Tag Archives: physics

Infinity, time, physics, math, and a play at the Vancouver (Canada) East Cultural Centre, January 7 – 19, 2020

Time seems to be having a moment. (I couldn’t resist. 🙂 If Carlo Rovelli’s 2018 book, The Order of Time, is any indication the topic has attained a new level of interest. The only other evidence I have is that I stumble across essays about time in unlikely places.

Infinity, a play about time and more, has been produced and toured on and off since 2015 when it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play.

Here’s a clip from one of the productions,

Here’s what the publicists at the Cultch (Vancouver East Cultural Centre) have posted about the play on the Events webpage,

A surprising, funny, and revelatory new play about love, sex, and math.

The cynical, skeptical daughter of a theoretical physicist and a composer, Sarah Jean’s clinical approach to love meets with little success. In this absorbing drama infused with science and classical music, three exceptional minds collide like charged particles in an accelerator. Sarah Jean’s hugely talented, yet severely dysfunctional, family will learn that love and time itself are connected in unimaginable ways.

From award-winning playwright Hannah Moscovitch; featuring two of our country’s most esteemed actors, Jonathon Young and Amy Rutherford, up-and-comer Emily Jane King, and violinist Andréa Tyniec; with original music by visionary composer Njo Kong Kie.

“The play makes you feel as much as it makes you think.”—NOW Toronto

There is a December 23, 2019 preview article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight which gives you some insight into the playwright and her work (Note: There is some profanity in the second paragraph),

Albert Einstein once called time a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, but tell that to a busy playwright who’s juggling deadlines for TV scripts and stage openings with parenting a four-year-old-boy.

“I’m in an insane relationship with time as a mother—this agonized relationship with time,” writer Hannah Moscovitch laments with a laugh, speaking to the Straight from her Halifax home before her show Infinity opens here after the holidays. “This work-life balance: I was like, ‘What the fuck is everybody complaining about?’ Until I had to do it.

“I mean, if I don’t work less I will wreck his childhood. So it’s not like a theoretical ideal that I should have work-life balance,” she continues, sounding as self-effacing, funny, and candidly introspective as some of her best-known female stage characters. And then she reflects more seriously, “Writing Infinity gave me the chance to grapple with that. And now I’m in a constant existential relationship with time; I’m constantly thinking about it. Time is intricately linked to death, they’re inevitably linked. When you come back to time you come back to death.”

In 2008, Ross Manson, artistic director, of Toronto’s Volcano Theatre, approached Moscovitch with an article in Harper’s magazine about the history of timekeeping, with the idea of commissioning her to write on the theme. Moscovitch went on to read Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe [2013], in which American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, challenges Einstein’s idea of time as illusion.

With Manson’s help, she would go on to meet Smolin as she worked on her play, turning to him as an expert source on the science she was trying to convey in her story. Along the way, she formed a friendship with the man she was once intimidated to meet.

“Oddly enough, while all the specifics are different about what we do, some of the generals are the same,” she explains. “We have no language in common, but we really enjoy hanging out with each other. There’s a critical endeavour in both of our work that is thought-based, and we both very much live in our minds.”

For a more jaundiced view, there’s Conrad Sweatman’s April 5, 2019 review of the play’s script in book form for prairiefire,

The uses and abuses of science in playwriting: a review of Hannah Moscovitch’s play Infinity 

Hannah Moscovitch is an indie darling of Canadian theatre, and her Dora-winning play Infinity reaffirms her reputation as one of Canada’s brightest, most ambitious playwrights. If this sounds like the sort of detached praise one reads on a student report card, it’s partially because throughout my readings of Infinity I wrestled between admiration and annoyance at its rather academic cleverness. While ultimately it earns my letter of recommendation, Infinity sometimes feels like the dramatic equivalent of a class valedictorian’s graduation speech.

Back to Infinity. In his lively introduction to the play’s script, the famous physicist Lee Smolin, who consulted on the play, describes scientists and artists as“explorers of our common future” and pleads for a more open, friendly exchange between these two camps. (Smolin, vi). It comes off as a conciliatory remark after decades of the ‘science wars’ in academia, and Smolin also lauds Moscovitch for bucking the humanities’ postmodernist trend of knocking science and its practitioners. All fine sentiments. But what does this emphasis on the commonality between art and science mean, if anything, about the relationship between the subjective, social stuff of art and the objective, natural stuff of science? Does it suggest that the scientific method should by employed by playwrights and novelists in the fictional study of human nature, as some of the naturalist novelists of the 19th century believed? 

I have no reason to think that either Smolin or Moscovitch really wish for science to colonize the arts and humanities. …

Infinity is a fine addition to the aforementioned genre of smart, humanistic plays about physicists and mathematicians that had its heyday around the turn of the Millennium. It has some of their same flaws and cerebral charms and belongs more, in spirit, to the comparatively untroubled moment, before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Global Recession, and Trump. If, like me, you spent your first years willingly reading serious literature and theatre at length in a humanities department where every text was filtered through the parallax perspectives of postmodern critical theory, you may find refreshing Infinity’s enthusiasm for science and its world of objectivism. You may feel the same way about its avoidance of the crude identity politics, inspired partially by such theory, that’s particularly in vogue in the arts right now: a kind of reactive agitprop in the age of Trump. But with the world staggering right now from one crisis to the next, a contemporary play about Ivy League intellectuals, their theories of time and struggles for authenticity, seems, well, a little untimely. …

Sweatman has identified one of the big problems with using concepts from mathematics and the sciences to inform fiction and art. The romantic poets ran into the same problem as Richard Holmes explores at length in his 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Shelley eventually abandoned his attempts at including science in his poems.

Interestingly, most of us don’t seem to realize that the arts and sciences have been intimately linked for millenia. For example, De rerum natura a multi-volume poem by Roman poet, Lucretius ( (c. 99 BCE – c. 55 BCE), is a philosophical treatise exploring mind, soul, and the principles of atomism (i.e., atoms).

I hope you enjoy the play, if you choose to go. According to the Events webpage (scroll down), the playwright will be present at two post-show talkbacks.

The latest ‘golden’ age for electronics

I don’t know the dates for the last ‘golden’ age of electronics but I can certainly understand why these Japanese researchers are excited about their work. In any event, I think the ‘golden age’ is more of a play on words. From a June 25, 2019 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

One way that heat damages electronic equipment is it makes components expand at different rates, resulting in forces that cause micro-cracking and distortion. Plastic components and circuit boards are particularly prone to damage due to changes in volume during heating and cooling cycles. But if a material could be incorporated into the components that compensates for the expansion, the stresses would be reduced and their lifetime increased.

Everybody knows one material that behaves like this: liquid water expands when it freezes and ice contracts when it melts. But liquid water and electronics don’t mix well – instead, what’s needed is a solid with “negative thermal expansion” (NTE).

Although such materials have been known since the 1960s, a number of challenges had to be overcome before the concept would be broadly useful and commercially viable. In terms of both materials and function, these efforts have only had limited success.

