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What now for the scientific world view?


Corkscrew laser beams serve up data deluge


Protein from methane can feed the world WEEKLY November 19 - 25, 2016














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Volume 232 No 3100

This issue online





We’ll continue to champion reason, and urge others to join us


First home brain implant


UPFRONT New Zealand hit by quakes. Superagers have Alzheimer’s plaques. NHS loses HIV drug fight. Hottest year ever 8 THIS WEEK Distance record for twisted light. Young human blood rejuvenates old mice. Natural gas feeds farms. IVF eggs made from leftovers. Radio wave bursts pack a punch 14 IN BRIEF Australia’s bunnies eat like koalas. Tasting Europa’s ocean from space. Scouts have better mental health. The brain’s tickle spot


Paralysed woman can now communicate by thought alone

On the cover


18 New dark ages What now for the scientific world view? 9 Twisted light Corckscrew laser beams serve up data deluge 10 Gas guzzlers Protein from methane can feed the world

Welcome to the future To celebrate 60 years of New Scientist, we explore what the next 60 might bring

Analysis 18 President Trump The surprise US election result will change the nation and the world 21 COMMENT Fear’s primitive power led many Americans to make a risky political embrace

Technology 24 Social media squad hunts human rights abuses. Fingertip camera lets blind people read. DeepMind AI learns physics. VR that makes you sick

Aperture 28 Humpback tangled in an internet cable


48 Stanisław Lem was right about everything. Everything


He held the future in his mind

Features 30 Welcome to the future What would happen if… we created artificial intelligence in our image, found a theory of everything, put a colony on Mars, re-engineered our DNA or turned against science? Plus, the man who had the future inside him (see left)

Culture 52 Playing politics Do government attempts to nudge better public behaviour work? 53 Sailors’ curse Why scurvy was tough to nail 54 Take it easy! Rest is a serious business

Coming next week… Pain in the brain

Breaking the pain cycle will take more than drugs

Small wonders

Precision experiments to remodel reality

Regulars 60 63 64 65

LETTERS Excluded from uncanny valley OLD SCIENTIST Novembers past FEEDBACK English air for £80 a pop THE LAST WORD Vicious spin

19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 3

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Discover strange and stunning animals, epic landscapes, extreme explorers‌ alongside the best wildlife photography. Buy your copy from all good magazine retailers or digitally. Find out more at



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Interesting times We’ll continue to champion reason, and urge others to join us “REALITY is that which, when you are now an integral part of our stop believing in it, doesn’t go lived experience, and Facebook away.” So concluded Philip K. Dick, has become a uniquely powerful whose science fiction novels were delivery vehicle. If it values a free often set in our present day and and fair media, it must take this frequently involved characters criticism seriously and, at a bare struggling to tell artifice and minimum, stop serving up lies in authenticity apart amid an the name of profit. onslaught of ambiguous media. Zuckerberg’s argument is That might seem prescient more obviously valid in another in light of political shocks in the context. For decades, the ruling US and UK. Both were driven elites and their friends in the by campaigns in which fiction media have ignored the masqueraded as fact, run by experience of those left behind by people who didn’t recognise – or “In the 60 years since perhaps didn’t care about – the New Scientist was founded, difference between a fact and an reason and discovery have opinion, or for that matter an transformed the world” opinion and a belief. As New Scientist turns 60, it is worth reflecting on the role of the globalisation and neoliberalism. Addressing that does not mean media in creating these unreal pandering to those Hilary Clinton times. Social media certainly impolitically called “deplorables”. has a lot to answer for. Critics of Facebook, for example, argue that But it does mean understanding their discontent and tackling the by giving fabricated stories the causes of it (see page 21). same credence as factual ones, It remains to be seen if Donald it has entrenched and polarised Trump’s incoherent campaign opinion. Its newsfeed is designed not to tell users what they need to pledges will coalesce into a know, but to show them what they policy package that can do that, or one that simply fuels fear and like to see, even if that includes resentment. So far, it doesn’t look blatantly fake “news”. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg good (see page 18), though the markets’ unexpectedly positive has brushed off such critiques, saying that voters go by their lived response to his election offers slender hope that he might experience. That’s true up to a point. But the media we consume achieve some economic good.

