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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Microscopes without lenses for high-throughput and mobile health solutions

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. My school semester ended last week, and I spent every waking moment not at work over the past month finishing projects and studying. But for now, a respite. I have a week off of school before my summer classes start, so this is a good time to catch up on some things.

Several weeks ago a press release I wrote about lab-on-a-chip microscopy was distributed by UCLA. I’ve been working with the professor, Aydogan Ozcan, for three or four years now. Writing press releases, news items for the CNSI website, and even nominating him for awards. It has been fascinating to see the progression of his technology.

A little background on Ozcan’s technology first. It is essentially a microscope without a lens. Capturing an image without using a lens to focus the light is done through some clever computer tricks. When a light is shown on organic structures, like cells, they produce a shadow. But because they are semi-transparent, the outline of sub-cellular structures are also apparent from the shadow.

An LED light illuminates the samples, causing the shadows of microparticles in the sample to be projected onto a digital sensor array, which records the shadow images. Taking advantage of the fact that microparticles like red blood cells have consistent and particle-specific structures, Ozcan developed computer algorithms capable of instantly identifying and counting microparticles in a sample.


A lens is the main size constraint in constructing a microscope, so removing the lens allowed Ozcan’s device to be scaled down enough to fit on a cellphone. The device works with a broad array of cell phones and interfaces with the phone so that captured images can be sent over cellular networks to a hospital for analysis. Because cell phones have penetrated most of the planet, this leapfrogs the development of healthcare infrastructure to deliver diagnostics to remote areas.

Now, onto the latest research. Ozcan has shrunk his lens-free imager down even more to lab-on-a-chip dimensions. Instead of interfacing with a cellphone, this iteration is designed to work in tandem with a microfluidic chip, which could deposit samples onto the lens-free imager for characterization. These two automated technologies could provide a sort of high-throughput system for analyzing biological fluid samples.

The lens-free imaging technology for cell phones is being commercialized by a startup company called Microskia. They recently moved into the Technology Incubator at CNSI, where they will be further developing the technology.

Visit the UCLA Newsroom to read my full press release.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Robert F. Kennedy - Green Gold Rush: A vision for energy independence, jobs and national wealth

Last night I attended a lecture by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles. I was a bit worried about making it to the lecture because President Obama was shuttling around the Westside yesterday fundraising. On a previous visit of his I sat still in gridlocked traffic for about an hour and 45 minutes because one of the main east-west roads in LA was shut down for the Presidential motorcade. 
Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any traffic last night, it even seemed much lighter than a normal rush hour. I attribute this mostly to people fighting the last war. Because there were loud warnings about impending traffic gridlock, people changed their patterns. Also, the White House witnessed the disruption caused by their last visit and took measures to fix the problems, namely using a helicopter whenever possible to stay out of traffic.

The end result of all this was that I budgeted an hour’s worth of travel time for a trip that ended up taking 15 minutes, better to be early than late though I suppose. Arriving early gave me some time to catch up on my Businessweek reading. I was able to get through a great article about cloud computing and how Amazon Web Services is well on the path towards turning web infrastructure (servers, processing power) into a utility that any company can gain access to on a pay-as-you-go model.

I mention that the talk was at Temple Isaiah because prior to Kennedy taking the stage a previous Temple president said a few words about the Temple’s founder, Albert Lewis. As the gentleman took the stage he walked with a cane and seemed frail. Once he got into his comments though, I was left with the impression that old people can get away with about anything. He began by mentioning how he was good friends with the Albert Lewis, and said some kind words. Then, even as he acknowledged that everyone was anxious to hear Kennedy speak, he proceeded to read an entire letter from the Lewis. Not many people under the age of 80 could get away with giving 10-15 minutes of opening remarks for a headline speaker.

Finally, Kennedy took the stage. He sort of began with a whimper, looking a bit nervous and stuttering over words. As I was about to write off the experience, thinking I had at least seen a Kennedy speak live, he found his stride.

Kennedy’s main point was that ‘dirty’ energy - coal, oil, and nuclear - are not nearly as cheap as their proponents make them out to be. Though coal is often cited as only costing 11 cents a kilowatt hour, when external factors, or as he called them subsidies, are taken into account it is actually much more expensive.

