science communication

The long life of unicorns

This article is a collaboration between a scientist and a philosopher. It tackles a very important issue : how do wrong beliefs sustain themselves in spite of lack of supporting evidence? Specifically, the article considers the belief in nanoparticles diffusing through biological membranes, i.e. one that is the topic of many computational studies as well as being regularly cited as a source of concern (e.g. toxicity) and potential (e.g. drug delivery).

Currently available as a preprint at

The Unicorns, “le bestiaire fantastique”, 16th Century tapestry (Château de La Trémollière, France). Belief in the existence and curative properties of unicorns was common in the European Middle Age and Renaissance. The debate over their existence lasted well into the 18th century.

Time to reclaim the values of science

This post is dedicated to Paul Picard, my grand dad, who was the oldest reader of my blog. He was 17 (and Jewish) in 1939 so he did not get the chance to go to University. He passed away on the first of October 2016. More on his life here (in French) and some of his paintings (and several that he inspired to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren). The header of my blog is from a painting he did for me

A few recent events of vastly different importance eventually triggered this post.

A  (non-scientist) friend asked my expert opinion about a campaign by a French environmental NGO seeking to  raise money to challenge the use of nanoparticles such as E171 in foods. E171 receives episodic alarmist coverage, some of which were debunked by Andrew Maynard in 2014. The present campaign key dramatic science quote “avec le dioxyde de titane, on se retrouve dans la même situation qu’avec l’amiante il y a 40 ans {with titanium dioxide, we are in the same situation than we were with asbestos 40 years ago}” is from Professor Jürg Tschopp. It comes from an old media interview (2011, RTS) that followed a publication in PNAS. We cannot ask Professor Tschopp what he thinks of the use of this 5 years old quote: unfortunately he died shortly after the PNAS publication. The interpretation of this article has been questioned since: it seems likely that the observed toxicity was due to endotoxin contamination rather than the nanomaterials themselves. There is on the topic of nanoparticles a high level of misinformation and fear that finds its origins (in part) in how the scientific enterprise is run today. Incentives are to publish dramatic results in high impact factor journals which lead many scientists to vastly exaggerate both the risks and the potential of their nanomaterials of choice. The result is that we build myths instead of solid reproducible foundations, we spread disproportionate fears and hopes instead of sharing questions and knowledge. When it comes to E171 additives in foods, the consequences of basing decisions on flawed evidence are limited. After all, even if the campaign is successful, it will only result in M&M’s not being quite as shiny.

I have been worried for some time that the crisis of the scientific enterprise illustrated by this anecdote may affect the confidence of the public in science. In a way, it should; the problems are real, lead to a waste of public money, and, they slow down progress. In another way, technological (including healthcare) progress based on scientific findings has been phenomenal and there are so many critical issues where expertise and evidence are needed to face pressing humanities’ problems that such a loss of confidence would have grave detrimental effects. Last week, in the Spectator, Donna Laframboise published an article entitled “How many scientific papers just aren’t true? Enough that basing government policy on ‘peer-reviewed studies’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be“. The article starts by a rather typical and justified critique of peer review, citing (peer-reviewed) evidence, and then, moves swiftly to climate change seeking to undermine the enormous solid body of work on man-made climate change. It just happens that Donna Laframboise is working for “a think-tank that has become the UK’s most prominent source of climate-change denial“.

