How colourful language can improve your image

Color gamutColourful language usually refers euphemistically to the kind of expletives and oaths you hear in a barrack room brawl. But, in the context of technology it could be the next big thing in colour printing.

Colour and natural language experts at Xerox have been working on what sounds like an entirely new way to get the best out of your digital photos. Their research could allow you to talk to your printer and tell it to “make the green a ‘mossy’ green” or “make the sky more sky blue”. More technically, you might one day be able to do all the kinds of colour and contrast corrections that are usually the preserve of programs like 雷竞技炉石传说 hop, with simple phrases sent to the printer itself.

The approach speed up the workflow for graphic artists, printers, photographers and other image professionals and their assistants who could save time side-stepping the on-screen fine tuning process of printouts.

“You shouldn’t have to be a colour expert to make the sky a deeper blue or add a bit of yellow to a sunset,” research leader Geoff Wolfe says. The software is still in the development stages, but works by translating human descriptions of colour – “emerald green”, “brick red”, “sky-blue pink” – into the precise numerical codes printers use to control the amount of each primary colour they deposit at a single point in the printed image.

“Today, especially in the office environment, there are many non-experts who know how they would like colour to appear but have no idea how to manipulate the color to get what they want,” Woolfe adds. Moreover, the vast majority of computer screens in “non-expert” offices are setup incorrectly for screen to print comparisons and so cause the whole gamut of problems when a document that looks okay on screen is printed. Simple commands to rectify such issues avoid the problem of having to know how to set up the screen and ambient lighting.

Woolfe’s discovery could mean that colour adjustments can be made on devices like office printers and commercial presses without having to deal with the mathematics. For instance, cardinal red on a printer or monitor is really expressed by a set of mathematical coordinates that identify a specific region in a three-dimensional space, which is the gamut of all the colours that the device can display or print. To make that colour less orange, the colour expert distorts (morphs) that region to a new region in the gamut.

The ability to use common words to do this gamut morphing and adjust colour would have far-reaching implications for non-experts as well as graphic artists, printers, photographers and other professionals who spend a significant amount of time fine tuning the colours in documents.

“In the end it’s all about usability,” Woolfe adds, “Colour is so prevalent today, you shouldn’t have to be an expert to handle it.”

Nanotech threat to your safety

Nanotechnology cartoon - Scott Dougherty, LLNLDoes nanotechnology pose a threat to humanity on a par with the threat we face from genetically modified (GM) foods? That is the question asked by various lobbying groups from the verdant greens to the confused consumers. But, governments, academics and commercial bodies see the issue from an entirely different perspective and are asking, will the nanotechnology industry face the same outpouring of hostility as that caused by genetically modified (GM) foods? The kind of outpouring that stymies and often destroys research that could benefit us all.

Nanotechnology, the application of objects and structures that are very small, usually less than 100 nm in diameter is growing rapidly. But aside from the bizarre imaginings of those who originally pioneered the term, this new science is really not much different from what chemists, materials, scientists, and physicists have always done and that is to work with particles, molecules, and other species that just happen to be individually very small. The advent of scanning microscopy techniques has given us a closer look at the structure of atomic clusters, supermolecules and nanomaterials, and new techniques for handling materials at the very small scale or creating species that have novel functionality at this level are emerging all the time. However, the nano, meaning a billionth (in this case a billionth of a metre) is really nothing new, it simply defines the size limits.

Much of the nano that hits the press is nothing of the sort, remember those little cogs and pistons etched in silicon? And, what about the tiny bots that would defur arteries? They are a thousand times bigger than truly nanoscopic objects and the likes of liposomes, which the cosmetic industry briefly marketed as nanotechnology are really nothing of the sort, they are simply supramolecular chemistry given a trendy name.

According to a Leicester University press release this week touting a talk to be
given in May by new media expert Rachel Gibson is studying the nature of the growing online nanotech debate and will present her latest findings to the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in May 2007. The release says that, “at such scales, the ordinary rules of physics and chemistry no longer apply.” This is baloney! The normal rules of physics and chemistry very much apply, at almost every scale. In fact it is at the nanoscale that we can see the beauty of the normal rules of physics and chemistry in action – the quantum effects, such as tunnelling, the formation of electrostatic, non-covalent bonds, the non-linear behaviour that continually astounds but never breaks those laws. These are the normal rules of the physical sciences. There is no mystery about nanotechnology.

