Tag Archives: TED talk

Keeping up with science is impossible: ruminations on a nanotechnology talk

I think it’s time to give this suggestion again. Always hold a little doubt about the science information you read and hear. Everybody makes mistakes.

Here’s an example of what can happen. George Tulevski who gave a talk about nanotechnology in Nov. 2016 for TED@IBM is an accomplished scientist who appears to have made an error during his TED talk. From Tulevski’s The Next Step in Nanotechnology talk transcript page,

When I was a graduate student, it was one of the most exciting times to be working in nanotechnology. There were scientific breakthroughs happening all the time. The conferences were buzzing, there was tons of money pouring in from funding agencies. And the reason is when objects get really small, they’re governed by a different set of physics that govern ordinary objects, like the ones we interact with. We call this physics quantum mechanics. [emphases mine] And what it tells you is that you can precisely tune their behavior just by making seemingly small changes to them, like adding or removing a handful of atoms, or twisting the material. It’s like this ultimate toolkit. You really felt empowered; you felt like you could make anything.

In September 2016, scientists at Cambridge University (UK) announced they had concrete proof that the physics governing materials at the nanoscale is unique, i.e., it does not follow the rules of either classical or quantum physics. From my Oct. 27, 2016 posting,

A Sept. 29, 2016 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, hones in on the peculiarities of the nanoscale,

In the middle, on the order of around 10–100,000 molecules, something different is going on. Because it’s such a tiny scale, the particles have a really big surface-area-to-volume ratio. This means the energetics of what goes on at the surface become very important, much as they do on the atomic scale, where quantum mechanics is often applied.

Classical thermodynamics breaks down. But because there are so many particles, and there are many interactions between them, the quantum model doesn’t quite work either.

It is very, very easy to miss new developments no matter how tirelessly you scan for information.

Tulevski is a good, interesting, and informed speaker but I do have one other hesitation regarding his talk. He seems to think that over the last 15 years there should have been more practical applications arising from the field of nanotechnology. There are two aspects here. First, he seems to be dating the ‘nanotechnology’ effort from the beginning of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative and there are many scientists who would object to that as the starting point. Second, 15 or even 30 or more years is a brief period of time especially when you are investigating that which hasn’t been investigated before. For example, you might want to check out the book, “Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life” (published 1985) is a book by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (Wikipedia entry for the book). The amount of time (years) spent on how to make just the glue which held the various experimental apparatuses together was a revelation to me. Of  course, it makes perfect sense that if you’re trying something new, you’re going to have figure out everything.

By the way, I include my blog as one of the sources of information that can be faulty despite efforts to make corrections and to keep up with the latest. Even the scientists at Cambridge University can run into some problems as I noted in my Jan. 28, 2016 posting.

Getting back to Tulevsk, herei’s a link to his lively, informative talk :

ETA Jan. 24, 2017: For some insight into how uncertain, tortuous, and expensive commercializing technology can be read Dexter Johnson’s Jan. 23, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website). Here’s an excerpt (Note: Links have been removed),

The brief description of this odyssey includes US $78 million in financing over 15 years and $50 million in revenues over that period through licensing of its technology and patents. That revenue includes a back-against-the-wall sell-off of a key business unit to Lockheed Martin in 2008.  Another key moment occured back in 2012 when Belgian-based nanoelectronics powerhouse Imec took on the job of further developing Nantero’s carbon-nanotube-based memory back in 2012. Despite the money and support from major electronics players, the big commercial breakout of their NRAM technology seemed ever less likely to happen with the passage of time.

Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human

There is a tension between Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes as it is felt by some able-bodied athletes that paralympic athletes may have an advantage due to their prosthetics. Roger Pielke Jr. has written a fascinating account of the tensions as a means of asking what it all means. From Pielke Jr.’s Aug. 3, 2016 post on the Guardian Science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Athletes are humans too, and they sometimes look for a performance improvement through technological enhancements. In my forthcoming book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I discuss a range of technological augmentations to both people and to sports, and the challenges that they pose for rule making. In humans, such improvements can be the result of surgery to reshape (like laser eye surgery) or strengthen (such as replacing a ligament with a tendon) the body to aid performance, or to add biological or non-biological parts that the individual wasn’t born with.

