Water x Chemistry: Strong, Colorful and Walking Super Gels

A new technology studied at the University of Tokyo makes a clear gel walk across the floor without you touching it, or makes one block of gel cycle through the colors of the rainbow. Even if the gel is majority (98%) water, when shaped into cylindrical pillars, it can hold up a metal weight on shaking ground instead of crumbling or splattering like jello.

First of all, water-based gel material, or hydrogel, has been around for some time, however, Prof. Aida’s lab at the University of Tokyo discovered a unique combination of water (98%), clay (2%), and organic materials (<0.2%) to make an unprecedentedly tough hydrogel that would stretch and spring back, could be easily molded into various shapes, and would reattach after a fresh cut (“self-healing“). The group made an even greater advance when they found that when this hydrogel is combined with titanium nanomaterials, the resulting new gel material demonstrates even more eye-opening properties:

  • “Walk across the color palette”: is how Prof. Aida described it. Take the hydrogel-titanium nanosheet mix, remove the excess salts, and you can create “photonic hydrogels” that can reflect colors of the visible spectrum. First the hydrogel may look red, but pressing on the gel will then mechanically change the distance between the layered titanium nanosheets and thus the wavelengths and colors they reflect (similar mechanism as in this image). You can watch the gel change through all colors of the rainbow and its gradients. (Work in progress with student Mr. Koki Sano)
  • Walking hydrogels (video above): Hydrogels are temperature-sensitive; they respond to warming and cooling by shrinking by dehydration and swelling, respectively. However, titanium nanosheets can help prevent complete shrinking and swelling, instead causing the hydrogel to contract and expand. Aida lab member Ms. Younsoo Kim ingenuously molded the hydrogel into an L shape, so that when you place it upside down and change the temperature up and down, the stretching and contracting makes it walk across like an inch worm!


Personally selected highlights from talk by Prof. Takuzo Aida, “Stimuli-Responsive Soft Matters towards Artificial Intelligence.” September 15th, 2015, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. Dr. Aida was a great speaker, and he delivered a great talk with entertaining animated slides and “how-to” videos!

Japanese idioms adapted from sword fighting

Shinken, tachiuchi, shinogi…do these words sound familiar? You might be thinking of Japanese sword fighting — or if you know Japanese well maybe you’ve filled in the blanks to these idioms: shinken shobu, tachiuchi dekinai, shinogi wo kezuru.

These idioms in the Japanese language are used today in contexts that have nothing to do with sword fighting; however, they trace their origins to samurai sword combat. Just as life adapts to new environments and evolve over time, language diversifies and changes with the times. A break from the traditional fields of science, today’s post looks at a selection of examples of such evolved language:

“Tachiuchi dekinai (太刀打ちできない)” – Crossing swords in a fight, or sword forms performed as a pair may be referred to as tachiuchi. The phrase tachiuchi dekinai literally means “can’t cross swords”, but in the present day, it’s a general term that means your competitor is too strong and you are no match for that person.

Link to original photo on wikimedia commons.
Photo from KendoBR.

“Shinogi wo kezuru (しのぎを削る)” – Literally, this translates to “shave off the shinogi.” The shinogi is where the cutting edge and dull edge of the blade meet in a line along the side of the katana. In a form of martial art called iaido, there is a move that scrapes each other’s blade as one cuts down and one blocks upwards, which literally is “shaving off the shinogi.” Today, not many people would be thinking of the exact sword part when they use this phrase, since it is an idiom that means to engage in a fierce competition, for example between competing political parties or colleagues striving towards a quota. As the competitors struggle against each other, they draw out each others’ maximum potential. The roots of this phrase refers to how the more fierce and involved you are in a close range battle, the more likely you will wear out the shinogi on a blade.

“Shinken Shōbu (真剣勝負)”Shinken in Japanese directly translates into “serious”, but it also refers to a real sword, that is, one with a sharp, live steel blade. Until practitioners are ready to use a shinken, they often train with a wooden blade or an imitation sword made of zinc/aluminum alloys. Holding a shinken brings a new sense of concentration and tension where you know there is close to no margin of error. It reflects how in old times, a fight using a shinken, or “shinken shobu,” meant you had your life on the line. When someone says to approach a win-or-lose game as a “shinken shobu”, it means you have to take it seriously and give it your all, with no room for play.

