Tag Archives: Australia

A fully implantable wireless medical device for patients with severe paralysis

There have been only two people who have tested the device from Australia but the research raises hope, from an Oct, 28, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

A tiny device the size of a small paperclip has been shown to help patients with upper limb paralysis to text, email and even shop online in the first human trial.

The device, Stentrode™, has been implanted successfully in two patients, who both suffer from severe paralysis due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — also known as motor neuron disease (MND) — and neither had the ability to move their upper limbs.

Published in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery, the results found the Stentrode™ was able to wirelessly restore the transmission of brain impulses out of the body. This enabled the patients to successfully complete daily tasks such as online banking, shopping and texting, which previously had not been available to them.

An Oct. 28, 2020 University of Melbourne press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, fills in some of the detail,

The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Peter Mitchell, Neurointervention Service Director and principal investigator on the trial, said the findings were promising and demonstrate the device can be safely implanted and used within the patients.

“This is the first time an operation of this kind has been done, so we couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be problems, but in both cases the surgery has gone better than we had hoped,” Professor Mitchell said.

Professor Mitchell implanted the device on the study participants through their blood vessels, next to the brain’s motor cortex, in a procedure involving a small ‘keyhole’ incision in the neck.

“The procedure isn’t easy, in each surgery there were differences depending on the patient’s anatomy, however in both cases the patients were able to leave the hospital only a few days later, which also demonstrates the quick recovery from the surgery,” Professor Mitchell said.

Neurointerventionalist and CEO of Synchron – the research commercial partner – Associate Professor Thomas Oxley, said this was a breakthrough moment for the field of brain-computer interfaces.

“We are excited to report that we have delivered a fully implantable, take home, wireless technology that does not require open brain surgery, which functions to restore freedoms for people with severe disability,” Associate Professor Oxley, who is also co-head of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University of Melbourne, said.

The two patients used the Stentrode™ to control the computer-based operating system, in combination with an eye-tracker for cursor navigation. This meant they did not need a mouse or keyboard.

They also undertook machine learning-assisted training to control multiple mouse click actions, including zoom and left click. The first two patients achieved an average click accuracy of 92 per cent and 93 per cent, respectively, and typing speeds of 14 and 20 characters per minute with predictive text disabled.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Nicholas Opie, co-head of the Vascular Bionics Laboratory at the University and founding chief technology officer of Synchron said the developments were exciting and the patients involved had a level of freedom restored in their lives.

“Observing the participants use the system to communicate and control a computer with their minds, independently and at home, is truly amazing,” Associate Professor Opie said.

“We are thankful to work with such fantastic participants, and my colleagues and I are honoured to make a difference in their lives. I hope others are inspired by their success.

“Over the last eight years we have drawn on some of the world’s leading medical and engineering minds to create an implant that enables people with paralysis to control external equipment with the power of thought. We are pleased to report that we have achieved this.”

The researchers caution that while it is some years away before the technology, capable of returning independence to complete everyday tasks is publicly available, the global, multidisciplinary team is working tirelessly to make this a reality.

The trial recently received a $AU1.48 million grant from the Australian commonwealth government to expand the trial to hospitals in New South Wales and Queensland, with hopes to enrol more patients.

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About Stentrode™

Stentrode™ was developed by researchers from the University of Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Monash University and the company Synchron Australia – the corporate vehicle established by Associate Professors Thomas Oxley (CEO) and Nicholas Opie (CTO) that aims to develop and commercialise neural bionics technology and products. It draws on some of the world’s leading medical and engineering minds

There’s a little more detail and information in an Oct. 28, 2020 Society of NeuroInterventional Surgery news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers demonstrated the success of a fully implantable wireless medical device, the Stentrode™ brain-computer interface (BCI), designed to allow patients with severe paralysis to resume daily tasks — including texting, emailing, shopping and banking online — without the need for open brain surgery. The first-in-human study was published in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery™, the leading international peer-reviewed journal for the clinical field of neurointerventional surgery.

The patients enrolled in the study utilized the Stentrode neuroprosthesis to control the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system in combination with an eye-tracker for cursor navigation, without a mouse or keyboard. The subjects undertook machine learning-assisted training to control multiple mouse-click actions, including zoom and left click.

“This is a breakthrough moment for the field of brain-computer interfaces. We are excited to report that we have delivered a fully implantable, take home, wireless technology that does not require open brain surgery, which functions to restore freedoms for people with severe disability,” said Thomas Oxley, MD, PhD, and CEO of Synchron, a neurovascular bioelectronics medicine company that conducted the research. “Seeing these first heroic patients resume important daily tasks that had become impossible, such as using personal devices to connect with loved ones, confirms our belief that the Stentrode will one day be able to help millions of people with paralysis.”[1]

Graham Felstead, a 75-year-old man living at home with his wife, has experienced severe paralysis due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was the first patient enrolled in the first Stentrode clinical study and the first person to have any BCI implanted via the blood vessels. He received the Stentrode implant in August 2019. With the Stentrode, Felstead was able to remotely contact his spouse, increasing his autonomy and reducing her burden of care. Philip O’Keefe, a 60-year-old man with ALS who works part time, was able to control computer devices to conduct work-related tasks and other independent activities after receiving the Stentrode in April 2020. Functional impairment to his fingers, elbows and shoulders had previously inhibited his ability to engage in these efforts.

The Stentrode device is small and flexible enough to safely pass through curving blood vessels, so the implantation procedure is similar to that of a pacemaker and does not require open brain surgery. Entry through the blood vessels may reduce risk of brain tissue inflammation and rejection of the device, which has been an issue for techniques that require direct brain penetration. Implantation is conducted using well-established neurointerventional techniques that do not require any novel automated robotic assistance.

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

Motor neuroprosthesis implanted with neurointerventional surgery improves capacity for activities of daily living tasks in severe paralysis: first in-human experience by Thomas J Oxley, Peter E Yoo, Gil S Rind, Stephen M Ronayne, C M Sarah Lee, Christin Bird, Victoria Hampshire, Rahul P Sharma, Andrew Morokoff, Daryl L Williams, Christopher MacIsaac, Mark E Howard, Lou Irving, Ivan Vrljic, Cameron Williams, Sam E John, Frank Weissenborn, Madeleine Dazenko, Anna H Balabanski, David Friedenberg, Anthony N Burkitt, Yan T Wong, Katharine J Drummond, Patricia Desmond, Douglas Weber, Timothy Denison, Leigh R Hochberg, Susan Mathers, Terence J O’Brien, Clive N May, J Mocco, David B Grayden, Bruce C V Campbell, Peter Mitchell, Nicholas L Opie. Journal of Neurointerventional Surgery, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/neurintsurg-2020-016862 Published Online First: 28 October 2020

This paper is open access.

Science communication: perspectives from 39 countries

Bravo to the team behind “Communicating Science: A Global Perspective” published in September 2020 by the Australian National University Press!

Two of the editors, Toss Gascoigne (Visiting fellow, Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University) and Joan Leach (Professor, Australian National University) have written November 8, 2020 essay featuring their book for The Conversation,

It’s a challenging time to be a science communicator. The current pandemic, climate crisis, and concerns over new technologies from artificial intelligence to genetic modification by CRISPR demand public accountability, clear discussion and the ability to disagree in public.

Since the Second World War, there have been many efforts to negotiate a social contract between science and civil society. In the West, part of that negotiation has emphasised the distribution of scientific knowledge. But how is the relationship between science and society formulated around the globe?

We collected stories from 39 countries together into a book. …

The term “science communication” is not universal. For 50 years, what is called “science communication” in Australia has had different names in other countries: “science popularisation”, “public understanding”, “vulgarisation”, “public understanding of science”, and the cultivation of a “scientific temper”.

Colombia uses the term “the social appropriation of science and technology”. This definition underscores that scientific knowledge is transformed through social interaction.

Each definition delivers insights into how science and society are positioned. Is science imagined as part of society? Is science held in high esteem? Does association with social issues lessen or strengthen the perception of science?

Governments play a variety of roles in the stories we collected. The 1970s German government stood back, perhaps recalling the unsavoury relationship between Nazi propaganda and science. Private foundations filled the gap by funding ambitious programs to train science journalists. In the United States, the absence of a strong central agency encouraged diversity in a field described variously as “vibrant”, “jostling” or “cacophonous”.

Russia saw a state-driven focus on science through the communist years, to modernise and industrialise. In 1990 the Knowledge Society’s weekly science newspaper Argumenty i Fakty had the highest weekly circulation of any newspaper in the world: 33.5 million copies. But the collapse of the Soviet Union showed how fragile these scientific views were, as people turned to mysticism.

Eighteen countries contributing to the book have a recent colonial history, and many are from the Global South. They saw the end of colonial rule as an opportunity to embrace science. …

Science in these countries focused mainly on health, the environment and agriculture. Nigeria’s polio vaccine campaign was almost derailed in 2003 when two influential groups, the Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria and the Kaduna State Council of Imams and Ulamas, declared the vaccine contained anti-fertility substances and was part of a Western conspiracy to sterilise children. Only after five Muslim leaders witnessed a successful vaccine program in Egypt was it recognised as being compatible with the Qur’an.

If you have time, I recommend reading the entire essay, which can be found here in November 8, 2020 essay on The Conversation or in a Nov. 9, 2020 news item on phys.org.

I found more information about the book on the Australian National University Press’s Communicating Science: A Global Perspective webpage,

This collection charts the emergence of modern science communication across the world. This is the first volume to map investment around the globe in science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication.