Even if the next four years are a disaster, they may only be a blip. Over the six decades of New Scientist’s existence, the world has been transformed – mostly for the better – through reason, discovery and innovation, supported by the kind of reality-based worldview that we champion. Let us be optimistic for a moment, and assume reason prevails. From where we are, it’s possible to see a future in which scarcity is history, work optional, and energy clean and almost free (see page 32). But plenty can go wrong. To make the future we want, we must face up to the reality that the world’s most powerful nation is in the hands of a man who has fomented bigotry, sneered at expertise and praised authoritarianism at every turn – and fight for what we believe in. The big fear is that one of Dick’s most feted books – The Man in the High Castle, which depicts the US under totalitarian rule – also proves prescient. Of course, Dick’s warning is unlikely to influence those now in power. But consider a line that can be traced back to right-wing icon Ayn Rand: “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” Whoever you root for in politics, reality will always be the winner. ■ 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 5



Fears of a bigger quake NEW ZEALAND continues to shake after being hit by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake – with fears that the underground stress could set off even bigger tremors. “An earthquake like this can increase the risk of a major earthquake nearby, although it can also decrease stress on a nearby fault and lessen the risk,” says John Ristau at GNS Science, a geoscience research firm near Wellington. There is a 32 per cent chance of a magnitude 7 or larger earthquake within the next 30 days, he says. The quake struck 90 kilometres north-east of Christchurch on the South Island on 14 November, just after midnight local time. It killed two people, tore up buildings and roads in the rural area, and triggered

thousands of landslides and hundreds of aftershocks. It also triggered a tsunami warning that was later cancelled, as waves reached only around 2 metres high. According to preliminary data, the earthquake occurred on a previously unknown fault near the boundary between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. The South Island was thrust up over the Pacific plate with some sideways slip. The stress change could trigger a powerful earthquake at the Alpine fault on the plate boundary, says Kevin McCue at Central Queensland University in Australia. If the 600-kilometre fault ruptures for the first time since 1717, it will produce one of the biggest earthquakes in New Zealand since European settlement, says Ristau.


“superagers” to try to understand their exceptional memories. Of the eight donated samples, two contained so many plaques and tangles that they looked like severe cases of Alzheimer’s. We think plaques are linked to the loss of neurons in the brain during Alzheimer’s. But not only do superagers have no symptoms, their brain samples also had many more neurons than those from people who died with the disease. “It points to some unknown factors that protect some elderly from the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s,” says Rezvanian.

–Some routes were impassable–

HIV drug on NHS?

NHS England does have the power to commission PrEP, a decision that has now been supported by three Court of Appeal judges. “PrEP works, it saves money, and most importantly it has the power to prevent HIV acquisition for thousands of people, at the same time as beginning to end the HIV epidemic,” says Deborah Gold from the National Aids Trust, which brought the original case. “This judgement brings that possibility one step closer.” It is expected that providing PrEP services could cost up to £20 million annually.

THE UK’s NHS does have the power to fund a preventative HIV treatment. NHS England has lost its appeal over a High Court ruling that it has the legal power to commission PrEP, a treatment

that has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV infection in people who are at high risk by more than 90 per cent. PrEP, or “pre-exposure prophylaxis”, involves giving people at high risk of HIV the anti-retroviral drug Truvada to avoid infection. In May, a commissioning committee within NHS England decided not to commission PrEP, saying it lacked the power to do so under NHS legislation and regulations. NHS England argues that the responsibility for services that prevent the spread of HIV lies with local authorities. But the High Court ruled that 6 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016


“It has the power to prevent HIV acquisition for thousands of people, and help end the epidemic”

SOME 90-year-olds manage to retain youthful minds – despite their brains having the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. The finding, presented on 14 November at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, raises questions over the role protein plaques and tangles play in the disease. Aras Rezvanian at Northwestern University in Chicago and his colleagues examined brain samples donated by such

Reindeer tragedy TENS of thousands of reindeer in Arctic Russia starved to death in 2006 and 2013 because of unusual weather linked to global warming. The same conditions in the first half of November led to both famines, which killed 20,000 deer in 2006 and 61,000 in 2013. Sea ice retreated and unseasonally warm temperatures contributed to heavy rains, which later froze the snow cover for months, cutting –Another famine on its way?– off the animals’ lichen food

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Healthy equality

supply (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0466). “Reindeer are used to sporadic ice cover, and adult males can normally smash through ice around 2 centimetres thick,” says Bruce Forbes at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland, who led the study. “But in 2006 and 2013, the ice was several tens of centimetres thick.” This September saw the secondlowest Arctic sea-ice cover on record, prompting fears of another famine. “If it happens again, it will be a major problem for traditional reindeer herders still suffering from losses in 2013,” says Forbes.