The immediate costs associated with these subsidies are the dedicated infrastructure required, such as maintenance for the 3,000 miles of coal roads in U.S. A typical road has 4 inches of so of asphalt, but a coal road has 24 inches of asphalt to keep it from immediately being pulverized by the massive trucks hauling coal. Even with the extra padding, the coal roads need to be repaired every couple years or so, costing millions of dollars per mile. These maintenance costs are paid by taxpayers, but are not taken into account for the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price for coal power.

Another hidden cost he cited is health and environmental. These power sources are called ‘dirty’ for a reason. And the dirty part comes not just from burning them, which is bad enough, but also from their extraction. Mining is ravaging the landscape of West Virginia as mountains are flattened through blasting to get to the coal. Pollutants from mining is often dumped into rivers and other water sources, leading to not only environmental damage but health concerns. The health costs from the cases of asthma and cancer caused by polluting industries is not taken into account in the 11 cents a kilowatt hour price cited for coal power.

As Kennedy was moving through his list of hidden subsidies for dirty energy, he kept returning to his second main point of the evening, what he sees as the failure of the media to expose the shenanigans of big energy companies. His thesis here was essentially that corporate, i.e. Republican, interests have gained control of most media outlets. As part of this takeover, they have lessened balanced reporting of the news, and replaced the reporting of complex foreign policy and domestic news with celebrity gossip catering to the lowest common denominator. He believes that investigative journalism has also been greatly weakened in the current news media.

I find this second point interesting because pundits on the right often disparage the ‘mainstream’ media as well. Though I don’t understand how Fox News is not considered mainstream. Journalists can’t catch a break. Nobody wants to pay for newspapers they can read online for free, Republicans attack them for being stooges of the liberal elite, and Democrats castigate them for not doing enough to uncover corporate wrongdoing.

Kennedy did have one very good point about undue corporate influence in America. In Citizens United vs FEC, a Supreme Court decision from 2010, the court ruled that because of free speech, corporate donations to independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. This more or less freed up corporation to unlimited donations to politicians, and greatly increased the influence of corporations on politics.

It is hard to understand how a corporation has a right to free speech. In a subsequent ruling in 2011, the Supreme Court found that AT&T did not have a right to personal privacy in claiming that records should be exempt from disclosure. The justices unanimously ruled that there is a difference between an individuals rights, and a corporations. How the situation between free speech is different than that of privacy is beyond me.

After spending the better part of the speech building a case for a downward spiral in society where corporations are controlling the government, ruining the environment, and leaving all societies major problems for the next generation to fix, Kennedy at least ended on an upbeat note. He discussed his venture capital companies investment in a solar energy plant in California’s Mojave Desert.

The plant, from BrightSource Energy, will cost approximately as much to build as would a comparable coal plant, and significantly less than a nuclear plant. But the main difference comes after the plant’s construction. While a coal plant requires coal, which has to be extracted, and all the associated environmental hazards, and oil required for transportation, solar plants get free and abundant power from the sun.

Kennedy argued that the technology to meet all power needs from solar already exists, the only impediment is an upgrade to the energy grid required to port electricity from the sunny southwest to the rest of the country. He posited that this investment would be more than offset by the savings from no longer subsidising dirty power and cutting out the costs of importing oil. It is a beguiling vision for the future, and I hope he is at least partly right.

That article in Businessweek mentioned a saying about predicting technology trends. People tend to overestimate what will happen in two years, and underestimate what will happen in ten years. If our energy consumption patterns don’t measurable change in the next couple years, but the proportion of energy coming from renewables is drastically higher in ten years, that will be a very good thing.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Scientists or Communicators

Recently I’ve come across a debate about whether scientists should try communicating directly to the public, or whether they should focus on getting their research to the press and letting them communicate it to the public. Full disclosure here, I come down on the latter side of the argument because a good bit of my job revolves around being a liaison between scientists and the press. But for reasons other than employment security, I think that scientists communicating directly with the public isn’t always the best idea.

This is not a one-size-fits-all discussion though. There are  a number of scientists who are natural communicators, and in that case they should be encouraged in the strongest terms possible to communicate away. The less that science is distorted by translating it from person to person, the better. The problem arises when we are faced with the reality that the majority of scientists are not natural communicators.

There are a number of workshops and programs to teach scientists communication skills, here is a story about one I attended in February. But there is a difference between being trained in something, and actually being good at it. Though virtually everyone engages in a great deal of communication every day, few of us are actually good at it, even fewer when the communication in question is written.