The experimental materials had been produced under specialized laboratory conditions using expensive equipment; and even then, the temperature and pressure ranges in which they would exhibit NTE were well outside normal everyday conditions.

Moreover, the amount they expanded and contracted depended on the direction, which induced internal stresses that changed their structure, meaning that the NTE property would not last longer than a few heating and cooling cycles.

A research team led by Koshi Takenaka of Nagoya University has succeeded in overcoming these materials-engineering challenges (APL Materials, “Valence fluctuations and giant isotropic negative thermal expansion in Sm1–xRxS (R = Y, La, Ce, Pr, Nd)”).

A June 22, 2019 Nagoya University press release (also on EurekAlert but published on June 25, 2019), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Inspired by the series of work by Noriaki Sato, also of Nagoya University – whose discovery last year of superconductivity in quasicrystals was considered one of the top ten physics discoveries of the year by Physics World magazine – Professor Takenaka took the rare earth element samarium and its sulfide, samarium monosulfide (SmS), which is known to change phase from the “black phase” to the smaller-volume “golden phase”. The problem was to tune the range of temperatures at which the phase transition occurs. The team’s solution was to replace a small proportion of samarium atoms with another rare earth element, giving Sm1-xRxS, where “R” is any one of the rare earth elements cerium (Ce), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr) or yttrium (Y). The fraction x the team used was typically 0.2, except for yttrium. These materials showed “giant negative thermal expansion” of up to 8% at ordinary room pressure and a useful range of temperatures (around 150 degrees) including at room temperature and above … . Cerium is the star candidate here because it is relatively cheap.

The nature of the phase transition is such that the materials can be powdered into very small crystal sizes around a micron on a side without losing their negative expansion property. This broadens the industrial applications, particularly within electronics.

While the Nagoya University group’s engineering achievement is impressive, how the negative expansion works is fascinating from a fundamental physics viewpoint. During the black-golden transition, the crystal structure stays the same but the atoms get closer together: the unit cell size becomes smaller because (as is very likely but perhaps not yet 100% certain) the electron structure of the samarium atoms changes and makes them smaller – a process of intra-atomic charge transfer called a “valence transition” or “valence fluctuation” within the samarium atoms … . “My impression,” says Professor Takenaka, “is that the correlation between the lattice volume and the electron structure of samarium is experimentally verified for this class of sulfides.”

More specifically, in the black (lower temperature) phase, the electron configuration of the samarium atoms is (4f)6, meaning that in their outermost shell they have 6 electrons in the f orbitals (with s, p and d orbitals filled); while in the golden phase the electronic configuration is (4f)5(5d)1 -an electron has moved out of a 4f orbital into a 5d orbital. Although a “higher” shell is starting to be occupied, it turns out – through a quirk of the Pauli Exclusion Principle – that the second case gives a smaller atom size, leading to a smaller crystal size and negative expansion.

But this is only part of the fundamental picture. In the black phase, samarium sulfide and its doped offshoots are insulators – they do not conduct electricity; while in the golden phase they turn into conductors (i.e. metals). This is suggesting that during the black-golden phase transition the band structure of the whole crystal is influencing the valance transition within the samarium atoms. Although nobody has done the theoretical calculations for the doped samarium sulfides made by Professor Takenaka’s group, a previous theoretical study has indicated that when electrons leave the samarium atoms’ f orbital, they leave behind a positively charged “hole” which itself interacts repulsively with holes in the crystal’s conduction band, affecting their exchange interaction. This becomes a cooperative effect that then drives the valence transition in the samarium atoms. The exact mechanism, though, is not well understood.

Nevertheless, the Nagoya University-led group’s achievement is one of engineering, not pure physics. “What is important for many engineers is the ability to use the material to reduce device failure due to thermal expansion,” explains Professor Takenaka. “In short, in a certain temperature range – the temperature range in which the intended device operates, typically an interval of dozens of degrees or more – the volume needs to gradually decrease with a rise in temperature and increase as the temperature falls. Of course, I also know that volume expansion on cooling during a phase transition [like water freezing] is a common case for many materials. However, if the volume changes in a very narrow temperature range, there is no engineering value. The present achievement is the result of material engineering, not pure physics.”

Perhaps it even heralds a new “golden” age for electronics.

I worked in a company for a data communications company that produced hardware and network management software. From a hardware perspective, heat was an enemy which distorted your circuit boards and cost you significant money not only for replacements but also when you included fans to keep the equipment cool (or as cool as possible).

Enough with the reminiscences, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Valence fluctuations and giant isotropic negative thermal expansion in Sm1–xRxS (R = Y, La, Ce, Pr, Nd) by D. Asai, Y. Mizuno, H. Hasegawa, Y. Yokoyama, Y. Okamoto, N. Katayama, H. S. Suzuki, Y. Imanaka, and K. Takenaka. Applied Physics Letters > Volume 114, Issue 14 > 10.1063/1.5090546 or Appl. Phys. Lett. 114, 141902 (2019); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5090546. Published Online: 12 April 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Whispering in the Dark: Updates from Underground Science a June 12, 2019 talk in Vancouver (Canada)

The Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada (ARPICO) is hosting the intriguing ‘Whispering in the Dark …’ talk about underground science being held prior to the organization’s annual general meeting. From a May 21, 2019 ARPICO announcement (received via email),

… on June 12th, 2019 at the Italian Cultural Centre. ARPICO is proud to host Dr. Silvia Scorza, who will be presenting on the topic of underground science (literally underground) at SNOLAB, where research is conducted in fields of fundamental science that require shielding from external radiation such as cosmic rays. SNOLAB (SNO stands for Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) is a Canadian research laboratory located 2 km underground in Sudbury, Ontario. This presentation will give a unique and interesting perspective into the research that is conducted mostly out of the public view and discussion, but contributes critically to our scientific advances. Applications found in medicine, national security, industry, computing, science, and workforce development, illustrate a long and growing list of beneficial practical applications with contributions from particle physics.

Please read below to learn more about our speaker and topic.

Ahead of the speaking event, ARPICO will be holding its 2019 Annual General Meeting in the same location. We encourage everyone to participate in the AGM, have their say on ARPICO’s matters and possibly volunteer for the Board of Directors. ARPICO is made by all of its members, not just the Board, and it is therefore paramount that you all come, let us know what your wishes are for the Society and tell us how we can do better together as we go forward.

If you are driving to the venue, there is plenty of free parking space.  Please refer to the attached parking map for information on where not to park however, just to be sure.

We look forward to seeing everyone there.

The evening agenda is as follows:
6:00 pm to 6:45 pm – Annual General Meeting  [ Doors Open for Registration at 5:50 pm ]
7:00 pm – Start of the evening event with introductions & lecture by Dr. Silvia Scorza [ Doors Open for Registration at 6:45 pm ]
~8:00 pm – Q & A Period
to follow – Mingling & Refreshments until about 9:30 pm
If you have not already done so, please register for the event by visiting the EventBrite link or RSVPing to info@arpico.ca.

