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Managing Multiple Scales for Nanotechnology Research

One of the problems nanotechnology has faced is that it brings back together disparate scientific disciplines that over the last century had been growing increasingly apart. It was becoming difficult with the high-level of specialization for a physicist to talk to biologist and for the biologist to speak to a chemist, and have them all understand one another.

Now, with nanotechnology they are all thrown back into the same cauldron of science and they need to define terms. This definition issue is no more acute than in the area of length and time scales. It was all fine and good when crystalline materials and biological materials were separate, but now with trend towards hybrid systems itâ''s time to get this sorted.

In a meeting I moderated some time ago with a mix of biologists, chemists and physicists an agreed upon length scale that would keep everyone happy in performing nanotechnology research was an instrument capable of 4 or 5 orders of magnitude, ranging from .1nm to 10 microns. Electron microscopy seemed to be the most likely candidate to fill the role with its ability to bridge multiple scales.

The physicists were pretty happy, but the biologists were still forlorn. It was difficult to see how with current techniques and instruments a living cell could be examined on a nanoscale without cryofreezing it. The only source of information on the atomic scale (beween a nanometer and an angstrom) for examining biological specimens, the biologists lamented, was from crystallography.

You get some information through crystallography when combined with other techniques such as activity analysis, cutting and pasting, etc., the biologists conceded. But the truth is that itâ''s still an ice cubeâ''not exactly representative of the living system you want to analyze.

Computer modelingâ''s role in bridging the gap has its limitations as well. Modeling has its scaling problems as well. Itâ''s pretty accurate under 1000 atoms, but beyond that it all gets a bit compromised and begins to look more like a 2-D image rather than a 3-D one.

To overcome this an area that is being pursued is a combination of precise modeling with empirical modeling. This method has proven itself to be pretty accurate for purely organic systems in germanium, resulting in the capability of accurate models for systems of 100,000 atoms or more.

All of this preamble brings me to recent developments at Argonne National Laboratory where scientists have employed high-intensity X-rays to observe the motions of biological and organic molecules in solution. When combined with their modeling, which heretofore they had no way of checking to see if they were accurate, they have been able to make movies of a DNA molecule in motion within a solution.

I will have to check in with the biologists to see if they are heartened by this breakthrough.

For How Long will the iPod be the benchmark for nano-enabled memory?

I was flipping through the last 30 years of digital media outlined in Spectrumâ''s Death of Digital Media when it occurred to me that a day may come when not every nano-enabled memory development will be measured against an iPod.

The latest development by researchers in Glasgow foretells of iPodâ''s that will be able to hold 300 million tunes. I have about 10,000 tunes on my iPod and probably listen to about half of them. My mind boggles at having that many songs and worse yet transferring them on to my iPod.

No, it seems unlikely that an iPod with that storage capacity would be of any use. But instead of concerning ourselves over how many songs a nano-enabled memory could store on an iPod over at TNTLog it is suggested that we may want to start asking, â''What could cheap mass storage enable?â''

Good question.

Public art in the digital era


If you give an artist a digital camera, heâ''ll start taking pictures. Heâ''ll want GPS device, a digital compass, and a laser distance meter to code the pictures, a computer to analyze the pictures, and software that can run calculations on the billions of pixels. Heâ''ll want a building on which to display the pictures. And, eventually, heâ''ll come up with an answer to a question only an artist would ask: What color is Palo Alto?

This, in a nutshell, is a seven-year project that came to be called The Color of Palo Alto. It is public art in the digital age.

In 2001 the City of Palo Altoâ''s Public Arts Commission gave artist Samuel Yates $10,000 to photograph the cityâ''s 17,739 parcels. During 2005, he did so, riding an electric scooter charged at a makeshift solar garage. Since then, heâ''s been running calculations, determining the median, mode, and mean averages of the colors throughout the city. Throughout, thereâ''s been controversy about whether or not this project really qualifies as public art.

Meanwhile, with another $25,000 from the city and $40,000 from Hewlett-Packard, Yates has printed out a photograph of every house in the town and plastered the images IMG_1929.JPG

on city hall, in alphabetical order by street. Yates is also putting the images into the cityâ''s geographical information system; theyâ''ll be updated by the city whenever homeowners apply for building permits.

And what color is Palo Alto? Stay tuned; Yates will finish calculating the overall color of Palo Alto this month; in August heâ''ll reveal that information, along with the dominant hues of individual neighborhoods and streets. Yates expects these colors to be available at local paint stores.