Communicating Science describes the pathways followed by 39 different countries. All continents and many cultures are represented. For some countries, this is the first time that their science communication story has been told. [emphasis mine]

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

Communicating Science; A Global Perspective. Edited by Toss Gascoigne, Bernard Schiele, Joan Leach, Michelle Riedlinger, Bruce V. Lewenstein, Luisa Massarani, Peter Broks. DOI: http://doi.org/10.22459/CS.2020 ISBN (print): 9781760463656 ISBN (online): 9781760463663 Imprint [Publisher]: ANU Press Publication date: Sep 2020

The paper copy is $150 and I assume those are Australian dollars. There are free online and e-versions but they do ask you to: Please read Conditions of use before downloading the formats.

A commentary on the Canadian chapter, mostly

Before launching into the commentary, Here’s a bit about words.

Terminology

Terminology, whether it’s within one language or across two or more languages, is almost always an issue and science communication is no exception as is noted in the Introduction (Subsection 4, page 11),

In the course of compiling the chapters, we found that the term ‘science communication’ has many definitions and not all researchers or practitioners agree on its goals and boundaries. It has been variously described as an objective, goals, a process, a result and an outcome. This confusion over a definition is reflected in the terminology used internationally for the field. From the second half of the 20th century, what we have chosen to call ‘science communication’ for this book has flown under different headings: ‘science popularisation, ‘public understanding’, ‘vulgarisation’, ‘social appropriation of science and technology’, ‘public understanding of science’ and ‘scientific temper’ for example. In all, the chapters mention 24 separate terms for the expression ‘science communication’ that we chose. We have taken note of that variety.

Very few of the chapters which are organized by country name attempt to establish a definition. The chapter on Canada written by Michelle Riedlinger, Alexandre Schiele and Germana Barata is one of the many not offering any definitions for ‘science communication’. Although, it does offer a few other terms used as synonyms or closely allied concepts (also without definitions). They include ‘science or scientific culture’, which (according to a Nov.13.20 email from Toss Gascoigne in response to my question about science culture being a term unique to Canada) has French roots and is used in France and Canada.

Scope

The scope for both the book and the chapter on Canada is substantive and everyone involved is to be lauded for their efforts. Here’s how the book is described on the publisher’s ‘Communicating Science; A Global Perspective’ webpage (Note: more about the emphases in the ‘I love you; we need to talk’ subsection below),

This collection charts the emergence of modern science communication across the world. This is the first volume to map investment around the globe in science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication. [emphases mine]

The authors of the Canada chapter managed to squeeze a lot of Canadian science communication history into 21 pp. of text.

Quite an accomplishment. I am particularly admiring as earlier this year I decided to produce a 10 year overview (2010 – 19) of science culture in Canada and got carried away proceeded to write a 25,000 word, multi-part series.

Given the November 8, 2020 essay and its storytelling style, I wasn’t expecting the largely historical review I found in both the Canada and France chapters. I advise reading the Introduction to the book first as that will set expectations more accurately.

I love you; we need to talk

I learned a lot about the history of science communication in Canada. It’s the first time I’ve seen a document that pulls together so much material ranging from 19th century efforts to relatively contemporaneous efforts, i.e., 2018 or thereabouts.

There’s something quite exciting about recognizing the deep roots that science communication has in Canada.

I just wish the authors hadn’t taken ‘the two cultures’ (French and English) route. By doing so, they managed to write a history that ignores a lot of other influences including that of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and their impact on Canadian science, science culture, and, increasingly, science communication. (Confession, I too missed the impact from Indigenous peoples in my series.)

Plus, ‘two cultures’ seems a dated (1970s?) view of Canadian society and, by extension, its science culture and communication.

This was not the only element that seemed out of date. The authors mentioned Canada’s National Science and Technology Week without noting that the effort was rebranded in 2016 as ‘Science Odyssey’ (plus, its dates moved from Oct. to May of each year).

No surprise, the professional and institutional nature of science communication was heavily emphasized. So, it was delightful to find a section (2.10 on page 11) titled, “Citizen involvement in science communication.” Perhaps, they were constrained for space as they didn’t include the astronomy community, which I believe is amongst our oldest citizen science groups with roots that can be traced back to the 19th century (1868).

There are some other omissions (unless noted otherwise, I managed to include something on the topic in my series):

  • the Canadian Arctic and/or The North (I tried but did not succeed)
  • art/science (also known as sciart) communities
  • the maker and do-it-yourself (DIY) communities
  • open science, specifically, the open science initiative at McGill University’s Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) (can’t remember but I probably missed this too)
  • the immigrant communities and their impact (especially obvious in light of the January 2020 downed PS752 Flight from Iran to the Ukraine; many of the passengers were Canadians and/or students coming to study and a stunning percentage of those people were in science and/or technology) (I didn’t do as good as job as I should have)
  • women or gender issues (I missed it too)
  • BIPOC representation (yes, I missed it)
  • LGBTQ+ representation (yes, me too)
  • social sciences (yes, me too)
  • etc.

The bits I emphasized in the publisher’s description of the book “science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication” set up tension between a ‘national story of science communication’ and a ‘national story of institutionalized and/or academic science communication’.

Clearly, the authors had an almost impossible task and by including citizen science and social media and some independent actors they made an attempt to recognize the totality. Still, I wish they had managed even a sentence or two mentioning some of these other communities of interest and/or noting the omissions.

Here’s more about the difficulties I think the authors encountered.

It’s all about central Canada

As noted with other problems, this one happened to me too (in my 2010 – 19 Canadian science culture overview). It’s as if the provinces of Ontario and Québec exert a centrifugal force throughout every aspect of our nationhood including our science and science communication. Almost everything tracks back to those provinces.

The authors have mentioned most of the provinces, although none of the three Northern territories, in their chapter, evidence they made an attempt. What confounds me is the 7 pp. of 21 pp. of text dedicated to Québec alone, in addition to the Québec mentions in the other 14 pp. If there was a problem with word count, couldn’t they have shaved off a paragraph or two to include some or all of the omissions I noted earlier? Or added a paragraph or two to the chapter?

Framing and authors

By framing the discussion about Canada within the ‘two culture’ paradigm, the authors made things difficult for themselves. Take a look at the title and first sentence for the chapter,

CANADA
One country, two cultures: Two routes to science communication

This chapter provides an account of modern science communication in Canada, including historical factors influencing its development, and the development of the distinct Province of Quebec. …

The title and discussion frame the article so tightly that anything outside the frame is an outlier, i.e., they ‘baked’ in the bias. It’s very similar to the problem in scientific research where you have to be careful about your research question because asking the wrong question or framing it poorly will result in problematic research.

Authors

It’s not unusual for family members to work in the same field and even work together (Marie and Pierre Curie spring to mind). I believe the failure to acknowledge (I checked the introduction, the acknowledgements, and the Canada chapter) the relationship between one of the authors (Alexandre Schiele, son) of the Canada chapter to one of the book’s editors (Bernard Schiele, father) was an oversight. (Both also have some sort of affiliation with the Université du Québec à Montréal [UQAM]).

Anyway, I hope subsequent editions of the book will include an acknowledgement. These days, transparency is important, eh?

Having gotten that out of the way, I was curious about the ‘Canada’ authors and found this on p. 204,

Contributors

Dr Michelle Riedlinger is an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada, and secretary of the PCST Network [Public Communication of Science and Technology Network] and her career spans the practical and theoretical sides of science communication.

Dr Alexandre Schiele holds a PhD in communication science (Sorbonne) and another in political science (University of Quebec). He is working on a project ‘Mapping the New Science Communication Landscape in Canada’.

Dr Germana Barata is a science communication researcher at the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism (Labjor) at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, and a member of the Scientific Committee of the PCST Network.

Outsiders often provide perceptive and thoughtful commentary. I did not find any discernible trace of that perspective n the chapter despite all three authors having extensive experience in other countries.

Riedlinger is more strongly associated with Australia than Canada (source: Riedlinger’s biography on the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network). As of July 2020, she is a senior lecturer at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Interestingly, she is also a Board member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) (source: her QUT biography). I’ll get back to this membership later.

Barata is (or was?) a research associate at Simon Fraser University’s Canada Scholar Communications Lab (ScholCommLab) (source: Barata’s SFU biography) in addition to her work in Brazil.

Those two would seem to cover the southern hemisphere. The third gives us the northern hemisphere.

A. Schiele (source: his CV on ResearchGate) is (or was?) a researcher at the UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréa) East Asia Observatory and is (or was?) at (source: profile on Academia.edu) The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies.

After looking at their biographies and CV, the Canada book chapter is even more disappointing. Yes, the authors were constrained by the book’s raison d’être and the way they framed their chapter but , perhaps, there’s something more to the story?

The future of science communication and the ‘elephant in the room’

At the conclusion of the Canada chapter (pp. 194-6), there’s this,

4. The future for modern science communication in Canada

Recent surveys of Canadian science communicators identified though Twitter and Instagram show that, compared to traditional science communication professionals, social media communicators are younger, paid less (or not at all) for their science communication activities, and have been communicating for fewer years than other kinds of science communicators (Riedlinger, Barata and Schiele [A], 2019). They are more likely to have a science background (rather than communication, journalism or education background) and are less likely to be members of professional associations. These communicators tend to be based in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, and communicate with each other through their own informal networks. Canadian social media science communicators are primarily located in the provinces identified by Schiele [B] and Landry (2012) as the most prolific regions for science communication in Canada, where Canada’s most prestigious and traditional universities are located, and where the bulk of Canada’s population is concentrated. While some science journalists and communicators in Canada mourn the perceived loss of control over science communication as a loss of quality and accuracy, others welcome digital technology for the public engagement potential it offers. For example, Canadian science Instagram communicator Samantha Yammine [emphasis mine] was recently criticised in a Sciencemagazine op-ed piece for trivialising scientific endeavours on social media (Wright, 2018). However, supporters of Yammine argued that she was successfully responding to the Instagram medium in her communication (see, for example, Lougheed, 2018 [emphasis mine]; Marks, 2018). Science has subsequently published an article by Yammine and other social media communicators on the benefits of social media for science communication (Yammine, Liu, Jarreau and Coe, 2018). Social media platforms are allowing space for sociopolitically motivated communicators in Canada to work productively. The impact of these social media science communication efforts is difficult to assess; yet open science for consensus building and support for science in society efforts are needed in Canada now more than ever.

