Tag Archives: linguistics

September 2019’s science’ish’ events in Toronto and Vancouver (Canada)

There are movies, plays, a multimedia installation experience all in Vancouver, and the ‘CHAOSMOSIS mAchInesexhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy’ event in Toronto. But first, there’s a a Vancouver talk about engaging scientists in the upcoming federal election. .

Science in the Age of Misinformation (and the upcoming federal election) in Vancouver

Dr. Katie Gibbs, co-founder and executive director of Evidence for Democracy, will be giving a talk today (Sept. 4, 2019) at the University of British Columbia (UBC; Vancouver). From the Eventbrite webpage for Science in the Age of Misinformation,

Science in the Age of Misinformation, with Katie Gibbs, Evidence for Democracy
In the lead up to the federal election, it is more important than ever to understand the role that researchers play in shaping policy. Join us in this special Policy in Practice event with Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. A Musqueam land acknowledgement, welcome remarks and moderation of this event will be provided by MPPGA students Joshua Tafel, and Chengkun Lv.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019
12:30 pm – 1:50 pm (Doors will open at noon)
Liu Institute for Global Issues – xʷθəθiqətəm (Place of Many Trees), 1st floor
Pizza will be provided starting at noon on first come, first serve basis. Please RSVP.

What role do researchers play in a political environment that is increasingly polarized and influenced by misinformation? Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, will give an overview of the current state of science integrity and science policy in Canada highlighting progress made over the past four years and what this means in a context of growing anti-expert movements in Canada and around the world. Dr. Gibbs will share concrete ways for researchers to engage heading into a critical federal election [emphasis mine], and how they can have lasting policy impact.

Bio: Katie Gibbs is a scientist, organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa in Biology, she was one of the lead organizers of the ‘Death of Evidence’—one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie co-founded Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. Her ongoing success in advocating for the restoration of public science in Canada has made Katie a go-to resource for national and international media outlets including Science, The Guardian and the Globe and Mail.

Katie has also been involved in international efforts to increase evidence-based decision-making and advises science integrity movements in other countries and is a member of the Open Government Partnership Multi-stakeholder Forum.

Disclaimer: Please note that by registering via Eventbrite, your information will be stored on the Eventbrite server, which is located outside Canada. If you do not wish to use this service, please email Joelle.Lee@ubc.ca directly to register. Thank you.

Liu Institute for Global Issues – Place of Many Trees
6476 NW Marine Drive
Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2

Sadly I was not able to post the information about Dr. Gibbs’s more informal talk last night (Sept. 3, 2019) which was a special event with Café Scientifique but I do have a link to a website encouraging anyone who wants to help get science on the 2019 federal election agenda, Vote Science. P.S. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post this in a more timely fashion.

Transmissions; a multimedia installation in Vancouver, September 6 -28, 2019

Here’s a description for the multimedia installation, Transmissions, in the August 28, 2019 Georgia Straight article by Janet Smith,

Lisa Jackson is a filmmaker, but she’s never allowed that job description to limit what she creates or where and how she screens her works.

The Anishinaabe artist’s breakout piece was last year’s haunting virtual-reality animation Biidaaban: First Light. In its eerie world, one that won a Canadian Screen Award, nature has overtaken a near-empty, future Toronto, with trees growing through cracks in the sidewalks, vines enveloping skyscrapers, and people commuting by canoe.

All that and more has brought her here, to Transmissions, a 6,000-square-foot, immersive film installation that invites visitors to wander through windy coastal forests, by hauntingly empty glass towers, into soundscapes of ancient languages, and more.

Through the labyrinthine multimedia work at SFU [Simon Fraser University] Woodward’s, Jackson asks big questions—about Earth’s future, about humanity’s relationship to it, and about time and Indigeneity.

Simultaneously, she mashes up not just disciplines like film and sculpture, but concepts of science, storytelling, and linguistics [emphasis mine].

“The tag lines I’m working with now are ‘the roots of meaning’ and ‘knitting the world together’,” she explains. “In western society, we tend to hive things off into ‘That’s culture. That’s science.’ But from an Indigenous point of view, it’s all connected.”

Transmissions is split into three parts, with what Jackson describes as a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like Biidaaban, it’s also visually stunning: the artist admits she’s playing with Hollywood spectacle.

Without giving too much away—a big part of the appeal of Jackson’s work is the sense of surprise—Vancouver audiences will first enter a 48-foot-long, six-foot-wide tunnel, surrounded by projections that morph from empty urban streets to a forest and a river. Further engulfing them is a soundscape that features strong winds, while black mirrors along the floor skew perspective and play with what’s above and below ground.

“You feel out of time and space,” says Jackson, who wants to challenge western society’s linear notions of minutes and hours. “I want the audience to have a physical response and an emotional response. To me, that gets closer to the Indigenous understanding. Because the Eurocentric way is more rational, where the intellectual is put ahead of everything else.”