Korean Astronaut Gets Scary Return to Earth

South Korea's first voyager into space got a rude awakening to the hazards of spaceflight Saturday, as the Soyuz capsule carrying her back to Earth descended much faster and rougher than planners had anticipated. Yi So-yeon, 29, who had flown to the International Space Station 10 days earlier as a guest of the Russian space agency, was subjected to severe gravitational forces when the vehicle went off course.

The Soyuz spacecraft, known as TMA-11, carried Yi and American astronaut Peggy Whitson, 48, and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, 46, safely back to the surface of the Kazakhstan steppe, but it was a bumpy ride. For reasons currently unclear, the capsule's re-entry path followed a much steeper descent than astronautic engineers had programmed. Instead of a smooth approach to its landing zone, the Soyuz fell more like a cannon ball, in a so-called ballistic re-entry. This caused friction with the atmosphere to rattle the vehicle and surround it in flames.

Nonetheless, the space travelers survived the ordeal and were recovered by Russian authorities about 300 miles away from their rendezvous point, where they were whisked away to receive medical attention.

Even as of today, during a press conference at Russia's Star City spaceflight center, near Moscow, the three appeared to be still shaky, according to an account from the Associated Press.

Yi told the gathered media that she had been "really scared" by the unexpected re-entry.

"During descent I saw some kind of fire outside as we were going through the atmosphere," said Yi, a bioengineer who had won a contest to become Korea's first astronaut. "At first, I was really scared because it looked really, really hot and I thought we could burn."

Her panic subsided, though, when she observed that her veteran crewmates were calm and collected and that the temperature inside the spacecraft was unaffected by the heat outside.

So, she admitted, "I looked at the others, and I pretended to be okay."

(The BBC news service has a video excerpt of Yi's comments today here.)

Speaking on behalf of the Russians, Malenchenko said the cause of the malfunction was a technical unknown. "There was no action of the crew that led to this," he said. "Time will tell what went wrong."

A spokesperson for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, noted that the trio had experienced gravitational forces up to 10 times those on Earth during the 3.5-hour descent. It was the second time in a row that a glitch of this kind had caused voyagers returning from the ISS to land off course in a Soyuz.

Meanwhile, the U.S. space agency chose to put a positive spin on the whole matter. In a brief account on its ISS Website, NASA emphasized that the TMA-11 crew was safe and sound, despite the flight's problems.

The Americans also noted with cooperative pride that the veterans on the Soyuz, a cosmonaut and an astronaut, had achieved some big milestones in the history of spaceflight. Whitson, who had commanded ISS Expedition 16, set a new record for an astronaut in space by completing 377 days in orbit. And Malenchenko, a Russian Air Force colonel, set a mark of 515 days in space over three long-duration missions, giving him the distinction of standing in fifth place among all humans to travel to the cosmos.

While the ongoing problems of the Soyuz capsules call for a major investigation into their re-entry systems, the mood among the world's two leading space agencies today seems to be more one of relief than anger that nothing worse occurred than a frightening fall from the heavens.

Especially, for one rookie space explorer.

[Editor's Note: Please see our previous entry New Space Station Crew Heads Into Orbit for additional info on the latest ISS expedition.]

Stephen Hawking looks ahead at space travel as NASA turns 50

Celebrity scientist Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge, spoke of the future of space travel at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. today. It was billed as a 50th birthday present to NASA from Hawking. Lucy Hawking, a journalist and Hawking's daughter from his first marriage, spoke briefly as well.

Hawking argued that we should venture into space as a species. "There would be those who argue that it will be better to spend the money on climate change than on finding new planets," he said. Without discounting the need to spend money on researching global warming and climate change, he said he believed it was important to devote a fraction of a nation's R&D budget to space exploration.

To spread the human race into space should be our long term strategy, he said.

His daughter pointed out that fewer children are getting interested in science today in the US and UK. This has direct consequences for science and technology. "Space has the power to capture kids' imaginations," she said, arguing that images from NASA missions result in many youngsters becoming interested in science and technology.

Her father also mentioned NASA's contributions to the progress of science and technology a few times.

But the bigger question that Hawking addressed in his talk was, "Are we alone in the Universe?"

