Blogging about science blogs

I just picked up The Best Science Writing Online 2012, which is just what it sounds like: a collection of blog posts/online articles by a variety of science journalists and professional scientists alike.  I ended up snagging the e-book version.  It just felt appropriate to read it by the glow of a digital screen.

I first heard of it from a review that mentioned the irony of a best-of-the-webs collection being published in a physical book, but followed it with the observation that that’s kind of the point.  (Sorry for not being able to find the actual review…read it last week via a random link, didn’t bookmark it, and now can’t find it again.  Blah.).  There’s a certain stigma among older academics that if it’s online, it’s fluff.  By having a physical published collection, it lends a certain weight to the pieces and says “Hey!  You guys!  Pay attention, cuz this is where technology is taking us whether you like it or not!”  At worst, you might be able to reach audiences that normally wouldn’t even glance at a blog post, and maybe get them to admit that yeah, this stuff is pretty good.  At best, they may even decide that they should start dabbling online too.

But that sells the book a little short.  It’s not all commentary on where science communication is at.  It’s just damned good science writing.  Fluid dynamics of the great sperm race, forensic geology (think Holmes and muddy footprints), and why gin and tonics taste good.

Of course, I am interested in the big-picture state-of-science-writing thing too, so maybe I’m biased.  I’m really curious to see how science writing, both for academic journals and for public audiences, evolves in the next few decades.  Fairly soon, all the experimentalists and big-wig journal editors and lab rats and journalists are going to be people who grew up tweeting and Facebook poking and live-streaming media.  It’ll be interesting to see where they take the system.

I’m probably going to have a few more thoughts about the collection as I read more, so stay tuned or ignore me depending on how much you want to hear about popular science writing.

This just in from your tentacled robot overlords

Terrifying paper title of the day (courtesy of the Whitesides research group):

Robotic Tentacles with Three Dimensional Mobility

The full title is a little bit more verbose (“Robotic Tentacles with Three Dimensional Mobility Based on Flexible Elastomers”) and somehow not quite as frightening.

It’s a pretty neat paper that goes into some of the problems and solutions of building “arms” for robots that can perform a wide variety of arm-type tasks.  It’s a classic problem: how do you make motorized arms that can lift objects with complicated shapes, both without breaking them (if they’re fragile) and with some serious strength (if they’re heavy)?

New journal submission

We just submitted a nice writeup of some if my recent work on semiconducting polymer networks to the ACS’s Chemistry of Materials journal. It’s not going to spark any revolutions in the plastic electronics field, but it’s a really solid contribution towards the ability to fine-tune certain chemistries for making designer applications.

A bit of background for the curious. If you’ve got a smartphone, there are even odds that it uses OLEDs in the display. OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes) are different than older conventional LED lights in that they are made primarily from oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, where the older LEDs would usually contain lots of metals like silicon and gallium. Recently, people have figured out how to exploit OLEDs so that they’re brighter and more efficient than metal-based LEDs. It’s a win-win. Manufactures use cheaper materials (carbon’s cheaper than gallium), and you get a nice bright phone.

But win-win isn’t good enough. Organic electronics folks are looking for is a win-win-win. One of the biggest advantages of organic electronics is theire flexibility. You can do things like this with them:

That’s a flexible OLED display recently developed by Samsung (full disclosure: some of our grant money comes from none other than Samsung).

So why can’t your phone do that yet? To make the flexible stuff competitive in the market, it needs to both last a long time, and be efficiently bright. The OLEDs in your phone are actually quite brittle, largely because they’re a tight package of small molecules that can fracture when you flex them. To get the stable flexibility, you need use loooong chains of molecules – polymers. But polymers aren’t as bright or efficient as the small molecules yet, so no electronic newspapers for anyone so far.

But! We’re working on it. Hence our paper to Chemistry of Materials. The gist of it is that we’ve developed new chemistries for locking long electronic polymers into a stable semiconducting network that emits light. And not only do those chemistries work with a wide range of LED colors, they’re also waaay easy to make in the lab. That’s a good thing: new science isn’t going to make any headway into commercial applications if it’s difficult and complex, no matter how gee-whiz it is. Have people made semiconducting networks before? Sure they have. But our new way is faster, with less harmful side products, and applicable to a wide range of colors that you can stick in a phone or TV.

So at its heart, I’d call this a perfect example of solid incremental-style science. Presentation of some new ideas expanded from older less efficient ones, hashing out the details to show that those ideas can indeed work, and a few pretty “ooh and ahh” pictures and graphs as some (scientifically important!) eye candy. Never underestimate the power of pretty pictures. So we’ll keep our fingers crossed and see what the reviewers say in a month or so.