European Union Competition Call for proposals in Unconventional Computing.

A new concept to me, I looked for a description of ‘unconventional computing’ and found this by Susan Stepney in an April 2011 issue of ERCIM [European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics] News,

Despite being formulated post-relativity and post-quantum mechanics, classical Turing computation is essentially based in classical physics. This is understandable given the source of its abstraction, but today’s nano-scale computer components are embodied in the quantum world. …

The Turing model was inspired by a single paradigm: the actions of human clerks. Unconventional computation can be inspired by the whole of wider nature. We can look to physics (from general relativity and quantum mechanics, to annealing processes, analogue computing, and on to fully embodied computation), to chemistry (reaction-diffusion systems, complex chemical reactions, DNA binding), and to biology (bacteria, flocks, social insects, evolution, growth and self-assembly, immune systems, neural systems), to mention just a few.

Here’s a description of the competition that these scientists entered, from the Unconventional Computation (UCOMP) page on the Future and Emerging Technology (FET) website,

Nature (e.g. living cells), and our physical environment in general, show many unconventional ways of information processing, such as those based on (bio-)chemical, natural, wetware, DNA, molecular, amorphous, reversible, analogue computing, etc. These are generally very sophisticated, ingenious and highly effective for specific purposes, but sufficient knowledge (either from a theoretical or an engineering perspective) to properly exploit, mimic, or adapt these systems, is lacking.

Proposals should develop alternative approaches for situations or problems that are challenging or impossible to solve with conventional methods and models of computation (i.e. von Neumann [John von Neumann], Turing [Alan Turing]). Typical examples include computing in vivo, and performing massively parallel computation.

Here’s how the winning project is described in the Aug. 29, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

First place in an EU competitive call on “Unconventional Computing” was awarded to a collaborative proposal coordinated by Prof. John McCaskill from the RUB Faculty of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The project MICREAgents plans to build autonomous self-assembling electronic microreagents that are almost as small as cells. They will exchange chemical and electronic information to jointly direct complex chemical reactions and analyses in the solutions they are poured into. This is a form of embedded computation – “to compute is to construct” – in which for example the output is a particular catalyst or coating needed in the (input) local chemical environment. The EU supports the project within the FP7 programme with 3.4 million Euros for three years. Four research groups at RUB will join forces with top teams across Europe, from Israel and New Zealand.

Bit of a challenge understanding it, eh? The RUB Aug. 29, 2012 press release (it originated the news item on Nanowerk), offers some background information about some of the ideas and work leading to the winning collaboration,

John von Neumann envisioned information devices that can construct more complex machines than themselves, in his theory of self-reproducing automata2, but he did not arrive at a robust architecture for this. Modern initiatives towards Living Technology, exploiting the core properties of living systems to push back this frontier, have been spearheaded by RUB in the past decade. McCaskill cofounded (2004-5) the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice (ECLT), an ongoing multi-university institution of which RUB is a member. He has also helped to link up a world-wide community on Sustainable Personal Living Technology (2010). This initiative requires a fundamental integration of molecular construction and information processing and thereby of chemistry and ICT (information and communication technology). Currently, RUB is assembling a roadmap in an EU coordination action (COBRA) for the area of chem-bio ICT, and indeed this integration is most developed in biological organisms. The MICREAgents project represents the next major research program towards these overarching initiatives, one that could change the level of fine-grained algorithmic control in chemical construction, bringing the important social goal of sustainable personal fabrication one step closer.

Here’s a description of what the scientists are planning to do (from the RUB press release),

In order to create this programmable microscale electronic chemistry, MICRE-Agents (Microscopic Chemically Reactive Electronic Agents) will contain electronic circuits on 3D microchips (called lablets, diameter ≤ 100 μm) that self-assemble in pairs or like dominos to enclose transient reaction compartments, using the electronics to control chemical access, surface coatings and reactions via physical and chemical processes such as electroosmosis, electrowetting and electrochemistry. Chemicals can be selectively concentrated, processed and released into the surrounding solution, under local electronic control, in a similar way to which the genetic information in cells controls local chemical processes. The reversible pairwise association in solution of electronic surfaces in the nanometer range will also be used to avoid the prohibitive energetic costs of broadcast communication, allowing lablets to transfer information (including heritable information) from one to another. The lablet devices will integrate transistors, supercapacitors, energy transducers, sensors and actuators, involving electronically constructed nanofilms, and will be essentially genetically encoded, translating electronic signals into constructive chemical processing and recording the results of this processing. [emphais mine] Instead of making chemical reactors to contain chemicals, the smart MICREAgents will be poured into chemical mixtures, to organize the chemistry from within. Ultimately, such microreactors, like cells in the bloodstream, will open up the possibility of controlling complex chemistry from the inside out.

