French want more nanotech public debates; British science oral history project

After last month’s post about disturbances (causing at least one cancellation) taking place during a series of nanotechnology public debates in France, it was a surprise to find that at least one French group wants to continue the ‘discussion’. This last series of  events has been completed with a report due in April 2010. According to a news item on Chemical Watch, France Nature Environnement (FNE) is urging more public debates. From Chemical Watch,

The French public debate on nanotechnologies that began in September ended this week. An official summary of the 17 debates will be published at the end of April, but environmental organisation France Nature Environnement (FNE) says in its conclusions that further discussion is needed to decide where the technology is useful for human advancement and where its use is unacceptable.

You can look at the FNE news item here but it is in French and the site doesn’t seem hospitable to Firefox,  so do try another browser.

Meanwhile, the Brits are embarking on an oral history of British science. From the news item on BBC News,

The British Library has begun a project to create a vast, online oral history and archive of British science.

The three-year project will see 200 British scientists interviewed and their recollections recorded for the audio library.

“We have long been painfully aware that there’s a marked absence of significant recordings of scientists,” said Dr Rob Perks, curator of oral history at the British Library.

For instance, said Dr Perks, in the current sound archives there are only two recordings of Ernest Rutherford, none of computer pioneer Alan Turing, hovercraft inventor Christopher Cockerell or AV Hill, a physiologist and Nobel laureate.

A study carried out prior to the project being started found that in the last ten years, 30 leading British scientists including 9 Nobel winners have died leaving little or no archive of their work.

I’m glad to hear that this oral history is being preserved although I do wonder about the recording formats. One of the problems with archiving materials is maintaining to access them afterwards.

Coincidentally, one of the local Vancouver papers (The Georgia Straight) has an article by Rhiannon Coppin (in the Feb. 25 – March 4, 2010 issue) about the City of Vancouver archives and their attempts at digital archiving. From the article,

Every day, Vancouver’s city archivist and director of records and archives runs a rescue operation on our past. Les Mobbs might send out film reels from the ’30s for repair, or he could receive a donation of early-20th-century photographic negatives that need to be catalogued, scanned, and put into cold storage.

Lately, Mobbs has been putting equal consideration into how to preserve our future. More and more of the city’s legal and cultural record is being created in a digital format; in other words, it’s “born digital”, he told the Georgia Straight.

The pitfall in digital archiving is that we’re poor caretakers of electronic file formats. In 50 or 100 years, we’ll know we’ve won the preservation game if we can open and read a computer document created today. But even in 2010, we’re missing out on 20-year-old WordStar files stuck on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks. Ironically, it may be safer to keep a paper copy of a document than to store the original computer file.

“We’ve been dealing with paper for 2,000 years,” Mobbs said. “We have a lot of experience with what paper is, what it looks like, and how it’s preserved.”

While acid decay, mould, brittleness, and water damage are formidable but vanquishable foes, machine decay, format obsolescence, and file integrity degradation are virtually unconquerable. The short lifetime of many licensed software formats and the quick deaths of so much hardware (remember LaserDisc?) have posed a particular challenge for archivists like Mobbs.

“How do we preserve material that is, for all intents and purposes, essentially transitory?” he asked.

While this discussion might seem irrelevant on a mostly science-oriented blog, the ‘memristor’ story highlights why information about the past is so important. In 2008, R. Stanley Williams (HP Labs) and his colleagues published two papers, the first proving the existence of a fourth member, a memristor, of electrical engineering’s ‘holy trinity’ of the resistor, capacitor, and inductor and the second paper where they established engineering control over the memristor. Williams  and his team both solved a problem they were experiencing in the lab and made engineering history, in part  by reviewing engineering theories dating back at least 30 years. You can read my post about it here.

Imagine if those theories had been locked into formats that were no longer accessible. That’s one of the major reasons for preserving the past, it can yield important information.

In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked for the City of Vancouver archives.

1 thought on “French want more nanotech public debates; British science oral history project

  1. Pingback: UK’s scientific century; les nanotechnologies and la perception publique; some Australian titanium dioxide research; nanotoxicology and fullerenes* « FrogHeart

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