That said, the promise of nanotechnology is as big as the grants researchers are receiving should they happen to splash a few “nanos” into the application forms. Novel materials and composites indeed do have huge potential medicine, engineering, communications, transport, even the home.

But, the inevitable questions from environmental groups and ethicists are repeatedly raised. The outpourings of certain British Royals concerning “grey goo” and other garbage do not lend themselves to a sensible debate either. And, yes, there should be a debate if we are finding such unique physical behaviour on this scale that it represents some kind of threat. But, the idea of self-replicating nanobots that chomp their way across the planet, is quite literally, a Michael Crichton plot, I believe, rather than a serious prediction about where nano is heading.

Gibson, however, hopes to examine the efforts of the scientific community to engage with the various social concerns and to assess the extent to which the GM lessons are being learned as nanotechnology (more realistically at the moment mere nanoscience) diffuses into the public consciousness.

She is working with colleagues from the Australian National University, to develop software to study the structure, evolution and implications of the online hyperlinking activities of political and social organisations. The Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks (VOSON) (http://voson.anu.edu.au) thus provides social scientists with the means to study the success of opposition of groups. Watching the evolution of the debate online offers a new way of studying this question, she says, particularly as many of the groups active on the issue are enthusiastic users of the Web.

“This project demonstrates the growing interest among social scientists in applying online technologies, and particularly cyber-mapping tools, to address important social science questions,” she says, “The research allows us to examine the development and expansion of issue networks in a wholly new three dimensional space that means we can track the formation of alliances between groups over time and across countries.”

One cannot help but wonder whether all the money being spent on such endeavours, the cash ploughed into lobbying, and the cost of endlessly debating non-issues, could not be better spent by the nanoscientists themselves to investigate with even greater precision the properties and safety aspects of their discoveries. Surely, the money could assist the maturation of nano, rather than us having to see scientists fending off lobbyists and rebuilding labs, as opposed to GM crops, trashed by extremists.

Build a better mousetrap, they say, and the world will beat a path to your door. While, nano is not really anything but a question of scale, it really could be the better mousetrap we have been looking for, figuratively speaking. Advocates have to hope that those beating at their door are as keen to see the technology mature safely as they are.

Should you worry about HRT and cancer?

Menopausal womanA female friend of a friend started on hormone replacement therapy (to treat quite severe early postmenopausal symptoms, and on the advice of her GP to reduce the risk of osteoporosis). The symptoms have all but been relieved (although it’s difficult to separate out the effects of the HRT hormones themselves from the phytoestrogens she imbibes from soy milk and other related foods).

Either way, the recent Lancet paper, which received lots of media attention, got her all hot and bothered. She’s an earlier finisher, and is likely to be on HRT for ten years or so, is that going to mean she will get ovarian cancer. The tabloid hype surrounding the paper would seem to suggest so, but as with all statistical health studies that get pounced on by the media it’s worth taking a closer look.

Interpreting the results and scaling up to whole number women, as opposed to fractional women, over 5 years, ovarian cancer incidence for those who have never used HRT was 26 per 10,000. It was 30 per 10,000 for HRT users.

The researchers conclude that, “Women who use HRT are at an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Since 1991, use of previous has resulted in 72 additional cancers per year and 55 additional deaths in the UK.” Their results are based on the million women study, in which 500,000 were HRT and 500,000 were not.

Of course, ovarian cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK, with some 6700 developing the malignancy and 4600 dying from it every year. The high incidence of deaths is presumably down to the hidden nature of this form of cancer, which is often not detected until it has reached a lethal stage. 72 additional cancers and 55 additional deaths is a significant but not an enormous increase.

The researchers also add that, “In total, ovarian, endometrial, and breast cancer account for 39% of all cancers registered in women in the UK.1 and 2 The total incidence of these three cancers in the study population is 63% higher in current users of HRT than in never users (31 vs 19 per 1000 over 5 years, figure 6). Thus, when ovarian, endometrial, and breast cancer are taken together, use of HRT results in a material increase in the incidence of these common cancers.”

