Thursday, March 18, 2010

How Polymers and People Remember

There has been a recent innovation out of a General Motors research lab that has captured my attention, and it has nothing to do with fast new cars or wasted opportunities on fuel efficient ones  ( Actually it is a way in which they are using a unique polymer that sound to many people like science fiction (think shape changers). The basic idea is that this particular polymer has the ability to become up to 4 distinct shapes while maintaining the ability to return to its original shape. These shapes are activated by temperature. So, if exposed to one temperature, they become one shape, and when exposed to another, they become another. The report headlines are saying these are polymers with “memory”. Actually to me, who works with polymers like elastomers, the idea of our materials having memory is nothing new. In fact we rely on that memory for creating parts made from them, and everyone needs this in using them. This is everything from heart valves to car tires. We say memory in our lectures when talking about elasticity. That is, something that is elastic appears to have a memory of sorts. Imagine a scale for instance. It is basically a metallic spring inside a box. When you stand on the scale a spring compresses, taking on a different shape, and giving a weight reading on a dial or screen. When you step off of the scale the spring returns to its original form, and the display returns to 0. So we could in a way say that the spring in the scale has a memory of what it was like to not have a person standing on it. When we are talking about elastomers, the material “memory” is a bit more nuanced. An elastomer doesn’t fully recover its original form, like the spring, because it is not just elastic; it is visco elastic. It behaves not just like a spring, but also like a liquid. This is all a graduate course, and one that I love teaching, but it is a long story. An elastomer does almost recover, but not entirely. We still say that if it is close enough (imagine a rubber band) it does have memory. It is just that the memory is not as perfect as the memory of the spring. It is however capable of doing a lot more interesting things, including taking on new shapes, and new properties. The reason this all works is due to the molecular nature of polymers. Polymers are made of many long chain molecules that work together. When they are at rest they are generally entangled around each other into a rat’s nest of strings. Many polymer scientists use the picture of a bowl of spaghetti when visualizing this. When they are pulled, or sheared, they tend to straighten out, becoming less tangled. When released they go back to the tangled up state. Hence the tangled up state is statistically and to our eyes similar to what it was before being pulled apart. We can say then that these long molecules remembered where to go. Truthfully though they didn’t go exactly back to the positions they were in before. They went just close enough. This is why the memory is not perfect.

This metaphor to memory, or suggestion that it is like animal memory (including human memory), is not really such a stretch. I have written before about re- consolidated memories in people The idea is that we never truly remember any event from our past, but instead an approximation of that memory based on the last time we remembered it. If we now imagine the brain, we see a tangled web of axons and dendrites, and memories which are occurring through neural synapses. This also looks a bit like a bowl of spaghetti. These are electrically charged chemically induced connections between neurons (brain cells). When we remember an event the firing of these synapses never arrive at the receptors in the exact way that they did the previous time. So in essence we are like the elastomer. We remember where we have been, but only to a statistical accuracy that is fairly good.

There is another similar thing with elastomeric polymers and the human brain. The memory tends to get worse with age. Even the best elastomers experience fatigue and degradation throughout time. A tire for instance can work for 100,000Km but will eventually wear out. This may very well be like our brains as well. 

This blog may very well be the last bit of evidence that people will need when saying I am stuck in a lab too much. I am comparing the complexity of humanity to a piece of rubber. They may be right, but the idea is not to diminish the brain. In fact it is that spaghetti bowl in our heads that allowed us to figure out how to use materials to do these complicated things. It is just that polymer technology and neuroscience are generally not linked in the way way other biomimicy technologies are. This blog is actually again an admiration of nature, which did something spectacular before we even knew it was happening.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Glory Days of Space Labs