Further details are also available at arpico.ca and Eventbrite.

Whispering in the Dark: Updates from Underground Scienc

Based at a depth of 2 km in the Vale Creighton mine near Sudbury, Ontario, SNOLAB is an underground scientific environment that provides the conditions necessary for experiments dealing with rare interactions that have to be shielded from external radiation. The lab hosts an international community involved in a number of fundamental physics (neutrino and dark matter) as well as new biology and genomic experiments making use of the unique facility. In this lecture, Dr. Scorza will offer an overview on the life of an “underground scientist” and the immense possibilities of discovery that facilities like SNOLAB make available to our society.

Dr. Silvia Scorza was born and raised in Genoa, Italy. She received her B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Physics from the University of Genoa in 2003 and 2006, respectively. She then moved to the University Claude Bernard Lyon1 (UCBL1), France, where she obtained her Ph.D. in 2009. She has then held postdoctoral positions in France at the Institut de Physique Nucléaire de Lyon, in the U.S. at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas (TX) and later in Germany at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Silvia is currently a research scientist at SNOLAB and adjunct professor at Laurentian University working on the SuperCDMS SNOLAB direct dark matter search experiment and the cryogenic test facility CUTE.
WHEN (AGM): Wednesday, June 12th, 2019 at 6:00pm (doors open at 5:50pm)
WHEN (EVENT): Wednesday, June 12th, 2019 at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:45pm)
WHERE: Italian Cultural Centre – Museum & Art Gallery – 3075 Slocan St, Vancouver, BC, V5M 3E4

RSVP: Please RSVP at EventBrite (http://whispersinthedark.eventbrite.ca/) or email info@arpico.ca
Tickets are Neede

Tickets are FREE, but all individuals are requested to obtain “free-admission” tickets on EventBrite site due to limited seating at the venue. Organizers need accurate registration numbers to manage wait lists and prepare name tags.

All ARPICO events are 100% staffed by volunteer organizers and helpers, however, room rental, stationery, and guest refreshments are costs incurred and underwritten by members of ARPICO. Therefore to be fair, all audience participants are asked to donate to the best of their ability at the door or via EventBrite to “help” defray costs of the event.
Where can I contact the organizer with any questions? info@arpico.ca
Do I have to bring my printed ticket to the event? No, you do not. Your name will be on our Registration List at the Check-in Desk.
Is my registration/ticket transferrable? If you are unable to attend, another person may use your ticket. Please send us an email at info@arpico.ca of this substitution to correct our audience Registration List and to prepare guest name tags.
Can I update my registration information? Yes. If you have any questions, contact us at info@arpico.ca
I am having trouble using EventBrite and cannot reserve my ticket(s). Can someone at ARPICO help me with my ticket reservation? Of course, simply send your ticket request to us at info@arpico.ca so we help you.
What are my transport/parking options?
Bus/Train: The Millenium Line Renfrew Skytrain station is a 5 minute walk from the Italian Cultural Centre.
Parking: Free Parking is vastly available at the ICC’s own parking lot.  …

We look forward to seeing you there.


You can find out more about SNOLAB here. There’s even a virtual tour.

Electron quantum materials, a new field in nanotechnology?

Physicists name and codify new field in nanotechnology: ‘electron quantum metamaterials’

UC Riverside’s Nathaniel Gabor and colleague formulate a vision for the field in a perspective article

Courtesy: University of California at Riverside

Bravo to whomever put the image of a field together together with a subhead that includes the phrases ‘vision for a field’ and ‘perspective article’. It’s even better if you go to the November 5, 2018 University of California at Riverside (UCR) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Iqbal Pittalwala to see the original format,

When two atomically thin two-dimensional layers are stacked on top of each other and one layer is made to rotate against the second layer, they begin to produce patterns — the familiar moiré patterns — that neither layer can generate on its own and that facilitate the passage of light and electrons, allowing for materials that exhibit unusual phenomena. For example, when two graphene layers are overlaid and the angle between them is 1.1 degrees, the material becomes a superconductor.

“It’s a bit like driving past a vineyard and looking out the window at the vineyard rows. Every now and then, you see no rows because you’re looking directly along a row,” said Nathaniel Gabor, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside. “This is akin to what happens when two atomic layers are stacked on top of each other. At certain angles of twist, everything is energetically allowed. It adds up just right to allow for interesting possibilities of energy transfer.”

This is the future of new materials being synthesized by twisting and stacking atomically thin layers, and is still in the “alchemy” stage, Gabor added. To bring it all under one roof, he and physicist Justin C. W. Song of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, have proposed this field of research be called “electron quantum metamaterials” and have just published a perspective article in Nature Nanotechnology.

“We highlight the potential of engineering synthetic periodic arrays with feature sizes below the wavelength of an electron. Such engineering allows the electrons to be manipulated in unusual ways, resulting in a new range of synthetic quantum metamaterials with unconventional responses,” Gabor said.

Metamaterials are a class of material engineered to produce properties that do not occur naturally. Examples include optical cloaking devices and super-lenses akin to the Fresnel lens that lighthouses use. Nature, too, has adopted such techniques – for example, in the unique coloring of butterfly wings – to manipulate photons as they move through nanoscale structures.

“Unlike photons that scarcely interact with each other, however, electrons in subwavelength structured metamaterials are charged, and they strongly interact,” Gabor said. “The result is an enormous variety of emergent phenomena and radically new classes of interacting quantum metamaterials.”

Gabor and Song were invited by Nature Nanotechnology to write a review paper. But the pair chose to delve deeper and lay out the fundamental physics that may explain much of the research in electron quantum metamaterials. They wrote a perspective paper instead that envisions the current status of the field and discusses its future.

“Researchers, including in our own labs, were exploring a variety of metamaterials but no one had given the field even a name,” said Gabor, who directs the Quantum Materials Optoelectronics lab at UCR. “That was our intent in writing the perspective. We are the first to codify the underlying physics. In a way, we are expressing the periodic table of this new and exciting field. It has been a herculean task to codify all the work that has been done so far and to present a unifying picture. The ideas and experiments have matured, and the literature shows there has been rapid progress in creating quantum materials for electrons. It was time to rein it all in under one umbrella and offer a road map to researchers for categorizing future work.”

In the perspective, Gabor and Song collect early examples in electron metamaterials and distil emerging design strategies for electronic control from them. They write that one of the most promising aspects of the new field occurs when electrons in subwavelength-structure samples interact to exhibit unexpected emergent behavior.

“The behavior of superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene that emerged was a surprise,” Gabor said. “It shows, remarkably, how electron interactions and subwavelength features could be made to work together in quantum metamaterials to produce radically new phenomena. It is examples like this that paint an exciting future for electronic metamaterials. Thus far, we have only set the stage for a lot of new work to come.”

Gabor, a recipient of a Cottrell Scholar Award and a Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Azrieli Global Scholar Award, was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program and a National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research CAREER award.