In these examples, though the context may no longer be in sword fighting, the phrases preserve the essence of the original meaning. Revisiting this often forgotten history brought me to a new appreciation of the depth and meaning of each phrase.




September 7, 2015Permalink 2 Comments

5 odd and funny moments in questionable academic publishing

If you open up your inbox and see:

Dear Customer,

Due to a recent upgrade, your account must be reactivated […] Click on this link–



I might not even get to the end of the message before hitting the delete button. It’s the same email patterns screaming red flags for scam: asking to click a link to your bank account or a package waiting for you, or offering an interesting business product or job offer where you need to reply with your personal information. It’s so simple, but such phishing attempts have been around for so long that you guess it has to be working.

Something similar has spread in academic publishing. I receive unsolicited emails from scientific journals with a “call for papers.” Given that it came soon after my first publication, the first time it seemed flattering that they invited me to submit to their journal, but wait… do I believe it when an automated voice says on the phone “Congratulations! You won [insert prize]. Claim your prize by calling us now…”? Nope, I’d stop and hang up.

There are suspicious publishers and academic journals that trick researchers into paying high costs to publish their paper quickly, only later to reveal that the authors had handed off copyrights to their hard research work to a journal or publisher with no credibility. Given the variety of academic journals, it might not be as straight forward as those general scam emails to single out a journal as illegitimate — or a “predatory journal” as we call it — but once you start looking closely, you’ll recognize some recurring warning signs.

Using guidelines to identify predatory journals suggested by Scientific Writing instructor Dr. Nelson-McDermott*, here’s my selection of 5 examples I came across recently where odd – and even entertaining – warning signs made me suspect predatory journals:


#1. Spelling its own name wrong


Spelling mistakes or grammar mistakes in official communications are just some initial signs that you may not want your written work to be published through them…but can it get any better than a careless typo in the title, and in the very first word?


#2. The look-alike

Some predatory journals will call themselves a name incredibly similar to an existing reputable journal. It may only differ from the original by a few words, or it may share an abbreviation like the International Journal of Information Research and Review (IJIRR) and another journal called International Journal of Information Retrieval Research (IJIRR), a subscription journal based in the UK.

However, the potentially predatory IJIRR goes a step further. I took a look at some of their published articles, and the format of the paper looked very familiar, but slightly “off”. I looked up a paper from a major publisher Elsevier, and it confirmed my suspicions. Here is just the header, and the near-identical tree logo and formatting: 

Access Elsevier website and sample articles for this journal

On a quick look, IJIRR may look like it is one of Elsevier’s journals, adding some extra credibility (though being with a credible publisher doesn’t necessarily mean a journal is not predatory).


#3. The jack of all trades (master of none)

Usually, an academic journal has a clearly defined scope that focuses its subject matter. This attracts researchers in that field to contribute articles to help advance the academic discourse within their field. It also reflects the expertise of the editors who would lead a critical peer review of submitted works. However, the extreme opposite case is here – the link speaks for itself:


When this journal says they will accept papers for 100 subjects and “etc.” (an indefinite number of topics) and have only a handful of editors to cover all those subjects, does the journal get the “best of all,” or just the worst of all, best of none?


#4. Editor-in-Chief profile image is taken from someone else’s

One journal was caught modifying a professors’s profile image to pose as their Editor-in-Chief with a completely different name. This was covered in the Beall’s List: a compilation of potentially predatory journals and publishers, maintained by a dedicated librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, and one of several key references to evaluate possibly predatory journals.

I revisited this questionable journal‘s editorial board page to find that now the profile photo has been replaced to a photo of 4 people together, the Editor-in-Chief unidentified in the photo and lacking an affiliation. When looking at a journal, you want to be able to identify the Editor-in-Chief or other editorial board members to a legitimate affiliation and address.


#5. Journal accepts an absurd article

There was once a crazy news that an article titled “Get me off Your F**king Mailing List” got accepted to a journal. Regardless of the hype and unlikeliness of seeing such an absurd paper in another journal, when the journal publishes questionable papers and claims “fast publication” within a few days to 2 weeks, you really question the quality of peer review and research presented by that journal.



