Tag Archives: University of New South Wales (UNSW)

The physics of the multiverse of madness

The Dr. Strange movie (Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness released May 6, 2022) has inspired an essay on physics. From a May 9, 2022 news item on phys.org

If you’re a fan of science fiction films, you’ll likely be familiar with the idea of alternate universes—hypothetical planes of existence with different versions of ourselves. As far from reality as it sounds, it is a question that scientists have contemplated. So just how well does the fiction stack up with the science?

The many-worlds interpretation is one idea in physics that supports the concept of multiple universes existing. It stems from the way we comprehend quantum mechanics, which defy the rules of our regular world. While it’s impossible to test and is considered an interpretation rather than a scientific theory, many physicists think it could be possible.

“When you look at the regular world, things are measurable and predictable—if you drop a ball off a roof, it will fall to the ground. But when you look on a very small scale in quantum mechanics, the rules stop applying. Instead of being predictable, it becomes about probabilities,” says Sarah Martell, Associate Professor at the School of Physics, UNSW Science.

A May 9, 2022 University of New South Wales (UNSW; Australia) press release originated the news item,

The fundamental quantum equation – called a wave function – shows a particle inhabiting many possible positions, with different probabilities assigned to each. If you were to attempt to observe the particle to determine its position – known in physics as ‘collapsing’ the wave function – you’ll find it in just one place. But the particle actually inhabits all the positions allowed by the wave function.

This interpretation of quantum mechanics is important, as it helps explain some of the quantum paradoxes that logic can’t answer, like why a particle can be in two places at once. While it might seem impossible to us, since we experience time and space as fixed, mathematically it adds up.

“When you make a measurement in quantum physics, you’re only measuring one of the possibilities. We can work with that mathematically, but it’s philosophically uncomfortable that the world stops being predictable,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“If you don’t get hung up on the philosophy, you simply move on with your physics. But what if the other possibility were true? That’s where this idea of the multiverse comes in.”

The quantum multiverse

Like it is depicted in many science fiction films, the many-worlds interpretation suggests our reality is just one of many. The universe supposedly splits or branches into other universes any time we take action – whether it’s a molecule moving, what you decide to eat or your choice of career. 

In physics, this is best explained through the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat. In the many-worlds interpretation, when the box is opened, the observer and the possibly alive cat split into an observer looking at a box with a deceased cat and one looking at a box with a live cat.

“A version of you measures one result, and a version of you measures the other result. That way, you don’t have to explain why a particular probability resulted. It’s just everything that could happen, does happen, somewhere,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“This is the logic often depicted in science fiction, like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where five different Spider-Man exist in different universes based on the idea there was a different event that set up each one’s progress and timeline.”

This interpretation suggests that our decisions in this universe have implications for other versions of ourselves living in parallel worlds. But what about the possibility of interacting with these hypothetical alternate universes?

According to the many-worlds interpretation, humans wouldn’t be able to interact with parallel universes as they do in films – although science fiction has creative licence to do so.

“It’s a device used all the time in comic books, but it’s not something that physics would have anything to say about,” A/Prof. Martell says. “But I love science fiction for the creativity and the way that little science facts can become the motivation for a character or the essential crisis in a story with characters like Doctor Strange.”

“If for nothing else, science fiction can help make science more accessible, and the more we get people talking about science, the better,” A/Prof. Martell says.

“I think we do ourselves a lot of good by putting hooks out there that people can grab. So, if we can get people interested in science through popular culture, they’ll be more interested in the science we do.” 

The university also offers a course as this October 6, 2020 UNSW press release reveals,

From the morality plays in Star Trek, to the grim futures in Black Mirror, fiction can help explore our hopes – and fears – of the role science might play in our futures.

But sci-fi can be more than just a source of entertainment. When fiction gets the science right (or right enough), sci-fi can also be used to make science accessible to broader audiences. 

“Sci-fi can help relate science and technology to the lived human experience,” says Dr Maria Cunningham, a radio astronomer and senior lecturer in UNSW Science’s School of Physics. 

“Storytelling can make complex theories easier to visualise, understand and remember.”

Dr Cunningham – a sci-fi fan herself – convenes ‘Brave New World’: a course on science fact and fiction aimed at students from a non-scientific background. The course explores the relationship between literature, science, and society, using case studies like Futurama and MacGyver.

She says her own interest in sci-fi long predates her career in science.

“Fiction can help get people interested in science – sometimes without them even knowing it,” says Dr Cunningham.

“Sci-fi has the potential to increase the science literacy of the general population.”

Here, Dr Cunningham shares three tricky physics concepts best explained through science fiction (spoilers ahead).

Cunningham goes on to discuss the Universal Speed Limit, Time Dilation, and, yes, the Many Worlds Interpretation.