There is a video illustrating the ideas which is embedded in a November 5, 2018 news item on phys.oirg,

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

Electron quantum metamaterials in van der Waals heterostructures by Justin C. W. Song & Nathaniel M. Gabor. Nature Nanotechnology, volume 13, pages986–993 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-018-0294-9 Published: 05 November 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

Read the full poem

Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

Read the full poem

William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

Read the full poem

For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

Read the full poem

Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Scientometrics and science typologies

Caption: As of 2013, there were 7.8 million researchers globally, according to UNESCO. This means that 0.1 percent of the people in the world professionally do science. Their work is largely financed by governments, yet public officials are not themselves researchers. To help governments make sense of the scientific community, Russian mathematicians have devised a researcher typology. The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” Credit: Lion_on_helium/MIPT Press Office

A June 28, 2018 Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT; Russia) press release (also on EurekAlert) announces some intriguing research,

Researchers in various fields, from psychology to economics, build models of human behavior and reasoning to categorize people. But it does not happen as often that scientists undertake an analysis to classify their own kind.

However, research evaluation, and therefore scientist stratification as well, remain highly relevant. Six years ago, the government outlined the objective that Russian scientists should have 50 percent more publications in Web of Science- and Scopus-indexed journals. As of 2011, papers by researchers from Russia accounted for 1.66 percent of publications globally. By 2015, this number was supposed to reach 2.44%. It did grow but this has also sparked a discussion in the scientific community about the criteria used for evaluating research work.

The most common way of gauging the impact of a researcher is in terms of his or her publications. Namely, whether they are in a prestigious journal and how many times they have been cited. As with any good idea, however, one runs the risk of overdoing it. In 2005, U.S. physicist Jorge Hirsch proposed his h-index, which takes into account the number of publications by a given researcher and the number of times they have been cited. Now, scientists are increasingly doubting the adequacy of using bibliometric data as the sole independent criterion for evaluating research work. One obvious example of a flaw of this metric is that a paper can be frequently cited to point out a mistake in it.

Scientists are increasingly under pressure to publish more often. Research that might have reasonably been published in one paper is being split up into stages for separate publication. This calls for new approaches to the evaluation of work done by research groups and individual authors. Similarly, attempts to systematize the existing methods in scientometrics and stratify scientists are becoming more relevant, too. This is arguably even more important for Russia, where the research reform has been stretching for years.

One of the challenges in scientometrics is identifying the prominent types of researchers in different fields. A typology of scientists has been proposed by Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Professor Pavel Chebotarev, who also heads the Laboratory of Mathematical Methods for Multiagent Systems Analysis at the Institute of Control Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Ilya Vasilyev, a master’s student at MIPT.

In their paper, the two authors determined distinct types of scientists based on an indirect analysis of the style of research work, how papers are received by colleagues, and what impact they make. A further question addressed by the authors is to what degree researcher typology is affected by the scientific discipline.

“Each science has its own style of work. Publication strategies and citation practices vary, and leaders are distinguished in different ways,” says Chebotarev. “Even within a given discipline, things may be very different. This means that it is, unfortunately, not possible to have a universal system that would apply to anyone from a biologist to a philologist.”

“All of the reasonable systems that already exist are adjusted to particular disciplines,” he goes on. “They take into account the criteria used by the researchers themselves to judge who is who in their field. For example, scientists at the Institute for Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences are divided into five groups based on what research they do, and they see a direct comparison of members of different groups as inadequate.”

The study was based on the citation data from the Google Scholar bibliographic database. To identify researcher types, the authors analyzed citation statistics for a large number of scientists, isolating and interpreting clusters of similar researchers.

Chebotarev and Vasilyev looked at the citation statistics for four groups of researchers returned by a Google Scholar search using the tags “Mathematics,” “Physics,” and “Psychology.” The first 515 and 556 search hits were considered in the case of physicists and psychologists, respectively. The authors studied two sets of mathematicians: the top 500 hits and hit Nos. 199-742. The four sets thus included frequently cited scientists from three disciplines indicating their general field of research in their profiles. Citation dynamics over each scientist’s career were examined using a range of indexes.

The authors initially identified three clusters, which they tentatively labeled as “leaders,” “successors,” and “toilers.” The leaders are experienced scientists widely recognized in their fields for research that has secured an annual citation count increase for them. The successors are young scientists who have more citations than toilers. The latter earn their high citation metrics owing to yearslong work, but they lack the illustrious scientific achievements.

Among the top 500 researchers indicating mathematics as their field of interest, 52 percent accounted for toilers, with successors and leaders making up 25.8 and 22.2 percent, respectively.

For physicists, the distribution was slightly different, with 48.5 percent of the set classified as toilers, 31.7 percent as successors, and 19.8 percent as leaders. That is, there were more successful young scientists, at the expense of leaders and toilers. This may be seen as a confirmation of the solitary nature of mathematical research, as compared with physics.

Finally, in the case of psychologists, toilers made up 47.7 percent of the set, with successors and leaders accounting for 18.3 and 34 percent. Comparing the distributions for the three disciplines investigated in the study, the authors conclude that there are more young achievers among those doing mathematical research.

A closer look enabled the authors to determine a more fine-grained cluster structure, which turned out to be remarkably similar for mathematicians and physicists. In particular, they identified a cluster of the youngest and most successful researchers, dubbed “precocious,” making up 4 percent of the mathematicians and 4.3 percent of the physicists in the set, along with the “youth” — successful researchers whose debuts were somewhat less dramatic: 29 and 31.7 percent of scientists doing math and physics research, respectively. Two further clusters were interpreted as recognized scientific authorities, or “luminaries,” and experienced researchers who have not seen an appreciable growth in the number of citations recently. Luminaries and the so-called inertia accounted for 52 and 15 percent of mathematicians and 50 and 14 percent of physicists, respectively.

There is an alternative way of clustering physicists, which recognizes a segment of researchers, who “caught the wave.” The authors suggest this might happen after joining major international research groups.

Among psychologists, 18.3 percent have been classified as precocious, though not as young as the physicists and mathematicians in the corresponding group. The most experienced and respected psychology researchers account for 22.5 percent, but there is no subdivision into luminaries and inertia, because those actively cited generally continue to be. Relatively young psychologists make up 59.2 percent of the set. The borders between clusters are relatively blurred in the case of psychology, which might be a feature of the humanities, according to the authors.

“Our pilot study showed even more similarity than we’d expected in how mathematicians and physicists are clustered,” says Chebotarev. “Whereas with psychology, things are noticeably different, yet the breakdown is slightly closer to math than physics. Perhaps, there is a certain connection between psychology and math after all, as some people say.”

“The next stage of this research features more disciplines. Hopefully, we will be ready to present the new results soon,” he concludes.

I think that they are attempting to create a new way of measuring scientific progress (scientometrics) by establishing a more representative means of measuring individual contributions based on the analysis they provide of the ways in which these ‘typologies’ are expressed across various disciplines.

