Category Archives: projects

Origami

I recently read the amazing book “New Expressions in Origami Art” by Meher McArthur, that I found at the shop Paper Tree in the Japan Town of San Fransisco (it’s one of my favorite shops; they always have stunning origami on display, some for sale, from many origamists featured in the book.)

Every page of the book is a delight, where a modern twists (abstraction, wet folding, tessellation) on origami always bring something very fresh.

One Crease, by Paul Jackson

While reading the book and learning about Goran Konjevod (who seems to be a colleague from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), I stumbled on the work of Amanda Ghassaei, who has created the Origami Simulator and many other cool simulation tools producing mesmerizing results.

https://twitter.com/amandaghassaei/status/1352605937077522434

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The scourge of sargassum

I am currently on the island of Saint-Martin, in the French West Indies, about 200 miles away from Puerto Rico, because I couldn’t fly back directly from France, which is still under a Travel Ban order from the US. I have two spend at least two weeks so that I can fly back to Berkeley.

Saint Martin on the map

Walking on beach, it is sad to discover that is littered with sargassum, an invasive algae that barely existed when I was walking my dogs on the beach many years ago. This infestation is quite recent in fact, and somehow started in 2011 (see the excellent piece in The Atlantic by pre-Pulitzer Ed Yong: Why waves of seaweed have been smothering Caribbean beaches.)

Sargassum on Orient Bay, fresh and old (September 2021)

It appears that the bloom may come from the increase in nutrients carried by the Amazon river and making it to the ocean (The great Atlantic Sargassum belt.) Apparently, the problem is becoming more and more acute, and I’ve recently learned that researchers (like my colleagues at Berkeley Lab Lydia Rachbauer) are trying to find enzymes in fish that can actually digest these algae.

Because these algae float in the water, they are effectively a a mix of large floating solar panels, and a potentially a great resource of biofuels, where nothing is needed, since the nutrients are provided for free by farmers from the Amazon river. Apparently, there are companies such as C-combinator who are trying to extract the energy from these algae. I can’t really judge if the economics makes sense (harvesting the algae might be complicated, though they seem very easily visible on satellite images so that might help), but developing adequate techniques for a problem that may blow up seems a good idea.

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Welcome to Gattaca

The movie Gattaca is my favorite movie of all times. It is the story of a person born of natural ways that need to live in a society where everyone has been selected based on their genes. I think it is an absolute masterpiece, with an incredible photography, excellent actors and a very clever script, touching on very deep issues.

I got a chance to visit the place where the movie was filmed, which happens to be the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael, 20 minutes North of San Francisco. The place is absolutely wild.

Marin County Civic Center (botanical garden)

While it seems to be a dystopian intrigue around genetic discrimination, it is actually subtle parable for systemic racism. The movie as a whole is a discussion around the fuzzy notion of meritocracy: people are still supposedly selected on their abilities, and it is formally illegal to conduct genetic testing (extending the notion of “protected characteristics”), but this eventually is a sham. It is interesting to notice that the movie has only two black characters – the geneticist (Blair Underwood) and the interviewer (Clarence Graham) – both serving as gatekeepers, closing the door to applicants who would try to escape their condition.

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Connected papers

I’ve discovered Connected Papers and I think it’s awesome!

https://www.connectedpapers.com/

It’s a tool to see the connection between papers, and therefor ideal to get started in a new field or make sure you’re not missing out on some papers when you’re writing a review!

 

Paper connectivity map made wit Connected Papers

I’m glad to see new tools helping the conduct of science.

Bibliography management is always flaky, even if we have better tools now such as Mendeley, and overall gathering information and getting in touch with specific scientist is still pretty bad (Researchgate is not very good.) There are some interesting aspects to ORCID, though it doesn’t have the adoption levels it should have to be very useful, and AMiner provides interesting information (sorting researchers’ work by fields) but it doesn’t work flawlessly.