Canada has seen increased investments in science as described by the Naylor Report and the Global Young Academy, but science communication and outreach efforts are still needed to support science culture nationally (Boon, 2017a) [emphasis mine]. Funding for activities happens at the federal level through agency funding; however, Canadian scientists, science communicators and science policymakers have criticised some recent initiatives for being primarily aimed at youth rather than adults, supporting mainly traditional and established organisations rather than innovative science communication initiatives, and having limited connection with the current and broader community of science communicators in Canada. While some science communicators are actively advocating for greater institutional support for a wider range of science communication initiatives (see Boon, 2017b) [emphasis mine], governments and scientific communities have been slow to respond.

Austerity continues to dominate public policy in Quebec, and science culture has ceased to be a priority. The Society for the Promotion of Science and Technology dissolved in 2010 and State-sponsored PCST in Quebec has come to an end. PCST actors and networks in Quebec persevere although they face difficulties in achieving an online presence in a global, yet overwhelmingly Anglophone, social media environment. However, the European Union program Horizon 2020 may very well encourage a new period of renewed government interest in science communication.

As a preface to the next subsection, I want to note that the relationships and networks I’m describing are not problematic or evil or sinister in and of themselves. We all work with friends and acquaintances and, even, family when we can. If not, we find other ways to establish affiliations such as professional and informal networks.

The advantages include confidence in the work quality, knowing deadlines will be met and that you’ll be treated fairly and acknowledged, getting a fast start, etc. There are many advantages and one of the biggest disadvantages (in my opinion) is ‘group think’, i.e., the tendency for a group to unconsciously reinforce each other’s biases.

Weirdly, outsiders such as myself have a similar problem. While people within networks tend to get reinforcing feedback, ‘group think’, outsiders don’t get much, if any. Without feedback you’re at the mercy of your search techniques and you tend to reinforce your own biases and shortsightedness (you’re inside your own echo chamber). In the end research needs to take those shortcomings, biases, and beliefs into account.

Networks and research can be a trap

All three authors are in one fashion or another closely associated with the PCST Network. Two (Riedlinger and Barata) are board or executive members of the PCST Network and one (A. Schiele) has familial relationship with a book editor (B. Schiele) who is himself an executive member of the PCST Network. (Keep tuned, there’s one more network of relationships coming up.)

Barata, Riedlinger, and A. Schiele were the research team for the ‘Mapping the New Science Communication Landscape in Canada’ project as you can see here. (Note: Oops! There’s a typo in the project title on the webpage, which, unexpectedly, is hosted by Brazil’s Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism [Labjor] where Barata is a researcher.)

My points about ‘Mapping …’ and the Canada book chapter,

  1. The Canada book chapter’s ‘The impact of new and emerging technology …’ has roots that can be traced back to the ‘Mapping’ project, which focused on social media (specifically, Instagram and Twitter).
  2. The ‘Mapping’ project is heavily dependent on one network (not PCST).
  3. The Canada chapter is listed as one of the ‘Mapping’ project’s publications. (Source: Project’s Publications page).
  4. The ‘Impact’ subsection sets the tone for a big chunk of the final subsection, ‘The future …’ both heavily dependent on the ‘Mapping’ project.
  5. The ‘Mapping’ project has a few problems, which I describe in the following.

In the end, two sections of the Canada chapter are heavily dependent on one research project that the authors themselves conducted.

Rather than using an authoritative style, perhaps the authors could have included a sentence indicating that more research is needed before making definitive statements about Canadian science communication and its use of new and emerging technologies and about its future.

The second network and other issues

Counterintuitively, I’m starting with the acknowledgements in the materials produced by the three authors for their ‘Mapping’ project and then examining the Canada chapter’s ‘Impact of new emerging and technologies …’ subsection before getting back to the Canada chapter’s final subsection ‘The future …’.

The authors’ 2019 paper is interesting. You can access the title, “The landscape of science communication in contemporary Canada: A focus on anglophone actors and networks” here on Academia.edu and you can access the author’s 2018 paper “Using social media metrics to identify science communicators in Canada” for the 2018 Science & You conference in Beijing, China here on ResearchGate. Both appear to be open access. That is wonderful and much appreciated.

The 2019 and 2018 papers’ Acknowledgements have something interesting (excerpt from 2019 paper),

This study was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through Grant (892-2017-2019) to Juan Pablo Alperin [there’s a bit more info. about the grant on Alperin’s CV in the Grants subsection] and Michelle Riedlinger. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. We would like to thank the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) for their partnership in this project. [emphasis mine] In particular, we are grateful for the continued support and assistance of Shelley McIvor, Janice Benthin and Tim Lougheed [emphasis mine] from SWCC, and Stéphanie Thibault from l’Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec (ACS).

It seems the partnership with SWCC very heavily influenced the text found in the Canada chapter’s subsection ‘The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication (p. 187),

2.12. The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication

Coupled with government ambivalence towards science communication over the last decade, Canada has experienced the impact of new and emerging technologies and changing economic conditions. These changes have reshaped the mainstream media landscape in many parts of the world, including Canada, and the effects have been exacerbated by neoliberal agendas. The changes and their impacts on Canadian journalism were captured in the Canadian survey report The Shattered Mirror (2017). The survey found that Canadians prefer to be informed through the media but on their own timelines and with little or no cost to themselves.

Canada’s science media have responded to new media in many ways. For example, in 2005, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks became the first major CBC radio show to be made available as a free podcast. Canada’s very active blogging community has been developing from the early 2000s, and recent digital initiatives are helping redefine what independent science communication looks like. These initiatives include Science Borealis, launched in 2013 [emphasis mine] (Science Borealis, 2018), Hakai Magazine [emphasis mine] launched in 2015 (Hakai Magazine, n.d.), and The Conversation Canada launched in 2017 (The Conversation Canada, 2018). Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are also supporting a growing number of science communicators engaging a diverse range of publics in digital spaces. …

[assume my emphasis for this paragraph; I didn’t have the heart to make any readers struggle through that much bolding] In 2016, the Canadian Science Writers Association changed its name to the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Association (SWCC) to reflect the new diversity of its membership as well as the declining number of full-time journalists in mass media organisations. SWCC now describes itself as a national alliance of professional science communicators in all media, to reflect the blurring boundaries between journalism, science communication and public relations activities (SWCC, 2017). In 2017, SWCC launched the People’s Choice Awards for Canada’s favourite science site and Canada’s favourite blog to reflect the inclusion of new media.

Given that so much of the relatively brief text in this three paragraph subsection is devoted to SWCC and the examples of new media science practitioners (Science Borealis, Hakai Magazine, and Samantha Yammine) are either associated with or members of SWCC, it might have been good idea to make the relationship between the organization and the three authors a little more transparent.

We’re all in this together: PCST, SWCC, Science Borealis, Hakai Magazine, etc.

Here’s a brief recapitulation of the relationships so far: Riedlinger and Barata, both co-authors of the Canada chapter, are executive/board/committee members of the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) network. As well, Bernard Schiele one of the co-editors of the book is also a committee member of PCST (source: PCST webpage) and, as noted earlier, he’s related to the third co-author of the Canada chapter, Alexandre Schiele.

Plus, Riedlinger is one of the book’s editors.

Interestingly, four of the seven editors for the book are members of the PCST network.

More connections:

  • Remember Riedlinger is also a board member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC)?
  • One of the founding members* of Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator), Sarah Boon is the managing editor for Science Borealis (source: Boon’s LinkedIn profile) and also a member of the SWCC (source: About me webpage on Watershed Notes). *Full disclosure: I too am a co-founding member of Science Borealis.*
    • Boon’s works and works from other SWCC members (e.g., Tim Lougheed) are cited in the conclusion for the Canada chapter.
  • Hakai Magazine and Science Borealis both cited as “… recent digital initiatives … helping redefine what independent science communication looks like.”
    • Hakai’s founding and current editor-in-chief is Jude Isabella, a past board member of the *SWCC’s predecessor organization Canadian Science Writers Association (source: Dec. 11, 2020 communication from Ms. Isabella)*

In short, there are many interlaced relationships.

The looking glass and a lack of self-criticism

Reviewing this work put some shortcomings of and biases in my own work into high relief. It’s one of the eternal problems, blindness, whether it’s a consequence of ‘group think’ or a failure to get out of your own personal bubble. Canadian science communication/culture is a big topic and it’s easy to get trapped in your own bubble or your group’s bubble.

As far as I can tell from reading the conference paper (2018) and the paper published in Cultures of Science (2019), there is no indication in the text that the researchers critiqued their own methodology.

Specifically,. most of the respondents to their survey were from one of two professional science communication organizations (SWCC and ACS [Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec]). As for the folks the authors found on Twitter and Instagram, those people had to self-identify as science communicators or use scicomm, commsci, vulgarisation and sciart as hashtags. If you didn’t use one of those hashtags, you weren’t seen. Also, ‘sciart’ can be called ‘artsci’ so, why wasn’t that hashtag also used?

In short, the research seems to have a rather narrow dataset, which is not a problem in and of itself, as long as it’s noted in your paper. Unfortunately, the authors didn’t and that problem/weakness followed the researchers into the book.

Remember the subsection: ‘2.12. The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication’? As noted, it was heavily influenced by the co-authors own research and in this book, those words attain great authority as they are writing about Canada’s science communication and the ‘The future for modern science communication in Canada‘.