For anyone who wants to investigate further, you will need to be able to read Russian. You can download the paper from here on MathNet.ru,.

Here’s my best attempt at a citation for the paper,

Making a typology of scientists on the basis of bibliometric data by I. Vasilyev, P. Yu. Chebotarev. Large-scale System Control (UBS), 2018, Issue 72, Pages 138–195 (Mi ubs948)

I’m glad to see this as there is a fair degree of dissatisfaction about the current measures for scientific progress used in any number of reports on the topic. As far as I can tell, this dissatisfaction is felt internationally.

First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story

Scientists, He Jiankui and Michael Deem, may have created the first human babies born after being subjected to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing.  At this point, no one is entirely certain that these babies  as described actually exist since the information was made public in a rather unusual (for scientists) fashion.

The news broke on Sunday, November 25, 2018 through a number of media outlets none of which included journals associated with gene editing or high impact journals such as Cell, Nature, or Science.The news broke in MIT Technology Review and in Associated Press. Plus, this all happened just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (Nov. 27 – 29, 2018) in Hong Kong. He Jiankui was scheduled to speak today, Nov. 27, 2018.

Predictably, this news has caused quite a tizzy.

Breaking news

Antonio Regalado broke the news in a November 25, 2018  article for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.

However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

Apparently He changed his mind because Marilynn Marchione in a November 26, 2018 article for the Associated Press confirms the news,

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist [Dr. Michael Deem] said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday [November 26, 2018] in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday [November 27, 2018], and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”

“I think this is justifiable,” Church said of that goal.

h/t Cale Guthrie Weissman’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Fast Company.

Diving into more detail

Ed Yong in a November 26, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides more details about the claims (Note: Links have been removed),

… “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the first of five videos, posted yesterday {Nov. 25, 2018] to YouTube [link provided at the end of this section of the post]. “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.” The claim has yet to be formally verified, but if true, it represents a landmark in the continuing ethical and scientific debate around gene editing.

Late last year, He reportedly enrolled seven couples in a clinical trial, and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through in vitro fertilization. His team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos, six of which they then implanted into mothers. CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.

Whether the experiment was successful or not, it’s intensely controversial. Scientists have already begun using CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies to alter human cells, in attempts to treat cancers, genetic disorders, and more. But in these cases, the affected cells stay within a person’s body. Editing an embryo [it’s often called, germline editing] is very different: It changes every cell in the body of the resulting person, including the sperm or eggs that would pass those changes to future generations. Such work is banned in many European countries, and prohibited in the United States. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” He said.

“Was this a reasonable thing to do? I would say emphatically no,” says Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu.

“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,” says Cannon. “I feel like he’s appropriating this potentially valuable therapy as a shortcut to doing something in the sphere of gene editing. He’s either very naive or very cynical.”

“I want someone to make sure that it has happened,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. If it hasn’t, that “would be a pretty bald-faced fraud,” but such deceptions have happened in the past. “If it is true, I’m disappointed. It’s reckless on safety grounds, and imprudent and stupid on social grounds.” He notes that a landmark summit in 2015 (which included Chinese researchers) and a subsequent major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine both argued that “public participation should precede any heritable germ-line editing.” That is: Society needs to work out how it feels about making gene-edited babies before any babies are edited. Absent that consensus, He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”

Societally, the creation of CRISPR-edited babies is a binary moment—a Rubicon that has been crossed. But scientifically, the devil is in the details, and most of those are still unknown.

CRISPR is still inefficient. [emphasis mine] The Chinese teams who first used it to edit human embryos only did so successfully in a small proportion of cases, and even then, they found worrying levels of “off-target mutations,” where they had erroneously cut parts of the genome outside their targeted gene. He, in his video, claimed that his team had thoroughly sequenced Nana and Lulu’s genomes and found no changes in genes other than CCR5.

That claim is impossible to verify in the absence of a peer-reviewed paper, or even published data of any kind. “The paper is where we see whether the CCR5 gene was properly edited, what effect it had at the cellular level, and whether [there were] any off-target effects,” said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute. “It’s not just ‘it worked’ as a binary declaration.”

In the video, He said that using CRISPR for human enhancement, such as enhancing IQ or selecting eye color, “should be banned.” Speaking about Nana and Lulu’s parents, he said that they “don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease that medicine can now prevent.”

But his rationale is questionable. Huang [Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University ], the first Chinese researcher to use CRISPR on human embryos, targeted the faulty gene behind an inherited disease called beta thalassemia. Mitalipov, likewise, tried to edit a gene called MYBPC3, whose faulty versions cause another inherited disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Such uses are still controversial, but they rank among the more acceptable applications for embryonic gene editing as ways of treating inherited disorders for which treatments are either difficult or nonexistent.

In contrast, He’s team disableda normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled. There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.

As Marilynn Marchione of the AP reports, early tests suggest that He’s editing was incomplete [emphasis mine], and at least one of the twins is a mosaic, where some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 and others do not. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that they would be significantly protected from HIV. And in any case, deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity, because some HIV strains can still enter cells via a different protein called CXCR4.

Nana and Lulu might have other vulnerabilities. …

It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. [emphasis mine] The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “AIDS vaccine development project,” and while it describes CRISPR gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”

He owns two genetics companies, and his collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University,  [emphasis mine] holds a small stake in, and sits on the advisory board of, both of them. The AP’s Marchione reports, “Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.” [emphasis mine]

Yong’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. As for YouTube, here’s The He Lab’s webpage with relevant videos.


Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee, and Pam Belluck writing in a Nov. 26, 2018 article for the New York Times chronicle some of the response to He’s announcement,

It is highly unusual for a scientist to announce a groundbreaking development without at least providing data that academic peers can review. Dr. He said he had gotten permission to do the work from the ethics board of the hospital Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital, in interviews with Chinese media, denied being involved. Cheng Zhen, the general manager of Shenzhen Harmonicare, has asked the police to investigate what they suspect are “fraudulent ethical review materials,” according to the Beijing News.

The university that Dr. He is attached to, the Southern University of Science and Technology, said Dr. He has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms,” according to the state-run Beijing News.

In a statement late on Monday, China’s national health commission said it has asked the health commission in southern Guangdong province to investigate Mr. He’s claims.

“I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Mitalipov broke new ground last year by using gene editing to successfully remove a dangerous mutation from human embryos in a laboratory dish. [I wrote a three-part series about CRISPR, which included what was then the latest US news, Mitalipov’s announcement, along with a roundup of previous work in China. Links are at the end of this section.’

Dr. Mitalipov said that unlike his own work, which focuses on editing out mutations that cause serious diseases that cannot be prevented any other way, Dr. He did not do anything medically necessary. There are other ways to prevent H.I.V. infection in newborns.

Just three months ago, at a conference in late August on genome engineering at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. He presented work on editing the CCR₅ gene in the embryos of nine couples.