This is where a communications professional, like myself, or a journalist comes in. We spend every day thinking about how to communicate these issues to the public, so in theory we are pretty good at it. Scientists can have a tendency to almost regurgitate their findings, and they are so immersed in their worlds that they have a hard time knowing the right level to communicate to the general public at.

I recently watched an NSF video of Alan Alda talking about what he learned getting scientists to communicate during his time hosting the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers. I love the part towards the end when he is talking about his efforts to drag scientists back into conversations when they drift into lecture mode. Having someone who is skilled in communication can be key in getting scientists to effectively tell their story.

Also, I believe pretty strongly that having that filter can be necessary when communicating science. Most Americans are generally in favor of science and technology when they first hear about it. The problem arises when this newly learned scientific knowledge comes into contact with other beliefs. For example, when you look at support for stem cell research, it breaks pretty cleanly along religious lines because the debate has been framed that way.

I’m not optimistic enough to think that communications professionals will always be smart enough to frame science news so that it doesn’t fall into the culture wars, as stem cell research has. But someone who spends every day thinking about communication will have a better chance to anticipate those stumbling blocks, than will someone who spends every day thinking about a way to cure cancer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Solutions in need of problems, and venture capital investing at university start-ups

I always find it interesting when I come across solutions to problems that I didn’t know existed, and apparently I am not the only one. This past week I attended a panel discussion for budding entrepreneurs, and finding solutions in need of problems seems to be one of the main goals of venture capital (VC) funds in Silicon Valley.

The institute I work at, The California NanoSystems Institute, houses a technology incubator for start-up companies coming out of UCLA. As part of the efforts to help these entrepreneurs (there are currently seven companies incubating) the institute has organized a series of panel discussions with experts in various areas applicable to start-ups. These panel discussions, the Thirty-Thirty Incubator Panel Series, feature thirty minute presentations followed by thirty minutes of questions from the audience. With a bit of pride, I must add that I created the ‘Thirty-Thirty’ name when the organizers were looking for something catchy to brand the series with. See past topics and video clips here.

The discussion last week featured three people from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and Southern California. These panelists were discussing ways that start-ups can position themselves to get funding and giving insight into the thought process of investors.

One of my main takeaways from the discussion was how much the venture capital funds want to change the world. A couple times during the discussion panelists emphasized that they are looking for solutions to big problems; they don’t bother with iterative improvements. One of their favorite topics was companies that create their own market, providing a solution to a problem that people didn’t realize they had, or ‘greenfield’ investing.

The realist take on this subject would be that the highest returns on investment come from a company that pioneers and dominates a market. But there are lots of ways to make money, and it seems to me that these venture capital professionals are interested in greenfield investments for more than the potential money.

A very virtuous alignment seems to be in place with the agendas of venture capital funds. They are interested in gaining fame and fortune through their investments. One of the fastest ways to this fame and fortune is through funding a technology that a great many people will pay for, i.e. something that will really help people’s lives.

Another element that struck me was how people intensive the venture capital and start-up world is. I had thought that ideas and technology were the main focus, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Entrepreneurs often can’t even get in the door with venture capital investors without the people skills to get a referral, apparently cold calls aren’t well received in Silicon Valley.

One of the panelists talked about how his favorite investments are in solutions in need of a problems. He explained that his firm is really good at finding markets for good ideas and developing businesses, but they need that raw idea to shape. They are constantly in search of people who have a good idea/technology in development, but who don’t know what their market would be. This development of an idea into a business is a long process though, and he stressed how vital it is for the inventor and the venture capital fund to work well together.

The incubator program at CNSI is very exciting for me. It represents a clear path for some of the great ideas from UCLA to make it out to the market. Before starting at CNSI I had no idea of the difficulties involved in transitioning ideas out of research labs. Without commercialization programs, great ideas, which are often supported by federal, taxpayer provided funds, would not be transformed into real products capable of making a difference in people’s lives.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years

I can’t decide whether to love or hate technology predictions. They do help to get conversations started and to generate thoughts about the future and how to prepare for it. But technology trends are so unpredictable that sometimes prognosticating even six months out can be precarious.

So I was intrigued when I came across a solar power prediction post from the Think Tank blog on Big Think. The post discussed an interview with predictor extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil. The crux of the interview is that Kurzweil believes that solar power is on an exponential curve upwards in usage. Despite the fact that solar power only currently supplies less than 1% of the worlds power, its output has been doubling every two years. He thinks this upward trend will continue and within 16 years, solar power will meet 100% of the world’s energy needs.