One of the Brexit leaders famously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. A conservative MP declared on Twitter that he”Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world. Yesterday, Donald Trump, a climate change denier was elected president of the USA: “The stakes for the United States, and the world, are enormous” (Michael Greshko writing for the National Geographic). These are attacks not just on experts, but on knowledge itself, and, the attacks extends to other values dear to science and encapsulated in the “Principle of the Universality of Science“:

Implementation of the Principle of the Universality of Science is fundamental to scientific progress. This Principle embodies freedom of movement, association, expression and communication for scientists, as well as equitable access to data, information and research materials. These freedoms are highly valued by the scientific community and generally well accepted by governments and policy makers. Hence, scientists are normally able to travel to international meetings, associate with colleagues and freely express their opinions regardless of factors such as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender, sex or age. However, this is not always the case and so it is important to have mechanisms in place at the local, national and international levels to monitor compliance with this principle and intervene when breaches occur. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and its global network of Members provide one such mechanism to which individual scientists can turn for assistance. The Principle of the Universality of Science focuses on scientific rights and freedoms but implicit in these are a number of responsibilities. Individual scientists have a responsibility to conduct their work with honesty, integrity, openness and respect, and a collective responsibility to maximize the benefit and minimize the misuse of science for society as a whole. Balancing freedoms and responsibilities is not always a straightforward process. For example, openness and sharing of data and materials may be in conflict with a scientist’s desire to maintain a competitive edge or an employer’s requirements for protecting intellectual property. In some situations, for example during wars, or in specific areas of research, such as development of global surveillance technologies, the appropriate balance between freedoms and responsibilities can be extremely difficult to define and maintain. The benefits of science for human well-being and development are widely accepted. The increased average human lifespan in most parts of the world over the past century can be attributed, more or less directly, to scientific progress. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that technologies arising from science can inadvertently have adverse effects on people and the environment. Moreover, the deliberate misuse of science can potentially have catastrophic effects. There is an increasing recognition by the scientific community that it needs to more fully engage societal stakeholders in explaining, developing and implementing research agendas. A central aspect of ensuring the freedoms of scientists and the longer term future of science is not only conducting science responsibly but being able to publicly demonstrate that science is being conducted responsibly. Individual scientists, their associated institutions, employers, funders and representative bodies, such as ICSU, have a shared role in both protecting the freedoms and propagating the responsibilities of scientists. This is a role that needs to be explicitly acknowledged and embraced. It is likely to be an increasingly demanding role in the future.

It is urgent that we, scientists, reclaim these values of humanity, integrity and openness and make them central (and visibly so) in our Universities. To ensure this transformation occurs, we must act individually and as groups so that scientists are evaluated on their application of these principles. The absurd publication system where we (the taxpayer) pay millions of £$€ to commercial publishers to share hide results that we (scientists) have acquired, evaluated and edited must end. There are some very encouraging and inspiring open science moves coming from the EU which aim explicitely at making “research more open, global, collaborative, creative and closer to society“. We must embrace and amplify these moves in our Universities. And, as many, e.g. @sazzels19 and @Stephen_curry have said, now more than ever, we need to do public engagement work, not with an advertising aim, but with a truly humanist agenda of encouraging curiosity, critical thinking, debates around technological progress and the wonders of the world.


The Internet of NanoThings

Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings” ranks 1st in a list of ten “technological innovations of 2016” established by no less than the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies [sic].

The World Economic Forum, best known for its meetings in Davos, is establishing this list because:

New technology is arriving faster than ever and holds the promise of solving many of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as food and water security, energy sustainability and personalized medicine. In the past year alone, 3D printing has been used for medical purposes; lighter, cheaper and flexible electronics made from organic materials have found practical applications; and drugs that use nanotechnology and can be delivered at the molecular level have been developed in medical labs.

However, uninformed public opinion, outdated government and intergovernmental regulations, and inadequate existing funding models for research and development are the greatest challenges in effectively moving new technologies from the research lab to people’s lives. At the same time, it has been observed that most of the global challenges of the 21st century are a direct consequence of the most important technological innovations of the 20st century.

Understanding the implications of new technologies are crucial both for the timely use of new and powerful tools and for their safe integration in our everyday lives. The objective of the Meta-council on Emerging Technologies is to create a structure that will be key in advising decision-makers, regulators, business leaders and the public globally on what to look forward to (and out for) when it comes to breakthrough developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, smart devices, neuroscience, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Given the global reach and influence of the WEF, it is indeed perfectly believable that decision-makers, regulators, business leaders and the public could be influenced by this list.