At the conference, whose organizers included Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of Crispr technology, Dr. He gave a careful talk about something that fellow attendees considered squarely within the realm of ethically approved research. But he did not mention that some of those embryos had been implanted in a woman and could result in genetically engineered babies.

“What we now know is that as he was talking, there was a woman in China carrying twins,” said Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a visiting researcher at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California. “He had the opportunity to say ‘Oh and by the way, I’m just going to come out and say it, people, there’s a woman carrying twins.’”

“I would never play poker against Dr. He,” Dr. Urnov quipped.

Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”

It is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to H.I.V. is “a serious unmet need.” Men with H.I.V. do not infect embryos. …

Dr. He got his Ph.D., from Rice University, in physics and his postdoctoral training, at Stanford, was with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics who works on sequencing DNA, not editing it.

Experts said that using Crispr would actually be quite easy for someone like Dr. He.

After coming to Shenzhen in 2012, Dr. He, at age 28, established a DNA sequencing company, Direct Genomics, and listed Dr. Quake on its advisory board. But, in a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Quake said he was never associated with the company.

Deem, the US scientist who worked in China with He is currently being investigated (from a Nov. 26, 2018 article by Andrew Joseph in STAT),

Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.

Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.

Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.

Megan Molteni in a Nov. 27, 2018 article for Wired admits she and her colleagues at the magazine may have dismissed CRISPR concerns about designer babies prematurely while shedding more light on this  latest development (Note: Links have been removed),

We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.

Late Sunday night, a Chinese researcher stunned the world by claiming to have created the first human babies, a set of twins, with Crispr-edited DNA….

What’s perhaps most strange is not that He ignored global recommendations on conducting responsible Crispr research in humans. He also ignored his own advice to the world—guidelines that were published within hours of his transgression becoming public.

On Monday, He and his colleagues at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, published a set of draft ethical principles “to frame, guide, and restrict clinical applications that communities around the world can share and localize based on religious beliefs, culture, and public-health challenges.” Those principles included transparency and only performing the procedure when the risks are outweighed by serious medical need.

The piece appeared in the The Crispr Journal, a young publication dedicated to Crispr research, commentary, and debate. Rodolphe Barrangou, the journal’s editor in chief, where the peer-reviewed perspective appeared, says that the article was one of two that it had published recently addressing the ethical concerns of human germline editing, the other by a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. Both papers’ authors had requested that their writing come out ahead of a major gene editing summit taking place this week in Hong Kong. When half-rumors of He’s covert work reached Barrangou over the weekend, his team discussed pulling the paper, but ultimately decided that there was nothing too solid to discredit it, based on the information available at the time.

Now Barrangou and his team are rethinking that decision. For one thing, He did not disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard practice among respectable journals. It’s since become clear that not only is He at the helm of several genetics companies in China, He was actively pursuing controversial human research long before writing up a scientific and moral code to guide it.“We’re currently assessing whether the omission was a matter of ill-management or ill-intent,” says Barrangou, who added that the journal is now conducting an audit to see if a retraction might be warranted. …

“There are all sorts of questions these issues raise, but the most fundamental is the risk-benefit ratio for the babies who are going to be born,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. “And the risk-benefit ratio on this stinks. Any institutional review board that approved it should be disbanded if not jailed.”

Reporting by Stat indicates that He may have just gotten in over his head and tried to cram a self-guided ethics education into a few short months. The young scientist—records indicate He is just 34—has a background in biophysics, with stints studying in the US at Rice University and in bioengineer Stephen Quake’s lab at Stanford. His resume doesn’t read like someone steeped deeply in the nuances and ethics of human research. Barrangou says that came across in the many rounds of edits He’s framework went through.

… China’s central government in Beijing has yet to come down one way or another. Condemnation would make He a rogue and a scientific outcast. Anything else opens the door for a Crispr IVF cottage industry to emerge in China and potentially elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine this was the only group in the world doing this,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis who wrote a book on the future of designer babies called GMO Sapiens. “Some might say this broke the ice. Will others forge ahead and go public with their results or stop what they’re doing and see how this plays out?”

Here’s some of the very latest information with the researcher attempting to explain himself.

What does He have to say?

After He’s appearance at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing today, Nov. 27, 2018, David Cyranoski produced this article for Nature,

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have helped produce the first people born with edited genomes — twin girls — appeared today at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong to explain his experiment. He gave his talk amid threats of legal action and mounting questions, from the scientific community and beyond, about the ethics of his work and the way in which he released the results.

He had never before presented his work publicly outside of a handful of videos he posted on YouTube. Scientists welcomed the fact that he appeared at all — but his talk left many hungry for more answers, and still not completely certain that He has achieved what he claims.

“There’s no reason not to believe him,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “I’m just not completely convinced.”

Lovell-Badge, like others at the conference, says that an independent body should confirm the test results by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and childrens’ genes.

Many scientists faulted He for a lack of transparency and the seemingly cavalier nature in which he embarked on such a landmark, and potentially risky, project.

“I’m happy he came but I was really horrified and stunned when he described the process he used,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing technique that He used. “It was so inappropriate on so many levels.”

He seemed shaky approaching the stage and nervous during the talk. “I think he was scared,” says Matthew Porteus, who researches genome-editing at Stanford University in California and co-hosted a question-and-answer session with He after his presentation. Porteus attributes this either to the legal pressures that He faces or the mounting criticism from the scientists and media he was about to address.

He’s talk leaves a host of other questions unanswered, including whether the prospective parents were properly informed of the risks; why He selected CCR5 when there are other, proven ways to prevent HIV; why he chose to do the experiment with couples in which the fathers have HIV, rather than mothers who have a higher chance of passing the virus on to their children; and whether the risks of knocking out CCR5 — a gene normally present in people, which could have necessary but still unknown functions — outweighed the benefits in this case.

In the discussion following He’s talk, one scientist asked why He proceeded with the experiments despite the clear consensus among scientists worldwide that such research shouldn’t be done. He didn’t answer the question.

He’s attempts to justify his actions mainly fell flat. In response to questions about why the science community had not been informed of the experiments before the first women were impregnated, he cited presentations that he gave last year at meetings at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. But Doudna, who organized the Berkeley meeting, says He did not present anything that showed he was ready to experiment in people. She called his defence “disingenuous at best”.

He also said he discussed the human experiment with unnamed scientists in the United States. But Porteus says that’s not enough for such an extraordinary experiment: “You need feedback not from your two closest friends but from the whole community.” …

Pressure was mounting on He ahead of the presentation. On 27 November, the Chinese national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, in the province where He’s university is located, to investigate.

On the same day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a statement condemning his work, and the Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research jointly issued a statement saying the experiment “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law”.

The hospital cited in China’s clinical-trial registry as the that gave ethical approval for He’s work posted a press release on 27 November saying it did not give any approval. It questioned the signatures on the approval form and said that the hospital’s medical-ethics committee never held a meeting related to He’s research. The hospital, which itself is under investigation by the Shenzhen health authorities following He’s revelations, wrote: “The Company does not condone the means of the Claimed Project, and has reservations as to the accuracy, reliability and truthfulness of its contents and results.”