Solar power does seem to be the most promising alternative energy out there, but this prediction seems to be slightly optimistic. Maybe solar energy conversion technologies will continue the trends of increases in efficiency along with decreases in price. But the technology to move around power will also have to also be improved. In the United States, power would need to be piped from sunny areas like the South and Southwest to darker areas farther North.

I don’t buy into the doubts about batteries though, this area is already undergoing dramatic technological improvements. Supercapacitors should be developed in upcoming years which can be charged or discharged very quickly and also store large amounts of power.

I do hope Kurzweil is at least partly right, and that solar power does keep steadily increasing to meet growing demands with clean, renewable energy. But getting back to the idea of predicting technologies 15, 20 years in the future. This is either a foolproof plan to look foolish when the endpoint of the prediction finally comes around, assuming that someone actually remembers the prediction made at that point, or an attempt at generating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Often, these predictions tend to have an ideological bent. Something like, if only society would adopt X strategy, world peace and happiness will surely follow in short order. Therefore it would be ludicrous not to follow X strategy, so unless everyone falls in line with the predictor’s world-view, they must be against world peace and happiness.

This example is hyperbole of course, but when you break down some of these predictions, and follow some of these predictors for a while, the hyperbole is often not that far off. While I don’t disagree with the end goals of Kurzweil in this instance, it is hard to argue against alternative energy from an ethical standpoint, I’m usually skeptical when I see technology predictions, especially ones so far in the future.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfavorable geometries in organic solar cell molecules

I’ve been remiss in posting lately, but at least I have plenty of excuses. My dad was visiting for a week at the beginning of March and we were busy carting him all over Los Angeles to see the sights - Universal Studios Hollywood, UCLA, and an urban farm and produce stand near us called Tapia Brothers. We took him there once to pick up some fruit and he decided they have the best strawberries he’s ever tasted.

One of the reasons that he came to visit was for our housewarming, another of the things keeping me from posting lately. Housewarmings are nice because it is a great motivator to finish up the ‘moving in’ process that can sometimes drag out indefinitely. Getting things tidied up can be time consuming though.

Then there is school, the Tuesday after our housewarming I had a midterm. I was convinced that this test would stymie me so I studied as much as I was able. But in the actual event it seemed pretty easy. Now I’m a little paranoid that it only seemed easy because I completely misunderstood it, and overlooked it’s challenging intricacies, but I think that is just the little devil on my shoulder trying to psych me out.

As for actual science, last week one of my press releases was distributed. It is for research published in Science magazine on controlling and observing complex chemical reactions. The team fabricated a nanostructure to precisely fit two molecules, and then tailed the chemistry to attract those molecules. They arranged everything so that the molecules would come together, when a light was shown on them, in an orientation not typical naturally.

Molecules have certain preferred geometric alignments, and these alignments affect the reactions that occur when the molecules combine. By creating the geometrically unfavorable alignment, in this case with photosensitive molecules used in organic solar cells, the researchers were able to study a reaction that could lead to more efficient conversion of sunlight into energy. They also succeeded in building a one-of-its-kind scanning tunneling microscope to observe the resulting reaction. Setting up interesting molecular reactions is great, but it doesn’t accomplish much unless you can closely study the reaction.

As always when I start working on a release, I took a stab at reading the academic paper to see what the research was about. But this paper was pretty dense chemistry. After staring at it for about half an hour I was sure they were were working with molecules, and not much else beyond that.

Two of the authors of the paper were kind enough to meet with me to explain, in small words, the research. As seems to be a somewhat common occurrence in academia, these two researchers, from the same lab, are also married. The husband is from the U.S. and the wife is from South Korea.

While the wife speaks fluent English, she seems diligent about trying to perfect her communication style. With this particular research the wife played a much bigger roll, but it seemed to be easier for the husband to translate the work into non-scientific English terms. This did not deter her though, she kept shushing his attempts to help. She was determined to successfully explain her work, and I must say, I was impressed by her patience in explaining the concepts to me.

Episodes like that are part of the reason I really enjoy my job. It is one thing to write about such cutting-edge research, but I find that getting to know the people behind the experiments can be just as interesting.