One well-known case of technological augmentation involved the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the 2012 Olympic Games on prosthetic “blades” below his knees (during happier days for the athlete who is currently jailed in South Africa for the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). Years before the London Games Pistorius began to have success on the track running against able-bodied athletes. As a consequence of this success and Pistorius’s interest in competing at the Olympic games, the International Association of Athletics Federations (or IAAF, which oversees elite track and field competitions) introduced a rule in 2007, focused specifically on Pistorius, prohibiting the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Under this rule, Pistorius was determined by the IAAF to be ineligible to compete against able-bodied athletes.

Pistorius appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The appeal hinged on answering a metaphysical question—how fast would Pistorius have run had he been born with functioning legs below the knee? In other words, did the blades give him an advantage over other athletes that the hypothetical, able-bodied Oscar Pistorius would not have had? Because there never was an able-bodied Pistorius, the CAS looked to scientists to answer the question.

CAS concluded that the IAAF was in fact fixing the rules to prevent Pistorius from competing and that “at least some IAAF officials had determined that they did not want Mr. Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate.” CAS determined that it was the responsibility of the IAAF to show “on the balance of probabilities” that Pistorius gained an advantage by running on his blades. CAS concluded that the research commissioned by the IAAF did not show conclusively such an advantage.

As a result, CAS ruled that Pistorius was able to compete in the London Games, where he reached the semifinals of the 400 meters. CAS concluded that resolving such disputes “must be viewed as just one of the challenges of 21st Century life.”

The story does not end with Oscar Pistorius as Pielke, Jr. notes. There has been another challenge, this time by Markus Rehm, a German long-jumper who leaps off a prosthetic leg. Interestingly, the rules have changed since Oscar Pistorius won his case (Note: Links have been removed),

In the Pistorius case, under the rules for inclusion in the Olympic games the burden of proof had been on the IAAF, not the athlete, to demonstrate the presence of an advantage provided by technology.

This precedent was overturned in 2015, when the IAAF quietly introduced a new rule that in such cases reverses the burden of proof. The switch placed the burden of proof on the athlete instead of the governing body. The new rule—which we might call the Rehm Rule, given its timing—states that an athlete with a prosthetic limb (specifically, any “mechanical aid”) cannot participate in IAAF events “unless the athlete can establish on the balance of probabilities that the use of an aid would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.” This new rule effectively slammed the door to participation by Paralympians with prosthetics from participating in Olympic Games.

Even if an athlete might have the resources to enlist researchers to carefully study his or her performance, the IAAF requires the athlete to do something that is very difficult, and often altogether impossible—to prove a negative.

If you have the time, I encourage you to read Pielke Jr.’s piece in its entirety as he notes the secrecy with which the Rehm rule was implemented and the implications for the future. Here’s one last excerpt (Note: A link has been removed),

We may be seeing only the beginning of debates over technological augmentation and sport. Silvia Camporesi, an ethicist at King’s College London, observed: “It is plausible to think that in 50 years, or maybe less, the ‘natural’ able-bodied athletes will just appear anachronistic.” She continues: “As our concept of what is ‘natural’ depends on what we are used to, and evolves with our society and culture, so does our concept of ‘purity’ of sport.”

I have written many times about human augmentation and the possibility that what is now viewed as a ‘normal’ body may one day be viewed as subpar or inferior is not all that farfetched. David Epstein’s 2014 TED talk “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” points out that in addition to sports technology innovations athletes’ bodies have changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century. He doesn’t discuss body augmentation but it seems increasingly likely not just for athletes but for everyone.

As for athletes and augmentation, Epstein has an Aug. 7, 2016 Scientific American piece published on Salon.com in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was — what else? — a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s — when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing — he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong [Lance Armstrong, cyclist] had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired, Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation. …

Epstein also covers the Pistorius story, albeit with more detail about the science and controversy of determining whether someone with prosthetics may have an advantage over an able-bodied athlete. Scientists don’t agree about whether or not there is an advantage.

I have many other posts on the topic of augmentation. You can find them under the Human Enhancement category and you can also try the tag, machine/flesh.