FIGHTING germs helps feminism. It seems that better control of infectious diseases has driven improved gender equality. Gender equality flourishes when women are able to focus on their education and careers. Michael Varnum at Arizona State University and his team investigated whether four potential threats to this – infectious diseases, resource scarcity, war and climate stress – have affected gender equality in the US and UK over the past seven decades.

Chinese space food


Infectious diseases turned out to be the only strong predictor. When infection rates dropped, measures of gender equality – such as female wages and political representation – improved proportionally between 15 and 25 years later (Nature Human Behaviour, The findings suggest that better public health has propelled the gradual narrowing of the gender gap since the early 1970s in the US and UK, Varnum says. Improvements in infection control are likely to have similar benefits for women in developing countries, he says.

We’re living at the hottest time


INSECTS, weeds and rice are THIS year is set to be the hottest ever recorded globally, beating 2015’s growing on the Chinese space record temperatures, the World station, and could pave the way Meteorological Organization has said. for future food sources for Global temperatures this year astronauts. are approximately 1.2°C above China’s Tiangong-2 space station launched on 15 September, pre-industrial levels and 0.88°C above the average for 1961-1990, and two astronauts have been which the WMO uses as a reference living there since mid-October. period. As a result, 2016 is on track to The station includes experiments be the hottest year in records dating growing thale cress – an edible back to the 19th century. Sixteen of weed – and rice in microgravity. the 17 hottest years on record have Chinese news sources are occurred in the 21st century. reporting that the cress has The provisional assessment flowered and some of the rice by the WMO has been released plants are 10 centimetres tall. to inform the latest round of UN The station also hosts an climate talks in Morocco, which experiment designed by Hong are focusing on implementing the Kong middle school students world’s first comprehensive climate involving six silkworms, which previous studies have suggested could be protein sources for long space journeys. Five of the silkworms have spun cocoons. When the astronauts return to Earth, which is expected around 18 November, they will bring cress samples back with them. The rice experiment will continue for several months. This is not the first time we’ve grown food in space – astronauts on the International Space Station ate lettuce grown in orbit. But the Tiangong-2 experiment lets scientists on Earth control the incubator environment remotely. –No warmer year on record so far–

treaty, the Paris Agreement. This year’s high is partly down to a powerful climate phenomenon in the Pacific known as El Niño, which pushes up global temperatures and which led to a spike in temperatures in the early months of the year. “Three record-breaking years for global temperature would be remarkable,” says Peter Stott a  the UK’s Met Office. “As the El Niño wanes, we don’t anticipate that 2017 will be another record-breaking year in the instrumental record.” But 2017 is still likely to be warmer than any year prior to the last two decades because of the underlying extent of global warming due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, he says.

Ditch the fakers Google and Facebook have moved to stop fake news sites from making money from advertising. Google will prevent websites with misleading content from using its AdSense online ad network to earn money, while Facebook is updating its policy to stop ads appearing alongside “misleading or deceptive” content.

Blood pressure boom More than a billion people have high blood pressure, finds an analysis of four decades of data. In 1975, only 594 million had the condition. The largest rises were in some African and Asian countries such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh (Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31919-5).

Carbon emissions stall Global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels have seen almost no growth for three years even as the economy has grown. Emissions did not increase in 2015 and are expected to rise only 0.2 per cent in 2016, according to new data (Earth System Science Data,

Cockatoo genius A Goffin’s cockatoo named Figaro proved to be smarter than the average bird by tearing a splinter off a chunk of wood as a tool to obtain an out-of-reach treat. Some doubted the intent behind the feat, but now the parrot has shown it can fashion the right tools from different materials, suggesting it knows what it is doing (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0689).

Space tortoise Chinese spacecraft Traveller II took its maiden flight on 10 November, with an unusual passenger: a tortoise. The animal was meant to test the vehicle’s life support systems, but because the craft only reached an altitude of 12 kilometres, short of its 20 kilometre goal, the tests proved inconclusive. There is no word on whether the tortoise survived.