Viewers then enter a room, where the highly collaborative Jackson has worked with artist Alan Storey, who’s helped create Plexiglas towers that look like the ghost high-rises of an abandoned city. (Storey has also designed other components of the installation.) As audience members wander through them on foot, projections make their shadows dance on the structures. Like Biidaaban, the section hints at a postapocalyptic or posthuman world. Jackson operates in an emerging realm of Indigenous futurism.

The words “science, storytelling, and linguistics” were emphasized due to a minor problem I have with terminology. Linguistics is defined as the scientific study of language combining elements from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. I wish either Jackson or Smith had discussed the scientific element of Transmissions at more length and perhaps reconnected linguistics to science along with the physics of time and space, as well as, storytelling, film, and sculpture. It would have been helpful since it’s my understanding, Transmissions is designed to showcase all of those connections and more in ways that may not be obvious to everyone. On the plus side, perhaps the tour, which is part of this installation experience includes that information.

I have a bit .more detail (including logistics for the tours) from the SFU Events webpage for Transmissions,

September 6 – September 28, 2019

The Roots of Meaning
World Premiere
September 6 – 28, 2019

Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre
SFU Woodward’s, 149 West Hastings
Tuesday to Friday, 1pm to 7pm
Saturday and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm

In partnership with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and produced by Electric Company Theatre and Violator Films.

TRANSMISSIONS is a three-part, 6000 square foot multimedia installation by award-winning Anishinaabe filmmaker and artist Lisa Jackson. It extends her investigation into the connections between land, language, and people, most recently with her virtual reality work Biidaaban: First Light.

Projections, sculpture, and film combine to create urban and natural landscapes that are eerie and beautiful, familiar and foreign, concrete and magical. Past and future collide in a visceral and thought-provoking journey that questions our current moment and opens up the complexity of thought systems embedded in Indigenous languages. Radically different from European languages, they embody sets of relationships to the land, to each other, and to time itself.

Transmissions invites us to untether from our day-to-day world and imagine a possible future. It provides a platform to activate and cross-pollinate knowledge systems, from science to storytelling, ecology to linguistics, art to commerce. To begin conversations, to listen deeply, to engage varied perspectives and expertise, to knit the world together and find our place within the circle of all our relations.

Produced in association with McMaster University Socrates Project, Moving Images Distribution and Cobalt Connects Creativity.


Admission:  Free Public Tours
Tuesday through Sunday
Reservations accepted from 1pm to 3pm.  Reservations are booked in 15 minute increments.  Individuals and groups up to 10 welcome.
Please email: sfuw@sfu.ca for more information or to book groups of 10 or more.

Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists (short film subjects); Sept. 13 – 14, 2019

Curiosity Collider, producer of art/science events in Vancouver, is presenting a film series featuring Canadian women scientists, according to an August 27 ,2019 press release (received via email),

Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists,” a film series dedicated to sharing the stories of Canadian women scientists, will premiere on September 13th and 14th at the Annex theatre. Four pairs of local filmmakers and Canadian women scientists collaborated to create 5-6 minute videos; for each film in the series, a scientist tells her own story, interwoven with the story of an inspiring Canadian women scientist who came before her in her field of study.

Produced by Vancouver-based non-profit organization Curiosity Collider, this project was developed to address the lack of storytelling videos showcasing remarkable women scientists and their work available via popular online platforms. “Her Story reveals the lives of women working in science,” said Larissa Blokhuis, curator for Her Story. “This project acts as a beacon to girls and women who want to see themselves in the scientific community. The intergenerational nature of the project highlights the fact that women have always worked in and contributed to science.

This sentiment was reflected by Samantha Baglot as well, a PhD student in neuroscience who collaborated with filmmaker/science cartoonist Armin Mortazavi in Her Story. “It is empowering to share stories of previous Canadian female scientists… it is empowering for myself as a current female scientist to learn about other stories of success, and gain perspective of how these women fought through various hardships and inequality.”

When asked why seeing better representation of women in scientific work is important, artist/filmmaker Michael Markowsky shared his thoughts. “It’s important for women — and their male allies — to question and push back against these perceived social norms, and to occupy space which rightfully belongs to them.” In fact, his wife just gave birth to their first child, a daughter; “It’s personally very important to me that she has strong female role models to look up to.” His film will feature collaborating scientist Jade Shiller, and Kathleen Conlan – who was named one of Canada’s greatest explorers by Canadian Geographic in 2015.

Other participating filmmakers and collaborating scientists include: Leslie Kennah (Filmmaker), Kimberly Girling (scientist, Research and Policy Director at Evidence for Democracy), Lucas Kavanagh and Jesse Lupini (Filmmakers, Avocado Video), and Jessica Pilarczyk (SFU Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences).

This film series is supported by Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) and Eng.Cite. The venue for the events is provided by Vancouver Civic Theatres.