Getting back briefly to connections or, in this case, a lack of. There seems to have been one ‘outside’ editor/reviewer (source: Acknowledgements] for the book, Ranjan Chaudhuri, Associate Professor at National Institute of Industrial Engineering Mumbai (source: Chaudhuri’s LinkedIn profile). He’s the only person amongst the authors and the editors for whom I could find no connection to PCST.

(Book editors who weren’t previously mentioned: Joan Leach and Bruce V. Lewenstein were both invited speakers at the 2016 PCST Talk in Istanbul, Turkey and Peter Broks presented in 2004 at the PCST conference in Barcelona, Spain and his work was presented at a 2018 PCST conference in Dunedin, New Zealand.)

Chaudhuri doesn’t seem to have any connection and the other three seem to have, at best, a weak connection to PCST. That leaves four ‘outsiders’ to critically review and edit chapters from 39 countries. It’s an impossible job.

So, what is the future of science communication in Canada?

In the end, I have love for and two big problems with the Canada chapter.

What were they thinking?

Maybe someone could help me understand why the final paragraph of the Canada chapter is about Québec, the PCST, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 science funding initiative.

Ending the chapter with the focus, largely, on one province, **an international organization (PCST) incorporated in Australia**, and a European science funding initiative that sunsets in 2020 to be replaced by Horizon Europe 2021-27 confounds me.

Please, someone out there, please help me. How do these impact or set the future for science communication in Canada?

Aside: the authors never mention Québec’s Agence Science-Presse. It’s an independent media outlet founded in 1978 and devoted, as you can see from the name, entirely to science. It seems like an odd omission.

Now, I have another question.

What about other realities, artificial intelligence, and more?

Why didn’t the authors mention virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR)/mixed reality (MR)/cross reality (XR) and others? What about artificial intelligence (AI) and automated writing, i.e., will we need writers and communicators? (For anyone not familiar with the move to automate more of the writing process, see my July 16, 2014 posting “Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?” when Associated Press (AP) had made a deal with Automated Insights and my Sept. 16, 2019 posting “Automated science writing?” about some work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT].)

It’s not exactly new but what impact are games of the virtual and real life types having?

All of these technologies and others on the horizon are certain to have an effect on the future of science communication in Canada.

Confession: I too missed these new and emerging technologies when pointing to the future in my own series. (sigh) Blindness affects all of us.

The future

I wish the authors had applied a little more imagination to the ‘future’ because I think it has major possibilities grounded in both new and emerging technologies and in hopes for greater inclusiveness (Indigenous communities, citizen scientists, elders, artists, and more) in the Canadian science communication effort. As for the possible impact these groups and technologies will have on institutionalized and noninstitutionalized science communication, I would dearly like to have seen mention of the possibility if not outright speculation.

The end

There is a lot to admire in the Canada chapter. Given the amount of history they were covering, the authors were admirably succinct and disciplined. There’s a lot to be learned in this chapter.

As for the flaws, as noted many times, I am subject to many of the same ones. I have often longed for a critical reader who can see what I can’t. In some ways, it’s the same problem academics face.

Thank you to the authors and the editors for an unexpected treat. Examining their work made it possible for me to cast a jaundiced eye on some of my own, becoming my own critical reader. Again, thank you to the authors and editors of this book. I just hope this critique proves useful to someone else too.

Links

For anyone who is curious, here’s a link to the authors’ interactive map of the new landscape (Twitter and Instagram) of science communication in Canada. BTW, I was charmed by and it looks like they’re still adding to the map.

My multipart series,

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5).

Part 4 covers citizen science, birds, climate change, indigenous knowledge (science), and the IISD Experimental Lakes Area: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5).

Part 5: includes science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, the Order of Canada and children’s science literature, animation and mathematics, publishing science, *French language science media,* and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (5 of 5).

Plus,

An addendum: where I make some corrections and include a reference to some ‘biopoetry’: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (an addendum).

There you have it, science communication in Canada, more or less, as a book chapter and as a multipart series warts and all.

*Original: “a past board member of the SWCC’ (source: homepage of Isabella’s eponymous website)” changed on Dec. 11, 2020 to”past board member of SWCC’s predecessor organization Canadian Science Writers Association (source: Dec. 11, 2020 communication from Ms. Isabella)”

**Original:”an Australian organization (PCST)” changed on Dec. 11, 2020 to “an international organization (PCST) incorporated in Australia”

Spray-on coatings for cheaper smart windows

An August 6, 2020 RMIT University (Australia) press release (also on EurekAlert but published August 5, 2020) by Gosia Kaszubska announces a coating that makes windows ‘smart’,

A simple method for making clear coatings that can block heat and conduct electricity could radically cut the cost of energy-saving smart windows and heat-repelling glass [electrochromic windows?].

The spray-on coatings developed by researchers at RMIT are ultra-thin, cost-effective and rival the performance of current industry standards for transparent electrodes.

Combining the best properties of glass and metals in a single component, a transparent electrode is a highly conductive clear coating that allows visible light through.

The coatings – key components of technologies including smart windows, touchscreen displays, LED lighting and solar panels – are currently made through time-consuming processes that rely on expensive raw materials.

The new spray-on method is fast, scalable and based on cheaper materials that are readily available.

The method could simplify the fabrication of smart windows, which can be both energy-saving and dimmable, as well as low-emissivity glass, where a conventional glass panel is coated with a special layer to minimise ultraviolet and infrared light.

Lead investigator Dr Enrico Della Gaspera said the pioneering approach could be used to substantially bring down the cost of energy-saving windows and potentially make them a standard part of new builds and retrofits.

“Smart windows and low-E glass can help regulate temperatures inside a building, delivering major environmental benefits and financial savings, but they remain expensive and challenging to manufacture,” said Della Gaspera, a senior lecturer and Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at RMIT.

“We’re keen to collaborate with industry to further develop this innovative type of coating.

“The ultimate aim is to make smart windows much more widely accessible, cutting energy costs and reducing the carbon footprint of new and retrofitted buildings.”

The new method can also be precisely optimised to produce coatings tailored to the transparency and conductivity requirements of the many different applications of transparent electrodes.

Global demand for smart glazing

The global market size for smart glass and smart windows is expected to reach $6.9 billion by 2022, while the global low-E glass market is set to reach an estimated $39.4 billion by 2024.

New York’s Empire State Building reported energy savings of $US2.4 million and cut carbon emissions by 4,000 metric tonnes after installing smart glass windows.

Eureka Tower in Melbourne features a dramatic use of smart glass in its “Edge” tourist attraction, a glass cube that projects 3m out of the building and suspends visitors 300m over the city. The glass is opaque as the cube moves out over the edge of the building and becomes clear once fully extended.

First author Jaewon Kim, a PhD researcher in Applied Chemistry at RMIT,  said the next steps in the research were developing precursors that will decompose at lower temperatures, allowing the coatings to be deposited on plastics and used in flexible electronics, as well as producing larger prototypes by scaling up the deposition.

“The spray coater we use can be automatically controlled and programmed, so fabricating bigger proof-of-concept panels will be relatively simple,” he said.

Caption: The ultra-thin clear coatings are made with a new spray-on method that is fast, cost-effective and scalable. Credit: RMIT University

That is an impressive level of transparency. As per usual, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (should you wish to explore further),

Ultrasonic Spray Pyrolysis of Antimony‐Doped Tin Oxide Transparent Conductive Coatings by Jaewon Kim, Billy J. Murdoch, James G. Partridge, Kaijian Xing, Dong‐Chen Qi, Josh Lipton‐Duffin, Christopher F. McConville, Joel van Embden, Enrico Della Gaspera. Advanced Materials Interfaces DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/admi.202000655 First published: 05 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Taxonomies (classification schemes) rouse passions

There seems to have been some lively debate among biologists about matters most of us treat as invisible: naming, establishing, and classifying categories. These activities can become quite visible when learning a new language, e.g., French which divides nouns into two genders or German which classifies nouns with any of three genders.

A July 26, 2020 essay by Stephen Garnett (Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia), Les Christidis (Professor, Southern Cross University, Australia), Richard L. Pyle (Associate lecturer, University of Hawaii, US), and Scott Thomson (Research associate, Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil) for The Conversation (also on phys.org but published July 27, 2020) describes a very heated debate over taxonomy,

Taxonomy, or the naming of species, is the foundation of modern biology. It might sound like a fairly straightforward exercise, but in fact it’s complicated and often controversial.

Why? Because there’s no one agreed list of all the world’s species. Competing lists exist for organisms such as mammals and birds, while other less well-known groups have none. And there are more than 30 definitions of what constitutes a species [emphasis mine]. This can make life difficult for biodiversity researchers and those working in areas such as conservation, biosecurity and regulation of the wildlife trade.

In the past few years, a public debate erupted among global taxonomists, including those who authored and contributed to this article, about whether the rules of taxonomy should be changed. Strongly worded ripostes were exchanged. A comparison to Stalin [emphasis mine] was floated.

Here’s how it started,

In May 2017 two of the authors, Stephen Garnett and Les Christidis, published an article in Nature. They argued taxonomy needed rules around what should be called a species, because currently there are none. They wrote:

” … for a discipline aiming to impose order on the natural world, taxonomy (the classification of complex organisms) is remarkably anarchic […] There is reasonable agreement among taxonomists that a species should represent a distinct evolutionary lineage. But there is none about how a lineage should be defined.

‘Species’ are often created or dismissed arbitrarily, according to the individual taxonomist’s adherence to one of at least 30 definitions. Crucially, there is no global oversight of taxonomic decisions — researchers can ‘split or lump’ species with no consideration of the consequences.”

Garnett and Christidis proposed that any changes to the taxonomy of complex organisms be overseen by the highest body in the global governance of biology, the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS), which would “restrict […] freedom of taxonomic action.”