The course, “Brave New World: Science Fiction, Science Fact and the Future – GENS4015” is still offered but do check the link to make sure it takes you to the latest version (I found 2023). One more thing, it is offered wholly on the internet.

Should AI algorithms get patents for their inventions and is anyone talking about copyright for texts written by AI algorithms?

A couple of Australian academics have written a comment for the journal Nature, which bears the intriguing subtitle: “The patent system assumes that inventors are human. Inventions devised by machines require their own intellectual property law and an international treaty.” (For the curious, I’ve linked to a few of my previous posts touching on intellectual property [IP], specifically the patent’s fraternal twin, copyright at the end of this piece.)

Before linking to the comment, here’s the May 27, 2022 University of New South Wales (UNCSW) press release (also on EurekAlert but published May 30, 2022) which provides an overview of their thinking on the subject, Note: Links have been removed,

It’s not surprising these days to see new inventions that either incorporate or have benefitted from artificial intelligence (AI) in some way, but what about inventions dreamt up by AI – do we award a patent to a machine?

This is the quandary facing lawmakers around the world with a live test case in the works that its supporters say is the first true example of an AI system named as the sole inventor.

In commentary published in the journal Nature, two leading academics from UNSW Sydney examine the implications of patents being awarded to an AI entity.

Intellectual Property (IP) law specialist Associate Professor Alexandra George and AI expert, Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor Toby Walsh argue that patent law as it stands is inadequate to deal with such cases and requires legislators to amend laws around IP and patents – laws that have been operating under the same assumptions for hundreds of years.

The case in question revolves around a machine called DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience) created by Dr Stephen Thaler, who is president and chief executive of US-based AI firm Imagination Engines. Dr Thaler has named DABUS as the inventor of two products – a food container with a fractal surface that helps with insulation and stacking, and a flashing light for attracting attention in emergencies.

For a short time in Australia, DABUS looked like it might be recognised as the inventor because, in late July 2021, a trial judge accepted Dr Thaler’s appeal against IP Australia’s rejection of the patent application five months earlier. But after the Commissioner of Patents appealed the decision to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, the five-judge panel upheld the appeal, agreeing with the Commissioner that an AI system couldn’t be named the inventor.

A/Prof. George says the attempt to have DABUS awarded a patent for the two inventions instantly creates challenges for existing laws which has only ever considered humans or entities comprised of humans as inventors and patent-holders.

“Even if we do accept that an AI system is the true inventor, the first big problem is ownership. How do you work out who the owner is? An owner needs to be a legal person, and an AI is not recognised as a legal person,” she says.

Ownership is crucial to IP law. Without it there would be little incentive for others to invest in the new inventions to make them a reality.

“Another problem with ownership when it comes to AI-conceived inventions, is even if you could transfer ownership from the AI inventor to a person: is it the original software writer of the AI? Is it a person who has bought the AI and trained it for their own purposes? Or is it the people whose copyrighted material has been fed into the AI to give it all that information?” asks A/Prof. George.

For obvious reasons

Prof. Walsh says what makes AI systems so different to humans is their capacity to learn and store so much more information than an expert ever could. One of the requirements of inventions and patents is that the product or idea is novel, not obvious and is useful.

“There are certain assumptions built into the law that an invention should not be obvious to a knowledgeable person in the field,” Prof. Walsh says.

“Well, what might be obvious to an AI won’t be obvious to a human because AI might have ingested all the human knowledge on this topic, way more than a human could, so the nature of what is obvious changes.”

Prof. Walsh says this isn’t the first time that AI has been instrumental in coming up with new inventions. In the area of drug development, a new antibiotic was created in 2019 – Halicin – that used deep learning to find a chemical compound that was effective against drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

“Halicin was originally meant to treat diabetes, but its effectiveness as an antibiotic was only discovered by AI that was directed to examine a vast catalogue of drugs that could be repurposed as antibiotics. So there’s a mixture of human and machine coming into this discovery.”

Prof. Walsh says in the case of DABUS, it’s not entirely clear whether the system is truly responsible for the inventions.

“There’s lots of involvement of Dr Thaler in these inventions, first in setting up the problem, then guiding the search for the solution to the problem, and then interpreting the result,” Prof. Walsh says.

“But it’s certainly the case that without the system, you wouldn’t have come up with the inventions.”

Change the laws

Either way, both authors argue that governing bodies around the world will need to modernise the legal structures that determine whether or not AI systems can be awarded IP protection. They recommend the introduction of a new ‘sui generis’ form of IP law – which they’ve dubbed ‘AI-IP’ – that would be specifically tailored to the circumstances of AI-generated inventiveness. This, they argue, would be more effective than trying to retrofit and shoehorn AI-inventiveness into existing patent laws.