Event Information

Screening events will be hosted at Annex (823 Seymour St, Vancouver) on September 13th and 14th [2019]. Events will also include a talkback with filmmakers and collab scientists on the 13th, and a panel discussion on representations of women in science and culture on the 14th. Visit http://bit.ly/HerStoryTickets2019 for tickets ($14.99-19.99) and http://bit.ly/HerStoryWomenScientists for project information.

I have a film collage,

Courtesy: Curiosity Collider

I looks like they’re presenting films with a diversity of styles. You can find out more about Curiosity Collider and its various programmes and events here.

Vancouver Fringe Festival September 5 – 16, 2019

I found two plays in this year’s fringe festival programme that feature science in one way or another. Not having seen either play I make no guarantees as to content. First up is,

AI Love You
Exit Productions
London, UK
Playwright: Melanie Anne Ball

Adam and April are a regular 20-something couple, very nearly blissfully generic, aside from one important detail: one of the pair is an “artificially intelligent companion.” Their joyful veneer has begun to crack and they need YOU to decide the future of their relationship. Is the freedom of a robot or the will of a human more important?
For AI Love You: 

***** “Magnificent, complex and beautifully addictive.” —Spy in the Stalls 
**** “Emotionally charged, deeply moving piece … I was left with goosebumps.” —West End Wilma 
**** —London City Nights 
Past shows: 
***** “The perfect show.” —Theatre Box

Intellectual / Intimate / Shocking / 14+ / 75 minutes

The first show is on Friday, September 6, 2019 at 5 pm. There are another five showings being presented. You can get tickets and more information here.

The second play is this,

Red Glimmer
Dusty Foot Productions
Vancouver, Canada
Written & Directed by Patricia Trinh

Abstract Sci-Fi dramedy. An interdimensional science experiment! Woman involuntarily takes an all inclusive internal trip after falling into a deep depression. A scientist is hired to navigate her neurological pathways from inside her mind – tackling the fact that humans cannot physically re-experience somatosensory sensation, like pain. What if that were the case for traumatic emotional pain? A creepy little girl is heard running by. What happens next?

Weird / Poetic / Intellectual / LGBTQ+ / Multicultural / 14+ / Sexual Content / 50 minutes

This show is created by an underrepresented Artist.
Written, directed, and produced by local theatre Artist Patricia Trinh, a Queer, Asian-Canadian female.

The first showing is tonight, September 5, 2019 at 8:30 pm. There are another six showings being presented. You can get tickets and more information here.

CHAOSMOSIS mAchInes exhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy, 28 September, 2019 in Toronto

An Art/Sci Salon September 2, 2019 announcement (received via email), Note: I have made some formatting changes,


28 September, 2019 
Helen-Gardiner-Phelan Theatre, 2nd floor
University of Toronto. 79 St. George St.

A playful co-presentation by the Topological Media Lab (Concordia U-Montreal) and The Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T-Toronto). This event is part of our collaboration with DDLsquared lab, the Topological Lab and the Leonardo LASER network

7pm-9.30pm, Installation-performances, 
9.30pm-11pm, Reception and cash bar, Front and Long Room, Ground floor

From responsive sculptures to atmosphere-creating machines; from sensorial machines to affective autonomous robots, Chaosmosis mAchInes is an eclectic series of installations and performances reflecting on today’s complex symbiotic relations between humans, machines and the environment.

This will be the first encounter between Montreal-based Topological Media Lab (Concordia University) and the Toronto-based Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T) to co-present current process-based and experimental works. Both labs have a history of notorious playfulness, conceptual abysmal depth, human-machine interplays, Art&Science speculations (what if?), collaborative messes, and a knack for A/I as in Artistic Intelligence.

Thanks to  Nina Czegledy (Laser series, Leonardo network) for inspiring the event and for initiating the collaboration

Visit our Facebook event page 
Register through Evenbrite

Supported by

Main sponsor: Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, U of T
Sponsors: Computational Arts Program (York U.), Cognitive Science Program (U of T), Knowledge Media Design Institute (U of T), Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST)Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC)The Centre for Comparative Literature (U of T)
A collaboration between
Laser events, Leonardo networks – Science Artist, Nina Czegledy
ArtsSci Salon – Artistic Director, Roberta Buiani
Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared – Creative Research Director, Antje Budde
Topological Media Lab – Artistic-Research Co-directors, Michael Montanaro | Navid Navab

Project presentations will include:
Topological Media Lab
tangibleFlux φ plenumorphic ∴ chaosmosis
On Air
The Sound That Severs Now from Now
Cloud Chamber (2018) | Caustic Scenography, Responsive Cloud Formation
Liquid Light
Robots: Machine Menagerie
Passing Light
Info projects
Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared
Btw Lf & Dth – interFACING disappearance
Info project

This is a very active September.

ETA September 4, 2019 at 1607 hours PDT: That last comment is even truer than I knew when I published earlier. I missed a Vancouver event, Maker Faire Vancouver will be hosted at Science World on Saturday, September 14. Here’s a little more about it from a Sept. 3, 2019 at Science World at Telus Science World blog posting,

Earlier last month [August 2019?], surgeons at St Paul’s Hospital performed an ankle replacement for a Cloverdale resident using a 3D printed bone. The first procedure of its kind in Western Canada, it saved the patient all of his ten toes — something doctors had originally decided to amputate due to the severity of the motorcycle accident.