I’m far out of my comfort zone with this material so these questions may not be relevant but I wonder how the lablets, which will self-assemble and integrate supercapacitors, transistors, transducers, etc., will be constituted and how they will be produced. No details are offered in the RUB press release but there is this paragraph, which seems to be discussing future applications,

MICREAgents will provide an unconventional form of computation that microscopically links reaction processing with computation in autonomous mobile smart reactors. This corresponds to a radical integration of autonomous chemical experimentation, a very recent research area, and represents a novel form of computation intertwined with construction. The self-assembling smart micro reactors can be programmed for molecular amplification and other chemical processing pathways, that start from complex mixtures, concentrate and purify chemicals, perform reactions in programmed cascades, sense completion, and transport and release products to defined locations. The project defines a continuous achievable path towards this ambitious goal, making use of a novel pairwise local communication strategy to overcome the limitations of current smart dust and autonomous sensor network communication. It will provide a technical platform spawning research in new computing paradigms that integrate multilevel construction with electronic ICT.

Based on the description of the competition, they seem to be working towards integration of electronics with materials in a way that mimics nature/the human body. It almost seems that this work could lead to buildings and other constructions that are sentient in some fashion or other.

India’s 5th Bangalore Nano in December 2012

For some reason I don’t often see news items about commercializing nanotechnology in India. Happily, this latest news item, an Aug. 28, 2012 posting on the website submitted by IANS, will add to my stockpile,

The fifth edition of Bangalore Nano 2012, the premier nanotechnology event Dec 6-7, will focus on business opportunities in the sunrise sector, which helps in improving the quality of life and environment, a Karnataka government official said Tuesday [Aug. 28, 2012].

“Nano will explore business opportunities in nanotechnology, healthcare and medicine, aerospace and defence, electronics and MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems), food and agriculture, energy and environment and water management/solutions,” Principal Secretary, Science and technology I.S.N. Prasad told reporters at a preview of the upcoming trade show.

“India’s strength in core technology and biotechnology will fuel the growth of nanotechnology. With sound policies and government support, nanotechnology will flourish in India during this decade.” Rao [scientist C.N.R. Rao] pointed out.

Rao is also chairman of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister and president of the state-run Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research located here.

“Over 100 international and domestic firms are expected to participate, with over 100 delegates from Australia, Japan, US and other countries,” Prasad said.

The Bangalore Nano 2012 home page offers this description of their event,

Bangalore Nano, is an annual event organised by Department of Science & Technology, Government of Karnataka, under the guidance of Vision Group on Nanotechnology and JNCASR.

The 5th edition of Bangalore Nano is scheduled from December 5th to 7th, 2012 at Hotel The Lalit Ashok Bangalore, India.

The Event will offer 3 days of powerpacked Knowledge Transfer and Networking Opportunuties with Industry, R&D Fraternity, Academia from who’s who of Nanotechnology Fraternity.

The Global market for Nanotechnology incorporated manufactured goods will be worth USD 1.6 Trillion, representing a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of more than 49% for the period 2009 – 2013. The Investments of emerging economies such as India, China and Russia in the field of Nanotechnology Research and Development will become driving factors for growth in these countries.

The Government of India’s Launch of a Mission on Nano Science and Technology (Nano Mission) has been a step in this direction. Capacity-building in the area of Nanotechnology research will be of utmost importance for the Nano Mission so that India emerges as a global Knowledge Hub in the Nanotech field.

I last mentioned C. N. R. Rao in a Jan. 9, 2012 posting about an interactive ‘nano’ exhibit at a museum in Bangalore.

Media cycles for science stories

Here’s something amusing and educational I found in Mike Masnick’s Aug. 27, 2012 posting on Techdirt,

Originally published 05/18/2009 on the PhD comics website (

You can find the full size version here at the PhD (Piled Higher and Deeper) Comics website, which features insight into the graduate school experience rendered in comic book style.

This particular ‘strip’ about a science story news cycle can be true but more usually, a science story will pass through without any or very little notice.

Scientists are usually in the position of trying to attract attention for their work. Sometimes that can lead to another kind of science story where the scientists have been overenthusiastic and reached exciting conclusions, which are unsupported by the data. Arsenic life is a good example. In my Dec. 8, 2010 posting, I apologized for getting caught up in the frenzy and included analysis from at least one other source as to how the frenzy started in the first place.

Premiere of Urbee documentary in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) on Aug. 28, 2012 at 7:15 pm (CDT)

The big news is that a documentary about the Urbee car (which took filmmaker, Doug Howe, 2.5 years to make)  is being premiered tonight in Winnipeg.

I featured the Urbee in a couple of Sept. 28, 2011 postings titled, Manitoba’s Urbee, which described it and mentioned a 3-D printing process used for the car panels, and *an Interview with the Urbee car’s Jim Kor where  I asked if nanotechnology enabled some of the refinements such as the 3-D printing process (it did), and more.