Check out the full release in the UCLA Newsroom, I must say I’m quite fond of the opening line.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Try this at home

I was looking through Science’s website today, and beyond a hilarious blog post about what it is actually like to be a scientist, I came across an interesting how-to article. It started with an astronomer in need, Chris Lintott from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, who had way too many images to classify and not enough staff to do it. 

In response, Lintott and his collaborators setup a website called Galaxy Zoo to allow volunteers to do the classification heavy lifting. They were hoping for a few thousand helpers, but ended up getting 375,000 and counting. The project has exceeded all expectations, resulting in over twenty astronomical papers and the discovery of two astronomical phenomena, mostly through the help of citizen-scientists. 

The second part of the article gave advice for other scientists hoping to tap into the distributed-thinking phenomenon to assist in their research. The advice boils down to making sure the user interface is foolproof, and providing extra resources that advanced users can harness to really dig into problems.

Citizen science isn’t new, it was first popularized in 1999 by the SETI@home project from UC Berkeley, but it seems to have taken off in recent years. SETI@home and other distributed-computing projects were really just glorified grid computers. Users downloaded programs that ran in their computer’s background, adding their machine to a network of thousands, all combined by software to mimic a supercomputer and work on big science problems.

The paradigm started to shift with Foldit, a protein folding game created by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead of passively relying on volunteers spare computing power, Foldit enlisted their brainpower. In the distributed-thinking game volunteers experiment with protein folding, determining how a linear chain of amino acids curls up into a three-dimensional shape that minimizes the internal stresses and strains. 

Projects like Galaxy Zoo and Foldit allow anyone to participate in real scientific research, which is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. Contrary to the common perception of academics perched in ivory towers looking down upon the rest of humanity, most of the researchers I have come across started in science out of a genuine desire to help others. Distributed-thinking is a wonderful tool which allows the people whose lives will ultimately be impacted by the research contribute to the scientific process. 

Check out some of the distributed-thinking games linked to in this post, and the next time someone asks you what you did over the weekend, you can look them in they eye and say... science.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bruce Alberts and fostering innovation in science

I attended an interesting talk the other day. Bruce Alberts, a man with many titles - biochemistry and biophysics prof at UCSF, United States Science Envoy, and Editor in Chief of Science magazine - spoke about his research and science in general. The talk was part of the IMED Seminar Series, a great series out of UCLA’s School of Medicine.

Alberts started off with a brief overview of his research, and shared an interesting tidbit about his graduate research. Because he failed to think about what would happen if his PhD experiment didn’t work, he accomplished something that no one else at Harvard had ever done, he failed his PhD thesis defense. After this jarring experience, he realized how important it is to set up an experiment so that whether you get the result you want or not, you learn something valuable. At this point he added the requisite, “my failures have made me the person I am.” Even though this idea is cliche, it is still motivational. 

Because of his work as a United States Science Envoy his views about the current state of science made it into the talk. He is a big advocate of anything that drives research into new directions. He feels that the general structure of academic research discourages innovative thinking. 

To illustrate this point he showed a great figure. It was a pie chart with a great number of varying sized slices alternating in color between red and white. The center of the chart was the beginning of lines of research. As work began in a particular line, signified by being red, the work done expanded the knowledge along that line, visually shown by the slice’s expansion from the middle out towards the edge of the circle. This expansion is also helped by students of researchers, who typically continue in their mentor’s vein of research. As these lines of active research expand, the lines of inactive research, white slices, also expand, with potential but unexplored topics building on other potential but unexplored topics.

I liked this example because it is the counterpoint to the famous saying by Issac Newton. While he saw farther because he was standing on the shoulders of giants, there are these other potential areas of knowledge and innovation with no giant shoulders to stand on.

Alberts didn’t have detailed prescriptions for fostering innovative research, beyond the standard line of favoring interdisciplinary work, but he did advocate a way to spark new research ideas. Universities have a lot of academic talks, but the people who typically attend are those doing research in the same field. These people, students or professors, tend to already know 90% of the material being presented, so it is much more valuable for researchers to go to talks outside their areas of interest. This approach is applicable to all parts of life, new experiences tend to generate ideas and innovative problem solving. 

On the policy side he discussed a project he initiated during his time at the National Academy of Sciences. In 1996 members of Congress were calling for the reduction of funding for research without any immediate application, or basic science. While on the surface it makes sense to favor research that leads directly to products, or applied research, it is terribly difficult to predict what will come of research. Though an experiment might at first seem only useful for knowledge’s sake, eventually someone could build on that knowledge to create something of immense value. 