Believable and therefore rather worrying for – at least the first item – is, to stay polite, complete utter nonsense backed by zero evidence. The argument is so weak, disjointed and illogical that it is hard to challenge. Here are some of the claims made to support the idea that “Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings” is a transformative  technological innovations of 2016.

Scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials. This is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension.

Except that there is no nanoscale sensor that can circulate through the body and communicate with internet (anyone knows why sensors would have to be nanoscale to be mixed into construction materials?).

The next paragraph seize on synthetic biology:

Some of the most advanced nanosensors to date have been crafted by using the tools of synthetic biology to modify single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. The goal here is to fashion simple biocomputers [Scientific American paywall] that use DNA and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store a few bits of information, and then report their status by changing color or emitting some other easily detectable signal. Synlogic, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., is working to commercialize computationally enabled strains of probiotic bacteria to treat rare metabolic disorders.

What is the link between engineered bacteria and the internet? None. Zero. I am sorry to inform the experts of the WEF that bacteria, even genetically engineered ones, do not have iPhones: they won’t tweet how they do from inside your gut.

I could go on but will stop. Why is such nonsense presented as expert opinion?

More hype than hope? #Biomaterials16

Congratulations to the organisers of the World Biomaterials Congress for having a high profile debate on the following proposition:

Nanotechnology is more hype than hope

I wish I could have attended as it is a topic I have given some thought… Thankfully, one of the attendees, Professor Laura Poole-Warren has done some live tweeting from the floor. So here is a storify.


I ran today a one hour training session for researchers at the University of Liverpool about online presence. About 20 researchers from very different backgrounds (from language to physics, chemistry  ecology, etc) mostly at the post-doctoral level attended. We started with a round table where I asked each participants to tell which social media they use and what they expected from the workshop.

Many were Facebook users, mostly for personal networking, while a few had started to use it for professional networking too. Research Gate and LinkedIn were prominent as well (often with low level of usage). Google+ had one mention. One or two had limited experience of Twitter. One question that came several times was the personal versus professional limit. How much should we keep private? I don’t think there is any easy answer to this question, except that it is useful to understand how each tool you use work and therefore how to control what you are actually sharing or not. In that context, Facebook is a bit of a pain while Twitter is simple: everything is public so don’t share what you want to keep private.

Does it mean though that everything on your Twitter feed has to be serious professional stuff devoid of any personal aspect? I asked this question to Twitter during the event itself

Vladimir Teif responded immediately

I don’t actually agree with Vladimir (you can check my reply to him on Twitter), but thanks to him for this nice demonstration of the power of real-time conversation and crowdsourcing of  information.

When preparing this session, 12 hours before the event, I had asked on Twitter suggestions on of posts an points on social media for academics. I got a number of responses:










I ended up talking too much, mostly advertising the benefits of Twitter. Whether I have convinced them or not will be seen in the number of them that join and tweet me in 2015. Or participate in the comments section below. So far so good:


Please read this leaflet carefully before taking to Twitter

Please read this leaflet carefully before taking to Twitter

1. Name of the medicinal product

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream

2. Qualitative and quantitative composition

TWITTIVIR 5% medical grade w/w cream (cis:trans isomer 95:5)

3. Pharmaceutical form

Cream for topical application (usually to the finger tips).

4. Clinical particulars

 4.1 Therapeutic indications

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is indicated for the treatment of Anemic Network Infection, Grant Blood Clot, Publication Circulatory Virus and Altmetric Intestinal Flu

4.2 Posology and method of administration

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is suitable for adults, children of 13 years  of age and above, and the elderly. TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is for external use only and should not be applied to broken skin, mucous membranes or near the eyes.