Many of the lab researchers and technicians that I have had the chance of working with over the last ten years were lucky enough to have started in their labs just as the last generation of true basic research programs were being transformed into modern corporations. Many people are familiar with some of these mid twentieth century power house invention factories, which produced many of the technologies that are ubiquitous now. The most famous are Bell labs and Xerox PARK, which were sectors of large corporations, but whose inventions were not limited to an assigned market within the company. These were not the only two where this type of basic research was taking place, which is easy to see if you read any of the scientific literature of the period. Labs at DuPont, Cabot and BF Goodrich had such esoteric, but important work being done on mathematical modeling, quantum particle physics and even nano-science (before that term was invented), that it is hard to recognize that this research came out of corporations, rather than government facilities. The people who I mentioned working with are the next generation, who look back in envy at their predecessors, who had no marketing reports required in order to justify the research they were doing. These discussions have been on my mind ever since I started reading about the Obama plans for NASA, and the opportunities it may provide for private firms doing space research and exploration. What I continually wonder is whether these new companies engaged in this work will be more like the corporations of the past, who published important, even ground breaking work, with direct market feasibility, or if they will be more like the quarterly profit driven corporate lab environments we currently experience in so many sectors. Mostly I think that for the next few years privatization of space labs and space travel is encouraging, as the entrepreneurs in these fields, such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are real visionaries. When though does the next generation start, when post IPO companies of the future begin to ignore major findings, and governments are no longer there to unconditionally support them? It will be fun to watch and participate in, and when I am old look back at the glory days of the corporate space lab.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Science Money

Last month a colleague in Paris gave me an article about general funding of research by governments and companies in Japan, The United States and in Europe. The results of the study were fascinating to me, from my prospective as an American scientist living in Paris. The basic findings were that in terms of money, Europe spends less on Research and Development than the United States, and has less researchers. It also showed that there are less patents applied for in Europe than in the United States. The one area where Europe exceeded the United States was in number of scientific papers published. These numbers were surprising to me for a few reasons. In general my feeling is that science education is more rigorous, and scientists more respected in Europe. I had also been a part of a European funded research project that gave me a lot of confidence in the European focus. So I have kept this study in mind as I have been working out of the lab here in Paris, and collaborating with scientists. I have found several examples where these results make a lot of sense.
  1. France seems to be a country of polymaths, and ideas. There is a long and very respectable history of this, which included people like Descartes, Lavoisier, and even Voltaire, who in addition to being a philosophical novelist, went to England to seek out Newton. This reverence for knowledge has not gone away. When teaching a course in Paris, an engineering student brought me a Baudelaire poem to illustrate a point I had made in a previous lecture. This is a wonderful intellectual and historical curiosity, and can lead people down the path of publications. It doesn't however lead to the type of specialization that would be considered basic research. Over lunch at a university south of Paris, I spoke with the head of the chemistry department about specialization. He nostalgically recalled a time 200 or so years ago when it was possible to learn all of the known scientific knowledge available. He recognized that this is no longer possible, yet his romantic longing for such broad knowledge must in some ways translate to his research, which is at a very high level, but not focused enough to be modern Nobel Prize innovation. I can certainly relate to this, as I am not only interested in various disciplines of science, but equally in music, poetry and art. If he is frustrated not to be able to know everything scientifically, imagine how frustrated I am? Still this ideology is revealing. As with the other differences it leads me to wonder which comes first, the lack of funding, or the lack of focus to achieve the funding.
  2. As we are all aware the United States is a highly competitive place, where innovation has historically led to some major advantages. It may very well be that our government labs and leaders are savvier than I have often given them credit for. There may very well be a realization that research is the best way to fuel technology, which in turn grows the economy. It is hard however to think that Europe doesn't have as much of this focus. After all, Chancellor Merkel of Germany is a Ph.d Physical Chemist, where most of our leaders couldn't pass high school physics. I think though that research just happens to be the place where American economic interests are currently best served. It is business, not science that is in fact inspiring the science. So thinking of research as a business, it becomes easier to see how Europe may be behind. Starting a business in Europe is a much more difficult process than doing it in the United States. I have done both. It is also something, which in France at least, is not as sought after. While I mentioned that scientists are respected in Europe, I get the sense that entrepreneurs are more respected in the United States. I have heard some of the best ideas from colleagues here in Paris for inventions. These ideas would be the seeds for patents and new companies in the United States. In France they become research papers, or subjects for lectures. It is likely therefore that a government would not see the financial returns of research investment without first reforming barriers to create companies, and the mindset that goes with it.
  3. The last point that I want to make though, is that I think these statistics, and this history are becoming less relevant, as the world economy, and scientific collaboration unite. Every day we e-mail Chinese, Indian, American and Thai researchers. We co-author papers with people we have never met in person. We open businesses in countries we have not visited. The budgets, I would guess, will become similar throughout the world, and innovation will not be national. I met an entrepreneur yesterday with a growing 100 person French company. He is opening his first US factory in the spring. By next year he will no longer be reliant on European funding and business structure alone, but on the The United States as well. This goes both ways, and will continue to do so. These new generations of researchers are more business savvy and more international than the previous generation. Hopefully this means that in The United States we will benefit from European philosophical prospective, history and polytechnical abilities, while Europeans benefit from our willingness to take risks in exploiting sciences discoveries. I feel very confident that this is happening.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