Maker Faire Vancouver Co-producer, John Biehler, may not be using his 3D printer for medical breakthroughs, but he does see a subtle connection between his home 3D printer and the Health Canada-approved bone.

“I got into 3D printing to make fun stuff and gadgets,” John says of the box-sized machine that started as a hobby and turned into a side business. “But the fact that the very same technology can have life-changing and life-saving applications is amazing.”

When John showed up to Maker Faire Vancouver seven years ago, opportunities to access this hobby were limited. Armed with a 3D printer he had just finished assembling the night before, John was hoping to meet others in the community with similar interests to build, experiment and create. Much like the increase in accessibility to these portable machines has changed over the years—with universities, libraries and makerspaces making them readily available alongside CNC Machines, laser cutters and more — John says the excitement around crafting and tinkering has skyrocketed as well.

“The kind of technology that inspires people to print a bone or spinal insert all starts at ground zero in places like a Maker Faire where people get exposed to STEAM,” John says …

… From 3D printing enthusiasts like John to knitters, metal artists and roboticists, this full one-day event [Maker Faire Vancouver on Saturday, September 14, 2019] will facilitate cross-pollination between hobbyists, small businesses, artists and tinkerers. Described as part science fair, part county fair and part something entirely new, Maker Faire Vancouver hopes to facilitate discovery and what John calls “pure joy moments.”

Hopefully that’s it.

A Setswana word (or phrase) for nanotechnology: a competition in Botswana

The Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) has issued a linguistic challenge: submit a translation of the word nanotechnology into Setswana. H/t John Churu’s July 17, 2015 article for BiztechAfrica.com. The deadline for entries is July 31, 2015. I believe you have to be within Botswana to participate. Winners will receive a tablet.  You can get more information about the competition here.

Physicists go beyond semantics by taking tourist walks in complex networks to discover word meanings in context

It was a bit shocking to find out that physicists have made a breakthrough in semantics, a field of interest I associate with writers and linguistics experts, but there it was in a July 3, 2013 news item on the Springer (publisher) Select website,

Two Brazilian physicists have now devised a method to automatically elucidate the meaning of words with several senses, based solely on their patterns of connectivity with nearby words in a given sentence – and not on semantics. Thiago Silva and Diego Amancio from the University of São Paulo, Brazil, reveal, in a paper about to be published in EPJ B [European Physical Journal B]. how they modelled classics texts as complex networks in order to derive their meaning. This type of model plays a key role in several natural processing language tasks such as machine translation, information retrieval, content analysis and text processing.

Here more about the words the physicists used in their ‘tourist walk’ and the text they tested (from the news item),

In this study, the authors chose a set of ten so-called polysemous words—words with multiple meanings—such as bear, jam, just, rock or present. They then verified their patterns of connectivity with nearby words in the text of literary classics such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Specifically, they established a model that consisted of a set of nodes representing words connected by their “edges,” if they are adjacent in a text.The authors then compared the results of their disambiguation exercise with the traditional semantic-based approach. They observed significant accuracy rates in identifying the suitable meanings when using both techniques. The approach described in this study, based on a so-called deterministic tourist walk characterisation, can therefore be considered a complementary methodology for distinguishing between word senses.

Not have coming across the ‘tourist walk’ before, I went looking for a definition, which I found in a 2002 paper (Deterministic walks in random networks: an application to thesaurus graphs by O. Kinouchi, A. S. Martinez, G. F. Lima,  G. M. Lourenço, and S. Risau-Gusman),

In a landscape composed of N randomly distributed sites in Euclidean space, a walker (“tourist”) goes to the nearest one that has not been visited in the last τ steps. This procedure leads to trajectories composed of a transient part and a final cyclic attractor of period p. The tourist walk presents a simple scaling with respect to τ and can be performed in a wide range of networks that can be viewed as ordinal neighborhood graphs. As an example, we show that graphs defined by thesaurus dictionaries share some of the statistical properties of low dimensional (d= 2) Euclidean graphs and are easily distinguished from random link networks which correspond to the d→ ∞ limit. This approach furnishes complementary information to the usual clustering coefficient and mean minimum separation length.

This gives me only the vaguest sense of what they mean by tourist walk but it does give some idea of how these physicists approached a problem that is linguistic and semantic in nature.

Silva’s and Amancio’s paper in the European Physical Journal B is behind a paywall but there’s an earlier version of it freely available on arXiv.org,

Discriminating word senses with tourist walks in complex networks by Thiago C. Silva, Diego R. Amancio. (Submitted on 17 Jun 2013)  DOI:  10.1140/epjb/e2013-40025-4 Cite as:  arXiv:1306.3920 [cs.CL] or (or arXiv:1306.3920v1 [cs.CL] for this version)

I gather this work was done in English. I wonder why there’s no mention of the research being performed on texts in other languages either for this study or future studies. As you can see, the researchers concentrated on 19th century and early 20th century writers in the UK, from page 2 of the PDF available from arXiv.org,

Table 2.
List of books (and their respective authors) employed in the experiments aiming at discriminating the meaning of ambiguous words. The year of publication is speci ed after the title of the book.

