Nano talk for 15 years old

About two weeks ago, the Institute received an inquiry from Shevington High School near Wigan (~ 30 min drive from Liverpool). Clare Ingham, a student teacher in the School, wrote:

Recently I’ve been discussing nanoscience and nanotechnology with my year 10 students. They were very interested and enthused on the work that is being led in the north west in this area. 

Indeed, you can see on the School news blog that they really enjoyed making some model fullerenes some weeks ago [scroll down on that page to "Year 10 Chemistry"]. Clare continued:

I’d like to keep that enthusiasm high by hopefully inviting one of your research team to the school to give a short talk/Q&A with a small number of pupils in the near future on some Liverpool led developments in nanotechnology? Would this be a possibility? I’m keen to enthuse the pupils of the science they could be part of and leading in the future.

I volunteered. I have done some outreach talks before, e.g. Christmas lecture and Scibar, but I thought I’d ask Twitter for new ideas. Thank you to @Zen_of_Science@bardmital@drheaddamage@DaveFernig@PSBROOKES and @medickinson for their suggestions which I have collected in this Spotify (send me more ideas via twitter and I’ll add them there).

I visited this morning.

I was introduced as a “distinguished scientist”. I asked the children if I looked like a “distinguished scientist”. One was brave enough to say “no”. I told them a little bit my study and career path. Then, I presented to them some real “distinguished scientist” via this picture of three members of my group at a conference in France. The aim was to challenge their (?) preconceptions about scientists and make it clear that scientists look very much like them. That was not so much inspired by the Twitter response but more by my former student Rachel Gilbert’s project, the excellentThis is what a scientist looks likeas well as what I learnt through my involvement in the Institute Athena Swan committee.

We moved to “nanotechnology”. I asked them what “nano” meant. They replied:

Very small. So small you can’t see

That was a good start but of course everything is relative; 1 meter is very small compared to the Earth-Sun distance. We need to be more precise. How small is very small? From meter to millimeter, from millimeter to micrometer and finally from micrometer to nanometer. Next, I asked them for things which have dimensions in this range. Their responses, after a bit of prompting, included:

red blood cells, viruses, fullerenes and atoms

A really good base for discussion. Red blood cells a bit big for nano? Atoms, a bit small? Viruses and fullerenes: spot on! I added a few biological ingredients: proteins, DNA, membranes. I then remarked that there were two types of objects in our list. One student did get the hint and said “Biological versus non-biological” which led me to introduce how we can make things on the nanoscale via either top-down (carving a block of matter) or bottom-up (assembling parts, or better, self-assembly although I did not really get into that). Nanotechnology is in their everyday life. It is even in their pockets. I showed them this picture of how a state-of-the-art computer looked like when my parents were born. It filled a room and was infinitely less powerful than their mobile phone. I also showed them pictures of a modern transistor and of the kind of gigantic plants which are required to make these.

I asked them what they knew about light.

travel in a straight line.

speed of light is 300 ooo km/s.

white light can be separated into different colors.

I pushed a bit more on the differences between colors and a student mentioned “wavelength” but they could not really explain what this was nor how small/big were the wavelengths of visible light. Visible light is nano (blue ~ 400 nm, green ~ 520 nm, red ~ 600 nm). Nano is everywhere ;)

Since we are scientists, we do experiments. I asked for two volunteers. Before I could say one more word, I had plenty of hands up. I then specified that I required a sample from those volunteers (at that points, I think there was a hint of worry in the teacher’s eyes) but I quickly explained that I required only one hair from each (the worry dissipated). We did the hair experiment with the laser pointer as suggested by @drheaddamage (check his videos here and here). Before doing the experiment, we tried to predict the result. Given their everyday experience of light and the fact that they learnt that light travel in a straight line, the prediction is what we should see a shadow of the hair in the laser spot. The reality is quite different. We see a scattering line perpendicular to the hair with maxima and minima along the line. This is due to the fact that light is a wave. I used this experiment to show one way by which we can get information on the size of things we can’t see.

Gold nanoparticles in water

Gold nanoparticles in water. Looks like Ribena.


We then moved to nanoparticles, first gold, and then superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles.

The superparamagnetic nanoparticles are also quite fascinating as you can move the liquid around with a magnet and even defy gravity (picture below).

To conclude my presentation and link with our current research efforts, I explained the need to track STEM cells in the body and how those nanoparticles, both the superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles and the gold nanorods, can be developed as contrast agents for animal/human imaging.


Superparamagnetic nanoparticles in solvent. The liquid is held up by the magnet.


Nanoparticles for Imaging, Sensing, and Therapeutic Intervention

tocThat is the title of Bogart et al Nano Focus article published yesterday in ACS Nano.