Looking forward, after examining the legal questions around AI and patent law, the authors are currently working on answering the technical question of how AI is going to be inventing in the future.

Dr Thaler has sought ‘special leave to appeal’ the case concerning DABUS to the High Court of Australia. It remains to be seen whether the High Court will agree to hear it. Meanwhile, the case continues to be fought in multiple other jurisdictions around the world.

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

Artificial intelligence is breaking patent law by Alexandra George & Toby Walsh. Nature (Nature) COMMENT ISSN 1476-4687 (online) 24 May 2022 ISSN 0028-0836 (print) Vol 605 26 May 2022 pp. 616-18 DOI: 10.1038/d41586-022-01391-x

This paper appears to be open access.

The Journey

DABIUS has gotten a patent in one jurisdiction, from an August 8, 2021 article on brandedequity.com,

The patent application listing DABUS as the inventor was filed in patent offices around the world, including the US, Europe, Australia, and South Afica. But only South Africa granted the patent (Australia followed suit a few days later after a court judgment gave the go-ahard [and rejected it several months later]).

Natural person?

This September 27, 2021 article by Miguel Bibe for Inventa covers some of the same ground adding some some discussion of the ‘natural person’ problem,

The patent is for “a food container based on fractal geometry”, and was accepted by the CIPC [Companies and Intellectual Property Commission] on June 24, 2021. The notice of issuance was published in the July 2021 “Patent Journal”.  

South Africa does not have a substantive patent examination system and, instead, requires applicants to merely complete a filing for their inventions. This means that South Africa patent laws do not provide a definition for “inventor” and the office only proceeds with a formal examination in order to confirm if the paperwork was filled correctly.

… according to a press release issued by the University of Surrey: “While patent law in many jurisdictions is very specific in how it defines an inventor, the DABUS team is arguing that the status quo is not fit for purpose in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

On the other hand, this may not be considered as a victory for the DABUS team since several doubts and questions remain as to who should be considered the inventor of the patent. Current IP laws in many jurisdictions follow the traditional term of “inventor” as being a “natural person”, and there is no legal precedent in the world for inventions created by a machine.

August 2022 update

Mike Masnick in an August 15, 2022 posting on Techdirt provides the latest information on Stephen Thaler’s efforts to have patents and copyrights awarded to his AI entity, DABUS,

Stephen Thaler is a man on a mission. It’s not a very good mission, but it’s a mission. He created something called DABUS (Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience) and claims that it’s creating things, for which he has tried to file for patents and copyrights around the globe, with his mission being to have DABUS named as the inventor or author. This is dumb for many reasons. The purpose of copyright and patents are to incentivize the creation of these things, by providing to the inventor or author a limited time monopoly, allowing them to, in theory, use that monopoly to make some money, thereby making the entire inventing/authoring process worthwhile. An AI doesn’t need such an incentive. And this is why patents and copyright only are given to persons and not animals or AI.

… Thaler’s somewhat quixotic quest continues to fail. The EU Patent Office rejected his application. The Australian patent office similarly rejected his request. In that case, a court sided with Thaler after he sued the Australian patent office, and said that his AI could be named as an inventor, but thankfully an appeals court set aside that ruling a few months ago. In the US, Thaler/DABUS keeps on losing as well. Last fall, he lost in court as he tried to overturn the USPTO ruling, and then earlier this year, the US Copyright Office also rejected his copyright attempt (something it has done a few times before). In June, he sued the Copyright Office over this, which seems like a long shot.

And now, he’s also lost his appeal of the ruling in the patent case. CAFC, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit — the appeals court that handles all patent appeals — has rejected Thaler’s request just like basically every other patent and copyright office, and nearly all courts.

If you have the time, the August 15, 2022 posting is an interesting read.

Consciousness and ethical AI

Just to make things more fraught, an engineer at Google has claimed that one of their AI chatbots has consciousness. From a June 16, 2022 article (in Canada’s National Post [previewed on epaper]) by Patrick McGee,

Google has ignited a social media firestorm on the the nature of consciousness after placing an engineer on paid leave with his belief that the tech group’s chatbot has become “sentient.”

Blake Lemoine, a senior software engineer in Google’s Responsible AI unit, did not receive much attention when he wrote a Medium post saying he “may be fired soon for doing AI ethics work.”

But a Saturday [June 11, 2022] profile in the Washington Post characterized Lemoine as “the Google engineer who thinks “the company’s AI has come to life.”

This is not the first time that Google has run into a problem with ethics and AI. Famously, Timnit Gebru who co-led (with Margaret Mitchell) Google’s ethics and AI unit departed in 2020. Gebru said (and maintains to this day) she was fired. They said she was ?, they never did make a final statement although after an investigation Gebru did receive an apology. You read more about Gebru and the issues she brought to light in her Wikipedia entry. Coincidentally (or not), Margaret Mitchell was terminated/fired in February 2021 from Google after criticizing the company for Gebru’s ‘firing’. See a February 19, 2021 article by Megan Rose Dickey for TechCrunch for details about what the company has admitted is a firing or Margaret Mitchell’s termination from the company.