From Rubber to Buckyballs

I have only been teaching for just over one year, but for the moment it is in invigorating and strange process. Whenever I am giving a lecture, no matter how well prepared I am for it, I seem to be learning as much as my students when I am speaking. It is as if giving the lecture itself reveals a mental connection that wasn’t present when the lecture was being written. This past weekend I spoke at an astronomy institute, which in itself is a stretch, as I am not an astronomer. I stayed close to things I know however, and talked about materials which I think show great promise for use in space suits and space craft. This talk led me down several new paths of discovery, all of which have been a lot of fun. Like lectures for my students, I discovered a connection that I had not thought of before. That is a connection between fairly traditional materials that have been used for 150 years, rubber, and new cutting edge materials, referred to as nanomaterials. What it made me realize is that the history of rubber technology and the emergence of nanotechnology share a lot of similarities that we can learn from.
By 1830 Rubber was a large and speculative market in the United States and Europe. Having been brought by Europeans from Brazil, the latex of the Hevea tree was more than just a fascination. Scientists and industrials all realized that Rubber was a unique material, with this strange elastic behavior not seen in anything else. In the late 18th Century Joseph Priestley, the great British inventor and intellect, first enjoyed rubber, giving it its name, as he used it to rub out pencil lead. As science became more sophisticated, especially chemistry, the concept of the macromolecule, which was the foundation of thee high molecular weight natural rubber that came from Brazil, was being studied by great scientists like Michael Faraday, and industrialist like the Mackintosh. In the United States investors flocked to the rubber rage, opening factories across the east coast. For 10 years however rubber disappointed from a commercial standpoint. Unable to reach the high expectations of being the wonder material that could do everything, it remained sticky, and a true mess in heat and cold. This was of course until the impoverished, but obsessively dedicated inventor Charles Goodyear worked for 8 long years to unlock the secret to Rubbers brilliance. He eventually discovered that sulfur and lead, with evenly distributed heat, caused the rubber to have the dream properties that were predicted by early adopters. Goodyear in his own book on his new vulcanized rubber described over 250 products that would come from rubber. This was before the tire. Eventually there would be thousands. The properties of rubber were, and still are extraordinary. Elastic, waterproof, insulting, durable etc. Rubber , whether natural or synthetic, is now a crucial part of modern life. Without it there would be no cars, planes or balloons.

Nanotechology seems to me to be in a similar position as rubber was before Charles Goodyear’s great discovery. Like the industrialists and scientists of that time, Nanoparticles have been touted as the most amazing materials ever discovered. Four noble prizes have been awarded in fields related to nanotechnology, including one to Richard Smalley for his discovery of fullerens, more commonly known as buckyballs, which are 60 carbon atoms that together make one of the most unique molecules imaginable. A spin off of this are carbon nanotubes, which have strength greater than steal, with flexibility of elastomers. They have unique electrical abilities, as they defy some basic concepts such as ohms law. They have no resistance. They also obey some interesting Quantum mechanical effects, including being able to be entangled, which can lead to new types of computing. They can be packed into very small spaces as well, making them a possible next generation of microchips. They can be used as tiny antennae for solar cells. Like Goodyear’s 250 possibilities of rubber, nanotechnologist have thought of that or more.
The fact, and challenge remains that while investment and research have been strong in nanotechology, a Goodyear type eureka moment, where fabrication and utilization are available has not happened yet. In fact investors have tended to say the perhaps nanotechology was more hype than reality. I would say however that we need to remember that with diligence, the secrets of science can become the common products of our future.

Going back to my lecture on space materials, what I took away from it all is that we must remember how this old unique technology of rubber, and how new innovations in nanotechnology can be material partners for the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is Edison Still Relevant?