He has not yet responded to requests for comment on these statements and investigations, nor on why the hospital was listed in the registry and the claim of apparent forged signatures.

Alice Park’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Time magazine includes an embedded video of He’s Nov. 27, 2018 presentation at the summit meeting.

What about the politics?

Mara Hvistendahl’s Nov. 27, 2018 article about this research for Slate.com poses some geopolitical questions (Note: Links have been removed),

The informed consent agreement for He Jiankui’s experiment describes it as an “AIDS vaccine development project” and used highly technical language to describe the procedure that patients would undergo. If the reality for some Chinese patients is that such agreements are glossed over, densely written, or never read, the reality for some researchers working in the country is that the appeal of cutting-edge trials is too great to resist. It is not just Chinese scientists who can be blinded by the lure of quick breakthroughs. Several of the most notable breaches of informed consent on the mainland have involved Western researchers or co-authors. … When people say that the usual rules don’t apply in China, they are really referring to authoritarian science, not some alternative communitarian ethics.

For the many scientists in China who adhere to recognized international standards, the incident comes as a disgrace. He Jiankui now faces an ethics investigation from provincial health authorities, and his institution, Southern University of Science and Technology, was quick to issue a statement noting that He was on unpaid leave. …

It would seem that US [and from elsewhere]* scientists wanting to avoid pesky ethics requirements in the US have found that going to China could be the answer to their problems. I gather it’s not just big business that prefers deregulated environments.

Guillaume Levrier’s  (he’ studying for a PhD at the Universté Sorbonne Paris Cité) November 16, 2018 essay for The Conversation sheds some light on political will and its impact on science (Note: Links have been removed),

… China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. …

One other thing from Levrier’s essay,

… And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, …

Do read the essay; there’s a twist at the end.

Final thoughts and some links

If I read this material rightly, there are suspicions there may be more of this work being done in China and elsewhere. In short, we likely don’t have the whole story.

As for the ethical issues, this is a discussion among experts only, so far. The great unwashed (thee and me) are being left at the wayside. Sure, we’ll be invited to public consultations, one day,  after the big decisions have been made.

Anyone who’s read up on the history of science will tell you this kind of breach is very common at the beginning. Richard Holmes’  2008 book, ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ recounts stories of early scientists (European science) who did crazy things. Some died, some shortened their life spans; and, some irreversibly damaged their health.  They also experimented on other people. Informed consent had not yet been dreamed up.

In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the largest human clinical trial in history was held in Canada. The small pox vaccine was highly contested in the US but the Canadian government thought it was a good idea so they offered US scientists the option of coming here to vaccinate Canadian babies. This was in the 1950s and the vaccine seems to have been administered almost universally. That was a lot of Canadian babies. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out but it does seem mind-boggling today.

For all the indignation and shock we’re seeing, this is not the first time nor will it be the last time someone steps over a line in order to conduct scientific research. And, that is the eternal problem.

Meanwhile I think some of the real action regarding CRISPR and germline editing is taking place in the field (pun!) of agriculture:

My Nov. 27, 2018 posting titled: ‘Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)‘ and a more disturbing Nov. 27, 2018 post titled: ‘Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon‘. That second posting features a company which is trying to sell its gene-editing services to farmers who would like cows that  never grow horns and pigs that never reach puberty.

Then there’s this ,

The Genetic Revolution‘, a documentary that offers relatively up-to-date information about gene editing, which was broadcast on Nov. 11, 2018 as part of The Nature of Things series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

My July 17, 2018 posting about research suggesting that scientists hadn’t done enough research on possible effects of CRISPR editing titled: ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle’.

My 2017 three-part series on CRISPR and germline editing:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

There you have it.

Added on November 30, 2018: David Cyanowski has written one final article (Nov. 30, 2018 for Nature) about He and the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He did not make his second scheduled appearance at the summit, returning to China before the summit concluded. He was rebuked in a statement produced by the Summit’s organizing committee at the end of the three-day meeting. The situation with regard to his professional status in China is ambiguous. Cyanowski ends his piece with the information that the third summit will take place in London (likely in the UK) in 2021. I encourage you to read Cyanowski’s Nov. 30, 2018 article in its entirety; it’s not long.

Added on Dec. 3, 2018: The story continues. Ed Yong has written a summary of the issues to date in a Dec. 3, 2018 article for The Atlantic (even if you know the story ift’s eyeopening to see all the parts put together.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU) and Jason Scott Robert, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University have written a provocative (and true) Dec. 3, 2018 essay titled, CRISPR babies raise an uncomfortable reality – abiding by scientific standards doesn’t guarantee ethical research, for The Conversation. h/t phys.org

*[and from elsewhere] added January 17, 2019.

Added on January 23, 2019: He has been fired by his university (Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen) as announced on January 21, 2019.  David Cyranoski provides a details accounting in his January 22, 2019 article for Nature.

ARPICO November 13, 2018 event in Vancouver (Canada): The Mysterious Dark-Side of the Universe: From Quarks to the Big Bang with Dark Matter

The Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada (ARPICO) is hosting a physics event for those of us who don’t have Phd’s in physics. From an October 24, 2018 ARPICO announcement (received via email),

The second event of ARPICO’s fall 2018 activity will take place on Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 at the Roundhouse Community Centre (Room B). Our speaker will be Dr. Pietro Giampa, a physicist who recently joined the ranks of the TRIUMF laboratories [Canada’s particle accelerator centre and, formerly, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics] here in Vancouver. Dr. Giampa will give us an intriguing and, importantly, layperson-intelligible overview on the state of our knowledge of the universe especially in regards to so-called dark matter, a chapter of physics that the most complete theoretical model to-date cannot explain. We will learn, among other things, about an ambitious experiment (set up in a Canadian mine!) [emphasis mine] to detect neutrinos, fundamental and very elusive particles of our  cosmos. You can read a summary of Pietro Giampa’s lecture as well as his short professional biography below.

We look forward to seeing everyone there.

The evening agenda is as follows:

  • 6:30 pm – Doors Open for Registration
  • 7:00 pm – Start of the evening event with introductions & lecture by Dr. Pietro Giampa
  • ~8:15 pm – Q & A Period
  • to follow – Mingling & Refreshments until about 9:30 pm

If you have not already done so, please register for the event by visiting the EventBrite link or RSVPing to info@arpico.ca.

Further details are also available at arpico.ca and Eventbrite.

More details from the email announcement,

The Mysterious Dark-Side of the Universe: From Quarks to the Big Bang with Dark Matter

Understanding the true nature of our universe is one of the most fundamental quests of our society. The path of knowledge acquisition in that quest has led us to the hypothesis of “dark matter”, that is, a large proportion of the mass of the universe which appears invisible. In this lecture, with minimal technical language we will journey through the structure and evolution of the universe, from subatomic particles to the big bang, which gave rise to our universe, in an ultimate research to describe the dark side of the universe called dark matter. We will review what we have learnt thus far about dark matter, and get an in-depth look at how scientists are searching for something that can not be seen.

