Monthly Archives: December 2021

FrogHeart casts an eye back to 2021 then looks forward to 2022 and contronyms

Casting an eye back isn’t one of my strong points. Thankfully I can’t be forced into making a top 10 list of some kind. Should someone be deeply disappointed (tongue in cheek) that I failed to mention one of the big 2021 stories featured here, please leave a note in the Comments for this blog and I’ll do my best to add it.

Note: I very rarely feature space exploration unless there’s a nanotechnology or other emerging technology angle to it. There are a lot of people who do a much better job of covering space exploration than I can. (If you’re interested in an overview from a Canadian on the international race to space, you can start with this December 29, 2021 posting “Looking back at a booming year in space” by Bob McDonald of CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] Quirks & Quarks science radio programme.)

Now, onto FrogHeart’s latest year.


One of the standout stories in 2020/21 here and many, many places was the rise of the biotechnology community in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. Lipid nanoparticles used in COVID-19 vaccines became far better known than they ever had before and AbCellera took the business world by storm as its founder became a COVID billionaire.

Here is a sampling of the BC biotechnology/COVID-19 stories featured here,

  • “Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist” December 30, 2020 posting
  • “Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper?” January 22, 2021 posting Note: The company is best known for its work on lipid nanoparticles
  • “mRNA, COVID-19 vaccines, treating genetic diseases before birth, and the scientist who started it all” March 5, 2021 posting Note: This posting also notes a Canadian connection in relation mRNA in the subsection titled “Entrepreneurs rush in”
  • “Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story” August 20, 2021 posting Note: This features a fascinating story from Nathan Vardi (for Forbes) of professional jealousies, competitiveness, and a failure to recognize opportunity when she comes visiting.
  • “Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?” August 23, 2021 posting Note: This explores the biotech companies, the network, and provincial and federal funding, as well as, municipal (City of Vancouver) support and more.

Sadly, I did not have time to feature this September 14, 2021 article (The tangled history of mRNA vaccines; Hundreds of scientists had worked on mRNA vaccines for decades before the coronavirus pandemic brought a breakthrough.) by Elie Dolgin for Nature magazine.

Dolgin starts the story in 1987 and covers many players that were new to me although I did recognize some of the more recent and Canadian players such as Pieter Cullis and Ian MacLachlan. *ETA January 3 ,2021: Cullis and MacLachlan are both mentioned in my ‘Getting erased ..” August 20, 2021 posting.* Fun fact: Pieter Cullis was just named an Officer to the Order of Canada (from the Governor General’s December 29, 2021 news release),

Pieter Cullis, O.C.
Vancouver, British Columbia

For his contributions to the advancement of biomedical research and drug development, and for his mentorship of the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs.

Back to this roundup, I got interested in greener lithium mining, given its importance for batteries in electric vehicles and elsewhere,

2021 seems to have been the year when the science community started podcasting in a big way. Either the podcast was started this year or I stumbled across it this year (meaning it’s likely a podcast that is getting publicized because they had a good first year and they want more listeners for their second year),

  • “New podcast—Mission: Interplanetary and Event Rap: a one-stop custom rap shop Kickstarter” April 30, 2021 posting
  • “Superstar engineers and fantastic fiction writers podcast series” June 28, 2021 posting
  • “Periodically Political: a Canadian podcast from Elect STEM” August 16, 2021 posting
  • “Unlocking Science: a new podcast series launches on November 16, 2021” November 16, 2021 posting
  • “Lost Women of Science” December 2, 2021 posting
  • “Nerdin’ About and Science Diction: a couple of science podcasts” Note: Not posted but maybe one day. Meanwhile, here they are:
    • Nerdin’ About describes itself as, “… a podcast where passionate nerds tell us about their research, their interests, and what they’ve been Nerdin’ About lately. A spin-off of Nerd Nite Vancouver, a community lecture series held in a bar, Nerdin’ About is here to explore these questions with you. Hosted by rat researcher Kaylee Byers (she/her) and astronomy educator Michael Unger (he/him). Elise Lane (she/her) is our Mixing Engineer. Music by Jay Arner. Artwork by Armin Mortazavi.”
    • Science Diction is a podcast offshoot of Science Friday (SciFri), a US National Public Radio (NPR) programme. “… Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Or that the element cobalt takes its name from a very cheeky goblin from German folklore? …”
  • Podcast episode from the Imperial College London features women’s hearts, psychedelic worldviews, and nanotechnology for children” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Alberta-based podcast explores AI (Artificial Intelligence)” Note 1: You’ll find season one and two on the page I’ve linked to; just keep scrolling. Note 2: Not posted but maybe one day.
  • Own the Science Podcast/À vous la science balado” Note: Not posted but maybe one day.

Integrating the body with machines is an ongoing interest of mine, these particular 2021 postings stood out but there are other postings (click on the Human Enhancement category or search the tag ‘machine/flesh’),

I wrote a few major (long) pieces this year,

  • “Interior Infinite: carnival & chaos, a June 26 – September 5, 2021 show at Polygon Art Gallery (North Vancouver, Canada)” July 26, 2021 posting Note: While this isn’t an art/sci posting it does touch on a topic near and dear to my heart, writers. In particular, the literary theorist, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin.
  • “The metaverse or not” October 22, 2021 posting Note: What can I say? The marketing hype got to me.
  • “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” December 3, 2021 posting

2022 and contronyms

I don’t make psychic predictions. As far as I’m concerned, 2022 will be a continuation of 2021, albeit with a few surprises.