Title Author
Pride and Prejudice (1813) J. Austen
American Notes (1842) C. Dickens
Coral Reefs (1842) C. Darwin
A Tale of Two Cities (1859) C. Dickens
The Moonstone (1868) W. Collins
Expression of Emotions (1872) C. Darwin
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) T. Hardy
Jude the Obscure (1895) T. Hardy
Dracula’s Guest (1897) B. Stoker
Uncle Bernac (1897) A. C. Doyle
The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898) A. C. Doyle
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903) A. C. Doyle
Tales of St. Austin’s (1903) P. G. Wodehouse
The Chronicles of Clovis (1911) H. H. Munro
A Changed Man (1913) T. Hardy
Beasts and Super Beasts (1914) H. H. Munro
The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914) G. K. Chesterton
My Man Jeeves (1919) P. G. Wodehouse

Arts scholar in residence at National Institute of Technology: Heather Graves

Early in the new year, the University of Alberta announced the appointment of its first Scholar in Residence for Arts in Nanotechnology, Heather Graves (mentioned in my Jan. 19, 2011 posting). I contacted Dr. Graves for an interview which she very kindly gave. Before proceeding here’s a little bit of biographical information from the WRS webpage) about her [ETA Mar.11.11: photo and information about WRS webpage added],

Heather Graves is an Associate Professor of Writing Studies and the Department English and Film Studies. She is the author of Rhetoric in(to) Science: Style as Invention in Inquiry (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2005); co-editor with Roger Graves of Writing Centres, Writing Seminars, Writing Culture: Teaching Writing in Anglo-Canadian Universities (Winnipeg: Inkshed Publications, 2006) and Inkshed: Newsletter of the Canadian Assoication for the Study of Language and Learning; and co-author of the Canadian Edition of The Brief Penguin Handbook (Pearson/Longman, 2007) and A Strategic Guide to Technical Communication (Peterborough: Broadview, 2007). …

As co-president of the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing (CASDW)/ L’Association canadienne de rédactologie (ACR) (formerly the Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (CATTW)/ L’Association canadienne de professeurs de rédaction technique and scientific (ACPRTS), she has served as program chair of the annual conference held at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Professor Heather Graves, Canada's new Arts Scholar in Residence in Nanotechnology (photo from WRS website)

Heather will be working with scientists at the National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) which is located in Edmonton at the University of Alberta. The interview starts here:

(a) I was thrilled to see that a ‘scholar in residence for arts research in nanotechnology’. How do you feel about the appointment?

It’s a real opportunity to be invited into a community of practicing scientists. A number of them have been quite generous with their time to help me with their project. I have worked with scientists before but this is the first time that the invitation came, basically, from them, rather than me inviting myself in. It is wonderful to learn new things and to extend my understanding of science and how science people use rhetoric and writing in their work and professional lives.

(b) I believe this is the first such appointment in Canada, is that right? Why was the position created?

I am not aware of any other such appointments (there is only one National Institute in Canada, but the various centres for nanotechnology being built at various Canadian universities could also follow suit). I think the position was created because someone at NINT wished to develop closer links between Arts and Science, specifically nanoscience/technology. The hope is that greater knowledge of what scientists are doing with their research in nanotechnology will get a bit more publicity through this position (it will get more play on campus for sure, and likely a bit more exposure to the broader public). The position is sponsored by the Vice President of Research here at U of A but I’m not exactly clear on where the money came from (to buy out my teaching for this term, so give me some development money with which I am employing a Graduate Research Assistant, and a modest travel budget to present a conference paper or two). I expect the university and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) are sharing the costs.

(c) What will you be doing as a ‘scholar in residence for arts research in nanotechnology’? (i. e., Are there deliverables for this project and what might they be?)

I am conducting a research project on language and writing in the work of scientists doing research in nanotechnology/nanoscience. There are several strands to the project: interviews with scientists about their research and about how they use writing in their professional work and how they teach writing to the graduate students who work with them; attending meetings between supervisors and their graduate students as they meet regularly to talk about their progress on individual experimental work; attending seminars by visiting researchers about their recent work; and analyzing drafts of research reports to identify the discursive conventions of the discipline, including the features of argument structure. My focus is on how scientists use language and writing to communicate about their research; how they understand the process of drafting a convincing argument for their interpretations of the research findings, and how they structure that argument; and how newcomers to the field acculturate into the norms and conventions of the discourse in this field. The discourse conventions of nanotechnology (as an emerging discipline) are still being negotiated: they evolve out of the collaborative efforts of the interdisciplinary scientists who work together on various projects, as well as between writers and editors for scholarly journals in nanotechnology. I’m interested in documenting, as far as possible, some of this negotiation from the scientists’ perspectives and from studies of their published (and in some cases draft) reports of research. This study also analyses the linguistic constructions that the scientists use to conceptualize and communicate the scientific phenomena that they are studying. Research on the nanoscale is mediated by both technology and language, making it a fascinating site for exploring how these mediations are translated into knowledge and eventually commercial products. I expect that these different strands of the project will result in a series of conference papers and then several academic articles or even a book-length manuscript on rhetoric and nanotechnology. I also expect that some of these insights will be valuable in writing textbooks on writing in disciplines other than Arts and Humanities. I may also write some articles on nanotechnology for more popular audiences.