Dr. Pietro Giampa originally completed his undergraduate in physics at Royal Holloway University of London in the UK, where he wrote a thesis on SuperSymmetry Searches with the ATLAS Detector (so LHC related). Following his undergraduate, he completed a Master Degree in particle physics at the same institute where he developed a novel technique for directional detection of neutrons. It was after his master that he moved to Canada to complete his Ph.D at Queen’s University in Particle Astrophysics, working on the DEAP-3600 Experiment with Nobel laureate Prof. Arthur McDonald. In the summer of 2017 he moved to TRIUMF, where he is currently the Otto Hausser Fellow. At TRIUMF he continues his research for new forms of physics, by studying Dark Matter and Ultra-Cold Neutrons.


WHEN: Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:30pm)

WHERE: Roundhouse Community Centre, Room B – 181 Roundhouse Mews, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2W3

RSVP: Please RSVP at EventBrite (https://mysteryofdarkmatter.eventbrite.ca/) or email info@arpico.ca

Tickets are Needed

  • Tickets are FREE, but all individuals are requested to obtain “free-admission” tickets on EventBrite site due to limited seating at the venue. Organizers need accurate registration numbers to manage wait lists and prepare name tags.
  • All ARPICO events are 100% staffed by volunteer organizers and helpers, however, room rental, stationery, and guest refreshments are costs incurred and underwritten by members of ARPICO. Therefore to be fair, all audience participants are asked to donate to the best of their ability at the door or via EventBrite to “help” defray costs of the event.


  • Where can I contact the organizer with any questions? info@arpico.ca
  • Do I have to bring my printed ticket to the event? No, you do not. Your name will be on our Registration List at the Check-in Desk.
  • Is my registration/ticket transferrable? If you are unable to attend, another person may use your ticket. Please send us an email at info@arpico.ca of this substitution to correct our audience Registration List and to prepare guest name tags.
  • Can I update my registration information? Yes. If you have any questions, contact us at info@arpico.ca
  • I am having trouble using EventBrite and cannot reserve my ticket(s). Can someone at ARPICO help me with my ticket reservation? Of course, simply send your ticket request to us at info@arpico.ca so we help you.

What are my transport/parking options?

  • Bus/Train: The Canada Line Yaletown Skytrain station is a 1 minute walk from the Roundhouse Community Centre.
  • Parking: Pay Parking is underground at the community centre.  Access is available via Drake Street.

With regard to the Canadian mine and neutrino experiments, I hunted down a little more information (from an October 6, 2015 article by Kate Allen for thestar.com), Note: A link has been removed,

Canadian physicist Arthur B. McDonald has won the Nobel Prize for discoveries about the behaviour of a mysterious solar particle, teased from an experiment buried two kilometres below Sudbury [Ontario].

The Queen’s University professor emeritus was honoured for co-discovering that elusive particles known as neutrinos can change their identity — or “oscillate” — as they travel from the sun. It proved that neutrinos must have mass, a finding that upset the Standard Model of particle physics and opened new avenues for research into the fundamental properties of the universe.

McDonald, 72, shares the prize with Takaaki Kajita, whose Japanese collaboration made the same discovery with slightly different methods.

To measure solar neutrinos, McDonald and a 130-person international team built a massive detector in an operational copper mine southwest of Sudbury. …

To solve this problem, McDonald and his colleagues dreamt up SNO. Deep in an INCO mine (now owned by Vale), protected from cosmic radiation constantly bombarding the earth’s surface, the scientists installed a 12-metre-wide acrylic vessel filled with 1,000 tonnes of ultra-pure heavy water. The vessel was surrounded by a geodesic sphere equipped with 9,456 light sensors. The whole thing was sunk in a 34-metre-high cavity filled with regular water.

When neutrinos hit the heavy water, an event that occurred about 10 times a day, they emitted a flash of light, which researchers could analyze to measure the particles’ properties.

Allen’s article has more details for anyone who might want to read up on neutrinos. Regardless, I’m sure Dr.Giampa is fully prepared to guide the uninitiated into the mysteries of the universe as they pertain to dark matter, neutrinos, and ultra-cold neutrons.

Harlem Globetrotters and the Magnus effect

Just about everybody is interested in science these days and the Harlem Globetrotters (basketball team) are no exception,,

Here’s more about science and Harlem Globetrotters from an October 17, 2018 news release (received via email),

(Dallas, TX – Oct. 17, 2018) To prepare for their new world tour, the Harlem Globetrotters demonstrated acts of science at the “highest” level when Zeus McClurkin made two trick shots from the roof of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in downtown Dallas.  Showing off the Magnus Effect, Zeus spun a basketball on his finger and shot a “curve ball” from nearly 200 feet up – hitting nothing but net in a hoop below.

The video was released today and is available via the hyperlinks below.  The footage and accompanying music are approved for media (courtesy Harlem Globetrotters).

Via YouTube

Via Facebook

As a two-time Guinness World Record holder, Zeus was joined by Cindy Hua, one of the “Brainiac” science educators from the Perot Museum.  Cindy took Zeus through the concept of the “Magus Effect” and how a spin of the ball will affect his shot.

The Globetrotters will bring their new Fan Powered World Tour to Dallas and Frisco over Thanksgiving Weekend.  The world famous team will play the Dr Pepper Arena on Friday, Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.  Plus, two more games at American Airlines Center on Saturday, Nov. 24 a 1 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m.  The full schedule of the Globetrotters’ games in Texas and around the world are available at HarlemGlobetrotters.com.

The top cultural attraction in Dallas/Fort Worth and a Michelin Green Guide three-star destination, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is a nonprofit educational organization located in Victory Park in the heart of Dallas, Texas. With a mission to inspire minds through nature and science, the 180,000-square-foot Perot Museum delivers exciting, engaging and innovative experiences through its education, exhibit, global research and collections programming for children, students, teachers, families and life-long learners. To learn more, please visit perotmuseum.org.

For anyone who’s curious about the Magnus effect and its impact on ‘ball sports’, there’s this from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The most readily observable case of the Magnus effect is when a spinning sphere (or cylinder) curves away from the arc it would follow if it were not spinning. It is often used by soccer players, baseball pitchers and cricket bowlers. Consequently, the phenomenon is important in the study of the physics of many ball sports. It is also an important factor in the study of the effects of spinning on guided missiles—and has some engineering uses, for instance in the design of rotor ships and Flettner aeroplanes.

Frankly, I’m thrilled it never occurred to me that I’d ever have a chance to include the Harlem Globetrotters in any of my postings. Thank you to whomever dreamed up this piece of publicity.

Canadian fans will have a number of opportunities to see the Harlem Globetrotters in action on their world tour. Check it out here.

Finally,, I have not received any rewards (money or tickets or merchandise); quite simply, I love the Globetrotters for their expression of joyous athleticism.