My focus on nanotechnology and emerging technologies will remain. I expect artificial intelligence, CRISPR and gene editing (in general), quantum computing (technical work and commercialization), and neuromorphic computing will continue to make news. As for anything else, well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if you knew it was coming.

With regard to this blog, I keep thinking about cutting back so I can focus on other projects. Whether I finally follow through this year is a mystery to me.

Because words and writing are important to me, I’d like to end the year with this, which I found in early December 2021. From “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites” on by Judith Herman originally written for “Mental Floss and … published June 15, 2018,”

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, “Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression,” or does it mean, “Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default”? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean “give official permission or approval for (an action)” or conversely, “impose a penalty on.”

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon (“look at from above”) means “supervise” (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, “over” plus videre, “to see.”) Overlook usually means the opposite: “to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.”

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). …

Herman made liberal use, which she acknowledged, of the Mark Nichol article/list, “75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)” on Daily Writing Tips (Note: Based on the ‘comments’, Nichol’s list appears to be have been posted sometime in 2011),

3. Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment

4. Bolt: To secure, or to flee

46. Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part

47. Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention

68. Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from

69. Trip: A journey, or a stumble

Happy 2022!

Two (very loud) new species in Australia: the Slender Bleating Tree Frog and the Screaming Tree Frog

Slender Bleating Tree Frog (H.B. Hines) [downloaded from]

A November 22, 2021 item on announces two ‘new to science’ frog species in Australia,

Scientists from the University of Newcastle [Australia], Australian Museum, South Australian Museum, and Queensland National Parks and Wildlife have found and described two new, very loud frog species from eastern Australia: the Slender Bleating Tree Frog, Litoria balatus, and Screaming Tree Frog, Litoria quiritatus.

Published today [November 22, 2021] in Zootaxa, the newly described Slender Bleating Tree Frog is present in Queensland, while the Screaming Tree Frog occurs from around Taree in NSW [new South Wales] to just over the border in Victoria.

Scientifically described with the help of citizen scientists and their recordings through the Australian Museum’s FrogID app, the new frog species were once thought to be one species [emphasis mine], the Bleating Tree Frog, Litoria dentata.

A November 22, 2021 University of Newcastle press release, which originated the news item, has a great headline and more details about the ‘new’ frog species (Note: Links have been removed; Curious about what they sound like? Check out Dr. Jodi Rowley’s Nov. 22, 2021 posting for the Australian Museum blog for embedded video and audio files),

Screaming for attention: Surprise discovery of two new – and very loud – frog species


Australian Museum herpetologist and lead scientist on the groundbreaking FrogID project, Dr Jodi Rowley, said that the Bleating Tree Frog is well known to residents along the east coast of Australia for its extremely loud, piercing, almost painful call.

“These noisy frog bachelors are super loud when they are trying to woo their mates,” Rowley said.

The scientists analysed many calls submitted to the FrogID project from across Queensland and NSW to differentiate between the calls.

“Our examination revealed that their calls differ slightly in how long, how high-pitched and how rapid-fire they are. The Slender Bleating Tree Frog has the shortest, most rapid-fire and highest pitched calls,” Rowley explained.

Chief Research Scientist of Evolutionary Biology, South Australian Museum, Professor Steven Donnellan said that genetic work was the first clue that there are actually three species.

“Although similar in appearance, and in their piercing calls, the frogs are genetically very different. I’m still amazed that it’s taken us so long to discover that the loudest frog in Australia is not one but three species,” Professor Donnellan said.

“How many more undescribed species in the ‘quiet achiever’ category are awaiting their scientific debut?”

The three species vary subtly in appearance. The Slender Bleating Tree Frog, as its name suggests, is slender in appearance, and has a white line extending down its side, and males have a distinctly black vocal sac.

The Screaming Tree Frog isn’t nearly as slender, doesn’t have the white line extending down its side, and males have a bright yellow vocal sac. In the breeding season, the entire body of males of the Screaming Tree Frog also tend to turn a lemon yellow.

The Robust Bleating Tree Frog is most similar in appearance to the Screaming Tree Frog, but males have a brownish vocal sac that turns a dull yellow or yellowish brown when fully inflated.

Professor Michael Mahony of the University of Newcastle’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences – who over his long career has developed a cryopreservation method, the first genome bank for Australian frogs – said the three closely-related species are relatively common and widespread.

“They are also all at least somewhat tolerant of modified environments, being recorded as part of the FrogID project relatively often in backyards and paddocks, as well as more natural habitats,” Professor Mahony said.

Dr Rowley noted that these new frog species brings the total number of native frog species known from Australia to 246, including the recently recognised Gurrumul’s Toadlet and the Wollumbin Pouched Frog.

“The research and help from our citizen scientists highlights the valuable contribution that everyone can make to better understand and conserve our frogs,” Rowley said.