Getting back intellectual property and AI.

What about copyright?

There are no mentions of copyright in the earliest material I have here about the ‘creative’ arts and artificial intelligence is this, “Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?” posted July 16, 2014. More recently, there’s “Beer and wine reviews, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) AI editors, and the Turing Test” posted May 20, 2022. The type of writing featured is not literary or typically considered creative writing.

On the more creative front, there’s “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” posted on December 3, 2021. The literary/creative portion of the post can be found under the ‘AI and creativity’ subhead approximately 30% of the way down and where I mention Douglas Coupland. Again, there’s no mention of copyright.

It’s with the visual arts that copyright gets mentioned. The first one I can find here is “Robot artists—should they get copyright protection” posted on July 10, 2017.

Fun fact: Andres Guadamuz who was mentioned in my posting took to his own blog where he gave my blog a shout out while implying that I wasn’t thoughtful. The gist of his August 8, 2017 posting was that he was misunderstood by many people, which led to the title for his post, “Should academics try to engage the public?” Thankfully, he soldiers on trying to educate us with his TechnoLama blog.

Lastly, there’s this August 16, 2019 posting “AI (artificial intelligence) artist got a show at a New York City art gallery” where you can scroll down to the ‘What about intellectual property?’ subhead about 80% of the way.

You look like a thing …

i am recommending a book for anyone who’d like to learn a little more about how artificial intelligence (AI) works, “You look like a thing and I love you; How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It’s Making the World a Weirder Place” by Janelle Shane (2019).

It does not require an understanding of programming/coding/algorithms/etc.; Shane makes the subject as accessible as possible and gives you insight into why the term ‘artificial stupidity’ is more applicable than you might think. You can find Shane’s website here and you can find her 10 minute TED talk here.

Got a photo of a frog being bitten by flies? There’s a research study …

Mountain Stream Tree Frog (Litoria barringtonensis) being fed on by flies (Sycorax) at Barrington Tops National Park. Credit: Tim Cutajar/Australian Museum

A June 21, 2022 news item on phys.org highlights a ‘citizen science’ project involving photography and frogs (Note: Links have been removed),

UNSW [University of New South Wales] Science and the Australian Museum want your photos of frogs, specifically those being bitten by flies, for a new (and inventive) technique to detect and protect our threatened frog species.

You might not guess it, but biting flies—such as midges and mosquitoes—are excellent tools for science. The blood “sampled” by these parasites contains precious genetic data about the animals they feed on (such as frogs), but first, researchers need to know which parasitic flies are biting which frogs. And this is why they need you, via the Australian Museum, to submit your photos.

A June 21, 2022 UNSW press release, which originated the news item, gives more details about the research and about the photographs the scientists would like to received,

Rare frogs can be very hard to find during traditional scientific expeditions,” says Ph.D. student Timothy Cutajar, leading the project. “Species that are rare or cryptic [inconspicuous] can be easily missed, so it turns out the best way to detect some species might be through their parasites.”

The technique is called “iDNA,” short for invertebrate-derived DNA, and researchers Mr. Cutajar and Dr. Jodi Rowley from UNSW Science and the Australian Museum were the first to harness its potential for detecting cryptic or threatened species of frogs.

The team first deployed this technique in 2018 by capturing frog-biting flies in habitats shared with frogs. Not unlike the premise of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, where the DNA of blood-meals past is contained in the bellies of the flies, Mr. Cutajar was able to extract the drawn blood (and therefore DNA) and identify the species of amphibian the flies had recently fed on.

These initial trials uncovered the presence of rare frogs that traditional searching methods had missed.

“iDNA has the potential to become a standard frog survey technique,” says Mr. Cutajar. “[It could help] in the discovery of new species or even the rediscovery of species thought to be extinct, so I want to continue developing techniques for frog iDNA surveys. However, there is still so much we don’t yet know about how frogs and flies interact.”

In a bid to understand the varieties of parasites that feed on frogs—so the team might lure and catch those most informative and prolific species—Mr. Cutajar and colleagues are looking to the public for their frog photos.

“If you’ve photographed frogs in Australia, I’d love for you to closely examine your pictures, looking for any frogs that have flies, midges or mosquitoes sitting on them. If you find flies, midges or mosquitoes in direct contact with frogs in any of your photos, please share them.”

“We’ll be combing through photographs of frogs submitted through our survey,” says Mr. Cutajar, “homing in on the characteristics that make a frog species a likely target for frog-biting flies.”