… critics rejected the description of taxonomy as “anarchic”. In fact, they argued there are detailed rules around the naming of species administered by groups such as the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants. For 125 years, the codes have been almost universally adopted by scientists.

So in March 2018, 183 researchers – led by Scott Thomson and Richard Pyle – wrote an animated response to the Nature article, published in PLoS Biology [PLoS is Public Library of Science; it is an open access journal].

They wrote that Garnett and Christidis’ IUBS proposal was “flawed in terms of scientific integrity […] but is also untenable in practice”. They argued:

“Through taxonomic research, our understanding of biodiversity and classifications of living organisms will continue to progress. Any system that restricts such progress runs counter to basic scientific principles, which rely on peer review and subsequent acceptance or rejection by the community, rather than third-party regulation.”

In a separate paper, another group of taxonomists accused Garnett and Christidis of trying to suppress freedom of scientific thought, likening them to Stalin’s science advisor Trofim Lysenko.

The various parties did come together,

We hope by 2030, a scientific debate that began with claims of anarchy might lead to a clear governance system – and finally, the world’s first endorsed global list of species.

As for how they got to a “clear governance system”, there’s the rest of the July 26, 2020 essay on The Conversation or there’s the copy on phys.org (published July 27, 2020).

Replacing nanotechnology-enabled oil spill solutions with dog fur?

Coincidentally or not, this research from Australia was announced a little more than a month after reports of a major oil spill in the Russian Arctic. A July 10, 2020 news item on phys.org announces a new technology for mopping up oil spills (Note: Links have been removed),

Oil spill disasters on land cause long-term damage for communities and the natural environment, polluting soils and sediments and contaminating groundwater.

Current methods using synthetic sorbent materials can be effective for cleaning up oil spills, but these materials are often expensive and generate large volumes of non-biodegradable plastic wastes. Now the first comparison of natural-origin sorbent materials for land-based oil spills, including peat moss, recycled human hair, and dog fur, shows that sustainable, cheaper and biodegradable options can be developed.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) project found that dog fur and human hair products—recycled from salon wastes and dog groomers—can be just as good as synthetic fabrics at cleaning up crude oil spills on hard land surfaces like highway roads, pavement, and sealed concrete floors. Polypropylene, a plastic, is a widely-used fabric used to clean up oil spills in aquatic environments.

A July 9, 2020 Univesity of Technology Sydney press release on EurekAlert completes the story,

“Dog fur in particular was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills.” lead author of the study, UTS Environmental Scientist Dr Megan Murray, said. Dr Murray investigates environmentally-friendly solutions for contamination and leads The Phyto Lab research group at UTS School of Life Sciences.

“This is a very exciting finding for land managers who respond to spilled oil from trucks, storage tanks, or leaking oil pipelines. All of these land scenarios can be treated effectively with sustainable-origin sorbents,” she said.

The sorbents tested included two commercially-available products, propylene and loose peat moss, as well as sustainable-origin prototypes including felted mats made of dog fur and human hair. Prototype oil-spill sorbent booms filled with dog fur and human hair were also tested. Crude oil was used to replicate an oil spill. The results of the study are published in Environments.

The research team simulated three types of land surfaces; non-porous hard surfaces, semi-porous surfaces, and sand, to recreate common oil-spill scenarios.

“We found that loose peat moss is not as effective at cleaning up oil spills on land compared to dog fur and hair products, and it is not useful at all for sandy environments.” Dr Murray said.

“Based on this research, we recommend peat moss is no longer used for this purpose. Given that peat moss is a limited resource and harvesting it requires degrading wetland ecosystems, we think this is a very important finding.” she said.

The research concluded that, for now, sandy environments like coastal beaches can still benefit from the use of polypropylene sorbents, but further exploration of sustainable-origin sorbents is planned.

The researchers say that future applications from the research include investigating felted mats of sustainable-origin sorbents for river bank stabilisation, [emphases mine] as well as the removal of pollutants from flowing polluted waters, similar to existing membrane technology.

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

Decontaminating Terrestrial Oil Spills: A Comparative Assessment of Dog Fur, Human Hair, Peat Moss and Polypropylene Sorbents by Megan L. Murray, Soeren M. Poulsen and Brad R. Murray. Environments 2020, 7(7), 52; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/environments7070052 Published: 8 July 2020 (This article belongs to the Special Issue Pollution Prevention/Environmental Sustainability for Industry)

This paper is open access.

As for the Russian oil spill

A June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article outlines the situation regarding the oil spill and the steps being taken to deal with it,

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency after 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle.

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the Siberian city of Norilsk collapsed last Friday [May 29, 2020].

The power plant’s director Vyacheslav Starostin has been taken into custody until 31 July, but not yet charged.

The plant is owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, which is the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.

The Russian Investigative Committee (SK) has launched a criminal case over the pollution and alleged negligence, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill.

Ground subsidence beneath the fuel storage tanks is believed to have caused the spill. Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather [more information about the weather towards the end of this posting] for this time of year.

Russian Minister for Emergencies Yevgeny Zinichev told Mr Putin that the Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill, before alerting his ministry.

The leaked oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the accident site, turning long stretches of the Ambarnaya river crimson red.

The leaked diesel oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the site of the accident [downloaded from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52915807]

Getting back to the June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article,

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days [May 29, 2020?) after the fact?” he asked the subsidiary’s chief, Sergei Lipin. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?”

The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had earlier told President Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on Sunday [May 31, 2020] after “alarming information appeared in social media”.

The spill has contaminated a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area, state media report.

The state of emergency means extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation.

The accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, Alexei Knizhnikov, told the AFP [Agence France Presse] news agency.

The incident has prompted stark warnings from environmental groups, who say the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up.

Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said there had “never been such an accident in the Arctic zone”.

He said the clean-up could cost 100bn roubles (£1.2bn; $1.5bn) and take between five and 10 years.

Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin warned against trying to burn off such a vast quantity of fuel oil.

He proposed trying to dilute the oil with reagents. Only the emergencies ministry with military support could deal with the pollution, he said.

Barges with booms could not contain the slick because the Ambarnaya river was too shallow, he warned.

He suggested pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra, although President Putin added: “The soil there is probably saturated [with oil] already.”

An update of the situation can be found in a July 8, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article (issued by Thomson Reuters),

Russia’s environmental watchdog has asked a power subsidiary of Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel to pay almost 148 billion rubles, or $2.8 billion Cdn, in damages over an Arctic fuel spill in Siberia.

Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources, said in a statement on Monday [July 8, 2020] that it had already sent a request for “voluntary compensation” to the subsidiary, NTEK, after calculating the damage caused by the May 29 [2020] fuel spill.

Norilsk Nickel’s Moscow-listed shares fell by 3 per cent after the watchdog’s statement.

A fuel tank at the power plant lost pressure and released 21,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and subsoil near the city of Norilsk, 2,900 kilometres northeast of Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently declared a state of emergency in the region, and investigators detained three staff at the power plant.

Norilsk, a remote city of 180,000 people situated 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, is built around Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, and has a reputation for its pollution.

Rosprirodnadzor said the damages included the cost for nearby water bodies, estimated at 147.05 billion rubles, $2.8 billion Cdn, and for subsoil, estimated at 738.62 million roubles, $14 million Cdn.

I can’t find any August 2020 updates for the oil spill situation in Russia. (Note: There is now an oil spill in a ecologically sensitive region near Mauritius; see August 13, 2020 news item on CBC news online website.)

Exceptionally warm weather

The oil spill isn’t the only problem in the Arctic.Here’s more from a June 23, 2020 article by Matt Simon for Wired magazine (Note: A link has been removed),

On Saturday [June 20, 2020], the residents of Verkhoyansk, Russia, marked the first day of summer with 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Not that they could enjoy it, really, as Verkhoyansk is in Siberia, hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. That’s much, much hotter than towns inside the Arctic Circle usually get. That 100 degrees appears to be a record, well above the average June high temperature of 68 degrees. Yet it’s likely the people of Verkhoyansk will see that record broken again in their lifetimes: The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet—if not faster—creating ecological chaos for the plants and animals that populate the north.

“The events over the weekend—in the last few weeks, really—with the heatwave in Siberia, all are unprecedented in terms of the magnitude of the extremes in temperature,” says Sophie Wilkinson, a wildfire scientist at McMaster University who studies northern peat fires, which themselves have grown unusually frequent in recent years as temperatures climb.

The Arctic’s extreme warming, known as Arctic amplification or polar amplification, may be due to three factors. One, the region’s reflectivity, or albedo—how much light it bounces back into space—is changing as the world warms. “What we’ve been seeing over the last 30 years is some relatively dramatic declines in sea ice in the summertime,” says University of Edinburgh global change ecologist Isla Myers-Smith, who studies the Arctic.

Since ice is white, it reflects the sun’s energy, something you’re already probably familiar with when it comes to staying cool in the summer. If you had to pick the color of T-shirt to wear when going hiking on a hot day, she says, “most of us would pick the white T-shirt, because that’s going to reflect the sun’s heat off of our back.” Similarly, Myers-Smith says, “If the sea ice melts in the Arctic, that will remove that white surface off of the ocean, and what will be exposed is this darker ocean surface that will absorb more of the sun’s heat.”

If you’re interested in the environmental consequences of the warming of the Arctic, this is a very good article.

Finishing up, I wish the clean-up crews (in Russia and near Mauritius) all the best as they work in the midst of a pandemic, as well as, an environmental disaster (both the oil spill and the warming of the Arctic).

Improving bacteria detection with the ‘unboil an egg’ machine

Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD) is the technical name for the more familiarly known ‘unboil an egg machine’ and, these days, it’s being used in research to improve bacteria detection. A June 23, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The versatility of the Vortex Fluidic Device (VFD), a device that famously unboiled an egg, continues to impress, with the innovative green chemistry device created at Flinders University having more than 100 applications – including the creation of a new non-toxic fluorescent dye that detects bacteria harmful to humans.