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

Two new frog species from the Litoria rubella species group from eastern Australia by J. J. L. Rowley, M. J. Mahony, H. B. Hines, S. Myers, L.C. Price, G.M. Shea, S. C. Donnellan. Zootaxa, 5071(1), 1–41. DOI: Published November 22, 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

You can find out more about the FrogID project here (I first mentioned it in an August 2, 2021 posting featuring a sadder frog story).

A little more Christmas: “Kitty Q” award-winning game app explains quantum physics

Caption: Kitty Q. Credit: Philipp Stollenmayer

It kind of reminds me of ‘Hello Kitty’. However, you can see in this larger version that 1/2 of this cat has a skeletal paw giving it kinship to Erwin Schrödinger’s cat.

The app was first announced in a September 28, 2021University of Würzburg press release on EurekAlert,

Cute but half-dead

Ding, dong. There is a box in front of the door. And inside there is … a cute but half-dead cat! The main character of the new game app “Kitty Q” of the Würzburg-Dresden Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat–Complexity and Topology in Quantum Matter of the Universities of Würzburg and Dresden accompanies children and teenagers aged 11 and older into the crazy quantum world. The adventure is intended to primarily get girls excited about the fascinating phenomena of quantum physics. The model for the lovingly designed “Kitty Q” is a popular thought experiment in quantum mechanics by Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961), known as Schrödinger’s cat–alive and dead at the same time.

But fun first

Those who embark on adventure with “Kitty Q” can tinker, try out, experiment on their smartphones and solve more than 20 attractive brainteasers along the way. Importantly, the kids don’t have to be math whizzes or physics geniuses. After all, “Kitty Q” is all about fun!

“The game is an Escape Game after all, even though it conveys quite serious scientific content. It is intended to awaken curiosity and encourage trying things out. Indeed, that’s what science is all about: discovering new things by thinking and experimenting,” says the app designer Philipp Stollenmayer, explaining the character of the game app he developed. “The gamers experience an exciting world, collect stickers and design their cat individually. Just like in real life, you need to work in the quantum world to acquire your knowledge. It was important to me to show how much fun this could be!” “Kitty Q” is the first commissioned project for Stollenmayer who otherwise works exclusively on his own and has won all the major prizes in game design since 2013–most recently the Apple Design Award 2020.

Donuts, randomness, cold chips

The focus of the game app is on the more than 20 puzzles based on scientific facts from quantum physics–the concept of chance, donuts as “symbol” of topological quantum physics, cold chips for revolutionary high-tech and quantum computers, to name a few examples. Those who like can access background knowledge, edited in a popular way, as “Kittypedia articles” as soon as a puzzle has been solved.

“The research field of our Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat–topological quantum physics–promises revolutionary insights and groundbreaking developments. But the subject is still so young that it will take quite a few years before it arrives in classroom. We are trying to bridge this gap with the app,” explains Matthias Vojta, Professor of Theoretical Solid State Physics at Technische Universität (TU) Dresden and spokesperson of the Dresden branch of the ct.qmat research alliance. Topological quantum physics uses topology–a branch of mathematics–as a tool to theoretically describe the interior of novel quantum materials. This is a Nobel Prize-winning research approach that ct.qmat applies.

Attracting female physicists

The game takes unusual approaches to attract children and teens to mathematics, computer science, natural and technical sciences (STEM)–and especially to quantum physics–at an early age. The focus is particularly on girls, since young women are underrepresented in physics degree programs in particular. The game targets at an age group in which interest in physics and the natural sciences is shaped.

“At least since the German government passed the economic stimulus package last year and more than two billion euros flow into German quantum research, our field of science has arrived in society. Unfortunately, there is already a significant shortage of skilled personnel in physics. With our mobile game, we want to make physics an experience, appeal to tomorrow’s researchers and Nobel Prize winners, and thus keep Germany’s high tech economy running,” comments the spokesperson of the Würzburg branch Ralph Claessen, Professor of Experimental Physics at Julius Maximilian University (JMU) Würzburg.

The latest about Kitty Q can be found in a December 21, 2021 Technische Universität Dresden press release on EurekAlert,

“We are thrilled that our app ‘Kitty Q’ was honored as a ‘Serious Game’ at the Games Innovation Award Saxony. The references to quantum physics are always there, but our game can also be played completely without math or physics know-how. Detailed background knowledge is optionally available in the ‘Kittypedia’. We invested a lot of work in compiling these generally understandable encyclopedia articles on quantum physics. We are immensely pleased that this award highlights the aspect of knowledge transfer in particular,” explains Prof. Matthias Vojta, Professor of Theoretical Solid State Physics at Technische Universität (TU) Dresden and spokesperson of the Dresden branch of ct.qmat.

The next round of ” Kitty Q” is now starting with the project “QUANTube–Science Break”: “From January 2022 on, our young researchers will be answering questions about quantum physics sent to us by players from all over the world in entertaining explanatory videos. We are challenging ourselves in terms of easy comprehensibility and language suitable for children and young people,” explains the spokesperson of the Würzburg branch of the Cluster Prof. Ralph Claessen, Professor of Experimental Physics at Julius Maximilian University (JMU) Würzburg. “The fact that the DFG has now awarded a Community Prize to ‘QUANTube’ is a special honor for us because it is awarded by marketing experts from the research community and not by a specialist jury. Perhaps there is even some curiosity about our implementation behind the vote.”