But, these are risk factors and there is simply no way of making any kind of prediction, with current medical knowledge, of whether or not a particular woman on HRT will suffer any form of cancer because of the HRT drugs she is taking. The researchers mention that as HRT use has declined in the US (partly because of the negative publicity it receives), we are also now seeing falling breast cancer rates there.

According to the author of the paper, Valerie Beral of Cancer Research UK, “It is a small but significant risk. It’s more an issue for women to think about how much they want to take HRT to relieve their symptoms against the known risks.”

However, it’s not all about hot sweats and sexual libido, as life expectancy rises in general and the aspirations of older people for a happy and active retirement rises concomitantly, it will be interesting to see whether a few less cancers will be offset by a rise in osteoporosis incidence and the other “side-effects” of the menopause (particularly early onset menopause).

An elderly neighbour of mine has been in and out of hospital with bone density issues and fractures repeatedly and at one point suffered a potentially lethal hospital-acquired MRSA (multiple-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection as a result. To my mind, she would most likely not have suffered in this way had she taken HRT during the early menopause. But, equally there is also the thought that had she died of cancer sooner than the osteoporosis kicked in, she would not have suffered bone density problems later in life either.

For every statistic, a counter statistic can be found and when the overall risks are very small it is difficult for the public, the media, and even the medical scientists to know for sure which way to push the agenda.

Spiderman v Geckoman

Spiderman No MoreForget Spiderman, Geckoman is where it’s at, at least so suggests research due to be published in the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter. According to Nicola Pugno at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, the secret of making a sticky, but non-stick, material could lie in creating a “hierarchical structure” of branching bristles from ever finer carbon nanotubes. Such a bristly material would mimic the physical properties of gecko feet that allow them to hang effortlessly by a single pad from even the smoothest of surfaces.

Pugno’s calculations suggest that the hierarchical approach could lead to a stiff, non-tangling material with tips flexible enough for temporary adhesion. Previously, the research team has suggested that carbon nanotubes might allow us to build a space elevator, which was blogged about at length in the summer of 2006.

According to a report in New Scientist, Stefano Mezzasalma of the University of Trieste in Italy says the approach definitely could work, “The first prototype of a Spiderman suit might be ready in a decade or so.” But, like I say, move over Spiderman, it’s Geckoman we want to see!

Welcome to Earth 2.0 (beta)

Earth 2.0No, before you switch off, this is not a Second Life clone, or anything to do with global wikis and blogs. This is the first astronomical post on Sciencebase for quite some time, but because it is not your usual run of the mill supernova announcement, or dark energy revelations, we thought it worthy of a slot. Okay, so what’s all the fuss?

Well, astronomers have finally discovered an Earth-like planet beyond the Solar System and it is bigger by half than earth. Most importantly, the exoplanet, spotted with the ESO 3.6 m telescope, by a team of Swiss, French and Portuguese scientists is capable of having liquid water. Could this Earth 2.0 offer human kind a planetary upgrade?

Well, it might be inhabitable, but the beta version has a few technical problems that might be difficult to overcome. First, aside from being 50% bigger than earth and therefore offering a lot of storage space, it also has a mass about five times that of the Earth, which means even the leanest among us will tip the scales. But, perhaps more importantly it orbits a red dwarf rather than a nice life-supporting star like the Sun. Of interest, but not necessarily a problem this planet has a couple of near neighbours, a Neptune-mass planet, and at least one more planet of about eight times the mass of the Earth.

More worrying, though the planet’s clock speed, or “year” is just 13 days and it is 14 times closer to the red dwarf than Earth is to the Sun. But, the exoplanet lies, nevertheless, in the life support zone in which water could be liquid.

“We have estimated that the mean temperature of this super-Earth lies between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, and water would thus be liquid,” explains Stéphane Udry, from the Geneva Observatory, “Moreover, its radius should be only 1.5 times the Earth’s radius, and models predict that the planet should be either rocky — like our Earth — or covered with oceans,” he says.