Traditional fluorescent dyes to examine bacteria viability are toxic and suffer poor photostability – but using the VFD has enabled the preparation of a new generation of aggregation-induced emission dye (AIE) luminogens using graphene oxide (GO), thanks to collaborative research between Flinders University’s Institute for NanoScale Science and Technology and the Centre for Health Technologies, University of Technology Sydney.

Using the VFD to produce GO/AIE probes with the property of high fluorescence is without precedent – with the new GO/AIE nanoprobe having 1400% brighter high fluorescent performance than AIE luminogen alone (Materials Chemistry Frontiers, “Vortex fluidic enabling and significantly boosting light intensity of graphene oxide with aggregation induced emission luminogen”).

A June 24, 2020 Flinders University [Australia] press release, which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

“It’s crucial to develop highly sensitive ways of detecting bacteria that pose a potential threat to humans at the early stage, so health sectors and governments can be informed promptly, to act quickly and efficiently,” says Flinders University researcher Professor Youhong Tang.

“Our GO/AIE nanoprobe will significantly enhance long-term tracking of bacteria to effectively control hospital infections, as well as developing new and more efficient antibacterial compounds.”

The VFD is a new type of chemical processing tool, capable of instigating chemical reactivity, enabling the controlled processing of materials such as mesoporous silica, and effective in protein folding under continuous flow, which is important in the pharmaceutical industry. It continues to impress researchers for its adaptability in green chemistry innovations.

“Developing such a deep understanding of bacterial viability is important to revise infection control policies and invent effective antibacterial compounds,” says lead author of the research, Dr Javad Tavakoli, a previous researcher from Professor Youhong Tang’s group, and now working at the University of Technology Sydney.

“The beauty of this research was developing a highly bright fluorescence dye based on graphene oxide, which has been well recognised as an effective fluorescence quenching material.”

The type of AIE luminogen was first developed in 2015 to enable long-term monitoring of bacterial viability, however, increasing its brightness to increase sensitivity and efficiency remained a difficult challenge. Previous attempts to produce AIE luminogen with high brightness proved very time-consuming, requires complex chemistry, and involves catalysts rendering their mass production expensive.

By comparison, the Vortex Fluidic Device allows swift and efficient processing beyond batch production and the potential for cost-effective commercialisation.

Increasing the fluorescent property of GO/AIE depends on the concentration of graphene oxide, the rotation speed of the VFD tube, and the water fraction in the compound – so preparing GO/AIE under the shear stress induced by the VFD’s high-speed rotating tube resulted in much brighter probes with significantly enhanced fluorescent intensities.

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

Vortex fluidic enabling and significantly boosting light intensity of graphene oxide with aggregation induced emission luminogen by Javad Tavakoli, Nikita Joseph, Clarence Chuah, Colin L. Raston and Youhong Tang. Mater. Chem. Front., [Materials Chemistry Frontiers] 2020, Advance Article DOI: https://doi.org/10.1039/D0QM00270D First published: 28 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

I first marveled about the VFD (unboil an egg machine) in a March 16, 2016 posting.

Preventing warmed-up vaccines from becoming useless

One of the major problems with vaccines is that they need to be refrigerated. (The Nanopatch, which additionally wouldn’t require needles or syringes, is my favourite proposed solution and it comes from Australia.) This latest research into making vaccines more long-lasting is from the UK and takes a different approach to the problem.

From a June 8, 2020 news item on phys.org,

Vaccines are notoriously difficult to transport to remote or dangerous places, as they spoil when not refrigerated. Formulations are safe between 2°C and 8°C, but at other temperatures the proteins start to unravel, making the vaccines ineffective. As a result, millions of children around the world miss out on life-saving inoculations.

However, scientists have now found a way to prevent warmed-up vaccines from degrading. By encasing protein molecules in a silica shell, the structure remains intact even when heated to 100°C, or stored at room temperature for up to three years.

The technique for tailor-fitting a vaccine with a silica coat—known as ensilication—was developed by a Bath [University] team in collaboration with the University of Newcastle. This pioneering technology was seen to work in the lab two years ago, and now it has demonstrated its effectiveness in the real world too.

Here’s the lead researcher describing her team’s work

Ensilication: success in animal trials from University of Bath on Vimeo.

A June 8, 2020 University of Bath press release (also on EurekAlert) fills in more details about the research,

In their latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers sent both ensilicated and regular samples of the tetanus vaccine from Bath to Newcastle by ordinary post (a journey time of over 300 miles, which by post takes a day or two). When doses of the ensilicated vaccine were subsequently injected into mice, an immune response was triggered, showing the vaccine to be active. No immune response was detected in mice injected with unprotected doses of the vaccine, indicating the medicine had been damaged in transit.

Dr Asel Sartbaeva, who led the project from the University of Bath’s Department of Chemistry, said: “This is really exciting data because it shows us that ensilication preserves not just the structure of the vaccine proteins but also the function – the immunogenicity.”

“This project has focused on tetanus, which is part of the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine given to young children in three doses. Next, we will be working on developing a thermally-stable vaccine for diphtheria, and then pertussis. Eventually we want to create a silica cage for the whole DTP trivalent vaccine, so that every child in the world can be given DTP without having to rely on cold chain distribution.”

Cold chain distribution requires a vaccine to be refrigerated from the moment of manufacturing to the endpoint destination.

Silica is an inorganic, non-toxic material, and Dr Sartbaeva estimates that ensilicated vaccines could be used for humans within five to 15 years. She hopes the technology to silica-wrap proteins will eventually be adopted to store and transport all childhood vaccines, as well as other protein-based products, such as antibodies and enzymes.

“Ultimately, we want to make important medicines stable so they can be more widely available,” she said. “The aim is to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases in low income countries by using thermally stable vaccines and cutting out dependence on cold chain.”

Currently, up to 50% of vaccine doses are discarded before use due to exposure to suboptimal temperatures. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 19.4 million infants did not receive routine life-saving vaccinations in 2018.

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

Ensilicated tetanus antigen retains immunogenicity: in vivo study and time-resolved SAXS characterization by A. Doekhie, R. Dattani, Y-C. Chen, Y. Yang, A. Smith, A. P. Silve, F. Koumanov, S. A. Wells, K. J. Edler, K. J. Marchbank, J. M. H. van den Elsen & A. Sartbaeva. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 9243 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-65876-3 Published 08 June 2020

This paper is open access

Nanopatch update

I tend to lose track as a science gets closer to commercialization since the science news becomes business news and I almost never scan that sector. It’s been about two-and-half years since I featured research that suggested Nanopatch provided more effective polio vaccination than the standard needle and syringe method in a December 20, 2017 post. The latest bits of news have an interesting timeline.

March 2020

Mark Kendal (Wikipedia entry) is the researcher behind the Nanopatch. He’s interviewed in a March 5, 2020 episode (about 20 mins.) in the Pioneers Series (bankrolled by Rolex [yes, the watch company]) on Monocle.com. Coincidentally or not, a new piece of research funded by Vaxxas (the nanopatch company founded by Mark Kendall; on the website you will find a ‘front’ page and a ‘Contact us’ page only) was announced in a March 17, 2020 news item on medical.net,

Vaxxas, a clinical-stage biotechnology company commercializing a novel vaccination platform, today announced the publication in the journal PLoS Medicine of groundbreaking clinical research indicating the broad immunological and commercial potential of Vaxxas’ novel high-density microarray patch (HD-MAP). Using influenza vaccine, the clinical study of Vaxxas’ HD-MAP demonstrated significantly enhanced immune response compared to vaccination by needle/syringe. This is the largest microarray patch clinical vaccine study ever performed.

“With vaccine coated onto Vaxxas HD-MAPs shown to be stable for up to a year at 40°C [emphasis mine], we can offer a truly differentiated platform with a global reach, particularly into low and middle income countries or in emergency use and pandemic situations,” said Angus Forster, Chief Development and Operations Officer of Vaxxas and lead author of the PLoS Medicine publication. “Vaxxas’ HD-MAP is readily fabricated by injection molding to produce a 10 x 10 mm square with more than 3,000 microprojections that are gamma-irradiated before aseptic dry application of vaccine to the HD-MAP’s tips. All elements of device design, as well as coating and QC, have been engineered to enable small, modular, aseptic lines to make millions of vaccine products per week.”

The PLoS publication reported results and analyses from a clinical study involving 210 clinical subjects [emphasis mine]. The clinical study was a two-part, randomized, partially double-blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted at a single Australian clinical site. The clinical study’s primary objective was to measure the safety and tolerability of A/Singapore/GP1908/2015 H1N1 (A/Sing) monovalent vaccine delivered by Vaxxas HD-MAP in comparison to an uncoated Vaxxas HD-MAP and IM [intramuscular] injection of a quadrivalent seasonal influenza vaccine (QIV) delivering approximately the same dose of A/Sing HA protein. Exploratory outcomes were: to evaluate the immune responses to HD-MAP application to the forearm with A/Sing at 4 dose levels in comparison to IM administration of A/Sing at the standard 15 μg HA per dose per strain, and to assess further measures of immune response through additional assays and assessment of the local skin response via punch biopsy of the HD-MAP application sites. Local skin response, serological, mucosal and cellular immune responses were assessed pre- and post-vaccination.

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

Safety, tolerability, and immunogenicity of influenza vaccination with a high-density microarray patch: Results from a randomized, controlled phase I clinical trial by Angus H. Forster, Katey Witham, Alexandra C. I. Depelsenaire, Margaret Veitch, James W. Wells, Adam Wheatley, Melinda Pryor, Jason D. Lickliter, Barbara Francis, Steve Rockman, Jesse Bodle, Peter Treasure, Julian Hickling, Germain J. P. Fernando. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003024 PLOS (Public Library of Science) Published: March 17, 2020

This is an open access paper.