Note about the current situation of open access

*Recently, a course in Scientific Writing challenged me to evaluate the growing trend towards “open-access”, which refers to academic papers that are freely available to the public (instead of subscription-based). When executed well, the shift to open access have their benefits for fast and broadly accessible research. However, unfortunately predatory journals like the ones discussed above have taken advantage of open access online publications and have spread an impression of low quality research and an unethical academic environment. Open access also poses new challenges for financial and behavioral adaptations required by authors (researchers), publishing conglomerates, funding agencies, institutional libraries who pay for subscription, and public readers of research. It is intriguing to follow how open access is developing in different regions, most recently in Canada.


Cracking the code: color

“Marble berries” have fruits that are not only blue, but shiny, metallic blue. Close up, you can also see flickers of rainbow colors. As the berries’ leaves eventually wither from bright green to dull brown, you would expect these bright blue colors to disappear as well, but somehow the fruits keep the same polished blue color for months, years, and even decades.

Now, soap bubbles may be transparent, but the light somehow makes rainbow colors on the surface as the bubbles float into the sky. Marble berries and soap bubbles actually have colors made in similar ways –  and this is the secret to why marble berries have luminous and long-lasting colors.

Link to original image on flickr.com
Soap bubbles by Martin Fisch.

Surprisingly, it was was a physicist working in materials chemistry who taught me how this plant produces color. By modifying a basic plant material, cellulose, Dr. Silvia Vignolini is trying to recreate the marble berry (Pollia condensata)’s intense blue colors. Imagine if we could make long-lasting color to paint our houses or dye our clothes so they don’t fade, won’t turn white with bleach, and are much cheaper than dyes we currently use.

A key point is that the marble berry and soap bubbles’s colors are produced by structural color. The berry is smooth, but on a microscopic (or even smaller nano-) scale, the berry has stacks of tiny arc-shaped structures on the surface. These shapes help amplify reflected light to produce an intense blue. Different thicknesses of cellulose add red and green to the mix, helping to create a hologram effect. Usually, we see color because of a material’s inherent chemical properties (pigment/dye), but pigment would degrade after a while and the color fades. With structure creating color, the marble berries stay vivid metallic blue as long as the surface structures stay intact.

So far, blue is the most common structural color, but there are lots of other examples of structural color: the sparkly red on hummingbird necks, cat eyes glowing in the dark, or peacock feathers that change color depending on the angle you look at them…we’re making progress to crack the code for nature’s vivid colors.


Inspired by the presentation: Vignolini, Silvia. “Photonic Structures in Plants and Cellulose Biomimetic: From Nature to Materials.” University of British Columbia. Vancouver, BC. 27 Jun 2014. Related publication (

Underground World: Cenote Maya

Link to original image on flickr.
Cenote in Riviera Maya. Photo from dMap Travel Guide.

“The cenote is a must-see in Mexico,” said my colleague before my first trip to Mexico. At that time I had no idea what a cenote was, but hearing it is a beautiful cave with water that shines blue-green in the light, I was sold. One of the first things I did after arriving in Mexico was to book an excursion to the Cenote Maya.

On this excursion, our group’s tour guide Olga explained how cenotes formed and how more than 6000 cenotes exist on the Yucatán Peninsula. According to Olga, Continue reading

March 16, 2015Permalink 2 Comments

Christmas encounter with alpacas

“Come touch these!” I called over to my friends at the Christmas market booth. I thought I found the softest fur I ever touched.

“They’re from alpacas.” The shopkeeper walked over and I shyly drew back my hand, but he smiled and continued. “The special thing about alpaca, is that each strand of fur is a hollow tube. It’s not a twisted fiber like sheep’s wool, so there are no rough edges.”

Alpacas and scarves made from alpaca fiber. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

Alpacas are animals in the same family as llamas and camels. They have very long and full fur, so their annual haircut gives us alpaca fleece that can be used to make scarves, hats, socks, and incredibly soft stuffed animals like the ones I encountered at the market. Continue reading

December 31, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

Dragonflies a marvel for scientists and … samurai

I luckily caught a glimpse of this beautiful blue dragonfly on my last rock climbing trip in Squamish, BC. If you’ve seen a dragonfly in action, it speedily buzzes past, stops to hover a bit, and continues darting here and there. When it finds a place to land, it slowly and gracefully flaps its four wings up and down, but as soon as you get near it’s gone off into the air.

Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.
Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

The way a dragonfly flies actually gave it a symbolic significance in Japanese culture. During my time training in Continue reading

Build a window workshop

Link to original photo on flickr.
Cutting out the sun. Photo by Sam Hughes.

There’s more to window technology than putting together sheets of glass. Some claim you can feel 10°C cooler inside with more efficient windows…how do they do it?

I moved in to a great new apartment with big windows and bright rooms. Unfortunately, summer and west-facing makes a dreading hot room in the evening.

That’s why some big bold letters “feel 10°C cooler” caught my eye. It was advertising a new window product that effectively turns a normal window into a double-paned (or double-glazed) window. Another exaggerated ad, I thought. Sunlight through a window is like pouring boiling water into Continue reading

September 3, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

3 incredible facts about leeches

The thought of leeches would gross some people out, as it is a type of worm that attaches itself to various animal prey and feed on its blood (I do not suggest a google image search of leeches!). However, some incredible characteristics of leeches attract biologists, mathematicians, and doctors.

  1. Link to original image on flickr
    Leopard in hiding. Photo from flickr by SafariTails.com

    DNA from blood in leeches are used to study shy or rare animals that are hard to encounter. Many animals in tropical forests are difficult to find due to their shy or cryptic nature, and this becomes a problem for endangered mammals that need to be closely monitored. Instead of going through the trouble of searching for the mammals or collecting traces of them, scientists turned to leeches. Since leeches feed on blood from other animals, scientists can extract DNA of whatever was prey to the leech within the last 4 months. With this information, scientists were able to better confirm the existence or distribution of threatened species, study genetic characteristics, and even discover new species.

  2. Link to original image on publicdomainpictures.net
    Reimaging of a heartbeat on Public Domain Pictures.

    Leeches have a weird pattern of heart beats! The human heart pumps blood around the body as its 4 chambers – 2 on the right, 2 on the left – contract in turns. In contrast, the leech heart has a row of 10-15 chambers on each side (right and left) of its body. As Ian Stewart describes eloquently in his book Mathematics of Life, all the right side chambers first beat in sync. At the same time, the left side chambers take turns, sending a wave of pulses from the back to the front of the leech. After 20-40 beats, the left and right side patterns switch, so now the left chambers beat together, while the right chambers beat in sequence. At any moment, one side of the heart is beating together, while the other side beats in a wave. Extensive studies model the neurological driving forces of this odd heart beat, but scientists still don’t know why they beat this way.

  3. Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
    Surgery room. Photo from wikimedia commons.

    The chemicals that leeches secrete are helpful in surgery. When a leech attaches itself to its prey, it secretes a natural anaesthetic and anticoagulant that keep blood from clotting and allow it to keep flowing until the leech is full. To surgeons, this makes leeches useful tools to allow a healthy blood flow while amputated parts of the body are reattached. Records from as early as 2500 years ago suggest that leeches were used for medicinal purposes to draw blood out of a patient to cure various illnesses. Though these older methods are no longer supported by scientific evidence, the legacy of the “medicinal leech”, Hirudo medicinalis, carries on to modern medicine.



Ask the moss about heavy metals

Surrounded by atmospheric scientists at work, I imagine this type of equipment for air quality monitoring:

Link to original image on wikimedia commons.
An air quality monitoring station. Photo from wikipedia.
Link to original image on Flickr
Air pollutant monitoring equipment by Barnaby Smith / Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on Flickr

but apparently, moss like these –

Link to original image on wikimedia commons
Sphagnum moss. Photo from wikipedia.

are inexpensive and efficient tools for monitoring heavy metals in the atmosphere.

People have known for a while that moss are able to absorb these pollutants. Norway has a cool map of heavy metal concentrations and the changes over the past 40 years, all using moss as a source of data. See the map of lead, for example.

Plants with roots take up nutrients from the soil, but moss lack roots and instead absorb their nutrients directly from the air moisture. Moss also lack a continuous protective cuticle layer that makes moss tissue more permeable to gas exchange. This makes them better indicators of air pollutants. Continue reading