The game app “Kitty Q” has so far been downloaded 65,000 times worldwide. “It’s great to see how enthusiastically people are playing and how great the feedback and ratings are. That is anything but a matter of course for a game that imparts knowledge,” says app designer Philipp Stollenmayer, who developed the game for the Würzburg-Dresden Cluster of Excellence. So far, Stollenmayer has won all the major prizes in game design for the games he has developed on his own–most recently the Apple Design Award 2020.

Answering questions from the players using video

Whoever solves a certain puzzle in the mobile game “Kitty Q–a Quantum Adventure” earns a bonus app, which can be used to ask the researchers of the Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat a question. So far, more than 45 questions on physics and quantum physics have been sent via the in-game bonus app.

All questions will be answered by the doctoral and postdoctoral researchers of the Cluster of Excellence on a topic-related basis in YouTube explanatory videos starting as of January 2022–in school break length of about five minutes and in line with the Science Year 2022, which has the motto “Inquire into a matter”. For recruiting next generation of scientists, the cluster also relies on its strong network with five non-university partner institutes: Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden Rossendorf, Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research Dresden, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids Dresden, Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems Dresden and Bavarian Center for Applied Energy Research.

“QUANTube–Science Break” #1 Schrödinger’s Cat

The first QUANTube episode answers questions about “Schrödinger’s cat”. The video will be published on the YouTube channel of the Cluster of Excellence ct.qmat at the end of January:

America, England, Vietnam, China, and Germany–questions about cats were sent in from all over the world: What does the Q in kitty Q stand for? Why is the cat half dead? How long do cats live when they are half dead? What do the cat’s atoms look like when it is dead and alive at the same time? Why did Schrödinger use a cat and not another animal in his thought experiment in the first place?

A little preview of the new QUANTube video series is provided by a teaser video that answers the question, “What do cats actually have to do with physics?”

Here’s the QUANTube–Science Break video series teaser/preview,

You can find out more about Kitty Q (English language version) here or you can access the Katze Q (German language version) here.

Virgin birth in a Sardinian aquarium and whistled languages could help us understand dolphins

A virgin birth story seems particularly apt at this time of the year (as I was taught the story, Jesus was born of a virgin birth on Christmas Day). As for the whistled language story, that’s pure self-indulgence.

Virgin shark birth

From an August 26, 2021 article by Harry Baker for Live Science (Note: Links have been removed),

A shark’s rare “virgin birth” in an Italian aquarium may be the first of its kind, scientists say.

The female baby smoothhound shark (Mustelus mustelus) — known as Ispera, or “hope” in *Sardinian* — was recently born at the Cala Gonone Aquarium in Sardinia to a mother that has spent the past decade sharing a tank with one other female and no males, Newsweek reported.

This rare phenomenon, known as parthenogenesis, is the result of females’ ability to self-fertilize their own eggs in extreme scenarios. Parthenogenesis has been observed in more than 80 vertebrate species — including sharks, fish and reptiles — but this may be the first documented occurrence in a smoothhound shark, according to Newsweek.

“It has been documented in quite a few species of sharks and rays now,” Demian Chapman, director of the sharks and rays conservation program at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Florida, told Live Science. “But it is difficult to detect in the wild, so we really only know about it from captive animals,” said Chapman, who has led several studies on shark parthenogenesis.

A September 2, 2021 article by Louisa Wright for provides additional details (Note: Links have been removed),

To procreate, most species require an egg to be fertilized by a sperm. That’s the case with sharks, too. But some animals can produce offspring all by themselves. This is called parthenogenesis.

The term comes from the Greek words parthenos, meaning “virgin,” and genesis, meaning “origin.”

The case in Italy could be the first time this “immaculate conception” has occurred in smooth-hound sharks, at least in captivity.

… scientists still don’t know how often it happens, says Kevin Feldheim, a researcher at the Field Museum in Chicago, who researches the mating habits of sharks.”We don’t know how common it is and the handful of cases we have seen have mostly taken place in an aquarium setting,” Feldheim told DW.

One study from the Field Museum discovered parthenogenesis in a wild population of smalltooth sawfish, a type of ray. This was the first time a vertebrate (animals with backbones inside their body), which usually reproduces the conventional way with a mate, was found to reproduce asexually in the wild, Feldheim said.

Whistling could give insight into dolphin communication

A September 21, 2021 news item on announces research into how whistled languages might help us understand dolphins better,

Whistling while you work isn’t just a distraction for some people. More than 80 cultures employ a whistled form of their native language to communicate over long distances. A multidisciplinary team of scientists believe that some of these whistled languages can serve as a model for elucidating how information may be encoded in dolphin whistle communication. They made their case in a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

A September 21, 2021 Frontiers [open access publishers] news release on EurekAlert explains how whistled languages might provide a key to understanding dolphin communication,

Whistled human speech mostly evolved in places where people live in rugged terrain, such as mountains or dense forest, because the sounds carry much farther than ordinary speech or even shouting. While these whistled languages vary by region and culture, the basic principle is the same: People simplify words, syllable by syllable, into whistled melodies.