(d) What aspects of your previous work are you bringing to this position (e.g., rhetorical function of visuals in science research and/or model of argumentation in scientific discourse)?

Much all the work that I’ve done earlier on rhetoric of science and on argument in the disciplines is relevant to this project. For example, many discussions of scientific phenomena take place based on visuals, so a better understanding of relationship between the visuals and their rhetorical purpose is crucial to understanding the processes of knowledge creation engaged in by scientists. The visuals in science generally function as evidence supporting the claims made for new knowledge in the arguments constructed in oral presentations of work as well as in journal publications. These aspects tie in to my long-standing interest in argument in the disciplines and especially science-related disciplines. Since I also teach writing to first year science majors and to graduate students in science disciplines, this study will enable me to develop new and better teaching materials for these audiences of learners. So on a practical level this research project could well translate eventually into better instructional material for writers in science and better writers of scientific discourse in Canada.

(e) Do you have colleagues, i.e. other ‘scholars in residence for arts research in nanotechnology’, internationally and who might they be? In other words, how does this position fit within the international scene?

I am not aware of any other “scholars in residence for arts research in nanotechnology” elsewhere at this point. Please let me know if you encounter any more! I am working pretty much in isolation; of course it would be great to have colleagues to talk to who are in similar circumstances but when you are carving your own path it’s also freeing, in a way, because there is no standard procedure or approach. You can invent your project and its execution any way you want. This is generally how I have proceeded in the past because my area of interest (the study of the language and rhetoric/writing of working scientists) was sparsely populated by other scholars, especially from 1995 to the early 2000s. In the last five years or so, however, I have met a number of other rhetoric of science and writing in science scholars who are addressing some of the same issues.

Beyond the “Scholar in Residence . . .” title, however, I know there is significant interest in nanoscience and nanotechnology from many different types of people from both academic and more popular perspectives, but this collaboration between the University of Alberta and the National Institute for Nanotechnology does seem like a brand new idea. It certainly encourages interaction between two areas that don’t generally mix professionally, and it will be interesting to see what comes of this interaction in the long term, since the “Scholar in Residence for Arts Research in Nanotechnology” pilot project is slated to run for two more years after me and perhaps to be made permanent if it is deemed a success. I look forward to also hearing about subsequent research projects that follow mine. Perhaps other Centres for Nanotechnology across Canada and around the world might follow the lead here by University of Alberta and NINT. I certainly hope so.

(f) Is there anything you’d like to add?

I think many people have little idea about what is required to do this kind of research project successfully at least from the perspective of the number of hours it takes. You do have to commit significant numbers regularly over a period of time to get to know anyone in the community and to gain a reasonable level of understanding of the community. This means just hanging out for several hours a day as often as possible and collecting information as you hang out. The more information you collect the better you understand your area of study and the more data you have to work with, but processing all of this information also becomes a huge task. For example, sifting through interviews and research presentations and meeting transcripts takes a lot of time and energy. Transcribing digital recordings of key interchanges also takes time (although voice recognition software has improved immensely in the last few years, one still can’t devote one-third of a half-hour interview with a busy person to getting the technology up to speed). What I’m trying to say is that you cannot do this kind of research while also teaching a full load of classes; this type of research is only practical and possible if you have the luxury of time, which is what a program such as the Scholar in Residence for Arts Research in Nanotechnology provides. More people might conduct this kind of research if such a program were more widely available but in the absence of this type of support other types of less time-intensive research has to be undertaken, changing the types of research questions that you can ask and re-directing to somewhere else the advance of knowledge from this area.

Thank you Heather. I look forward to hearing and reading more about your work as the project progresses. I wish you the best of luck with it.

Quantum kind of day: metaphors, language and nanotechnology

I had a bonanza day on the Nanowerk website yesterday as I picked up three items, all of which featured the word ‘quantum’ in the title and some kind of word play or metaphor.

From the news item, Quantum dots go with the flow,

Quantum dots may be small. But they usually don’t let anyone push them around. Now, however, JQI [Joint Quantum Institute] Fellow Edo Waks and colleagues have devised a self-adjusting remote-control system that can place a dot 6 nanometers long to within 45 nm of any desired location. That’s the equivalent of picking up golf balls around a living room and putting them on a coffee table – automatically, from 100 miles away.