ALS-U CD-2

The upgrade of the Advanced Light Source (ALS-U), the project I’m working on, has received CD-2 approval from the US Department of Energy, meaning that we are gearing up towards final design and will soon start ordering tons of magnets and mirrors, and transform our beloved light source into a laser-like source of x-rays, to enable the next generation in batteries, solar cells, computers and medicines (among many other things:)

Advanced Light Source Upgrade Project Achieves Major Milestone

Here’s a few recent highlights from the research enabled by the little synchrotron that could:

Jennifer Doudna, chair of the Advanced Light Source Users’ Executive Committee (around 2001)

A last bit of research by my colleague Alex Frañó (and friend from the ALS Users’ Executive Committee) gets my neurons randomly firing up at night: Rethinking the fundamental way electrons interact in superconducting quantum materials. It progressively appear that skyrmions and superconductivity may be intimately related: A New Twist Reveals Superconductivity’s Secrets (Quanta magazine.) If this is true, we’re on the verge of a major shift: we could potentially engineer interfaces to create room temperature superconductivity. That would be a revolution: we could transfer power from a place to another with no loss (electrical line losses are about 50%) and we could democratize magnetic levitation for transportation.

Dreams

I made it – I finally reached a dream, a promise I made to my mom at the dawn of my life, thirty years ago:

I have become a savant!

We’re going through difficult times, but this news obviously bring some light into this darkness.

Education in synchrotron

A new year is always a good time to try something new, and because we’re all stuck home because of the pandemic, it’s also a good occasion to learn more about some topics in science. I’ve consolidated here some resources that I have enjoyed over the years, or that are not easily accessible (the information about x-rays tend to be scattered, which is something x-ray do very well)

To get started, I recommend going through the free course by Philip Wilmott from PSI on EdX: Synchrotrons and X-Ray Free Electron Lasers. It is pretty comprehensive and covers a lot of the basis of x-ray science; it’s basically a boiled down version of the companion book “An Introduction to Synchrotron Radiation: Techniques and Applications” he wrote in 2011. This would take probably a week full-time, but you can probably stretch them over a few month if you’re not into binge watch (but it is probably as captivating as the Queen’s Gambit.)

The blue glow of the synchrotron radiation (AW 2020)

To mention also: if you’re a grad student working with synchrotrons, I would recommend applying for the three-week National School on Neutron and X-ray Scattering, generally at Argonne National Lab in the summer, but online this time around. I’m not sure if they will increase their cap of 60 participants.

Light source 101

For the ALS User Meeting this year (held remotely), Fanny Rodolakis and Monika Blum organized a new edition of the Light Source 101 workshop, where beamline scientists from the Advanced Light Source explain their science. Luckily, these talks where recorded (they are available as bulk here), and I have edited them in sizeable, 30-min chunks about most of the cool techniques we offer.

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Some thoughts about gender gaps in STEM

Liminary note: I am not a social scientist, but I try to educate myself about some issues facing academia, and this is the result of my inquiries. If you think some elements are incorrect or if you have good resources to share, please let me know!

In this short Life
that only merely lasts an hour
How much – how
little – is
within our
power

Emily Dickinson

Gender gaps in academia are pretty dire, and while it seems to get acknowledged and addressed, it’s not clear whether the root causes – especially social norms – are fully understood and can be solved. The paper Understanding persistent gender gaps in STEM (Science 368, 6497; June 2020, pdf) offers interesting statistics and insights.

Gender gap in physical science majors

The problem does not seem to be a difference in achievement, but social factors rather.

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Scientific mentoring of interns – covid edition

(I owe this piece to a conversation with Laleh Coté – she’s doing an incredible job on STEM mentorship, and even in these difficult times, she documents her observations on how it impacts these efforts.)

I’m always happy to mentor students, for it gives you a change to light a candle, but also forces you to explain things in a legible way – and if you can’t perhaps you don’t really understand things yourself.

Berkeley Lab has a great program for interns, and it comes with some resources: WD&E Mentor Handbook (pdf)

Because of the pandemic, all the summer internships have morphed into virtual internship. While everyone is still trying to figure out how to make it work best, some initial best practices where collected here:  Virtual Remote Mentor Guide -DOE-SC-WDTS Programs- May 2020 (pdf)

Virtual summer internship

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