Nanoparticles have the potential to contribute to new modalities in molecular imaging and sensing as well as in therapeutic interventions. In this Nano Focus article, we identify some of the current challenges and knowledge gaps that need to be confronted to accelerate the developments of various applications. Using specific examples, we journey from the characterization of these complex hybrid nanomaterials; continue with surface design and (bio)physicochemical properties, their fate in biological media and cells, and their potential for cancer treatment; and finally reflect on the role of animal models to predict their behavior in humans.

The first discussions about this paper took place during the European Materials Research Society meeting in Strasbourg last year (where several of the authors co-chaired symposium Q).

Very hot! But too quick to melt…

No my blog has not been hacked.

Shabir Hassan et al report the “Response of Villin Headpiece-Capped Gold Nanoparticles to Ultrafast Laser Heating” in J Phys Chem B. Nice collaborative work with the group of Peter Hamm at the University of Zurich.


The integrity of a small model protein, the 36-residue villin headpiece HP36, attached to gold nanoparticles (AuNP) is examined, and its response to laser excitation of the AuNPs is investigated. To that end, it is first verified by stationary IR and CD spectroscopy, together with denaturation experiments, that the folded structure of the protein is fully preserved when attached to the AuNP surface. It is then shown by time-resolved IR spectroscopy that the protein does not unfold, even upon the highest pump fluences that lead to local temperature jumps on the order of 1000 K of the phonon system of the AuNPs, since that temperature jump persists for too short a time of a few nanoseconds only to be destructive. Judged from a blue shift of the amide I band, indicating destabilized or a few broken hydrogen bonds, the protein either swells, becomes more unstructured from the termini, or changes its degree of solvation. In any case, it recovers immediately after the excess energy dissipates into the bulk solvent. The process is entirely reversible for millions of laser shots without any indication of aggregation of the protein or the AuNPs and with only a minor fraction of broken protein–AuNP thiol bonds. The work provides important cornerstones in designing laser pulse parameters for maximal heating with protein-capped AuNPs without destroying the capping layer.

Scientific journals no longer necessary?

The monumental Pubpeer thread about Stirling et al Arxiv article “”Critical assessment of the evidence for striped nanoparticles”, currently submitted to PloS One,  started with some discussions on the theme “Why PloS One and not one of the shiny journals in which the stripy papers have been published?“. Two hundred and forty comments later, it has now taken yet a new turn: “why publish in scientific journals at all?“, asks Peer 8.

Peer 8:
 ( March 8th, 2014 2:05pm UTC )
First of all I apologize for making this thread even longer by getting away from the science and asking this here (it would be nice if PubPeer had some sort of open forum where we could discuss issues like this instead of littering the discussion of these data). Second, I apologize for any aggression perceived in my tone below. It is not directed at the authors.I am interested to know why Moriarty et al. bother with publishing in PLoS at this point. Publishing in journals exists to get the data seen by those who might be interested to see them. However, it seems like most of the relevant people in the field have seen or heard of these data and this discussion by now. The journal is no longer necessary for these data. Are you submitting it to PLoS just so it looks better on your CVs? Or do you feel that it will add some sort of validation of these results, beyond what has been shown here in this thread?

To me it seems like what you have done here should be THE only way to “publish” data. Put it up on a server, invite those who might be interested in it to write a review of it, and that’s it. If we all did it like you have, and as a result took journal names off of our CVs, we would force evaluation committees to EVALUATE our research instead of just ranking us by journal name.

This would eliminate journals (and publishing costs). It would eliminate evaluation of our research by bullshit metrics (e.g. reading the name of the journal on a CV). It would also greatly reduce the boys-club mentality that allowed this striped nanoparticle issue to propagate for so long.

Philip Moriarty:
 ( March 8th, 2014 4:38pm UTC )
@Peer 8.Very interesting points and I have some sympathy with your views. But we are a very, very long way away from being at the point where the scientific community as a whole accepts PubPeer and similar sites as being a “reputable” means of scientific debate.

Francesco Stellacci and a number of his co-workers, for example, have clearly said that the “proper” means of scientific criticism is via the traditional peer-review literature. I have heard the same message from quite a few others who have been following this debate.

I have said elsewhere (see ) that we need to embed the type of online discussion process enabled by PubPeer et al. within the traditional peer-reviewed publication system. Having PubPeer exist in a parallel online universe, disconnected from the journals themselves, is somewhat problematic in my opinion.

Optimistically, it is going to take at least a generation – at the very earliest – before we evolve away from such nonsensical metrics as impact factors and H-indices. What happens to the generation of postdocs vying for permanent academic positions while that evolution happens?