Sadly, I’m not getting to Winnipeg tonight but if you can, here’s more information about the premiere,

The public premiere of the URBEE DOCUMENTARY.  This is the story of the building of the urban vehicle of the future.  URBEE is the world’s greenest passenger car.  And it’s being built right here in Winnipeg!

WHEN is this happening?

Tuesday August 28th doors open at 6:00 PM [rush seating]

6:30 Music by Bucky Driedger/Matt Schellenberg of the Liptonians

7:15 URBEE the documentary premiere

WHERE is it?

The Park Theatre 698 Osborne Street

HOW did they do it?

URBEE is designed and constructed by an elite group of Winnipeg engineers, industrial designers and environmental enthusiasts led by Jim Kor

WHY do we need URBEE?

It’s estimated there are 1 billion cars currently on the road across our planet. By 2050 there will be 2.5 billion.  The rampant consumption of fossil fuels by these automobiles is an unsustainable drain on the world’s energy.  And the resultant dumping of carbon into the atmosphere comes at a grave cost to the environment.  Built right here in Manitoba, URBEE is the prototype for a 21st century approach to automotive design that redefines energy efficiency and minimizes impact on the environment.

Here’s an image of the Urbee on the road at Bird’s Hill Park near Winnipeg,


And here’s another angle on the Urbee,

You can see why the car has attracted so much interest here and internationally. Here’s news about the Urbee now that it’s back from Europe (from the Jan. 2012 WOW backgrounder document),

Urbee has just returned from Europe, and is now safely back in our shop on Erin Street. Work continues on the car. This winter [it’s not clear if they mean 2012 or 2013] we plan to drive Urbee during one of our worst Winnipeg snow storms, to demonstrate that Urbee can also be a great winter car!

Congratulations to the filmmaker, Doug Howe, and Jim Kors. I look forward to hearing more about the Urbee (or URBEE).

There will be a DVD of the documentary available soon. If you contact them via, you will be placed on a waiting list.

* ‘and’ changed to ‘an’ Nov. 7, 2013

Nerve endings, iridescence, and camouflage amongst the squid

Iridescence is a magical thing as far as I’m concerned. I know the scientists at the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts have mundane reasons for studying the iridescence in squid but I detect a hint of the fascination in the description of their work in the Aug. 27, 2012 news item on ScienceDaily,

Squid skin is extraordinary because it has two ways to produce color and pattern. Pigmented organs called chromatophores create patterns with yellow, red, and brown colors. Underneath the pigments, iridophores, aggregations of iridescent cells in the skin, reflect light and add blue, green, and pink colors to the overall appearance of the skin. Collectively these two groups of skin elements can create spectacular optical illusions with patterns of color, brightness, and contrast change.

“For 20 years we have been wondering how the dynamically changeable iridescence is controlled by the squid,” says study co-author Roger Hanlon. “At long last we have clean evidence that there are dedicated nerve fibers that turn on and tune the color and brightness of iridophores. It is not an exaggeration to call this “electric skin.” The complex nerve network distributed throughout the squid’s skin instantly coordinates tens of thousands of chromatophores with iridescent reflectors for rapidly changing behaviors ranging from camouflage to signaling.”

The Aug. 24, 2012 MBL news release, which originated the news item, provides details about the study,

Working with longfin inshore squid (Doryteuthis pealeii), the researchers took a new approach to investigating the mystery behind the iridophore control mechanism.  By tracing a highly branched network of nerves and stimulating them electrically, they found that they could activate progressive color shifts from red and orange to yellow, green, and blue in just 15 seconds. The findings suggest that the specific color of each iridophore, as well as speed of change, is controlled by the nervous system, as is spatial chromatophore patterning that occurs in the skin layer just above.

The scientists have provided some images to illustrate the process,

Nerves in red can be easily traced among the distinctive chromatophores and iridophores that they innervate. (Credit: Wardill, Gonzalez-Bellido, Crook & Hanlon, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

Neurally stimulated squid iridophore. (Credit: Wardill, Gonzalez-Bellido, Crook & Hanlon, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences)

They’ve also created a brief, silent video showing the process of becoming iridescent in action,

What I found particularly interesting about iridescence and colour  in squid was this (from the Aug. 24, news release),

How squid choose and hold particular skin colors to help camouflage themselves remains unknown and is particularly interesting because the animals are completely colorblind.

For anyone interested in reading the study, here’s the citation from the ScienceDaily news item,

T. J. Wardill, P. T. Gonzalez-Bellido, R. J. Crook, R. T. Hanlon. Neural control of tuneable skin iridescence in squid. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1374

The article is behind a paywall.

ETA Aug. 28, 2012 1:15 pm PDT: I forgot to mention the ‘camouflage’ part of the headline in the context of this story. The ability to change colour in response to stimulae of one sort of another is often for the purpose of camouflage/concealment, a matter of some interest to the military. In this case (from the Aug. 24, 2012 news release),

The work was funded by grants from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

I last wrote about squid and camouflage in my Aug. 17, 2012 posting on soft robots.