He went over the standard scientific arguments for the existence of life not only on Earth but elsewhere in the universe. He argued that there are a few scenarios possible. One that life was very rare, and had happened only on Earth. His own view was that, "Primitive life is very common. But intelligent life is very rare." [He joked that some thought this was the situation on Earth as well.]

He mentioned panspermia theory - the theory that life on Earth had been seeded by a meteor - and said that, while there was no evidence that it had happened that way on Earth, if it had, it would imply that life in the Solar System (or around other nearby stars) is DNA-based.

Hawking argued that we should have human colonies on the Moon and Mars.

He concluded by looking at the history of the human race. While we have been around for 200,000 years, in the last 10,000 years, we have made dramatic leaps in progress. If we survive for many more years, Hawking ventured, we "will boldly go where no one has gone before."

This is not a review of Virgin America's Red entertainment system

pkphotored.jpgLast month, I took two of my children on a short vacation for spring break. I automatically turned to the Southwest Airlines web site for tickets, then hesitated. Iâ''ve been driving past Virgin Americaâ''s new corporate offices south of the San Francisco Airport, Iâ''d read about their amazing entertainment system, maybe it was time to try Virgin; it was about the same price, and I thought Iâ''d get something to write about out of it.

My kids had seen a fair number of advertisements for Virgin Americaâ''s in-flight entertainment system, called Red, and they were jazzed. They love Jet Blueâ''s in-seat satellite television, and Virgin promised them so much more. They poured over the web site, and called me over to show me videos of the great features: videogames, with a special videogame controller that pulls out of the arm rest; between-seat text messaging; touch-screens for ordering meals and snacks. And lots and lots of TV channels. Their only complaint? Why had we not booked a longer flight! How could they possibly explore all their entertainment options in an hour and fifteen minutes?

So they were shattered when the gate agent announced that weâ''d be flying on a â''darkâ'' plane, that is, one in which the entertainment system had not yet been installed. (Funny how all the promotional material and the web site didnâ''t happen to mention that the system wasnâ''t available on all planes.) As compensation, weâ''d each get a coupon for a free drink, snack, or premium video offering, to be redeemed on our next flight. My kids were not impressed.

On board, each seat was equipped with a video screen and very cool controller, with game controls, a tiny keyboard, and various other buttons. However, the entertainment server, which would eventually be installed in the large vacant area between coach and first class, was definitely missing. My nine-year-old pulled out a controller and concentrated on the blank screen, playing an imaginary video game for ten minutes or so. Eventually his imagination gave out. The mood lighting, though working, wasn't helping anyone's mood. The flight attendants passed out crispy rice bars; I asked about meal and snack offerings, also touted on the web site. Turns out that the only way to order food is by touch screen, Virgin does not let flight attendants take food orders. No touch screen, no food. No comment.

The flight attendants did assure me that the odds of getting a dark plane for the return flight were slim to none, so we tucked away our coupons, figuring weâ''d use them on the return flight a few days later.

We got a dark plane. Again.

So I wonâ''t be reviewing the Virgin America entertainment system anytime soon. But Iâ''ve got six coupons for premium entertainment if I ever do.

Out of Africa: Persistent Plague of Electricity Theft

The severe electricity shortage gripping sub-Saharan Africa -- and especially the region's largest economy -- South Africa is bringing fresh attention to a longstanding problem: organized and widespread theft of electricity.

In South Africa alone, Eskom, the chief provider, is believed to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues a year to thieves. Some of the losses are due to non-payment of bills, but a significant amount comes from unauthorized tapping of electricity lines.

Theft of electricity in Africa worsens the shortage by robbing companies of revenue needed for expansion. Sometime the thefts take place with the assistance of employees of electricity companies. Poor service by electricity companies also can fuel resentments that can be expressed through forms of customer protests which include theft or non-payment of bills.

In Uganda, for instance, customers are frustrated with an electricity provider who routinely blames high theft for poor service. Last year the government-owned New Vision newspaper published an article by an energy expert who argued, "It is not fair for an innocent power consumer to pay exorbitant tariffs because of the service provider has failed to stop theft."

Because losses to theft can be so high -- in some places, such as Uganda, as much as a third of the potential revenues are lost -- some African electricity providers have experimented with pre-paid services, offering a discount to new customers if they agree to accept meters that require an electronic debit card to work. In Ghana, the national electricity company has sharply reduced losses due to non-paynment of bills by requiring most new customers to accept the pre-pay meters. The payment cards are refilled by paying cash at offices of the electricity company.