He managed to change the mind of those members of Congress with a series of articles called Beyond DiscoveryTM: The Path from Research to Human Benefit. These articles showed how basic science can lead, sometimes unexpectedly, to inventions with world-changing consequences. From MRIs to GPS, many of today’s vital tools wouldn’t be available without investments in basic science.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Nanotechnology, what is it good for?

I’d like to use this week’s post to define nanotechnology. This is a bit of a tall order in a blog post, more like a thesis topic, but I think it’s a useful exercise.

The first problem is that the word itself is so vague, and somewhat controversial. Some people prefer nanoscience, feeling that nanotechnology is tilted to heavily towards applied science. Others, including the institute I work for, use NanoSystems to encompass both nanoscience and nanotechnology. But I’ll stick with nanotechnology because that seems to be more widely recognized.

As for the vagueness, it seems that everything involves nanotechnology these days. It is an incredibly popular buzzword in science and engineering, and products from sporting goods to sunscreen have a bit of nano thrown in. Everything, that is, except for food products. Even technology happy Americans recoil in horror at unpronounceable nanotechnologies showing up on ingredient lists.

Nanotechnology has such a wide reach because there has yet to be a real definition of it. Anyone wanting to sprinkle a little marketing magic on their tennis racket or grant proposal is free to enlist nanotechnology, defining it however they like.

Broadening things even further, products and research can be called a nanotechnology as long as one major component involves processes at the nanoscale. Researchers have not had luck creating entire systems at the nanoscale yet. Linking up processes at such small dimensions has turned out to be trickier than once thought. So constructing nanobots entirely at the nanoscale is still in the realm of science fiction at this point.

Moving past these philosophical points of contention, we get into the meat of what is nanotechnology. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, the U.S. program coordinating Federal nanotechnology research and development, defines it as such, “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.” Besides 100 seeming like an arbitrarily round number to use as a boundary, this definition only helps if one knows what a nanometer is.

Again, the NNI helpfully points out that a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, but that is such a mindbendingly small scale to image that points of reference are needed. Nanowerk, a popular website for nanoscience and nanotechnology information, provides one of my favorite ways to describe the nanoscale, “a sphere with a diameter of one nanometer compares to a soccer ball as the soccer ball compares to the Earth.” Also from Nanowerk, 8 to 10 atoms (depending on the element) in a row span one nanometer.

Now that we have a relatively decent idea of what is the nanoscale, why is it important? As the NNI definition alluded to, materials exhibit new and exciting properties at these dimensions. Graphite, made up of carbon atoms, is used in pencils and is pretty brittle. But Graphene, a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms, is one of the strongest materials known to man.

There is such a long list of materials that exhibit new properties at the nanoscale that one has to wonder if everything operates this way. The anti-climatic answer is no. The materials that do have different properties get all the press because a story about some material that behaves the same as always isn’t very exciting.

These new properties add up to a revolution in the making with nanotechnology. There are three generally agreed upon waves of innovation. The first is already upon us, electronics like smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops rely heavily on nanotechnology to pack so much computing power into such small packages.

The next wave, which is just approaching shore, is in medicine. Nanotechnology is enabling researchers to design medications that can specifically target diseased cells, providing more effective treatments with fewer side-effects.

The third wave, a bit further off but not out of sight, comes from renewable energy. A handful of promising developments are in the works on this front including biofuels from algae, polymer solar cells, and hydrogen fuel cells.

All this potential adds up to nanotechnology being a very exciting field to work in, definitions are overrated anyway.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A matter of trust

It could be worse than ‘mildly interested,’ they could be hostile.

On Friday I participated in a workshop on communicating science. As an introduction the teacher outlined the general public’s attitude towards nanotechnology. The sketch painted was of people who are mildly interested in the technology, but aren’t capable of understanding technical material and are very unsure of their knowledge of science. This is the benefit of living in America, where people are generally in favor of new technology, even if they don’t know much about it. Other countries, like Germany, are almost reflexively distrustful of new technology.

The workshop was for researchers who wanted to hone their writing skills, but I crashed it to get some tips for my own communications about science. As a sample of the type of material presented, here is my favorite quote from the day, “never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but never overestimate their knowledge.”