Trained whistlers can understand an amazing amount of information. In whistled Turkish, for example, common whistled sentences are understood up to 90 percent of the time. This ability to extract meaning from whistled speech has attracted linguists and other researchers interested in investigating the intricacies of how the human brain processes and even creates language.

The idea that human whistled speech could also be a model for how mammals like bottlenose dolphins communicate first emerged in the 1960s with work by René-Guy Busnel, a French researcher who pioneered the study of whistled languages. More recently, some of Busnel’s former colleagues have teamed up to explore the potential synergy between bottlenose dolphins and humans, which have largest brain relative to body size on the planet.

While humans and dolphins produce sounds and convey information differently, the structure and attributes found across human whistle languages may provide insights as to how bottlenose dolphins encode complex information, according to coauthor Dr Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College in the United States whose research focuses on understanding cognition and communication in dolphins and other cetaceans.

Lead author Dr Julien Meyer, a linguist in the Gipsa Lab at the French national research center (CNRS), offered this example: The ability of a listener to decode human language or whistled speech relies on the listener’s language competency, such as understanding phonemes, a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another. However, images of sounds called sonograms are not always segmented by silences between these units in human whistled speech.

“By contrast, scientists trying to decode the whistled communication of dolphins and other whistling species often categorize whistles based on the silent intervals between whistles,” Reiss noted. In other words, researchers may need to rethink how they categorize whistled animal communication based on what the sonograms reveal about how information is conveyed structurally in human whistled speech.

Meyer, Reiss and coauthor Dr Marcelo Magnasco, a biophysicist and professor at Rockefeller University, plan to apply this and other insights discussed in their paper to develop new techniques to analyze dolphin whistles. They will leverage dolphin whistle data compiled by Reiss and Magnasco with a database on whistled speech that Meyer has been collecting since 2003 with the CNRS, the Collegium of Lyon, the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Brazil and several nonprofit research associations focused on whistled and instrumental speech (The World Whistles, Yo Silbo, Silbo herreño). 

“On these data, for example, we will develop new algorithms and test some hypotheses about combinatorial structure,” Meyer said, referring to the building blocks of language like phonemes that can be combined to impart meaning. 

Magnasco noted that scientists already use machine learning and AI to help track dolphins in videos and even to identify dolphin calls. However, Reiss said, to have an AI algorithm capable of “deciphering” dolphin whistle communication, “we would need to know what the minimum unit of meaningful sound is, how they are organized, and how they function.”

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

The Relevance of Human Whistled Languages for the Analysis and Decoding of Dolphin Communication by Julien Meyer, Marcelo O. Magnasco, and Diana Reiss. Front. Psychol., 21 September 2021 DOI:

This paper is open access.

*December 30, 2021: “The female baby smoothhound shark (Mustelus mustelus) — known as Ispera, or “hope” in Maltese …” was corrected to “hope” in Sardinian … .” When you think about it, it makes a lot more sense than naming a special baby shark in a language not native to where it was born. Thank you to Carla and her partner who is from Sardinia!*

Season’s Greetings with the world’s thinnest Christmas tree

Courtesy: Technical University of Denmark

I haven’t seen one of these in a while. It used to be a relatively common occurrence (especially during a holiday) that scientists would create the world’s smallest XXX and send a press release. I’ve missed them so I’m glad to see this one pop up.

A December 23, 2021 news item on announces the world’s thinnest Christmas tree,

A Christmas tree with a thickness of one atom has been made at DTU [Technical University of Denmark]. It shows how terahertz measurements can be used to ensure the quality of graphene.

A December 22, 2021 DTU press release by by Tore Vind Jensen, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

The Christmas tree in the pictures above is 14 centimeters long. Since it is made of graphene, it consists of carbon atoms in only one layer and is only a third of a nanometer thick. It is cut out of a 10-meter long roll of graphene, transferred in one piece using a rebuilt laminating machine and then scanned with terahertz radiation.

The experiment shows that continuous quality control can be done during the production of graphene, which is expected to play a significant role in future high-speed electronics, i.e. medical instruments and sensors.

Graphene is a so-called two-dimensional material, i.e. it consists of atoms in one cohesive layer that is only one atom thin. It is more robust, stiffer and better at conducting electricity and heat than any other material we know of. Therefore, graphene is an obvious candidate for electronic circuits that take up less space, weigh less, are bendable and are more efficient than the electronics we know today.

“Even if you could make a pencil drawing of a Christmas tree and lift it off the paper—which, figuratively, is what we have done—it would be much thicker than one atom. A bacterium is, e.g. 3000 times thicker than the graphene layer we used. That’s why I dare call this the world’s thinnest Christmas tree. And although the starting point is carbon, just like the graphite in a pencil, graphene is at the same time even more conductive than copper. The “drawing” is made in one perfect layer in one piece, ” says Professor Peter Bøggild who lead the team behind the Christmas tree experiment.

“But behind the Christmas joke hides an important breakthrough. For the first time, we managed to make an in-line quality control of the graphene layer while we transferred it. Doing this is the key to gaining stable, reproducible and usable material properties, which is the prerequisite for utilizing graphene in, e.g. electronic circuits.”