For very similar reasons I can’t, in all conscience, commit to the Schekman boycott of Nature, Science. See this comment for more detail:

Peer 8:
 ( March 8th, 2014 8:34pm UTC )
So it seems that your answer is that you are submitting it to PLoS to make your student’s and postdoc’s CVs look better and that publishing in a journal somehow makes the data more “reputable”. It is really sad that it has come to this and none of us are willing to stand up to it.I believe that you are correct: if we all wait for everyone else to take a stand it will take at least a generation to change.

Peer 4:
 ( March 9th, 2014 1:46am UTC )
@Peer8: The problems of academic publishing are already much in discussion, and many of the arguments can be found online in favour of a gradual transition to newer media. I can say for myself that not publishing in any peer-reviewed journal from now on would be a guaranteed way to kill my career on the spot. Any drastic changes could come only from well-established (dare I say “old”?) researchers, but the younger ones have no such choice.Additionally, I don’t think you can fault Moriarty and co. for publishing this work in a peer-reviewed journal. Particularly as the “opposition” has indicated that they will not take anything seriously *unless* published in a peer-reviewed journal. Failing to publish the critical work in such a journal would then provide another way for the opposition to dismiss the work.

You and I are not alone in voicing our discontent with the world of academic publishing. But this is not the place or the topic to discuss these issues in. All we can do is do our best to provide and use excellent alternatives alongside, and gradually encourage the rest to do the same.

Philip Moriarty:
 ( March 9th, 2014 5:43pm UTC )
@Peer 8.There were two aspects of my response to you. The first of these was indeed the fact that to not publish would mean career death for the PhD students and postdocs in the group.

My second point is just as important, however. It will always be important to write up results and publish them (either online or otherwise) in a “digestible” form. This thread, for example, is virtually unreadable due to the scattered arguments and discussions, and, of course, the “filibustering” of a certain contributor. For anyone trying to understand the multiple flaws in Stellacci et al’s data, they would have to do an awful lot of work to glean that information from this comments thread.

Discussion threads alone will therefore not be enough. They must be accompanied by scientific articles which aim to summarise key findings/ critiques in a readable fashion. This is why I said that the way scientific publishing should evolve is to incorporate “PubPeer”-esque comments threads on papers alongside the more traditional aspects of peer review. See for more.

Peer 8:
 ( March 9th, 2014 8:04pm UTC )
“It will always be important to write up results and publish them (either online or otherwise) in a “digestible” form. “I of course agree with this completely. My point is that you could do that with the arXiv (as you have done up until this point with these data). This discussion thread, although difficult to follow, is a great compliment to those “published” data and adds a layer of validation to the data. I really don’t think publishing them in PLoS One now is going to help your students/postdocs anymore than what you have already accomplished here and with the arXiv.

I agree with Peer 4 that this is not the place for this discussion (…now that I have had the last word :-) ).

Neuroskeptic: Postpublication “Cyberbullying” and the Professional Self

@Neuroskeptic writes:

The Science piece describes two controversies. Controversy #1 is the scientific question of the reality of those stripes. That is not the topic of this post.

Controversy #2 surrounds the way that Controversy #1 has been conducted. Stellacci’s critics say that they’re engaging in post-publication peer review of Stellacci et al’s claims. Stellacci, however, has described their criticisms as ‘cyberbullying‘:

Food for thought for anyone involved, or thinking about getting involved, in post-publication peer review, read it here.

Dr Stirling

Julian Stirling defended his PhD thesis, “Scanning probe microscopy from the perspective of the sensor”, in a two hour viva voce examination today (University of Nottingham). He was recommended for the award of the PhD degree (subject to minor typographical corrections to his thesis).

Congratulations Julian!

Nano-Imaging Feud Sets Online Sites Sizzling

Robert Service reports in Science:

Scientific controversies often sort themselves out as new data roll in. But a decade-old dispute in nanoscience shows no sign of letting up. Researchers on both sides are claiming that recently published papers settle the debate in their favor, while one is charging his opponents with resorting to an electronic bullying campaign.

Read it all here ($$; if you don’t have access, I can send you a copy)

Francesco Stellacci makes again very strong charges of bullying, mentioning my blog, Twitter, PubPeer:

“I have been subject to chemical cyberbullying,” Stellacci says. “I understand what kids that commit suicide go through.” Instead of engaging in such “unethical and unprofessional” conduct, he says, the skeptics should go through the normal channels of peer review and publish their data in journals so the scientific process can work through the issues.

I have disabled comments on this page to avoid duplication of threads: please comment on this article PubPeer page instead.