“It’s unlikely that all frogs are equally parasitized. Some frogs have natural insect repellents, while others can swat flies away. The flies themselves can be choosy about the types of sounds they’re attracted to, and probably aren’t evenly abundant everywhere.”

Already the new iDNA technique, championed in herpetology by Mr. Cutajar, has shown great promise, and by refining its methodology with data submitted by the public—citizen scientists—our understanding of frog ecology and biodiversity can be broadened yet further.

“The power of collective action can be amazing for science,” says Mr. Cutajar, “and with your help, we can kickstart a new era of improved detection, and therefore conservation, of our amazing amphibian diversity.”

In case you missed it the Participant Consent Form is here.

By sampling the blood of flies that bite frogs, researchers can determine the (sometimes difficult to spot) frogs in an environment. Common mist frog being fed on by a Sycorax fly. Photo: Jakub Hodáň

Help scientists identify why dead frogs are unexpectedly turning up across eastern Australia

Australian scientists are calling on citizen scientists to help them understand why frogs in eastern Australia are dying in what seems to be record numbers.

Here’s more from a July 28, 2021 essay by Jodi Rowley (curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum at the University of New South Wales [UNSW]), and Karrie Rose (Australian Registry of Wildlife Health – Taronga Conservation Society, University of Sydney) for The Conversation (can also be found as a July 28, 2021 news item on phys.org), Note: Links have been removed,

Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a flurry of emails from concerned people who’ve seen sick and dead frogs across eastern Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

One person wrote:

“About a month ago, I noticed the Green Tree Frogs living around our home showing signs of lethargy & ill health. I was devastated to find about 7 of them dead.”

In most circumstances, it’s rare to see a dead frog. Most frogs are secretive in nature and, when they die, they decompose rapidly. So the growing reports of dead and dying frogs from across eastern Australia over the last few months are surprising, to say the least.

While the first cold snap of each year can be accompanied by a few localised frog deaths, this outbreak has affected more animals over a greater range than previously encountered.

This is truly an unusual amphibian mass mortality event.

In this outbreak, frogs appear to be either darker or lighter than normal, slow, out in the daytime (they’re usually nocturnal), and are thin. Some frogs have red bellies, red feet, and excessive sloughed skin.

The iconic green tree frog (Litoria caeulea) seems hardest hit in this event, with the often apple-green and plump frogs turning brown and shrivelled.

This frog is widespread and generally rather common. [emphasis mine] In fact, it’s the ninth most commonly recorded frog in the national citizen science project, FrogID. But it has disappeared from parts of its former range. [emphasis mine]

We simply don’t know the true impacts of this event on Australia’s frog species, particularly those that are rare, cryptic or living in remote places. Well over 100 species of frog live within the geographic range of this outbreak. Dozens of these are considered threatened, including the booroolong Frog (Litoria booroolongensis) and the giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus).

Here’s more about the Australian agencies investigating the mass mortality event and some information about how you can help, from the July 28, 2021 essay by Rowley and Rose,

… the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health is working with the Australian Museum, government biosecurity and environment agencies as part of the investigation.

While we suspect a combination of the amphibian chytrid fungus and the chilly temperatures, we simply don’t know what factors may be contributing to the outbreak.

We also aren’t sure how widespread it is, what impact it will have on our frog populations, or how long it will last.

While the temperatures stay low, we suspect our frogs will continue to succumb. If we don’t investigate quickly, we will lose the opportunity to achieve a diagnosis and understand what has transpired.

We need your help to solve this mystery.

Please send any reports of sick or dead frogs (and if possible, photos) to us, via the national citizen science project FrogID, or email calls@frogid.net.au.

You can find FrogID here. At this writing (Monday, Aug. 2, 2021), there doesn’t seem to be a specific link to the current investigation on the FrogID homepage, which is devoted to reporting frog sounds. However, at the bottom of the homepage there is a ‘Contact us’ section with a ‘Research Enquiries’ option.

For any Canadians who are reading this and are unable to participate but would still like to contribute to frog welfare, there’s a Canadian effort, frogwatch. For anyone in the UK, there’s Froglife. Both of which, like FrogID, are citizen science projects.

One-dimensional quantum nanowires and Majorana zero modes

Length but no width or height? That’s a quantum nanowire according to a Jan. 18, 2021 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Why is studying spin properties of one-dimensional quantum nanowires important?

Quantum nanowires–which have length but no width or height–provide a unique environment for the formation and detection of a quasiparticle known as a Majorana zero mode.

A new UNSW [University of New South Wales]-led study (Nature Communications, “New signatures of the spin gap in quantum point contacts”) overcomes previous difficulty detecting the Majorana zero mode, and produces a significant improvement in device reproducibility.