May 2020

Two months later, Merck, an American multinational pharmaceutical company, showed some serious interest in the ‘nanopatch’. A May 28, 2020 article by Chris Newmarker for drugdelvierybusiness.com announces the news (Note: Links have been removed),

Merck has exercised its option to use Vaxxas‘ High Density Microarray Patch (HD-MAP) platform as a delivery platform for a vaccine candidate, the companies announced today [Thursday, May 28, 2020].

Also today, Vaxxas announced that German manufacturing equipment maker Harro Höfliger will help Vaxxas develop a high-throughput, aseptic manufacturing line to make vaccine products based on Vaxxas’ HD-MAP technology. Initial efforts will focus on having a pilot line operating in 2021 to support late-stage clinical studies — with a goal of single, aseptic-based lines being able to churn out 5 million vaccine products a week.

“A major challenge in commercializing microarray patches — like Vaxxas’ HD-MAP — for vaccination is the ability to manufacture at industrially-relevant scale, while meeting stringent sterility and quality standards. Our novel device design along with our innovative vaccine coating and quality verification technologies are an excellent fit for integration with Harro Höfliger’s aseptic process automation platforms. Adopting a modular approach, it will be possible to achieve output of tens-of-millions of vaccine-HD-MAP products per week,” Hoey [David L. Hoey, President and CEO of Vaxxas] said.

Vaxxas also claims that the patches can deliver vaccine more efficiently — a positive when people around the world are clamoring for a vaccine against COVID-19. The company points to a recent [March 17, 2020] clinical study in which their micropatch delivering a sixth of an influenza vaccine dose produced an immune response comparable to a full dose by intramuscular injection. A two-thirds dose by HD-MAP generated significantly faster and higher overall antibody responses.

As I noted earlier, this is an interesting timeline.

Final comment

In the end, what all of this means is that there may be more than one way to deal with vaccines and medicines that deteriorate all too quickly unless refrigerated. I wish all of these researchers the best.

Sunscreens 2020 and the Environmental Working Group (EWG)

There must be some sweet satisfaction or perhaps it’s better described as relief for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) now that sunscreens with metallic (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) nanoparticles are gaining wide acceptance. (More about the history and politics EWG and metallic nanoparticles at the end of this posting.)

This acceptance has happened alongside growing concerns about oxybenzone, a sunscreen ingredient that EWG has long warned against. Oxybenzone has been banned from use in Hawaii due to environmental concerns (see my July 6, 2018 posting; scroll down about 40% of the way for specifics about Hawaii). Also, it is one of the common sunscreen ingredients for which the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is completing a safety review.

Today, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide metallic nanoparticles are being called minerals, as in, “mineral-based” sunscreens. They are categorized as physical sunscreens as opposed to chemical sunscreens.

I believe the most recent sunscreen posting here was my 2018 update (uly 6, 2018 posting) so the topic is overdue for some attention here. From a May 21, 2020 EWG news release (received via email),

As states reopen and Americans leave their homes to venture outside, it’s important for them to remember to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Today the Environmental Working Group released its 14th annual Guide to Sunscreens.  

This year researchers rated the safety and efficacy of more than 1,300 SPF products – including sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms – and found that only 25 percent offer adequate protection and do not contain worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed by the body.

Despite a delay in finalizing rules that would make all sunscreens on U.S. store shelves safer, the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that governs sunscreen safety, is completing tests that highlight concerns with common sunscreen ingredients. Last year, the agency published two studies showing that, with just a single application, six commonly used chemical active ingredients, including oxybenzone, are readily absorbed through the skin and could be detected in our bodies at levels that could cause harm.

“It’s quite concerning,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG’s vice president of Healthy Living science. “Those studies don’t prove whether the sunscreens are unsafe, but they do highlight problems with how these products are regulated.”

“EWG has been advocating for the FDA to review these chemical ingredients for 14 years,” Leiba said. “We slather these ingredients on our skin, but these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested. This is just one example of the backward nature of product regulation in the U.S.”

Oxybenzone remains a commonly used active ingredient, found in more than 40 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in this year’s guide. Oxybenzone is allergenic and a potential endocrine disruptor, and has been detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood.

According to EWG’s assessment, fewer than half of the products in this year’s guide contain active ingredients that the FDA has proposed are safe and effective.

“Based on the best current science and toxicology data, we continue to recommend sunscreens with the mineral active ingredients zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide, because they are the only two ingredients the FDA recognized as safe or effective in their proposed draft rules,” said Carla Burns, an EWG research and database analyst who manages the updates to the sunscreen guide.

Most people select sunscreen products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers offer better protection. According to the FDA, higher SPF values have not been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may give users a false sense of protection. This may lead to overexposure to UVA rays that increase the risk of long-term skin damage and cancer. The FDA has proposed limiting SPF claims to 60+.

EWG continues to hone our recommendations by strengthening the criteria for assessing sunscreens, which are based on the latest findings in the scientific literature and commissioned tests of sunscreen product efficacy. This year EWG made changes to our methodology in order to strengthen our requirement that products provide the highest level of UVA protection.

“Our understanding of the dangers associated with UVA exposure is increasing, and they are of great concern,” said Burns. “Sunburn during early life, especially childhood, is very dangerous and a risk factor for all skin cancers, but especially melanoma. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to sun damage. Just a few blistering sunburns early in life can double a person’s risk of developing melanoma later in life.”

EWG researchers found 180 sunscreens that meet our criteria for safety and efficacy and would likely meet the proposed FDA standards. Even the biggest brands now provide mineral options for consumers.  

Even for Americans continuing to follow stay-at-home orders, wearing an SPF product may still be important. If you’re sitting by a window, UVA and UVB rays can penetrate the glass.  

It is important to remember that sunscreen is only one part of a sun safety routine. People should also protect their skin by covering up with clothing, hats and sunglasses. And sunscreen must be reapplied at least every two hours to stay effective.

EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens helps consumers find products that get high ratings for providing adequate broad-spectrum protection and that are made with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns.

The new guide also includes lists of:

Here are more quick tips for choosing better sunscreens:

  • Check your products in EWG’s sunscreen database and avoid those with harmful ingredients.
  • Avoid products with oxybenzone. This chemical penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and can affect normal hormone activities.
  • Steer clear of products with SPF higher than 50+. High SPF values do not necessarily provide increased UVA protection and may fool you into thinking you are safe from sun damage.
  • Avoid sprays. These popular products pose inhalation concerns, and they may not provide a thick and uniform coating on the skin.
  • Stay away from retinyl palmitate. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it is applied to sun-exposed skin.
  • Avoid intense sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Shoppers on the go can download EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. Also be sure to check out EWG’s sunscreen label decoder.

One caveat, these EWG-recommended products might not be found in Canadian stores or your favourite product may not have been reviewed for inclusion, as a product to be sought out or avoided, in their database. For example, I use a sunscreen that isn’t listed in the database, although at least a few other of the company’s sunscreen products are. On the plus side, my sunscreen doesn’t include oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate as ingredients.

To sum up the situation with sunscreens containing metallic nanoparticles (minerals), they are considered to be relatively safe but should new research emerge that designation could change. In effect, all we can do is our best with the information at hand.

History and politics of metallic nanoparticles in sunscreens

In 2009 it was a bit of a shock when the EWG released a report recommending the use of sunscreens with metallic nanoparticles in the list of ingredients. From my July 9, 2009 posting,

The EWG (Environmental Working Group) is, according to Maynard [as of 20202: Dr. Andrew Maynard is a scientist and author, Associate Director of Faculty in the ASU {Arizona State University} School for the Future of Innovation in Society, also the director of the ASU Risk Innovation Lab, and leader of the Risk Innovation Nexus], not usually friendly to industry and they had this to say about their own predisposition prior to reviewing the data (from EWG),

When we began our sunscreen investigation at the Environmental Working Group, our researchers thought we would ultimately recommend against micronized and nano-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens. After all, no one has taken a more expansive and critical look than EWG at the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics and sunscreens, including the lack of definitive safety data and consumer information on these common new ingredients, and few substances more dramatically highlight gaps in our system of public health protections than the raw materials used in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. But many months and nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies later, we find ourselves drawing a different conclusion, and recommending some sunscreens that may contain nano-sized ingredients.

My understanding is that after this report, the EWG was somewhat ostracized by collegial organizations. Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the ETC Group both of which issued reports that were published after the EWG report and were highly critical of ‘nano sunscreens’.

The ETC Group did not continue its anti nanosunscreen campaign for long (I saw only one report) but FoE (in particular the Australian arm of the organization) more than made up for that withdrawal and to sad effect. My February 9, 2012 post title was this: Unintended consequences: Australians not using sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles?

An Australian government survey found that 13% of Australians were not using any sunscreen due to fears about nanoparticles. In a country with the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world and, which spent untold millions over decades getting people to cover up in the sun, it was devastating news.

FoE immediately withdrew all their anti nanosunscreen materials in Australia from circulation while firing broadsides at the government. The organization’s focus on sunscreens with metallic nanoparticles has diminished since 2012.

Research

I have difficulty trusting materials from FoE and you can see why here in this July 26, 2011 posting (Misunderstanding the data or a failure to research? Georgia Straight article about nanoparticles). In it, I analyze Alex Roslin’s profoundly problematic article about metallic nanoparticles and other engineered nanoparticles. All of Roslin’s article was based on research and materials produced by FoE which misrepresented some of the research. Roslin would have realized that if he had bothered to do any research for himself.

