Posted tagged ‘technology’

Here come the spiders: the importance of imagery

May 14, 2010

Imagery is a hugely important aspect of science communication. This is especially true when the language used to describe a scientific breakthrough is largely unfamiliar to a lay audience.

We remember images, generally, far better than we do words. Anyone can describe a scene from their favourite novel, but very few will remember the words. The image is what lasts.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story entitled “Meet the nano-spiders: The DNA robots that could one day be walking through your body”. Now, to me, the combined imagery of: (a) spiders, (b) robots, and (c) things inside my body equals a bad thing. (more…)

Smrt dust

March 5, 2010

New scientist last week reported a potential new development in 3D display technology. The idea is to form a dynamic three-dimensional display from flying pixels.

It’s a neat concept. Flyfire, under development at MIT, uses a coordinated fleet of mini helicopters as pixels which can rearrange themselves to reproduce the 3D effect.

“It’s like when Winnie the Pooh hits a beehive: a swarm of bees comes out and chases him while changing its configuration to resemble a beast. In Flyfire, each bee is essentially a pixel that emits colored light and reconfigures itself into different forms.”

(more…)

Nanotech for eternal life?

February 2, 2010

I’ve  just watched the Richard Dimbleby lecture featuring author Sir Terry Pratchett, entitled shaking hands with death.

Pratchett, who announced he had Alzheimer’s in 2007, argued persuasively in this lecture for the right to assisted death at a time of his choice. This is obviously a contentious issue, and one which this post can’t hope to resolve. Suffice to say that Pratchett stated a thoughtful case case with humour and dignity.

Death is the great unifier- it is no more inevitable for Pratchett than for anyone else, it’s just that he knows the thing that is most likely to kill him without intervention, and has a reasonable idea of what the degenerative process associated with his condition will be like.

Pratchett’s lecture is not depressing, nor does it play for pity. Rather, he states that if he knows he can chose to die at any time, it will allow him to live every day to its fullest. If anything, his is a life-affirming message. (more…)

Reconstructing the future

January 29, 2010

Last week, I talked about the mind blowing impossibility of making sub-atomic devices. It’s a lot like trying to make a fruit salad using only half an apple- it doesn’t even make sense to think about it.

But I want to talk about what we can do, and what the constraints are. What are the rules of the game? Well, just over 20 years ago, Don Eigler managed to position individual atoms to spell out the letters IBM. It’s pretty amazing that we can mechanically manipulate the smallest building blocks of matter, but it doesn’t mean we’ve mastered the nano-scale.

We can’t just build whatever we want atom-by-atom. Atomic manipulation is a painstaking process, but even if you have unlimited time and patience, there are still limits to what you can do. What happens is that atoms tend to move about of their own accord, they can drift across a surface or stick together in ways you don’t want. (more…)

Nano-medics of the future: So Everything!

January 22, 2010

Earlier this week I wrote about the shockingly bad “shape of jobs to come” report commissioned for the government funded Science: So What? So Everything campaign.

When an organisation set up for the promotion of science allows itself to be associated with a report they either haven’t read or haven’t understood, it indicates a fairly sorry state of affairs. What is the point of soundbites with no substance as presented on their website? If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the main aim was to achieve media coverage by throwing neat, if wholly inaccurate, bite sized sensationalist chunks to the masses.

This attitude does so much harm. The point of a report like this should have been to tell young people that if you study science now, you can be involved in amazing things in the future. But what you need to do is show some science, even if it’s at the risk that some people wont understand. You want to capture the imaginations of the people with the potential to make a difference, at the same time as creating a media stir.

For example, take the nano-medic job. Well for a start, they’ll be called doctors, and if nanotech achieves a fraction of what people expect it to, it’ll be applicable to a wide range of specialisms. Neurologists will still be neurologists, it’s just that they might have some new tools to work with. They’ll probably be quite well paid, so I don’t need to conduct a survey to find out what proportion of the population think they will be well paid, as Fast Future did as one of the many pointless aspects of their research.

When most people think of nano-medicine, they think of tiny machines fixing parts of the body mechanically. This probably isn’t where the future lies (and if it did, the machines would never be sub-atomic).

One example of a possible application of nanotechnology in medicine, and one that is actively being researched, is the use of luminescent nanoparticles to locate cancer cells. The colour of light given off by nanoparticles depends on their size. That’s one of the great things about working on the nanoscale, this doesn’t happen with larger objects. So, you can coat a nanoparticle in a specific chemical which binds to cancerous cells, then pinpoint a tumour by locating the glow.

You can also target drug delivery, so that a potentially toxic drug affects only the afflicted part of the body, avoiding widespread side-effects.

It’d be easy enough to photoshop a picture of a glowing elbow to give it some punch. You can have your “nanotech makes cancer cells glow in the dark” headline for the press release. Tell kids to study physics, chemistry or medicine, and some of them will. So there you go. If I was being paid for this, I’d contact some researchers in the field, gather some primary references and compile it in a way that makes sense. As it is, a quick google search for “quantum dot cancer cells” found this article. I also found the video below as the first hit when searching for nano-medicine on YouTube. It’s accurate and relevant to what I’m saying… this doesn’t seem very difficult.

If Science: So What? are interested I am available to act in a consultancy role.

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Update 09:02, 22/1/10: Evidence Matters has published a piece on the FF report, looking into the social science methods used. They are particularly critical of the referencing of source material. Since my post yesterday, I have found 4 more cases of cutting and pasting from websites used in the list of 20 future jobs. That’s 6 out of 20. I really can’t be bothered finding where the rest came from…

Nano-medics of the future: So What?