Potential applications for Majorana zero modes include fault-resistant topological quantum computers, and topological superconductivity.

A Jan. 19 (?), 2021 ARC (Australian Research Council) Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (or FLEET) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,


A Majorana fermion is a composite particle that is its own antiparticle.

Antimatter explainer: Every fundamental particle has a corresponding antimatter particle, with the same mass but opposite electrical charge. For example, the antiparticle of an electron (charge -1) is a positron (charge +1)

Such unusual particle’s interest academically and commercially comes from their potential use in a topological quantum computer, predicted to be immune to the decoherence that randomises the precious quantum information.

Majorana zero modes can be created in quantum wires made from special materials in which there is a strong coupling between their electrical and magnetic properties.

In particular, Majorana zero modes can be created in one-dimensional semiconductors (such as semiconductor nanowires) when coupled with a superconductor.

In a one-dimensional nanowire, whose dimensions perpendicular to length are small enough not to allow any movement of subatomic particles, quantum effects predominate.


Majorana fermions, which are their own antiparticle, have been theorised since 1937, but have only been experimentally observed in the last decade. The Majorana fermion’s ‘immunity’ to decoherence provides potential use for fault-tolerant quantum computing.

One-dimensional semiconductor systems with strong spin-orbit interaction are attracting great attention due to potential applications in topological quantum computing.

The magnetic ‘spin’ of an electron is like a little bar magnet, whose orientation can be set with an applied magnetic field.

In materials with a ‘spin-orbit interaction’ the spin of an electron is determined by the direction of motion, even at zero magnetic field. This allows for all electrical manipulation of magnetic quantum properties.

Applying a magnetic field to such a system can open an energy gap such that forward -moving electrons all have the same spin polarisation, and backward-moving electrons have the opposite polarisation. This ‘spin-gap’ is a pre-requisite for the formation of Majorana zero modes.

Despite intense experimental work, it has proven extremely difficult to unambiguously detect this spin-gap in semiconductor nanowires, since the spin-gap’s characteristic signature (a dip in its conductance plateau when a magnetic field is applied) is very hard to distinguish from unavoidable the background disorder in nanowires.

The new study finds a new, unambiguous signature for the spin-orbit gap that is impervious to the disorder effects plaguing previous studies.

“This signature will become the de-facto standard for detecting spin-gaps in the future,” says lead author Dr Karina Hudson.


The use of Majorana zero modes in a scalable quantum computer faces an additional challenge due to the random disorder and imperfections in the self-assembled nanowires that host the MZM.

It has previously been almost impossible to fabricate reproducible devices, with only about 10% of devices functioning within desired parameters.

The latest UNSW results show a significant improvement, with reproducible results across six devices based on three different starting wafers.

“This work opens a new route to making completely reproducible devices,” says corresponding author Prof Alex Hamilton UNSW).

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

New signatures of the spin gap in quantum point contacts by K. L. Hudson, A. Srinivasan, O. Goulko, J. Adam, Q. Wang, L. A. Yeoh, O. Klochan, I. Farrer, D. A. Ritchie, A. Ludwig, A. D. Wieck, J. von Delft & A. R. Hamilton. Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 5 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19895-3 Published: 04 January 2021

This paper is open access.

For anyone who might find references to UNSW and ARC/FLEET confusing, I found this in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies Wikipedia entry,

The ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (or FLEET) is a collaboration …

FLEET is an Australian initiative, headquartered at Monash University, and in conjunction with the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, RMIT University, the University of Wollongong and Swinburne University of Technology, complemented by a group of Australian and international partners. It is funded by the Australian Research Council [ARC] and by the member universities. [emphases as seen here are mine]


Frog and phone – Credit: Marta Yebra Alvarez

There is a ‘frogphone’ but you won’t be talking or communicating directly with frogs, instead you will get data about them, according to a December 6, 2019 British Ecological Society press release (also on EurekAlert),

Researchers have developed the ‘FrogPhone’, a novel device which allows scientists to call up a frog survey site and monitor them in the wild. The FrogPhone is the world’s first solar-powered remote survey device that relays environmental data to the observer via text messages, whilst conducting real-time remote acoustic surveys over the phone. These findings are presented in the British Ecological Society Journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution today [December 6, 2019].

The FrogPhone introduces a new concept that allows researchers to “call” a frog habitat, any time, from anywhere, once the device has been installed. The device has been developed at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra and the University of Canberra in collaboration with the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and Region Frogwatch Program and the Australian National University.

The FrogPhone utilises 3G/4G cellular mobile data coverage and capitalises on the characteristic wideband audio of mobile phones, which acts as a carrier for frog calls. Real time frog calls can be transmitted across the 3G/4G network infrastructure, directly to the user’s phone. This supports clear sound quality and minimal background noise, allowing users to identify the calls of different frog species.