Despite the success of the pre-pay program, Ghana is believed to lose as much as one quarter of its electricity revenues due to theft, complicating efforts to upgrade service.

Efforts to crack down on scofflaws can be difficult. In Cameroon, where the U.S. electricity company AES owns the national provider, raids on organized thieves are common. Company security officials come prepared to tear down illegal networks and even raid businesses suspected of tapping lines.

Electricity theft can cause a vicious cycle, where providers raise rates because of high losses, which in turn gives customers more incentive to steal more electricity. In Cameroon, for instance, thefts skyrocketed several years ago after a series of rate increases. When rates stabilized, thefts declined.

Intelligence ARPA splits into three branches


You know you love the cool new IARPA logo.

Yesterday I interviewed IARPA's new director, Lisa Porter.

Intelligence and defense are often conflated in the popular imagination, but the two operate quite differently. Where the defense department likes to let you know what they've done for you lately, intelligence tends to keep their successes to themselves. Those cultural differences trickle down to the two organizations' ARPAs.

DARPA, for example, has a much better-organized PR machine. You can bet that I would not have been interviewing DARPA director Tony Tether by cell phone sitting on the ground on a little patch of grass outside the Pentagon. But due to a last minute snafu,* I found myself sitting next to a tool shed outside the NSA compound in which IARPA has a temporary home, fighting off DC's herculean flies and armada of small ants, doing a cell phone interview with Lisa Porter, who was in her office about 500 feet to my left.

I was on the train from New York to Washington, DC, several hours earlier when I got the unexpected news that my interview had to be done by phone. Why? Apparently my credentials hadn't cleared. I had the whole rest of the train ride to mull over why I was not allowed to sit in the same room with Dr. Porter. I'm not a terrorist. I know at least that. I'm not a serial killer-- I think. Though if I had some kind of multiple personality disorder, I couldn't be sure. Have I been making threats on internet forums? I barely have time to blog, much less comment. No, that's not it.

Maybe its not me. Maybe it's her: what if Lisa Porter is one of her own gadgets and she's not quite ready for prime time? Is Lisa Porter a Turing Test?

I never did find the answers to any of these questions. At 3:30 p.m., I sat outside the black iron gates of the compound in a shady spot (where it was 85, and not 87 degrees) and waited for a phone call from 500 feet away. On the upside, I'm now rocking a very becoming tan.

If Lisa Porter is a Turing test, she's a very convincing one. She's very smart and very charming. Porter started her tenure as IARPA's director on February 2, and since then she's been busy. Next week, IARPA plans to announce the three program offices into which Porter has split the agency: Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations.

Porter explained the directives of the three offices.

The Smart Collection Office is intended to improve the value of collected data. "You're often limited in the amount you can collect," Porter explained, "so you want to focus your efforts." The main thrust of this office, se said, is to get predictive about where the information is and what exactly you might be looking for. She likens traditional information collection to the classic problem, the drunk looking for his keys under the light. He didn't lose them there, but that's the only place the light is. "You're solve the problem you know how to solve," she says, "instead of the one you actually need to solve."

The Incisive Analysis Office maximize the insight they get from the information in a timely fashion. They want to boil down that fire hose of data and provide decision makers with necessary information before it's too late. Porter imagines using virtual worlds, for example, "to help analysts get their arms around all this data." This program office also includes a social engineering and linguistics element. "You want to not just understand what's being said," Porter says, "but what the cultural implications are."

The Safe and Secure Operations Office is being set up to counter the capabilities of adversaries. One of the subprograms is cybersecurity; another is quantum information.

This information will be posted at next week (which is also when that site goes live).

Now Porter is looking for program managers, which could be a bit of a challenge. Word is, even DARPA has trouble finding those.

* Update, 4/21: Full disclosure: IARPA PR reminds me that no one forced me to sit outside the compound gates. I was given other options for conducting my cell phone interview, like sitting in a cafe or a nearby park (the PR person noted that "it was a beautiful day"). I decided to sit outside the black gates of the NSA compound anyway to possibly guilt Lisa Porter into coming out to meet me. That did not work.

New Jersey Issues 15-Year Energy Plan, with Nod to Nuclear

Yesterday, April 17, the state of New Jersey issued an energy master plan, notable for the frankness with which it addressâ''s the stateâ''s current and medium-term needs and resources. The plan carries the imprimatur of state governor Jon S. Corzine, notable too, because Corzine is squarely in the political mainstream, very smart, andâ''as a former partner in Goldman Sachsâ''comfortable thinking about macro variables.