There are a number of reasons that scientists should be at least competent writers, but career advancement is the main one. Most university research is funded through grants, which have an application process involving competing teams writing proposals. Being able to write a proposal that clearly and effectively argues a point is a big part of getting grants. Also, the frequency and quality of a scientists publications determine whether they will get promotions and eventually tenure. Research gains acceptance in the scientific community through publication in peer-reviewed journals. Though the quality of research is the most important factor in getting published, prestigious journals expect a certain standard of writing. Therefore, to get the money to do research, scientists must be able to write effective grant proposals, and to publish their subsequent work, they must be able to clearly write about the results of their research.

My challenge in writing about science is slightly different. The audience a scientist is writing for in grants and academic publications is other people with technical backgrounds, so their task is to describe their research as accurately as possible. In writing for a general audience, I am translating the scientific material into something that is broadly accessible, but still gets the research correct. My goal is to distill the research into something digestible for the reader.

This idea of synthesizing information into usable bits is relevant in a number of areas. We rely on a number of people including lawyers, doctors and accountants to translate complex information so that we can make decisions. Another group who breaks down complex information for a wider audience is journalists. But a different idea for news publication has emerged, and it comes from WikiLeaks.

Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, is advocating what he calls ‘scientific journalism.’ This entails the publishing the background materials used to write a story, along with the story itself. The basic idea is to let the reader have access to the same materials the journalist does, so that they can determine whether the analysis provided by the journalist is accurate.

I’m not going to make a judgement call on WikiLeaks in general, but I do think the idea of scientific journalism is a bit of a waste of time. There is a world of difference between scientific publishing, where the entire data set is available to be analyzed, and journalism. Global events don’t occur in a vacuum, they exist in a complex world where regional differences and history can play a big role.

Just like I trust a lawyer to make a better legal decision for me because he has studied law, I trust a journalist who specializes in financial markets to analyze the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers more than I would trust myself to go over their financial statements and come to a valid conclusion. The world is too complex for everyone to be expert in everything, we need to rely on others to provide information.

Hopefully I won’t have to resort to scientific journalism and I’ll be able to retain my audience’s mild interest without having to publish my supporting materials to retain trustworthiness.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Worth the wait

Old news interests me. I don’t intentionally wait to read things, but inevitably backlogs happen. With work, school and family (in order of time commitment, not importance), it is easy to get behind. Everyone seems to have a busy life these days and in that vein, I must confess to falling behind in my reading. I attribute this to being a bit too ambitious in creating my to-do lists. Since reading is typically towards the end of the list, it often does not get the time I’d like to dedicate to it.

I am selective in my late news though, not just anything makes my delayed reading list. For the last six years I’ve religiously read The Economist. I don’t know if it is the different point of view, being a British publication, but I always find their articles engaging and thought provoking. I’ve also recently starting reading Bloomburg Businessweek, a subscription came with my enrollment in school.

These two publications make up my tardy readings, my standard operating procedure is to be about two to three issues behind. With pretty much everything else, if I don’t read read it right away it gets filed into the ‘not-going-to-happen’ category. I think part of the reason I do make an effort to read most of The Economist and Bloomburg Businessweek is their nuanced point-of-view. Both publications have an ideological tint, but they use that framework to examine issues for relative merits, instead of using it to justify party-line opinions. As seems to be the case in many other media outfits.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one with this tardiness habit, but I might be one of the few who enjoy it. I know that just because I read it late doesn’t mean that there was more thought put into the article between when the news happened, and when I read it. But there is something about being a bit removed from events to get perspective.

The twenty-four hour news cycle doesn’t always produce ground-breaking journalism. There are situations where events develop so rapidly that covering live events is warranted, such as the current popular upheavals in Egypt. But the majority of the time, it seems that cable stations like CNN and Fox News cover stories simply because they need something to fill the airtime, not because it is inherently news worthy.

That is why, with this blog, I promise no up-to-the-minute updates. Some might cynically decry this pledge as an excuse for laziness, and they might be right. But I much prefer to think of it as a promise of quality over quantity.

My plan is for the majority of posts to be about science, and specifically about my struggles to communicate it, as that is my career. I lead a multifaceted life though, so there will be a variety of topics discussed. I am currently pursuing an MBA through Loyola Marymount University’s part time program, taking two classes a semester. I’m also starting a family with my wife and am interested in personal technology.

So with that guide map in mind, this is the start of my blogging journey! As is my way, I might be a bit late to the blogging trend, but hopefully that delay will have produced more fully thought-out content.