Music, Pigs and Carbon
In this next to last column of 2009, I am compelled once again to assume the role of a completely unqualified critic of the music scene. To tell the truth, my wife and I are not big fans of chamber music. However, after the concert under the aegis of the LYRICA Chamber Music organization this past Sunday in nearby Chatham Township, New Jersey, we have been converted. The boundless enthusiasm and the superb musicality of the artists brought down the house performing works of Mozart, Mahler and Arensky. But it was the performance by the Neave String Quartet of the composition "How it will go" that brought tears to our eyes. In the interest of full disclosure, the tears were prompted by the fact that it was our granddaughter Dale's award-winning composition in Lyrica's 2nd Annual Young Composer's Competition.
This is the Christmas season and you'll have to excuse a proud grandfather for also calling attention to Dale's appearance with Andrea Bocelli and David Foster in their Christmas show on PBS. Dale was in the red-robed choral group that sang with Bocelli in several numbers on the show. To tell the truth, my wife and I watched the show in it's entirety, 2 hours in length thanks to the fact that it was fund-raising time for our Public TV stations. We did not recognize our granddaughter! However, on consulting with our daughter-in-law, her mother, we spotted Dale in the next performance and could freeze frame her on the DVD I made of the performance. The camera lingered on her full frame for at least one or two seconds!
Aside from the songs in which her group appeared, the most enjoyable segment for me was Bocelli singing with the Muppets, who expressed displeasure with the tempo of Bocelli's singing of "Jingle Bells". Cries of "Boring!" and "Speed it up!" were heard. Miss Piggy, on the other hand, was charmed by Andrea and the slow pace and joined in at the end in her distinctive fluttery voice. (Our granddaughter, incidentally, said she got to meet Kermit, a highlight of the concert for her.)
Aside from Miss Piggy, pigs in general are not held in particularly high esteem when it comes intelligence. But this has changed recently. One measure of intelligence is self-awareness and one way scientists ascertain self-awareness is the mirror test. We've talked previously about an elephant named Happy in the Bronx Zoo. Happy recognized that a mirror was reflecting back her image and would try to remove with her trunk an "X" painted on her head that she could only see in the mirror. Happy and, to a lesser extent, a couple of other elephants joined chimps, humans and dolphins in passing this mirror test of self awareness.
Now Donald Broom and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge in the UK have shown that young pigs should also be included in the select group of those animals passing the mirror test. In a study published in the November issue of Animal Behavior, young pigs were placed in a pen containing a mirror. After several hours in the pen there were indications that the pigs realized that they were viewing themselves in the mirror. To nail down that this was indeed the case, the workers placed a familiar food dish in a location where the dish was behind a barrier. The pigs could not see the food dish directly but could only see it in the mirror.
Out of eight pigs in the experiment, seven realized that the mirror told them where to go to get to the food and these seven proceeded directly to the dish behind the barrier. Only one of the eight pigs did what most animals do in such a situation - look behind the mirror trying to find the food. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the pigs were attracted by other clues such as odor.
So, when you see Miss Piggy, pay her the proper respect. She's possibly almost as intelligent as she would like you to believe! And when you eat that ham or pork, try not to dwell too long on the fact that the source has a degree of intelligence that you had not expected in such a lowly critter.
Having caught up with the latest on mirror cognition in animals, let's turn to another subject that deserves attention - graphene. In at least one earlier column (4/16/2008), I wrote about this form of carbon. If there's an element that stands out over the past few decades it's got to be carbon. And not just because of the widely discussed carbon footprint and the need to cut down on our carbon emissions in the form of carbon dioxide. Over the past few decades, carbon has become known in forms other than diamond and graphite. There are buckyballs, single- and multi-walled nanotubes, and, more recently, graphene.
What caught my attention recently was a report from the annual meeting of the Materials Research Society MRS) in Boston earlier this month. The last time I attended an MRS meeting in Boston was in 1990 and I will never forget it. I came home missing half my blood, got five pints to replace it and spent several days in intensive care. Whether it was the chocolates put on my pillow, the wine and coffee in late dinners, the water in the hotel that tasted like clam juice or a combination of all three, I will never know.
But I digress. As a member of MRS, I get email bulletins on highlights of the meetings and one of the plenary speakers was Andre Geim, one of the fellows I mentioned in that 2008 column on graphene. If you're unfamiliar with graphene, consider your "lead" pencil, which actually writes with graphite. Graphite has a layered structure with the layers consisting of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons; each layer resembles a sheet of chicken wire. The bonds between the atoms in the layers are very strong, the bonding between layers is very weak.
When you write with your pencil the layer bonding is so weak that layers of graphite slide off under the pressure of pencil on paper. What is graphene? Graphene is essentially a layer of graphite that is only one atom thick. You can't get any substance thinner than one atom thick! As I discussed in the earlier column, Geim and his colleagues at the University of Manchester in the UK simply split chunks of graphite and used adhesive tape to peel off layers until they surprisingly found layers of only an atom thick, graphene, and the layers were stable.
Well, scientists jumped in all over the world and graphene became the hot material, with all sorts of interesting electrical, mechanical, optical and chemical properties. (We discussed "tunneling" in the earlier column.) The possibility that graphene could be used for nanocircuits and replace silicon is even being considered. Stick one hydrogen atom on each of the carbon atoms in graphene and you have a new compound, graphane. I won't attempt to consider the possibilities for these new materials. What really caught my attention in the MRS report was that Geim said in his plenary address that groups have been able to isolate large area graphene sheets, even 20-inch diameter wafers! If true, this really blows my mind. Thinking this may have been a typo, I've tried tracking this statement down on the Internet but so far have only been able to confirm 2- and possibly 4-inch sheets of graphene reported by workers at Cornell University. Even being able to handle a 2-inch wafer one atom thick is mindboggling to me.
In this holiday season, another form of carbon, diamond, is touted as the gift that is sure to please the recipient. In the past, I've talked about various efforts to grow artificial diamonds. Obviously, one objective has been to grow diamond crystals for the jewelry trade. Another approach is to grow thin films of diamond for electronic or other applications. Large crystals and large areas have been targets. But a completely different approach was discussed at the December MRS meeting - nanodiamonds.
Why in the world would anyone be interested in teensy diamonds on a nano scale? In an invited talk, Chia-Liang Cheng of the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan discussed how nanodiamonds are becoming important materials for bio- and medical applications. Nanodiamonds, with natural fluorescence and other optical properties can serve as markers to probe interactions at cellular levels. By attaching anti-cancer drugs to the surface of nanodiamonds, the drugs can be delivered to cancer cells. The nanodiamonds can also be used to label cancer cells and, by using laser irradiation to destroy the nanodiamond, the cancer cell is also eliminated.
Well, so much for carbon. Let's end with more on the music scene. I didn't mention that our granddaughter had also sung in choral groups at Lincoln Center and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that our grandson is also musically gifted. He plays sax and/or guitar in the high school marching band, jazz band and in a rock group and, following in his sister's footsteps, sang last night at Lincoln Center with his high school select choir!
Lest you think Old Bortrum devoid of any musical talent, I should point out that I have had piano lessons and my wife actually enjoys those rare occasions when I sit down to play. Unfortunately, I have only one tempo - slow, very slow! It would probably take me an hour to play the Minute Waltz!
Finally, in view of the fact that two weeks from now will be Christmas Eve and I have not begun anything in the way of Christmas chores, I will postpone posting my last paid column for StocksandNews until on or before December 31st, New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, have a happy holiday, be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza or any occasion to enjoy the season.
Allen F. Bortrum