4.3 Contraindications

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is contra-indicated in subjects with known hypersensitivity to the product and its components. (group 1)

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is contra-indicated in highly obsessive subjects. (group 2)

TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream is strongly contra-indicated in subjects that cannot resist a Twitter spat with Louise Mensh. (group 3)

4.9 Overdose

There are rare cases of overdosage of TWITTIVIR 5% w/w cream, usually in patients from group 3 above. The effects can be serious, leading to grumpiness and even, in extreme cases (in parents), child neglect. In such cases, the treatment should be immediately stopped.



The paper (Nano Letters) demonstrated for the first time…

…planar undulations of composite multilink nanowire-based chains (diameter 200 nm) induced by a planar-oscillating magnetic field.

The Very Respectable Scholarly Society Press Release announced that we were moving (swimming even) towards

“…nanorobots that swim through blood to deliver drugs (video)”

Gizmag informed its readers that

“… Nanorobots wade through blood to deliver drugs”


The actual article says nothing about “blood” nor “drug”.

THE SCIENCE NEWS CYCLE 1 is here. This could become a regular feature. I am happy to receive suggestions via Twitter, comments below or email.


Founders of bionanotechnology?

In a 2009 JACS editorial (10.1021/ja9038104), Thomas E Mallouk and Peidong Yang wrote

Although the use of colloidal particles of metals and semiconductors as pigments dates back many centuries, and although the recipe for stable 6 nm diameter particles of gold (“Ruby gold”) was famously devised by Faraday in 1857,[1] the unique properties of nanomaterials and their promise for applications in biochemistry, cell biology, and medicine have only recently been appreciated. Prior to the 1990s, the principal role of inorganic colloids in biological research was as high-contrast stains for electron microscopy.[2] A paradigm shift occurred in 1996, when Mirkin, Alivisatos, and co-workers coupled metal nanoparticles to DNA.[3] Their experiments demonstrated not only that DNA could be used for the organization of nanostructures, as had been suggested in earlier experiments by Seeman,[4] but also that nanoparticles were highly sensitive spectroscopic reporters for the base-pairing of DNA

This is a commonly held view and there is no doubt that the 1996 paper is an important milestone.

Yet, beyond electron microscopy, gold nanoparticles had been introduced as a diagnostic tool based on a color change 84 years before Mirkin, Alivisatos and co-workers paper. In 1912, Carl Friedrich August Lange introduced gold nanoparticles to detect diseases [1]. Writing a few years later in the Journal of Experimental Pathology [2], John Cruickshank, MD, writes:

It occurred to Lange to examine syphilitic and normal sera by this method, and later to apply the reaction to spinal fluids, as the amount of globulin and albumen was known to vary in different pathological conditions of the central nervous system. Lange found, however, that certain spinal fluids, in addition to exhibiting protective effect on gold colloid, had also unexpected precipitating properties. The spinal fluids of cases of dementia paralytica in particular showed this precipitating property, and as a result of the examination of a series of cases Lange recommended the test for the diagnosis of this disease.


For several decades, the Lange test based on gold nanoparticle color change was used in clinics as reported in numerous papers. It also motivated the synthesis of suitable nanoparticles, e.g. “The Preparation and Standardization of Colloidal Gold for the Lange Test”  in 1931 by Jocelyn Patterson.

[1] Lange, C. Die Ausflockung kolloidalen Groldes durch Cerebrospinalflussigkeit bei luetischen Affecktionen des Zentraluerxensystem,^’ Zeitschr. f. Chemotherap., 1912, 1, 44

[2] Cruickshank, J. Br J Exp Pathol. Apr 1920; 1(2): 71–88

[3] Br J Exp Pathol. Jun 1931; 12(3): 143–146. PMCID: PMC2048186



join the discussion of the previous post

It’s happening on Twitter.

There is a Storify here to catch up.

I am looking for examples of convincing experimental demonstration of nanoparticles diffusing through membranes (if there are any). Please tweet your suggestions to  or add in the comments sections of this post.