19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 7


First brain implant that can be used at home

8 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

a pacemaker. This implant wirelessly sends a signal to a tablet computer, which can transform it into a simple “click”. Other software on the tablet permits the click to be used for various things, such as playing a game or using a speller to select words and communicate. De Bruijne volunteered to have the system implanted last year. “I want to contribute to possible improvements for people like me,” she says. –Hoping to help others, too– The team inserted an electrode over a brain region that controls “We thought, ‘let’s make it simple movement of the right hand. for a patient who really needs it’.” After multiple training sessions, His team’s interface uses which involved using the system electrodes placed on the surface to spell words and play games of the brain, just underneath such as whack-a-mole and Pong, the skull. When brain activity is De Bruijne learned to trigger a recorded by an electrode, a signal click by imagining moving travels through a wire to a small her hand. device, which can be implanted After six months, her accuracy under the skin of the chest, like was 95 per cent, says Ramsey, who

FIGHTING PARALYSIS Combining brainpower with electronics is rapidly rolling back the limitations of paralysis. The electrodes in Hanneke De Bruijne’s brain are helping her communicate (see main story), but electrodes have also helped a partially paralysed man to recover some use of his hand. It was announced in April that linking the motor cortex area in his brain to an electrode sleeve on his arm allowed him to pour liquid from bottles and play Guitar Hero. Electrodes can also restore a sense of touch. A study in October reported that a quadriplegic man was able to

feel as if he was touching objects via a robotic arm, thanks to electrodes in his somatosensory cortex. Brain implants are not the only show in town. Caps of electrodes, worn on a person’s head, have enabled some paralysed people to walk. The caps transmit brain signals to an exoskeleton, which is worn a bit like a pair of trousers and moves when signalled. An exoskeleton isn’t always needed. In 2015, a paralysed man learned to walk without one, thanks to an EEG cap that sent signals to muscle-stimulating electrodes implanted in his legs. Andy Coghlan


A PARALYSED woman has learned to spell words and communicate via electrodes in her brain. It is the first time a person has been able to use a brain-computer interface at home in their daily life. “It’s special to be the first,” Hanneke De Bruijne, told New Scientist. De Bruijne is 58 years old and has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a disease that ravages nerve cells. Within a couple of years of her diagnosis in 2008, she could no longer breathe by herself and needed a ventilator. “All muscles are paralysed. I can only move my eyes,” says De Bruijne. “She is almost completely locked in,” says Nick Ramsey at the Brain Center Rudolf Magnus of the UMC Utrecht in the Netherlands. When Ramsey met De Bruijne, she relied on an eyetracker to communicate. Using this, she can choose letters and spell out words on a screen. This works for now, but one in three people with ALS loses the ability to move their eyes. Teams around the world have been working on systems that are controlled directly by the brain instead. These devices read brain activity and translate it into signals that can control a computer or a robotic limb, for example (see “Fighting Paralysis”, right). But so far, none of them fits easily into people’s lives at home. A team of engineers usually needs to recalibrate such devices on a daily basis, and many are so complex that they cannot work wirelessly. “They have not been useful for anyone,” says Ramsey.


An implant has enabled a woman paralysed by ALS to communicate by thought alone, hears Jessica Hamzelou

presented his work at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, California, last week. “The system really works,” he says. “It surprised us.”

Taking back control It can take a few minutes to spell a single word using the device, but De Bruijne is getting faster. At first, it took her 50 seconds to select a letter – now she can do it in 20 seconds. Her eye-tracker is faster, but the implant works better in natural light. “Now I can communicate outdoors when my eye-track computer doesn’t work,” says De Bruijne. “I’m more confident and independent now outside.” The system’s simplicity is what makes it so suitable for daily life. “It’s an extremely simple system, and doesn’t require any fancy computers,” says Ramsey. Because the system is powered wirelessly, others can’t see it – something many candidates for brain implants say is important to them.