It is August in Paris, and for anyone who has spent any time in France knows, there is little chance of finding many laboratories open, as the country has gone south for the month. So my search for labs is on hold until September. Since I have the time I have been reading a lot of blogs, discovering new gardens with my daughter, and having fun using our amateur microscope together. I did find some of my old online photo albums last night, and many photos of a film which I was producing, called “The Edison Project”, which never got completed. The idea of the film was something I had wanted to explore for a long time, which was how a research lab, Thomas Edison’s in New Jersey, could make the first films. That is, how such diversity of innovation came from one small lab, which led not only to the light bulb, but also the moving image, which would become a new way to understand humanity and nature. Of course the movie business is a large industry, which requires a great deal of expense and is ultimately why the film was never completed. The director, Martin Cespedes, and myself, spent several years on this journey though (starting in 2000), and like so much unfinished business in life, it did inform and inspire so much of what I was doing simultaneously with my family business, and would do later when setting up labs.
My family business was a small company in Ohio that my parents had started 20 years before called Tech Pro. The company was an enterprise started in our family’s garage, with a small guest bedroom in the house doubling as an office. Though this story doesn’t end with us becoming a Dell or Hewlett Packard, my parents did manage to create a successful company (moving out of the garage) that did some truly innovative work in laboratory instrumentation and software. I have always considered my Dad to be an Edison type, minus the anti-Semitism and egomania. He is Edisonian in that while educated in mathematics, he always learned most through experiment and reading. He also has a general optimism that allows him to create things that others say is not possible. I hope I have inherited some of this, though I am afraid I don’t live in places where having a garage to work in is economically possible. What I did have 9 years ago when we started the Edison Project was my first fulltime position at Tech Pro. I was “Director of Development”. There was not a strict job description for this position, as it was a title Dad and I created ourselves, and had not existed at Tech Pro before. What I knew was that it was up to me to figure out what to do with it, while at the same time learning about everything from accounting, to shipping, to sales, and even some limited technical service. So, I was doing two things, producing a feature film and trying to run development for a technology company, which were both overly ambitious as I had no experience or education in either at the time. Still, when Martin and I first visited the Edison labs in Orange New Jersey, I was so excited that I would never stop day dreaming about doing what Edison did.
The Orange facilities are rather large, as they were the head quarters for his businesses, the research center, and manufacturing base. The main area though was several modest sized rooms which were an invention factory. The first was a very well stocked library. Even 9 years ago I realized how lucky I was to be trying to create technology in the 21rst century, where a physical library of books would not be necessary anymore. Edison and his team must have spent days looking up articles, ordering new books, waiting for new journals to arrive. All of this was becoming available to us on the internet. Edison had nearly 2000 patents; it is hard to imagine how many he would have had if he had the extra time the internet would have allowed him. Another room, which was an inventory room of sorts, was perhaps the most fascinating to me. In this room were samples of nearly everything from animal tusks and bones (which could be used for comparing physical properties), chemicals, anchors, seeds and just about anything else completely unrelated to each other that you could imagine. All of the Edison team could use these items whenever they wanted in order to help them with a new invention. This leads me to the basic premise of the Edison labs. That is, everyone working there was expected to file a new patent, that is invent something original, every week. It didn’t matter what field it was in. They just needed to be fulltime inventors. They could use the two rooms I just described, or any of the others, which were chemistry and material science labs, and a machine shop. They had to document everything they were doing with great detail. They also had to work next to and with all of the other inventors, even though they were working on completely different projects. This was a simple and effective way of sharing information, which could serve multiple purposes. This is something that modern companies still struggle with. Many pharmaceutical giants for instance, have so many products in process, and teams working on them at such distances that complicated software are needed to share data, so that no one is redoing work that has already been done. Even with this, most researchers will admit to wasted effort.
The Edison labs had ideas about research which I wanted to explore 9 years ago to create a movie and set-up systems at Tech Pro. I was inspired, and did some of what I had learned, but of course left so much undone, including the movie itself. Part of the exploration of labs that I will be undertaking is to see if this type of development is being done, or is even possible today. It starts with two basic assumptions. The first idea is that you can be small enough to be in close contact with others (or at least well connected enough though the internet) so that ideas become contagious. The other is whether invention can be structured like other jobs, such as painting a house. Edison’s requirements for patent applications assumed, like a house painter, that with effort, and a certain amount of time, a job could be finished. Painting a house may take a week, so does inventing the phonograph! Was this possible because of the times, where the industrial revolution had made the ability to actually make things that others had only theorized about before possible? Perhaps we are in another one of these times, where computation, connectivity, nanoscience and genomics make it possible to realize ideas that humanity has had for ages. This will be interesting to see, and who knows? Maybe a movie can be made about it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Brains of the Lab