Todayâ''s news reports emphasized the planâ''s suggestion that it may be necessary to build a new nuclear power plant to meet needs. But that notion is not contained in the reportâ''s executive summary and gets only passing mention on pp. 71-72 of the main text. Still, it is indeed significant that a state of New Jerseyâ''s importance and a governor of Corzineâ''s stature has officially declared itself willing to take another look at nuclear.

Framing the difficult situation facing the state, the report states up front that natural gas prices and electricity prices doubled from 2002 to 2007, threatening the stateâ''s long-term economic competitiveness and livability. Meanwhile, energy demand has been rising sharply, along with electricity exports to the New York City metropolitan area , even as electrical generating capacity and transmission have failed to keep pace.

The plan proposes building code revisions that would make new construction 30 percent more energy efficient, while the efficiency of existing buildings would be improved by means of tighter standards for appliances and equipment. The state would seek to meet 22.5 percent of its needs from renewables by 2025, with the addition of 1,500 megawatts in solar capacity, 1,200 MW in wind, and 1,500 MW in combined heat and power.

But even with those ambitious measures, the plan anticipates that the stateâ''s current fleet of generating facilities will not be adequate to meet long-term power demand. Hence the cautious nod to nuclear.

If Corzine hews to the nuclear line, he will be following in the footsteps of Great Britain, which is in the painful process of committing itself to the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants, mainly because of concerns about global warming. The implications are turning out to be even more difficult to digest than the English may have guessed. If the UK proceeds, itâ''s considered all but a foregone conclusion that British Energyâ''which owns the most plausible sites for new reactorsâ''will be taken over, most likely by a foreign bidder.

The leading candidates are Franceâ''s EDF, Germanyâ''s RWE or E.ON, and Spainâ''s Iberdrola. So if the British find themselves consuming much more nuclear electricity in ten or fifteen years time, theyâ''ll likely be buying it from a French, German or Spanish supplier.

Hidden Drama at Congressional Hearings to Reauthorize NNI

Despite all the cordial words and statesman-like testimony, one has to imagine that there was some tension when Mr. Floyd Kvamme, the co-chair of the Presidentâ''s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), and Dr. Andrew Maynard, the Chief Scientist at the Project for Emerging Technologies (PET), sat at the same witness table to provide testimony to the House of Representativesâ'' Science and Technology Committee on reauthorization of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

You may recall when this blog brought attention to Maynardâ''s assertion on his blog that Kvamme was â''cherry pickingâ'' intelligence when it came to the Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) concerns over nanoparticles.

In his testimony, Maynard hammered again at the idea that not enough funding was going to research for EHS issues of nanotechnology:

â''â'¿in 2006, the federal government spent an estimated $13 million on highly relevant nanotechnology risk research (approximately 1% of the nano R&D budget), compared to $24 million in Europe, despite assurances from the NNI that five times this amount was spent on risk related research in Fiscal Year 2006.â''

With Maynard bumping the number of nanotechnology-enabled products on PETâ''s list from 500 to 600 the urgency has increased (at least 20%), and it seems it has caught the attention and support of the Democratic leadership of the Committee.

"Although the NNI has from its beginnings realized the need to include activities for increasing understanding of the environmental and safety aspects of nanotechnology, it has been slow to put in place a well designed, adequately funded, and effectively executed research program to address this issue," said Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). "The environmental and safety component of NNI must be improved by quickly developing and implementing a strategic research plan that specifies near-term and long-term goals, sets milestones and timeframes for meeting near-term goals, clarifies agenciesâ'' roles in implementing the plan, and allocates sufficient resources to accomplish the goals."

And what may that strategic research plan be, you might ask. Well, Rep. Gordon likes Andrew Maynardâ''s plan as it was written up in a paper for Nature: â''Safe Handling of Nanotechnologyâ''.

â''This paper should be a landmark in the history of nanotechnology research. It lays out a clear, reasonable, prioritized, consensus-based set of priorities for examining the potential environmental and health consequences of nanotechnology over the next decade and a half,â'' said Gordon in a November 2006 press release. â''This paper should eliminate any remaining excuses for inaction in this vitally important area.â''

It's lovely when it all works out so well for all involved.


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