30,000 times thinner than kitchen film

As the researchers have done in this case, the graphene can be “grown” on copper film. The graphene is deposited on a roll of copper foil at around 1000 ° C. That process is well known and well-functioning. But a lot can go wrong when the ultra-thin graphene film is moved from the copper roller to where it is used. Since graphene is 30,000 times thinner than kitchen film, it is a demanding process. Researcher Abhay Shivayogimath has been behind several new inventions in DTU’s transfer process, ensuring a stable transfer of the graphene layers from the copper roll.

Moreover, there has been no technology that could control the electrical quality of graphene on the go—while transferring it. This year Peter Bøggild and his colleague Professor Peter Uhd Jepsen from DTU Fotonik, one of the world’s leading terahertz researchers, established a way to do it.

The colored images are measurements of how the graphene layer absorbs terahertz radiation. The absorption is directly related to the electric conductivity: the better the conductive graphene, the better it absorbs.

Terahertz rays are high-frequency radio waves that lie between infrared radiation and microwaves. Like X-rays, they can be used to scan human bodies, as we know it from airport security. Terahertz rays can also take pictures of the electrical resistance of the graphene layer. By connecting the terahertz scanner to the machine that transfers the graphene film, it is possible to image the electrical properties of the film during the transfer process.

Official international measurement standard

Suppose the implementation of graphene and other 2D materials is to be accelerated. In that case, ongoing quality assurance is a prerequisite, says Peter Bøggild. Quality control precedes trust, he says. The technology can guarantee that graphene-based technologies are manufactured more uniformly and predictably with fewer errors. This year, the DTU researchers’ method was approved as the first official international measurement standard for graphene. Their method was described earlier this year in the article ‘Terahertz imaging of graphene paves the way to industrialisation.’

The potential is excellent. Graphene and other two-dimensional materials can e.g. enable the manufacturing of high-speed electronics performing lightning-fast calculations with far less power consumption than the technologies we use today. But before graphene can become more widespread on an industrial scale and be used in electronics, we encounter in everyday life three main problems must be solved.

First, the price is too high. More and faster production is needed to bring the price down. But with that, you face the second problem: When you increase the speed and can not at the same time check the quality, the risk of error also increases dramatically. At high high-speed transfer, everything must be set precisely.This brings us to the third problem: How do you know what is precise?

It requires measurements. And preferably measurements during the actual transfer process. The DTU team is convinced that the best bet on that method is quality control using terahertz radiation.

Peter Bøggild emphasizes that these three problems have not been solved with the new method alone: “We have taken a very significant step. We have converted a laminating machine into a so-called roll-2-roll transfer system. It gently lifts the graphene layer from the copper roll on which the graphene layer is grown and moves it onto plastic foil without it breaking, becoming wrinkled or dirty. When we combine this with the terahertz system, we can immediately see if the process has gone well. That is, whether we have unbroken graphene with low electrical resistance,” says Peter Bøggild.

Joyeux Noël et une bonne année 2022!

Update on Charles Lieber (former Harvard professor) has been convicted

That was quick. Lieber went on trial Tuesday, December 14, 2021 and he was found guilty of two charges one week later on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. (You can see my December 20, 2021 posting for mention of the trial and a description of the events leading up to it.)

As for the conviction, here’s more from a December 23, 2021 posting by Brian Liu and Raquel Leslie for the Law Fare blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Justice Department announced on Tuesday [December 21, 2921] that Charles Lieber, former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, was convicted by a federal jury in connection with his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program. Lieber was convicted for failing to report income and making false statements to authorities regarding his affiliation with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). The conviction is a significant chapter in the story of the department’s China Initiative, which has recently come under fire by groups who allege that the program has led to racial profiling and amounts to prosecutorial overreach. 

The jury convicted Lieber of knowingly and willfully making a materially false statement to federal authorities regarding his work with China’s Thousand Talents Program. The program, launched in 2008, began with the aim of reversing brain drain by enticing Chinese scientists overseas to return to China. Over time, the program evolved to also recruit foreigners with expertise in key technologies. The program provided Lieber with $50,000 a month to work at WUT, in addition to up to $150,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants. Though it is not illegal to participate in Chinese recruitment programs, federal prosecutors alleged that Lieber had failed to report these payments as required of scientists receiving federal funding.

This is why Lieber’s prosecution is such a big deal (from the December 23, 2021 posting),

Lieber was seen by some as a potential Nobel Prize winner [emphasis mine] for his work in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials at a near-atomic level, is a strategically important field with civilian and military application in medicine, green energy, computing and propulsion. In 2012, China’s Academy of Sciences launched a Strategic Pioneering Programme dedicated to nanotechnology research, investing one billion yuan ($152 million) over five years. As a result of the investment, China now ranks first worldwide for the number of patents and articles published on nanotechnology.

Both Liu and Leslie are JD (Juris Doctor) candidates (JD is an advanced law degree) at Yale Law School. Their posting is well worth reading in its entirety as they go on to discuss China and US tensions with regard to science and technology advancements. They also provide links to further commentaries at the end of their posting.

At this point (given limited information and from my admittedly amateur perspective), it looks more like a tax evasion case than anything else.

Your cyborg future (brain-computer interface) is closer than you think

Researchers at the Imperial College London (ICL) are warning that brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) may pose a number of quandaries. (At the end of this post, I have a little look into some of the BCI ethical issues previously explored on this blog.)

