Tag Archives: science

Going against the flow

Decorative photograph of a mountain riverLast week I wrote about research we have been carrying out over the last decade that is being applied to large scale structures in the aerospace industry (see ‘Slowly crossing the valley of death‘ on January 27th, 2021). I also work on very much smaller ‘structures’ that are only tens of nanometers in diameter, or about a billion times smaller than the test samples in last week’s post (see ‘Toxic nanoparticles?‘ on November 13th, 2013). The connection is the use of light to measure shape, deformation and motion; and then utilising the measurements to validate predictions from theoretical or computational models. About three years ago, we published research which demonstrated that the motion of very small particles (less than about 300 nanometres) at low concentrations (less than about a billion per millilitre) in a fluid was dominated by the molecules of the fluid rather than interactions between the particles (see Coglitore et al, 2017 and ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017). This data confirmed results from earlier molecular dynamic simulations that contradicted predictions using the Stokes-Einstein equation, which was derived by Einstein in his PhD thesis for a ‘Stokes’ particle undergoing Brownian motion. The Stokes-Einstein equation works well for large particles but the physics of motion changes when the particles are very small and far apart so that Van der Waals forces and electrostatic forces play a dominant role, as we have shown in a more recent paper (see Giorgi et al, 2019).  This becomes relevant when evaluating nanoparticles as potential drug delivery systems or assessing the toxicological impact of nanoparticles.  We have shown recently that instruments based on dynamic scattering of light from nanoparticles are likely to be inaccurate because they are based on fitting measurement data to the Stokes-Einstein equation.  In a paper published last month, we found that asymmetric flow field flow fractionation (or AF4)  in combination with dynamic light scattering when used to detect the size of nanoparticles in suspension, tended to over-estimate the diameter of particles smaller than 60 nanometres at low concentrations by upto a factor of two (see Giorgi et al, 2021).  Someone commented recently that our work in this area was not highly cited but perhaps this is unsurprising when it undermines a current paradigm.  We have certainly learnt to handle rejection letters, to redouble our efforts to demonstrate the rigor in our research and to present conclusions in a manner that appears to build on existing knowledge rather than demolishing it.

Sources:

Coglitore, D., Edwardson, S.P., Macko, P., Patterson, E.A. and Whelan, M., 2017. Transition from fractional to classical Stokes–Einstein behaviour in simple fluids. Royal Society open science, 4(12), p.170507.

Giorgi, F., Coglitore, D., Curran, J.M., Gilliland, D., Macko, P., Whelan, M., Worth, A. and Patterson, E.A., 2019. The influence of inter-particle forces on diffusion at the nanoscale. Scientific reports, 9(1), pp.1-6.

Giorgi, F., Curran, J.M., Gilliland, D., La Spina, R., Whelan, M.P. & Patterson, E.A. 2021, Limitations of nanoparticles size characterization by asymmetric flow field-fractionation coupled with online dynamic light scattering, Chromatographia, doi.org/10/1007/s10337-020-03997-7.

Image is a photograph of a fast flowing mountain river taken in Yellowstone National Park during a roadtrip across the USA in 2006.

We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom

Decorative image: Lake Maggiore from AngeraThe title of this post is a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge‘. For example, if you search for scientific papers about “Entropy” then you will probably find more than 3.5 million. An impossible quantity for an individual to read and even when you narrow the search to those about “psychological entropy”, which is a fairly niche topic, you will still find nearly 500 papers – a challenging reading list for most people.  The analysis of the trends embedded in scientific papers has become a research activity in its own right, see for example Basurto-Flores et al 2018 on papers about entropy; however, this type of analysis seems to generate yet more information rather than wisdom.  In this context, wisdom is associated with insight based on knowledge and experience; however the quality of the experiences is important as well as the processes of self-reflection (see Nicholas Weststrate’s PhD thesis).  There are no prizes for wisdom and we appoint and promote researchers based on their publication record; hence it is unsurprising that editors of journals are swamped by thousands of manuscripts submitted for publication with more than 2 million papers published every year.  The system is out of control driven by authors building a publication list longer than their competitors for jobs, promotion and grant funding and by publishers seeking larger profits from publishing more and bigger journals.  There are so many manuscripts submitted to journals that the quality of the reviewing and editing is declining leading to both false positive and false negatives, i.e. papers being published that contain little, if any, original content or lacking sufficient evidence to support their conclusions  and highly innovative papers being rejected because they are perceived to be wrong rather than simply deviating from the current paradigm. The drop in quality and rise in quantity of papers published makes keeping up with the scientific literature both expensive and inefficient in terms of time and energy, which slows down acquisition of knowledge and leaves less time for reflection and gaining experiences that are prerequisites for wisdom. So what incentives are there for a scientist or engineer to aspire to be wise given the lack of prizes and career rewards for wisdom?  In Chinese thought wisdom is perceived as expertise in the art of living, the ability to grasp what is happening, and to adjust to the imminent future (Simandan, 2018).  All of these attributes seem to be advantageous to a career based on solving problems but you need the sagacity to realise that the rewards are indirect and often intangible.

References:

Basurto-Flores, R., Guzmán-Vargas, L., Velasco, S., Medina, A. and Hernandez, A.C., 2018. On entropy research analysis: cross-disciplinary knowledge transfer. Scientometrics, 117(1), pp.123-139.

Simandan, D., 2018. Wisdom and foresight in Chinese thought: sensing the immediate future. Journal of Futures Studies, 22(3), pp.35-50.

Nicholas M Weststrate, The examined life: relations amoong life experience, self-reflection and wisdom, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 2017.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge, London, Little Brown and Company, 1998.

Lacking creativity

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RI feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently.  About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session.  Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated.  On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore.  We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada.  We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding.  The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico.   While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature.  They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world.  I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.

Source:

Clive Cookson, A dynamic Nobel duo with natural chemistry, FT Weekend, 10/11 October 2020.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)