There’s a lot of detail in this item which gives you more insight (although the golf ball analogy does that job very well) into just how difficult it is to move a quantum dot and some of the problems that had to be solved.

Next, A quantum leap for cryptography,

To create random number lists for encryption purposes, cryptographers usually use mathematical algorithms called ‘pseudo random number generators’. But these are never entirely ‘random’ as the creators cannot be certain that any sequence of numbers isn’t predictable in some way.

Now a team of experimental physicists has made a breakthrough in random number generation by applying the principles of quantum mechanics to produce a string of numbers that is truly random.

‘Classical physics simply does not permit genuine randomness in the strict sense,’ explained research team leader Chris Monroe from the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) at the University of Maryland in the US. ‘That is, the outcome of any classical physical process can ultimately be determined with enough information about initial conditions. Only quantum processes can be truly random — and even then, we must trust the device is indeed quantum and has no remnant of classical physics in it.’

This is a drier piece (I suspect that’s due to the project itself) so the language or word play is in the headline. I immediately thought of a US tv series titled, Quantum Leap where, for five seasons, a scientist’s personality/intellect/spirit is leaping into people’s bodies, randomly through time. There are, according to Wikipedia, two other associations, a scientific phenomenon and a 1980s era computer. You can go here to pursue links for the other two associations. This is very clever in that you don’t need to have any associations to understand the base concept in the headline but having one or more association adds a level or more of engagement.

The final item, Scientists climb the quantum ladder,

An EU [European Union]-funded team of scientists from Cardiff University in the UK has successfully fired photons (light particles) into a small tower of semiconducting material. The work could eventually lead to the development of faster computers. …

The scientists, from the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said a photon collides with an electron confined in a smaller structure within the tower. Before the light particles re-emerge, they oscillate for a short time between the states of light and matter.

While I find this business of particles oscillating between two different states, light and matter, quite fascinating this particular language play is the least successful. I think most people will do what I did and miss the relationship between the ‘tower’ in the news item’s first paragraph and the ‘ladder’ in the headline. I cannot find any other attempt to play with either linguistic image elsewhere in the item.

Given that I’m  a writer I’m going to argue that analogies, metaphors, and word play are essential when trying to explain concepts to audiences that may not have your expertise and that audience can include other scientists. Here’s an earlier posting about some work by a cognitive psychologist, Kevin Dunbar, who investigates how scientists think and communicate.

Patents kill innovation?; nanosponges and spinning carbon nanotubes in China; Google and the universal translator

There’s an article about patents in The Economist online that provokes a question that’s not broached in the article. Here’s the thesis,

Most economists would argue that, without a patent system, even fewer inventions would lead to successful innovations, and those that did would be kept secret for far longer in order to maximise returns. But what if patents actually discourage the combining and recombining of inventions to yield new products and processes—as has happened in biotechnology, genetics and other disciplines?

Here’s the logical next question. If you accept the notion that patents kill innovation (or hinder it mightily) than how can the number of patents that are registered by any one country be used as a standard measure of scientific progress as per the 2009 OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard (my post about Canada’s low patent score here)?

Thanks to Techdirt for pointing me to The Economist article (go here to see their take) and to the Brad Feld posting (go here to see their take) about biotech innovation and patents. From Feld’s posting,

Regularly, patent advocates tell me how important patents are for the biotech and life science industries.  However, there apparently is academic research in the works that shows that patents actually slow down innovation in biotech.  The specific example we discussed was that there is increasing evidence that when a professor or company gets a patent in the field of genetics research, other researchers simply stop doing work in that specific area.  As a result, the number of researchers on a particular topic decreases, especially if the patent is broad.  It’s not hard to theorize that this results in less innovation around this area over time.

Feld goes on cite a few academics who write about patents and their impact on innovation. His main interest is not biotech but software which brings me back to the article in The Economist and a ‘weirdity’ at the end.

An end to frivolous patents for business processes will be a blessing to online commerce. Meanwhile, the loss of patent protection for software could make programmers realise at last that they have more in common with authors, artists, publishers and musicians than they ever had with molecular architects and chip designers. In short, they produce expressions of ideas that are eminently copyrightable.

That could be good news for innovation. After all, who in his right mind would seek a lousy old patent offering a mere 20 years of protection when copyright can provide monopoly rights for up to 70 years after the author’s death? That one fact alone could spur more innovation than all the tinkering attempted so far.

I understand that the author is being satirical, unfortunately, the copyright side of intellectual property law is at least as crazy as the patent side and this falls a little flat for me.