“We estimate that the device with its current microphone can detect calling frogs from a 100-150m radius” said lead author Dr. Adrian Garrido Sanchis, Associate Lecturer at UNSW Canberra. “The device allows us to monitor the local frog population with more frequency and ease, which is significant as frog species are widely recognised as indicators of environmental health” said the ACT and Region Frogwatch coordinator and co-author, Anke Maria Hoefer.

The FrogPhone unifies both passive acoustic and active monitoring methods, all in a waterproof casing. The system has a large battery capacity coupled to a powerful solar panel. It also contains digital thermal sensors to automatically collect environmental data such as water and air temperature in real-time. The FrogPhone uses an open-source platform which allows any researcher to adapt it to project-specific needs.

The system simulates the main features of a mobile phone device. The FrogPhone accepts incoming calls independently after three seconds. These three seconds allow time to activate the temperature sensors and measure the battery storage levels. All readings then get automatically texted to the caller’s phone.

Acoustic monitoring of animals generally involves either site visits by a researcher or using battery-powered passive acoustic devices, which record calls and store them locally on the device for later analysis. These often require night-time observation, when frogs are most active. Now, when researchers dial a device remotely, the call to the FrogPhone can be recorded indirectly and analysed later.

Ms. Hoefer remarked that “The FrogPhone will help to drastically reduce the costs and risks involved in remote or high intensity surveys. Its use will also minimize potential negative impacts of human presence at survey sites. These benefits are magnified with increasing distance to and inaccessibility of a field site.”

A successful field trial of the device was performed in Canberra from August 2017 to March 2018. Researchers used spectrograms, graphs which allow the visual comparison of the spectrum of frequencies of frog signals over time, to test the recording capabilities of the FrogPhone.

Ms. Hoefer commented that “The spectrogram comparison between the FrogPhone and the standard direct mobile phone methodology in the lab, for the calls of 9 different frog species, and the field tests have proven that the FrogPhone can be successfully used as a new alternative to conduct frog call surveys.”

The use of the current FrogPhone is limited to areas with adequate 3G/4G phone coverage. Secondly, to listen to frogs in a large area, several survey devices would be needed. In addition, it relies on exposure to sunlight.

Future additions to the FrogPhone could include a satellite communications module for poor signal areas, or the use of multidirectional microphones for large areas. Lead author Garrido Sanchis emphasized that “In densely vegetated areas the waterproof case of the FrogPhone allows the device to be installed as a floating device in the middle of a pond, to maximise solar access to recharge the batteries”.

Dr. Garrido Sanchis said “While initially tested in frogs, the technology used for the FrogPhone could easily be extended to capture other animal vocalisation (e.g. insects and mammals), expanding the applicability to a wide range of biodiversity conservation studies”.

Here’s what the FrogPhone looks like onsite,

The FrogPhone installed at the field site. Credit: Kumudu Munasinghe

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

The FrogPhone: A novel device for real‐time frog call monitoring by Adrian, Garrido Sanchis, Lorenzo Bertolelli, Anke Maria Hoefer, Marta Yebra Alvarez, Kumudu Munasinghe. Methods in Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13332 First published [online]: 04 December 2019

This paper is open access.

Is there a risk of resistance to nanosilver?

Anyone who’s noticed how popular silver has become as an antibacterial, antifungal, or antiviral agent may have wondered if resistance might occur as its use becomes more common. I have two bits on the topic, one from Australia and the other from Canada.


Researchers in Australia don’t have a definitive statement on the issue but are suggesting more caution (from a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney [UTS] warn that the broad-spectrum antimicrobial effectiveness of silver is being put at risk by the widespread and inappropriate expansion of nanosilver use in medical and consumer goods.

As well as their use in medical items such as wound dressings and catheters, silver nanoparticles are becoming ubiquitous in everyday items, including toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby bottles and teats, bedding, clothing and household appliances, because of their antibacterial potency and the incorrect assumption that ordinary items should be kept “clean” of microbes.

Nanobiologist Dr Cindy Gunawan, from the ithree institute at UTS and lead researcher on the investigation, said alarm bells should be ringing at the commercialisation of nanosilver use because of a “real threat” that resistance to nanosilver will develop and spread through microorganisms in the human body and the environment.

A March 31 (?), 2017 University of Technology Sydney press release by Fiona McGill, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Dr Gunawan and ithree institute director Professor Liz Harry, in collaboration with researchers at UNSW [University of New South Wales] and abroad, investigated more than 140 commercially available medical devices, including wound dressings and tracheal and urinary catheters, and dietary supplements, which are promoted as immunity boosters and consumed by throat or nasal spray.