Team member Xavier Delfosse from Grenoble University, France, has already marked this planet on his treasure map of the Universe, with an X. Of course, any pioneers hoping to boot up a new human race on exoplanet X, will have rather a long upload time, the host red dwarf, Gliese 581, is close to the Earth, lying at 20.5 light years in the constellation Libra. So, it will be a very long time before we have even the vaguest opportunity to get a closer look at Earth 2.0.

Chemical blogs, wikis, and quanta

I recently interviewed quantum chemist Steve Bachrach of Trinity University and asked him his thoughts on the web 2.0 revolution and whether or not chemists might benefit realistically from blogs and wikis.

“Well, this is really an issue of culture. My personal hesitancy to adopt Web 2.0 technologies is that I don’t have the time to read random thoughts by random individuals. I barely have time to keep up with the old-school (i.e., traditional journals) literature in my field. The blogosphere just seemed to me to be filled with the rantings of people who have nothing better to do with their time. Peter Murray-Rust’s blog was the first to demonstrate to me that real chemistry content could be had, that interesting and novel ideas could be found and shared and discussed.”

You can read the complete interview in the latest issue of Reactive Reports together with my regular round up of chemical science news for the site.

 Proteins’ Web of Intrigue  The latent strength of Miss Muffet’s arachnoid friend may have been in sexual allegory, but the image of a spider’s web as somehow weak, a glistening, gossamer netting for trapping only flies could not be further from the truth.

 Stem to Sperm  Stem cells from human bone marrow can be converted into early-stage sperm, according to a research team based at the North-east England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI), Newcastle.

 Dino Remains  We have not quite entered Jurassic Park, but researchers have successfully extracted protein from a 68 million year old Tyrannosaurus rex bone.

Chondroitin Fails Arthritis Test

ChondroitinWith Vioxx, Arcoxia, and potentially all COX2 inhibitors nixed, to what can sufferers of osteoarthritis turn? Many have sought relief in the supposedly natural ingredients of healthy joints – chondroitin and its agent glucosamine. However, there was scant evidence that taking these two compounds together had any benefits whatsoever beyond the anecdotal claims of some users convinced they worked.

Now, a team in Switzerland, where chondroitin is regularly prescribed as a health supplement, have demonstrated that the compound is no more effective in easing hip and knee pain in osteoarthritis than a placebo. Moreover, Peter Juni of the University of Berne suggests that its use should be discouraged.

Chondroitin sulfate is commonly taken as a health supplement because of a supposed association with the benefits in terms of joint “lubrication”. It is usually taken in combination with glucosamine because this compound allegedly acts as a carrier. However, there is no evidence that any individual is ever deficient in glucosamine and the benefits of supplementary chondriotin have not been proved. At best, results have been mixed.

The researchers at the University of Berne in Switzerland, conducted a meta review of data from 20 trials that included more than 3,600 patients with osteoarthritis and found that chondroitin apparently had no effect in relieving osteoarthritis. Details are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Juni says there is no evidence which suggests that chondroitin helps decrease pain more than a placebo.

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One burger could kill

Burger and friesGrandma always said, “Everything in moderation”, but then she always used to take her teeth out to eat soup, so what does she know? Apparently, even moderation can be dangerous, particularly when it comes to high fat food.

Tavis Campbell and colleagues at the University of Calgary have found that just one high-fat meal, a fast-food breakfast for instance, makes you prone to suffer the physical consequences of stress compared with someone eating a low-fat meal.

The team looked at the stress responses of two groups of students: fifteen students were fed a fatty breakfast meal (42 g fat) from a burger bar while the second group of fifteen got to dine on dry cereal with low-fat milk, cereal bars and non-fat yogurt (1 g fat). Both meals had the same number of calories and the low-fat breakfast included supplements to balance it for sodium and potassium, but the total fat content was very different.

Two hours later, the researchers carried out standard physical and mental stress tests and recorded the students’ cardiovascular responses. They performed a mathematical test designed to be stressful, completed a public speaking exercise about something emotionally provocative, held an arm in ice water, and had a blood pressure cuff inflated around an arm, which gradually causes a dull ache.

Regardless of the task, greater CV reactivity was seen in the high-fat group, including raised blood pressure, heart rate and blood vessel resistance. “What’s really shocking is that this is just one meal,” says Campbell.