Here’s more from a July 20, 2021American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert),

Surpassing the biological limitations of the brain and using one’s mind to interact with and control external electronic devices may sound like the distant cyborg future, but it could come sooner than we think.

Researchers from Imperial College London conducted a review of modern commercial brain-computer interface (BCI) devices, and they discuss the primary technological limitations and humanitarian concerns of these devices in APL Bioengineering, from AIP Publishing.

The most promising method to achieve real-world BCI applications is through electroencephalography (EEG), a method of monitoring the brain noninvasively through its electrical activity. EEG-based BCIs, or eBCIs, will require a number of technological advances prior to widespread use, but more importantly, they will raise a variety of social, ethical, and legal concerns.

Though it is difficult to understand exactly what a user experiences when operating an external device with an eBCI, a few things are certain. For one, eBCIs can communicate both ways. This allows a person to control electronics, which is particularly useful for medical patients that need help controlling wheelchairs, for example, but also potentially changes the way the brain functions.

“For some of these patients, these devices become such an integrated part of themselves that they refuse to have them removed at the end of the clinical trial,” said Rylie Green, one of the authors. “It has become increasingly evident that neurotechnologies have the potential to profoundly shape our own human experience and sense of self.”

Aside from these potentially bleak mental and physiological side effects, intellectual property concerns are also an issue and may allow private companies that develop eBCI technologies to own users’ neural data.

“This is particularly worrisome, since neural data is often considered to be the most intimate and private information that could be associated with any given user,” said Roberto Portillo-Lara, another author. “This is mainly because, apart from its diagnostic value, EEG data could be used to infer emotional and cognitive states, which would provide unparalleled insight into user intentions, preferences, and emotions.”

As the availability of these platforms increases past medical treatment, disparities in access to these technologies may exacerbate existing social inequalities. For example, eBCIs can be used for cognitive enhancement and cause extreme imbalances in academic or professional successes and educational advancements.

“This bleak panorama brings forth an interesting dilemma about the role of policymakers in BCI commercialization,” Green said. “Should regulatory bodies intervene to prevent misuse and unequal access to neurotech? Should society follow instead the path taken by previous innovations, such as the internet or the smartphone, which originally targeted niche markets but are now commercialized on a global scale?”

She calls on global policymakers, neuroscientists, manufacturers, and potential users of these technologies to begin having these conversations early and collaborate to produce answers to these difficult moral questions.

“Despite the potential risks, the ability to integrate the sophistication of the human mind with the capabilities of modern technology constitutes an unprecedented scientific achievement, which is beginning to challenge our own preconceptions of what it is to be human,” [emphasis mine] Green said.

Caption: A schematic demonstrates the steps required for eBCI operation. EEG sensors acquire electrical signals from the brain, which are processed and outputted to control external devices. Credit: Portillo-Lara et al.

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

Mind the gap: State-of-the-art technologies and applications for EEG-based brain-computer interfaces by Roberto Portillo-Lara, Bogachan Tahirbegi, Christopher A.R. Chapman, Josef A. Goding, and Rylie A. Green. APL Bioengineering, Volume 5, Issue 3, , 031507 (2021) DOI: Published Online: 20 July 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

Back on September 17, 2020 I published a post about a brain implant and included some material I’d dug up on ethics and brain-computer interfaces and was most struck by one of the stories. Here’s the excerpt (which can be found under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead): … From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Gilbert was interviewing six people who had participated in the first clinical trial of a predictive BCI to help understand how living with a computer that monitors brain activity directly affects individuals psychologically1. Patient 6’s experience was extreme: Gilbert describes her relationship with her BCI as a “radical symbiosis”.

This is from another part of the September 17, 2020 posting,

… He [Gilbert] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

It wasn’t my first thought when the topic of ethics and BCIs came up but as Gilbert’s research highlights: what happens if the company that made your implant and monitors it goes bankrupt?

If you have the time, do take a look at the entire entry under the “Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues” subhead of the September 17, 2020 posting or read the July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew.

Should you have a problem finding the July 20, 2021 American Institute of Physics news release at either of the two links I have previously supplied, there’s a July 20, 2021 copy at

Skin healing with nanoscale borate bioactive glass?

I’d hadn’t heard about skin healing with glass (of any kind) before this July 6, 2021 news item on,

Recently, with the help of a steady-state strong magnetic field experimental device, scientists constructed nano-scale borate bioactive glass (Nano-HCA@BG), which can effectively reduce the biological toxicity of borate bioglass, improve the biocompatibility of the glass, and promote the effect of borate bioglass on skin repair.

Prof. Wang Junfeng from the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science (HFIPS) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), collaborating with Prof. Zhang Teng from Fuzhou University in this study, said, “it is expected to become the next generation of skin wound repair dressings.” Related research was published in Chemical Engineering Journal.

A July 5, 2021 Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences press release (two apparently identical [to each other and to the July 5 version] copies July 6, 2021 and July 13, 2021 also appear on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains the advantages of using borate bioglass for skin repair,

Borate bioglass is a glass with boron element (B) as the glass network matrix. With good dopability and degradability, it has great potential in the field of skin tissue repair. However, It releases a large amount of alkaline ions, and the explosive release of these ions will change the acid-base environment of the tissue around the glass material, thereby inhibiting cell proliferation.