Their perspective article in the journal ACS Nano concluded that the use of nanosilver in these items could lead to prolonged exposure to bioactive silver in the human body. Such exposure creates the conditions for microbial resistance to develop.

E. coli bacteria. Photo: Flickr/NIAID


The use of silver as an antimicrobial agent dates back centuries. Its ability to destroy pathogens while seemingly having low toxicity on human cells has seen it widely employed, in treating burns or purifying water, for example. More recently, ultra-small (less than 10,000th of a millimetre) silver nanoparticles have been engineered for antimicrobial purposes.  Their commercial appeal lies in superior potency at lower concentrations than “bulk” silver.

“Nanosilver is a proven antimicrobial agent whose reliability is being jeopardised by the commercialisation of people’s fear of bacteria,” Dr Gunawan said.

“Our use of it needs to be far more judicious, in the same way we need to approach antibiotic usage. Nanosilver is a useful tool but we need to be careful, use it wisely and only when the benefit outweighs the risk.

“People need to be made aware of just how widely it is used, but more importantly they need to be made aware that the presence of nanosilver has been shown to cause antimicrobial resistance.”

What is also needed, Dr Gunawan said, is a targeted surveillance strategy to monitor for any occurrence of resistance.

Professor Harry said the findings were a significant contribution to addressing the global antimicrobial resistance crisis.

“This research emphasises the threat posed to our health and that of the environment by the inappropriate use of nanosilver as an antibacterial, particularly in ordinary household and consumer items,” she said.

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

Widespread and Indiscriminate Nanosilver Use: Genuine Potential for Microbial Resistance by Cindy Gunawan, Christopher P. Marquis, Rose Amal, Georgios A. Sotiriou, Scott A. Rice⊥, and Elizabeth J. Harry. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b01166 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University Calgary (Alberta, Canada) may have discovered what could cause resistance to silver.


This April 25, 2017 news release on EurekAlert is from the Experimental Biology Annual Meeting 2017,

Silver and other metals have been used to fight infections since ancient times. Today, researchers are using sophisticated techniques such as the gene-editing platform Crispr-Cas9 to take a closer look at precisely how silver poisons pathogenic microbes–and when it fails. The work is yielding new insights on how to create effective antimicrobials and avoid the pitfalls of antimicrobial resistance.

Joe Lemire, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, will present his work in this area at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting, to be held April 22-26 in Chicago.

“Our overarching goal is to deliver the relevant scientific evidence that would aid policymakers in developing guidelines for when and how silver could be used in the clinic to combat and control infectious pathogens,” said Lemire. “With our enhanced mechanistic understanding of silver toxicity, we also aim to develop novel silver-based antimicrobial therapies, and potentially rejuvenate other antibiotic therapies that bacteria have come to resist, via silver-based co-treatment strategies.”

Lemire and his colleagues are using Crispr-Cas9 genome editing to screen for and delete genes that allow certain bacterial species to resist silver’s antimicrobial properties. [emphasis mine] Although previous methods allowed researchers to identify genes that confer antibiotic resistance or tolerance, Crispr-Cas9 is the first technology to allow researchers to cleanly delete these genes from the genome without leaving behind any biochemical markers or “scars.”

The team has discovered many biological pathways involved in silver toxicity and some surprising ways that bacteria avoid succumbing to silver poisoning, Lemire said. While silver is used to control bacteria in many clinical settings and has been incorporated into hundreds of commercial products, gaining a more complete understanding of silver’s antimicrobial properties is necessary if we are to make the most of this ancient remedy for years to come.


Joe Lemire will present this research at 12-2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, [2017] in Hall F, McCormick Place Convention Center (poster B379 939.2) (abstract). Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to attend the meeting.

About Experimental Biology 2017

Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six host societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the U.S. and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. http://www.experimentalbiology.org #expbio

About the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

ASBMB is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. Founded in 1906 to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology, the society publishes three peer-reviewed journals, advocates for funding of basic research and education, supports science education at all levels, and promotes the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce. http://www.asbmb.org

Lemire’s co-authors for the work presented at the 2017 annual meeting are: Kate Chatfield-Reed (The University of Calgary), Lindsay Kalan (Perelman School of Medicine), Natalie Gugala (The University of Calgary), Connor Westersund (The University of Calgary), Henrik Almblad (The University of Calgary), Gordon Chua (The University of Calgary), Raymond Turner (The University of Calgary).

For anyone who wants to pursue this research a little further, the most recent paper I can find is this one from 2015,

Silver oxynitrate: An Unexplored Silver Compound with Antimicrobial and Antibiofilm Activity by Joe A. Lemire, Lindsay Kalan, Alexandru Bradu, and Raymond J. Turner. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 05177-14, doi: 10.1128/AAC.05177-14 Accepted manuscript posted online 27 April 2015

This paper appears to be open access.