“It’s been well documented that a high-fat diet leads to atherosclerosis and high blood pressure, and that exaggerated and prolonged cardiovascular responses to stress are associated with high blood pressure in the future,” he says, “So when we learn that even a single, high-fat meal can make you more reactive to stress, it’s cause for concern because it suggests a new and damaging way that a high-fat diet affects cardiovascular function.”

Thankfully, it is not all bad news. Campbell says more research is needed to fully understand how the mechanisms work. “Telling people to never eat something is probably not a good way to promote a better diet,” he says. “At the same time we do have an epidemic of obesity in North America and it’s important that people try to make informed choices.”

Science always hedges its bets in this way. If the argument were about whether to vote left or right, the politicians and lobbyists would make full-on assertions as to even the acute effects of a one-off high-fat vote. Yes, Campbell’s team has only carried out a small preliminary trial, and perhaps underfed and stressed students are not the best control group, but there findings do hint at yet another reason why we should side-step a high-fat diet.

The case is essentially closed on cigarettes in this sense, but individuals can make their own choice. Is it not about time, that the health message were made more forcefully. Maybe one burger is not going to kill you, but some people spend a fortune on finding ways to reduce stress and warding off the effects of aging, if even an occasional high-fat meal inverts all that effort, then perhaps it is time burgers carried a health warning too.

Details of the study are published today in the Journal of Nutrition, 2007, 137, 935-939

Cervical fluids and boron nitride

Two more reports of general interest from my SpectroscopyNOW column. The first is on a new informatics approach to understanding cervical vaginal fluids and the second on a new study of boron nitride the technological wonder material of the future Screening for premature problems
Screening for premature problems
The application of multiple protein identification algorithms to an analysis of cervical vaginal fluid (CVF) can provide a detailed map of biological markers to help researchers understand the course of human pregnancy and the problems that can arise. Preliminary tests suggest it could be used to determine the likelihood of a premature birth.

Inelastic boron nitrideInelastic boron nitride
The results of inelastic X-ray scattering and other techniques have been combined with ab initio calculations to characterise and explain the behaviour of the superficially simple binary material boron nitride. Insights from the research could lead to new ways to exploit the electronic and mechanical properties of hexagonal boron nitride.

Open Access Abbreviated, Combined

Phys Math CentralJust when you thought that the publishers had ran out of combinations of shortened discipline names – PhysChemOrgPhys, ChemCommPhysChem, CommPhysOrgGeoAstroChem (You know who you are!), BioMedCentral(!) is yet to launch another – PhysMath Central. PMC, an open access publishing platform, goes live today with a call for papers for its first journal is officially accepting papers for publication in its first journal, PMC Physics A, B, and C.

My former colleague on ChemWeb(!) Chris Leonard who is now heading up PMC tells me about why this endeavour is so important to the scientific community and publishing in general. “Global access to peer-reviewed research is as essential in the physical sciences as it is in the life sciences,” he says, “The same benefits apply, namely; increased readership, increased citations, decreased access barriers and the retention of copyright by the author.” Leonard is on record as saying that his move from the world of traditional publishing to the OA end of the spectrum represented an epiphany. “I started off at ChemWeb.com and subsequently moved to Amsterdam to work for Elsevier,” he explains, “I have now seen the light and am very happy to be developing physics and mathematics journals for the Open Access publisher BioMed Central.”

BMC explains the rationale behind the launch as being aimed at meeting the increasing demand for open access journals from major research institutes (such as CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and other funding organizations and government bodies. PhysMath Central could make research in physics, mathematics and computer science more widely available and increase access to this research to all institutes and individuals, without the burden of subscription charges. “The demand for open access is growing constantly as all scientists from all disciplines become aware of the benefits of open access publishing,” adds Leonard. Success will hinge, as with any new journal launch, on whether or not the putative authors feel the return on investment of submitting to the new journal will pay off in terms of readership and impact factor.

If the existence of yet more journals in the literature is not enough, PMC is also launching a blog, be sure to add it to your blogroll to keep up with developments and impact factor evolution. Oh, and one more thing, for their British authors: they deliberately missed off the “s” from “maths”.