A red-letter day for science and technology

January 20, 2009

As Barack Obama takes the oath and is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, many are anticipating a new era of socially relevant science and technology.  Having run one of the most technologically savvy campaigns in recent times—possibly ever—Obama’s transition teams continued to break new ground in using technology up open up the process of government.  And throughout the campaign and transition, there has been an emphasis on scientific integrity, and using science and technology in the service of society.

The trick is going to be to maintain this momentum in the new administration.  Obama has surrounded himself with a top-notch group of science and technology advisors, and this, combined with a desire to get science and technology back on track, bodes well for the new Presidency.  As BBC News reported this morning, scientists are optimistic that Obama has what it takes to reposition science and technology within government and society.  And yesterday’s USA Today noted that “Scientists are hopeful that Obama, who has called for increased research spending, will bring a new dawn [to science].”

Of course, realizing the promise of a new scientific dawn will not be easy.  Where will the money come from?  What should the top priorities be?  Will robust long-term science strategies be established?  How will citizens be effectively engaged in the science and technology enterprise?

The USA Today piece explores some of these concerns (and does it well), and in the weeks and months to come, these and other issues will be aired more fully as the euphoria of Obama’s election dies down and reality sets.

But today, it’s time to celebrate the inauguration of a new president who has repeatedly emphasized the importance of science and technology for everyone.

On that note, rather than continuing to pompously pontificate on science and technology in the new administration, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the historic events of the day.

And in the spirit of a social media-savvy [soon not to be] president-elect, I will be eschewing the crowds of DC, and following the inauguration on the web.  You can follow 2020science and others on Twitter as the day proceeds—just use the tag #inaug09.

Have a great inauguration day!

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A note on the image.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to use the Nanobama image since it hit the headlines some weeks back.  The image, made by John Hart, Sameh Tawfick, Michael De Volder, and Will Walker, was constructed from an etched “forest” of carbon nanotubes.  Given the science and technology focus of the new administration, this seemed a great reminder of the potential of emerging technologies, and the challenges of translating that potential into safe and successful solutions to real issues.

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November 26, 2008

A nanotechnology fix for high-end audio addicts?

I’m sitting at my computer watching a surreal balletic movie—a sheet of highly aligned carbon nanotubes is being slowly stretched, then allowed to slowly contract.  In the background is a soundtrack of traditional-sounding Chinese music.

At least I think the soundtrack is over-dubbed, until I realize that the music is coming directly from the nanotube sheet itself, which has been attached to a small amplifier.

And it suddenly dawns on me that I am watching something rather special—perhaps the biggest breakthrough in loudspeaker technology in decades… Read the rest of this entry »


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Twelve months ago today I held a bag of multi-walled carbon nanotubes up before a hearing of the U.S. House Science Committee.  I wanted to emphasize the discrepancy between the current state of the science on carbon nanotubes, and a tendency to classify this substance as the relatively benign material graphite from a safety perspective.  So it is perhaps fitting that on the anniversary of that congressional hearing, the US Environmental Protection Agency is making it clear that carbon nanotubes are in fact, a new substance—and should be regulated as such. Read the rest of this entry »


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May 31, 2008

Why nano?  Why care?  For non-nanotech initiates, an obsession with nanotechnology must sometimes seem a bizarre occupation of the sad and lonely.  And even within the nanotechnology community, who hasn’t had occasional doubts over the legitimacy of singling out “nano” as something special?  Yet occasionally a piece of work comes along that helps put things back into perspective.  For me, a paper just published on-line in the journal Nano Letters did exactly that. Read the rest of this entry »


Carbon nanotubes: the new asbestos? Not if we act fast.

May 21, 2008

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In brief, the study (which I was a co-author on) used an established method to test whether a fibrous material has the potential to lead to the disease mesothelioma—a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs that can take decades to develop following exposure.  In the method, samples of material are injected into the abdominal space of mice, where inflammation and the formation of granulomas in the lining tissue (the mesothelium) are studied over a seven-day period.  Previous research has established that the combined presence of fibres, inflammation and granulomas is a very strong indicator that mesothelioma will occur in the long-term.  While the method uses lining of the abdominal space, it is highly predictive of what happens in the same tissue surrounding the lungs, if it is exposed to durable fibres. Read the rest of this entry »


The passing of a science hero

March 19, 2008

On March 18th, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died in his home in Sri Lanka at the age of 90.  A master developer and assembler of ideas, Clarke will be remembered fondly by many for igniting their enthusiasm for science, and how it might be used to better our lives.  His passing leaves a hole in the ranks of science heroes who inspire us to look beyond the obvious, and question the unquestionable.

My early childhood was full of the stories of Clarke, Asimov and others, and without a doubt these writers set me on a path to exploring how the world works and how we can extend our reach with this knowledge.  Clarke had the knack of taking what was known, and pushing it that little bit further into the realms of the “what if…?”.  In doing so, he was the perfect foil to the established scientific community; asking the questions others shied away from and stimulating the process of discovery and development afresh.  But he also excelled at raising scientific consciousness across the board, and sowing the seeds of effective and informed science engagement. Read the rest of this entry »


Invest in nano applications, and the risks will take care of themselves?

November 4, 2007

I have on my desk a plastic bag of carbon nanotubes—2 grams of dry, 60% purity single walled carbon nanotubes to be precise—bought from Cheap Tubes Inc. for the princely sum of $80.  And I am wondering what to do with them. Read the rest of this entry »