The day before I left for France, where I would be spending most of the next year, I received a brain. That is, a human brain. I had this brain on order and it arrived in a jar of formaldehyde and I had only 24 hours to decide what to do with it. I am certainly a rational guy, and though I tend to love sci-fi, even the old B movie variety, where a brain is reanimated, or for that matter the Steve Martin Comedy “The Man with Two Brains”, I know that this delivery is just another complex material, which I could test in my material science lab. That it was once the center of operations for a real person is what makes it most interesting though. That there is still so much mystery surrounding an animal organ also makes it intellectually thrilling. The arrival of a brain, which I ordered naively, to do physical testing on it, did leave me with a sense of responsibility. After all, I am so uneducated about the physics of the brain, that unlike the polymer samples that arrive, I didn’t know the “shelf life” of the brain. That is, I didn’t know if it would last until I got back from France. So I was determined to do something with it.

I am far from the first person to want to study the physical mechanics of the brain. In the building where I work, there is a lab which looks at dead neurons with a high powered microscope called an Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), in order to see the physical forces that make up these ever important cell. I had spoken with a professor 6 months ago that did this, because I had read an interesting article in Nature about the topography of the brain, and how the human brain's crumpled structure may explain some high level processing. None of this do I know anything about, other than the occasional article or popular book. But, since I have a physical testing lab at my disposal, I thought that I could look at the physics of these folds in a unique way. It wasn’t the forces of the neuron, like the AFM was measuring, but a macro structure, which involved axons, dendrites, and in a na├»ve way, just the stickiness of the tissue itself. So I grabbed a grad student, who was used to dissections, and we tore into the brain, and I ran some tests. I am not sure if this is what the poor guy who donated his body to science had in mind, but even though this sounds crude, it was done with utmost respect, and the deep desire to acquire enough data, that I , or someone else could discover something useful from it. I have some of this data, and there is still more to get, so I have real hope that it will be somehow useful.

All of this is not to talk about my results, or my knowledge (or lack thereof of neuro science), but to speak more to method, and how these types of ideas are what makes a life in expiremental science interesting. I have another blog ( where I talk about jazz improvising and the comparisons to discoveries in science. In this, my first essay in this new blog series I explore the science alone and a bit more about a very old fashioned idea, the science lab. The lab has in recent years been compared to printed newspapers, libraries and more recently printed books. These all may indeed at one point, in the near future, become nostalgic rather than practical. Technology such as the internet and mobile reading devices, are beginning to make acquiring reading material faster, and more importantly possible, without leaving home. I like a book, and had trouble at first getting used to my Amazon Kindle, but now I love it. The advantage of being able to buy books wherever there is a wifi signal, and read all of them on a single device far outweighs the tactical enjoyment of the printed page. I also assume that the sensory experience of reading on a mobile device will improve. Isn’t this also the same where scientific research is concerned?
In recent years scientists have been able to collaborate at great distances, with some of the best research papers of the last decade being produced by co-authors who have never been in the same lab together. They share data in the way we all share information, via e-mails, and on-line networks. Even more exciting is a kind of free source movement which involves putting technological and scientific challenges out to the world on the internet as a competition. This way thousands (or millions) of amateurs and professionals from around the world can compete to solve the problem, and be rewarded for it. This is enormously democratizing, and could lead to a rapid expansion of knowledge like we have never seen before. This may very well be like the information boom in reading that I just mentioned. That said there is still a need for labs in which experiments can be run, even if they are running at thousands of labs around the world. Perhaps labs can now be like the personal computer, which is a highly sophisticated calculating machine that we all have. A little lab could exist in every home, or office.

At the same time as I speak about this democratizing, miniaturization of experimentations, it seems that large, expensive labs have become extremely important in order to answer some of the big questions of science. The most publicized example of this is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN labs in Switzerland, which is kilometers in size, and costs over a billion dollars. Without this, fundamental questions in physics may remain in the realm of philosophy, or at the very best unproven theory.

So, I want to figure this out and report it in a public way on this blog, by exploring Europe to find the most interesting in laboratory solutions. From the university traditional lab, to the home lab, to the corporate lab, to the multinational funded multibillion dollar lab. I choose Europe simply for it diversity of culture, history, and the amount of labs available. This is not just to see how work is done in these labs, but more interestingly to see how the inquisitive mind can explore ideas. How can an applied physicist cut into a brain the way I did last week? How can a biologist use an off the shelf microscope and a laptop to explore some new phenomena? How can an amateur astronomer still make discoveries, like they have in the past, at a time when they have the Hubble images at their disposal? This will be a fun journey.