EWG impressed me mightily with their refusal to set aside or dismiss the research disputing their initial assumption that metallic nanoparticles in sunscreens were hazardous. (BTW, there is one instance where metallic nanoparticles in sunscreens are of concern. My October 13, 2013 posting about anatase and rutile forms of titanium dioxide at the nanoscale features research on that issue.)

EWG’s Wikipedia entry

Whoever and however many are maintaining this page, they don’t like EWG at all,

The accuracy of EWG reports and statements have been criticized, as has its funding by the organic food industry[2][3][4][5] Its warnings have been labeled “alarmist”, “scaremongering” and “misleading”.[6][7][8] Despite the questionable status of its work, EWG has been influential.[9]

This is the third paragraph in the Introduction. At its very best, the information is neutral, otherwise, it’s much like that third paragraph.

Even John D. Rockeller’s entry is more flattering and he was known as the ‘most hated man in America’ as this show description on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) website makes clear,

American Experience

The Rockefellers Chapter One

Clip: Season 13 Episode 1 | 9m 37s

John D. Rockefeller was the world’s first billionaire and the most hated man in America. Watch the epic story of the man who monopolized oil.

Fun in the sun

Have fun in the sun this summer. There’s EWG’s sunscreen database, the tips listed in the news release, and EWG also has a webpage where they describe their methodology for how they assess sunscreens. It gets a little technical (for me anyway) but it should answer any further safety questions you might have after reading this post.

It may require a bit of ingenuity given the concerns over COVID-19 but I’m constantly amazed at the inventiveness with which so many people have met this pandemic. (This June 15, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation article by Sheena Goodyear features a family that created a machine that won the 2020 Rube Goldberg Bar of Soap Video challenge. The article includes an embedded video of the winning machine in action.)

A tangle of silver nanowires for brain-like action

I’ve been meaning to get to this news item from late 2019 as it features work from a team that I’ve been following for a number of years now. First mentioned here in an October 17, 2011 posting, James Gimzewski has been working with researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) on neuromorphic computing.

This particular research had a protracted rollout with the paper being published in October 2019 and the last news item about it being published in mid-December 2019.

A December 17, 2029 news item on Nanowerk was the first to alert me to this new work (Note: A link has been removed),

UCLA scientists James Gimzewski and Adam Stieg are part of an international research team that has taken a significant stride toward the goal of creating thinking machines.

Led by researchers at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science, the team created an experimental device that exhibited characteristics analogous to certain behaviors of the brain — learning, memorization, forgetting, wakefulness and sleep. The paper, published in Scientific Reports (“Emergent dynamics of neuromorphic nanowire networks”), describes a network in a state of continuous flux.

A December 16, 2019 UCLA news release, which originated the news item, offers more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

“This is a system between order and chaos, on the edge of chaos,” said Gimzewski, a UCLA distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA and a co-author of the study. “The way that the device constantly evolves and shifts mimics the human brain. It can come up with different types of behavior patterns that don’t repeat themselves.”

The research is one early step along a path that could eventually lead to computers that physically and functionally resemble the brain — machines that may be capable of solving problems that contemporary computers struggle with, and that may require much less power than today’s computers do.

The device the researchers studied is made of a tangle of silver nanowires — with an average diameter of just 360 nanometers. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.) The nanowires were coated in an insulating polymer about 1 nanometer thick. Overall, the device itself measured about 10 square millimeters — so small that it would take 25 of them to cover a dime.

Allowed to randomly self-assemble on a silicon wafer, the nanowires formed highly interconnected structures that are remarkably similar to those that form the neocortex, the part of the brain involved with higher functions such as language, perception and cognition.

One trait that differentiates the nanowire network from conventional electronic circuits is that electrons flowing through them cause the physical configuration of the network to change. In the study, electrical current caused silver atoms to migrate from within the polymer coating and form connections where two nanowires overlap. The system had about 10 million of these junctions, which are analogous to the synapses where brain cells connect and communicate.

The researchers attached two electrodes to the brain-like mesh to profile how the network performed. They observed “emergent behavior,” meaning that the network displayed characteristics as a whole that could not be attributed to the individual parts that make it up. This is another trait that makes the network resemble the brain and sets it apart from conventional computers.

After current flowed through the network, the connections between nanowires persisted for as much as one minute in some cases, which resembled the process of learning and memorization in the brain. Other times, the connections shut down abruptly after the charge ended, mimicking the brain’s process of forgetting.

In other experiments, the research team found that with less power flowing in, the device exhibited behavior that corresponds to what neuroscientists see when they use functional MRI scanning to take images of the brain of a sleeping person. With more power, the nanowire network’s behavior corresponded to that of the wakeful brain.

The paper is the latest in a series of publications examining nanowire networks as a brain-inspired system, an area of research that Gimzewski helped pioneer along with Stieg, a UCLA research scientist and an associate director of CNSI.

“Our approach may be useful for generating new types of hardware that are both energy-efficient and capable of processing complex datasets that challenge the limits of modern computers,” said Stieg, a co-author of the study.

The borderline-chaotic activity of the nanowire network resembles not only signaling within the brain but also other natural systems such as weather patterns. That could mean that, with further development, future versions of the device could help model such complex systems.

In other experiments, Gimzewski and Stieg already have coaxed a silver nanowire device to successfully predict statistical trends in Los Angeles traffic patterns based on previous years’ traffic data.

Because of their similarities to the inner workings of the brain, future devices based on nanowire technology could also demonstrate energy efficiency like the brain’s own processing. The human brain operates on power roughly equivalent to what’s used by a 20-watt incandescent bulb. By contrast, computer servers where work-intensive tasks take place — from training for machine learning to executing internet searches — can use the equivalent of many households’ worth of energy, with the attendant carbon footprint.

“In our studies, we have a broader mission than just reprogramming existing computers,” Gimzewski said. “Our vision is a system that will eventually be able to handle tasks that are closer to the way the human being operates.”

The study’s first author, Adrian Diaz-Alvarez, is from the International Center for Material Nanoarchitectonics at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science. Co-authors include Tomonobu Nakayama and Rintaro Higuchi, also of NIMS; and Zdenka Kuncic at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Caption: (a) Micrograph of the neuromorphic network fabricated by this research team. The network contains of numerous junctions between nanowires, which operate as synaptic elements. When voltage is applied to the network (between the green probes), current pathways (orange) are formed in the network. (b) A Human brain and one of its neuronal networks. The brain is known to have a complex network structure and to operate by means of electrical signal propagation across the network. Credit: NIMS

A November 11, 2019 National Institute for Materials Science (Japan) press release (also on EurekAlert but dated December 25, 2019) first announced the news,

An international joint research team led by NIMS succeeded in fabricating a neuromorphic network composed of numerous metallic nanowires. Using this network, the team was able to generate electrical characteristics similar to those associated with higher order brain functions unique to humans, such as memorization, learning, forgetting, becoming alert and returning to calm. The team then clarified the mechanisms that induced these electrical characteristics.

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques has been rapidly advancing in recent years and has begun impacting our lives in various ways. Although AI processes information in a manner similar to the human brain, the mechanisms by which human brains operate are still largely unknown. Fundamental brain components, such as neurons and the junctions between them (synapses), have been studied in detail. However, many questions concerning the brain as a collective whole need to be answered. For example, we still do not fully understand how the brain performs such functions as memorization, learning and forgetting, and how the brain becomes alert and returns to calm. In addition, live brains are difficult to manipulate in experimental research. For these reasons, the brain remains a “mysterious organ.” A different approach to brain research?in which materials and systems capable of performing brain-like functions are created and their mechanisms are investigated?may be effective in identifying new applications of brain-like information processing and advancing brain science.

The joint research team recently built a complex brain-like network by integrating numerous silver (Ag) nanowires coated with a polymer (PVP) insulating layer approximately 1 nanometer in thickness. A junction between two nanowires forms a variable resistive element (i.e., a synaptic element) that behaves like a neuronal synapse. This nanowire network, which contains a large number of intricately interacting synaptic elements, forms a “neuromorphic network”. When a voltage was applied to the neuromorphic network, it appeared to “struggle” to find optimal current pathways (i.e., the most electrically efficient pathways). The research team measured the processes of current pathway formation, retention and deactivation while electric current was flowing through the network and found that these processes always fluctuate as they progress, similar to the human brain’s memorization, learning, and forgetting processes. The observed temporal fluctuations also resemble the processes by which the brain becomes alert or returns to calm. Brain-like functions simulated by the neuromorphic network were found to occur as the huge number of synaptic elements in the network collectively work to optimize current transport, in the other words, as a result of self-organized and emerging dynamic processes..

The research team is currently developing a brain-like memory device using the neuromorphic network material. The team intends to design the memory device to operate using fundamentally different principles than those used in current computers. For example, while computers are currently designed to spend as much time and electricity as necessary in pursuit of absolutely optimum solutions, the new memory device is intended to make a quick decision within particular limits even though the solution generated may not be absolutely optimum. The team also hopes that this research will facilitate understanding of the brain’s information processing mechanisms.

This project was carried out by an international joint research team led by Tomonobu Nakayama (Deputy Director, International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (WPI-MANA), NIMS), Adrian Diaz Alvarez (Postdoctoral Researcher, WPI-MANA, NIMS), Zdenka Kuncic (Professor, School of Physics, University of Sydney, Australia) and James K. Gimzewski (Professor, California NanoSystems Institute, University of California Los Angeles, USA).

Here at last is a link to and a citation for the paper,

Emergent dynamics of neuromorphic nanowire networks by Adrian Diaz-Alvarez, Rintaro Higuchi, Paula Sanz-Leon, Ido Marcus, Yoshitaka Shingaya, Adam Z. Stieg, James K. Gimzewski, Zdenka Kuncic & Tomonobu Nakayama. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 14920 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-51330-6 Published: 17 October 2019

This paper is open access.