January 19, 2010

This week, I stumbled upon a page on the Science: So What? So Everything website describing some of the exciting career paths we might be able to follow using future technology. It’s based upon a report called “The shape of jobs to come” by consultants at Fast Future Research, and related stories have been reported by the BBC,  The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph (and maybe more). In at number 2 on the future jobs list was “nano-medic”;

Advances in nanotechnology for creating sub-atomic devices and treatments could transform personal healthcare so we would need a new breed of nano medicine specialists to administer these treatments.

Want to know more? Take a look at a story about the tiny robots changing surgery, and the people who build them, plus career information.

Stephen Fry, a supporter of the So Everything campaign, had this to say;

“This is a fascinating list of jobs. I’d go for the nano-medic first up – that’s exciting, really exciting. To be a pioneer, in the van of a new technology, and one that might deliver spectacular help and improvements to the world – yes please!”

But let’s take a look at the job description. Sub-atomic devices? Devices smaller than an atom? Now I acknowledge that there is some debate as to what will be possible in the future, and admit I’m always a bit wary of futurists’ predictions, but this is so utterly impossible it defies belief. Atoms consist of a nucleus a few femtometres in size (that’s one millionth of a nanometre, maybe someone can figure out the fraction of a width of a human hair…) surrounded by orbiting electrons. The nucleus itself is an unimaginably tiny fraction of the total volume of the atom.

The forces holding the nucleus together are huge, which is why we need particle accelerators to smash nuclei apart. The idea that you could rearrange the constituents of atoms to make a device is beyond ridiculous.

You may think I’m over doing it in my criticism, but the Science: So What? website was set up to promote science to lay audiences and to inspire kids. It’s important that it’s accurate. Initially, I just wanted to find where the idea of sub-atomic machines had come from, poke fun at it, and go about my business, but a little digging uncovered some interesting stuff.

Following the link for further details takes me to a page about a robotic surgical snake on the future morph website, with no mention of sub-atomic nano-devices to be found there or elsewhere on the site. In fact, many of the links on the So What? page are directed to pretty unrelated topics. This didn’t seem right, so I went to the source.

Fast Future Research produced a lengthy (149 page) report on the jobs of the future. I’ve had a scan through, but sadly can’t find any science. This is where the sub-atomic devices claim was repeatedly made, and subsequently reproduced in press releases and on the So Everything site.

In the report, they give a rundown what it might be like to work as a nano-medic, and again sub-atomic devices are mentioned. Next to the title, there’s a nice little academic style reference number, which I happened to track down. You might think that they had consulted someone working in the field of medicine, or nanotechnology, but actually the reference is a web page whose only mention of nano-medicine is this insightful nugget;

Nano-medic Practitioner

Nano-sized machines to deliver health. ‘Nuff said.

Later, in one of the appendices, the job is summarised again, with this reference, an article from Time magazine in 2000 listing top jobs for the future. Nano medicine isn’t one of them, but the plot thickens. Job number 3 on the So Everything list is this;

Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock New-age farmers will grow crops and keep animals that have been genetically engineered to increase the amount of food they produce and to include proteins that are good for our health. Scientists are already working on a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.

which looks strikingly similar to part of the Time article

Pharmers.
New-age farmers will raise crops and livestock that have been genetically engineered to produce therapeutic proteins. Works in progress include a vaccine-carrying tomato and drug-laden milk from cows, sheep and goats.

I guess it could be coincidence… I only found this because I was digging on a specific point, but I suspect that there will be other parts of the report which are as flimsy under scrutiny. Certainly all the references I chased up were largely irrelevant to the points they were supposed to support.

In principle, I support the Science: So What? campaign, and it is important to think about the future of society and technology. But if it’s worth doing, do it properly and consult actual experts. Both Gordon Brown and Lord Drayson praised the report, but it appears nobody actually read beyond the shiny press release, and even that contains very dodgy science.

It’s pretty disappointing given that the public paid for it.

Nanotechnology: What’s in a name? Part 1

January 15, 2010

Correction: It appears the term “nanotechnology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, not Eric Drexler. However, Drexler certainly popularised the use of the word.

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The soft machines blog this week brings up an old debate between opposing views of nanotechnology. To summarize, there is a small but influential number of scientists who believe that the true potential of nanotechnology lies in ultra miniaturisation of everyday manufacturing capabilities. For example, individual atoms or molecules moved and an assembled to build fantastic new materials and machines (known as molecular manufacturing).

This view was originally championed by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation in the mid 80’s, where he coined the term nanotechnology to describe his ideas. The opposing view is that the properties of materials on the nanoscale, and the way these properties can be tuned for industrial applications, are of huge scientific interest and more immediate technological importance. The majority of nanoscience research falls into the second category, and many are skeptical about whether the first is even possible.

Both camps use the term nanotechnology, but they describe rather different things. The molecular manufacturing lobby argue that the term has been misappropriated by scientists in other fields, jumping onto the nanotech funding bandwagon and diverting money from molecular manufacturing research.

There are technical arguments between the two groups, which I’ll come to another time, but for now I’m interested in public perception. It’s impossible to enforce restrictions on the use of the term now. No matter how the word nanotechnology is defined in legal or technical terms, people will understand and use it in different ways; it’s the nature of language that no one person owns the word.

Isn’t it important, given the public and political interest in nanotechnology, that we know what we’re talking about?

To be continued…. In the meantime, here’s a video of a proposed scheme for molecular manufacturing


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