In addition, the effective surface area of micron-sized borate bioglass in contact with tissues at the wound is small, and the ions on the glass surface are not conducive to the deposition of collagen, so scars are easily formed at the wound after healing. Therefore, preparing a nano-scale borate bioglass with no biological toxicity and excellent biological performance is an urgent problem to be solved.

In this study, the researchers used a special mobile phase, for the first time, to pre-treat micron-sized borate bioglass by melting method in vitro. They obtained Nano-scale (~50nm) borate bioglass (Nano-HCA@BG), which was covered with an amorphous hydroxyapatite (HCA) layer.

During the processing, the ions (PO43- and CO32-) in the mobile phase were deposited on the surface of the glass to form the HCA layer, which effectively inhibited the rapid release of boron and calcium in the remaining glass and thereby reduced the biological toxicity of the glass itself to cells.

In addition, HCA, as an important inorganic component in bones, has good biocompatibility, and can accelerate the induction of collagen synthesis in tissues.

The results of in vitro degradation experiments, cell experiments, and animal experiments showed that compared with the existing commercialized bioactive glass, HCA and micron-sized borate bioglass, nano-HCA@BG slow-released boron calcium, and other elements can effectively accelerate wound cells migration and further up-regulation of the expression of vascular-related growth factors in the wound.

Besides, the amorphous HCA layer on the surface of the glass not only reduces the rapid release of the glass, but also promotes the deposition of collagen in the wound, which in turn promotes the healing of the wound more quickly.

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

Nanosized HCA-coated borate bioactive glass with improved wound healing effects on rodent model by Ruiguo Chen, Qian Li, Qi zhang, Shuai Xu, Jian Han, Peiyan Huang, Zhiwu Yu, Daping Jia, Juanjuan Liu, Huiling Jia, Ming Shen, Bingwen Hu, Howard Wang, Hongbing Zhan, Teng Zhang, Kun Ma, and Junfeng Wang. Chemical Engineering Journal Volume 426, 15 December 2021, 130299 DOI: Available online 12 May 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Radiation-free quantum technology with graphene

A July 8, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announces research from Finland and Switzerland that could have an impact on real world quantum technologies (Note: A link has been removed),

Rare-earth compounds have fascinated researchers for decades due to the unique quantum properties they display, which have so far remained totally out of reach of everyday compounds. One of the most remarkable and exotic properties of those materials is the emergence of exotic superconducting states, and particularly the superconducting states required to build future topological quantum computers.

While these specific rare-earth compounds, known as heavy fermion superconductors, have been known for decades, making usable quantum technologies out of them has remained a critically open challenge. This is because these materials contain critically radioactive compounds, such as uranium and plutonium, rendering them of limited use in real-world quantum technologies.

New research has now revealed an alternative pathway to engineer the fundamental phenomena of these rare-earth compounds solely with graphene, which has none of the safety problems of traditional rare-earth compounds.

The exciting result in the new paper shows how a quantum state known as a “heavy fermion” can be produced by combining three twisted graphene layers. A heavy fermion is a particle – in this case an electron – that behaves like it has a lot more mass than it actually does. The reason it behaves this way stems from unique quantum many-body effects that were mostly only observed in rare-earth compounds until now.

This heavy fermion behavior is known to be the driving force of the phenomena required to use these materials for topological quantum computing. This new result demonstrates a new, non-radioactive way of achieving this effect using only carbon, opening up a pathway for sustainably exploiting heavy fermion physics in quantum technologies.

A July 8, 2021 Aalto University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

In the paper authored by Aline Ramires, (Paul Scherrer Institute, Switzerland) and Jose Lado (Aalto University), the researchers show how it is possible to create heavy fermions with cheap, non-radioactive materials. To do this, they used graphene, which is a one-atom thick layer of carbon. Despite being chemically identical to the material that is used in regular pencils, the sub-nanometre thickness of graphene means that it has unexpectedly unique electrical properties. By layering the thin sheets of carbon on top of one another in a specific pattern, where each sheet is rotated in relation to the other, the researchers can create the quantum properties effect that results in the electrons in the graphene behaving like heavy fermions.

“Until now, practical applications of heavy fermion superconductors for topological quantum computing has not been pursued much, partially because it required compounds containing uranium and plutonium, far from ideal for applications due to their radioactive nature”, says Professor Lado, “In this work we show that one can aim to realize the exactly very same physics just with graphene. While in this work we only show the emergence of heavy fermion behavior, addressing the emergence of topological superconductivity is a natural next step, which could potentially have a groundbreaking impact for topological quantum computing.”

Topological superconductivity is a topic of critical interest for quantum technologies, also tackled by alternative strategies in other papers from Aalto University Department of Applied Physics, including a previous paper by Professor Lado. “These results potentially provide a carbon-based platform for exploitation of heavy fermion phenomena in quantum technologies, without requiring rare-earth elements”, concludes Professor Lado.

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

Emulating Heavy Fermions in Twisted Trilayer Graphene by Aline Ramires and Jose L. Lado. Phys. Rev. Lett. 127, 026401 DOI: Published 7 July 2021 © 2021 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.