Michael Berger over at Nanowerk has devoted a couple of spotlight items (in depth articles) to innovations in China over the last few days. First there were the carbon nanotube sponges,

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are ‘strange’ nanostructures in a sense that they have both high mechanical strength and extreme flexibility. Deforming a carbon nanotube into any shape would not easily break the structure, and it recovers to original morphology in perfect manner. Researchers in China are exploiting this phenomenon by making CNT sponges consisting of a large amount of interconnected nanotubes, thus showing a combination of useful properties such as high porosity, super elasticity, robustness, and little weight (1% of water density). The nanotube sponges not only show exciting properties as a porous material but they also are very promising to be used practically in a short time. The production method is simple and scalable, the cost is low, and the sponges can find immediate use in many fields related to water purification.

Then today, there was an article on spinning carbon nanotube yarns,

“While the development of a continuous and weavable pure carbon nanotube yarn remains a major challenge in the fabrications, CNT yarns so far obtained from the different processes are monolithic in structure,” Ya-Li Li, a professor in the Nanomaterials and PDCs Group at the Key Laboratory of Advanced Ceramics and Machining Technology at Tianjin University in PR China, explains to Nanowerk. “We have now been able to demonstrate the fabrication of a novel continuous yarn of CNTs with a multiple-layer structure by the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) spinning process. The yarn consists of multiple monolayers of CNTs concentrically assembled in seamless tubules along the yarn axis.”

While I’ve seen a number of articles proclaiming China’s increasing  presence in many scientific fields, including nanotechnology, this is the first time I’ve seen articles that probe beyond a basic description of published studies in language that is still accessible, i.e., you don’t need a specialist degree to read the material. It certainly helps to contextualize the statistics and other data about China’s published studies.

Kit Eaton’s article (Will Google’s Translator Phone lead us to Babylon or Babble On?) in Fast Company touches on, biblical times (Tower of Babel), Star Trek (universal translator) and linguistics, how could I resist?

Google’s revealed it’s working on extensions to its smartphone voice-control powers, debuted in the Nexus One, that’ll automatically translate between languages. It’s the stuff of pure utopian science fiction. But is it a good idea?

While Eaton makes some other sci fi references that I’m not particularly familiar with such as Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish (which in turn references the Tower of Babel), her point is clear: there can be unintended consequences (a concept from Max Weber, if I recall rightly) to new inventions/innovations.

…  For example, if Google’s device succeeds, and is useful and ubiquitous (in other words, nearly everyone ends up using it, or a competing service)–nobody would need learn a foreign language. “Hooray!” you may be thinking, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because language plays such a fundamental part in connecting each of us as thinking creatures with the world around us, that the subtle nuances of language (which are different even in similar tongues, say the Latin-derived Spanish and Portuguese) actually shape how we think about the world. Learning something of how somebody else speaks from a foreign country actually helps you to understand their mindset a little. And if the average Joe on the street never learns a foreign language anymore (because it’s a very tricky thing to do, and Google’s just doing it for you, so why bother?) then that subtle understanding will be lost.

In the discussion about  “… the subtle nuances of language shaping how we think …” Eaton is referring to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Interestingly, some of the traditional linguistics departments in universities have resisted this hypothesis (I first learned about it in a mid-1980s communications course where we focused on semiotics).

On purely speculative terms, I could see two other ways for a universal translator to have unintended consequences. First, if something can’t be translated, it could disappear. Second, if a translatable version of your native language should emerge, people could break up into smaller subgroups to create more languages and more barriers to understanding. Eaton’s article definitely provoked some thinking for me this morning.

I did mention that I’d be posting the Geisler interview article later this week and I may have been a little optimistic as I’m having some difficulties chasing down a few details. In short, it’s on its way.

Canadian breakthrough with hybrid solar panels

A team of scientists from the University of Alberta and the National Institute of Nanotechnology (located in Edmonton, Alberta) announced they’ve improved the performance of plastic solar cells (hybrid organic solar cells) by 30%.  The team worked together for two years on the project and they expect that mass production of improved plastic solar cells is five to seven years away. Earlier this week the principal investigator, Jillian Buriak was named Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials (my Feb. 23, 2009 posting) so this must be quite a week for her. From the press release, here’s her description of a solar cell structure and the project’s improvement,

“Consider a clubhouse sandwich, with many different layers. One layer absorbs the light, another helps to generate the electricity, and others help to draw the electricity out of the device. Normally, the layers don’t stick well, and so the electricity ends up stuck and never gets out, leading to inefficient devices. We are working on the mayonnaise, the mustard, the butter and other ‘special sauces’ that bring the sandwich together, and make each of the layers work together. That makes a better sandwich, and makes a better solar cell, in our case.”

The news release is here on Eureka Alert (I’m not sure how long this remains available) and there’s a bit more information on NanoWerk, Nanotechnology researchers improve performance of plastic solar cells. I don’t understand the ‘hybrid organic solar cell’ decription and I haven’t found an explanation in materials I’ve seen. If you’re interested in the research paper (Thienylsilane-Modified Indium Tin Oxide as an Anodic Interface in Polymer/Fullerene Solar Cells), it’s here at the American Chemical Society (ACS) but it is behind a paywall.

On a completely other note, there was an article on the BBC News site about researchers who report ‘Oldest English words’ identified.