In this section ■ Natural gas feeds farms, page 10 ■ Surprise US election result will change the world, page 18 ■ Social media squad hunts human rights abuses, page 24

Twisted light beams a greeting across 143 km

“It’s special to be the first. I’m more confident and independent now when I go outside” says Nicholas Hatsopoulos at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Ramsey and his colleagues hope to test the system in other people. Now that his team have improved the tablet’s software, Ramsey expects the next volunteer will be able to learn to use the device more quickly. More sophisticated software that

my wheelchair,” says De Bruijne. She has been equipped with a back-up. In case the area of her brain responsible for movement degenerates, the team have also placed an electrode over the part of her brain that she uses to count backwards. She has not learned to click using this electrode yet, but she may need to one day. “She has had [the device] for a year now, and says that it is part of her, and she uses it a couple of times a week,” says Ramsey. “She didn’t expect that it would turn out to mean so much to her.” ■


But there is a downside to the device’s simplicity: it probably won’t be capable of more complex tasks, such as controlling robotic limbs, says Andrew Jackson at Newcastle University in the UK. “There’s a limit to the amount of information you can get,” he says. However, it is still a beneficial approach for those who are paralysed, whether as a result of motor neuron diseases such as ALS, or after a severe stroke, for example. “For these patients, it could be a really important thing,”

TWISTED light has transmitted information across 143 kilometres of open space — almost 50 times further than the previous record. The breakthrough could revolutionise how we communicate with satellites. Light is an electromagnetic wave that has crests and troughs. It also has a property called phase, which governs when the crests or troughs reach a particular point in space. Normally, all the waves that make up a beam of light have the same phase, so their crests or troughs are in sync. Not so with twisted light: different parts of a twisted light beam have different phases, making the beam appear to move like a corkscrew. The amount of twists in the corkscrew can be used to encode information. Crucially, there is no theoretical –Reading the mind– limit to how many twists you can encode in a single beam, and hence no limit to the amount of information you is better able to predict and can store in it. This makes it ideal for complete words based on the communications, especially with first couple of letters could also satellites. But atmospheric turbulence speed things up. can disrupt twisted light. Ramsey’s team wants to In 2014, Anton Zeilinger at the develop software that can University of Vienna in Austria and translate clicks into other colleagues transmitted twisted light functions. “With the right through the air over Vienna. They software, we could use it to, encoded enough information to send for example, turn off the TV,” images of Mozart and Boltzmann. says Ramsey. “We could use But that was sent only 3 kilometres. icons to control appliances in The light would have to make it across the home. You could conceivably tens if not hundreds of kilometres of do a lot with a click.” “My dream is to be able to drive free space without disruption if it

were to be used for communications. “We were interested in whether such beams can survive such long distances,” says Zeilinger’s colleague Mario Krenn. So the team went to the Canary Islands, where they sent a beam of twisted laser light 143 kilometres between islands. They encoded the message “Hello World!” in the signal. It arrived with only one error — a “P” instead of a “!” (PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1612023113).

“They encoded the message ‘Hello World!’ It arrived with only one error – a ‘P’ instead of a ‘!’” The speed of encoding and decoding the message made this method slower than Morse code, and more like that of smoke signals. “We found this very amusing,” says Krenn. But Alan Willner, who works on twisted light communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is impressed. “It really was a question. Could you go over long distances?” he says. “This is a wonderful demonstration to say, ‘Yes, you can’”. The next step is to speed up the system using well-known techniques, such as adaptive optics, which can correct for atmospheric turbulence in real time. “It leads to a lot of excitement about where this is going,” says Willner. Anil Ananthaswamy ■

–Twisting the light away– 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 9


Our food could soon come from methane feed a year for farmed fish. Unibio, a rival biotech company based in London, opened a similar-sized facility in Denmark in October. Both companies want to rapidly scale up production and are promoting the process as having environmental benefits. So, is turning fossil fuels into animal feed a good idea? That depends on what you think is

ALL of the food you’ve ever eaten originated with sunlight captured by plants just a few months or years before you ate it. But some of the energy on your plate could soon come from sunlight captured by plants millions of years ago, thanks to plans to make animal feed from fossil fuels. Californian biotech company Calysta has announced the first ever large-scale factory that uses microbes to turn natural gas – methane – into high-protein animal feed. The factory, which will be built in the US in collaboration with food giant Cargill, will produce 200,000 tonnes of feed a year. The feed has already been approved in the European Union for use with farmed fish and livestock such as pigs. Calysta is seeking approval in the US, too – and not just for farm animals. “We want to take it all the way to cats and dogs, and potentially even humans,” says the head of Calysta, Alan Shaw. In September, Calysta opened a small facility in Teesside in the UK to produce up to 100 tonnes of

Teenage blood has power to restore youth BLOOD plasma from young people has rejuvenated old mice, boosting their memory, cognition and physical activity. The method shows promise for use in people, says Sakura Minami from Alkahest, the company behind the work. Earlier research found that injecting old mice with plasma – the liquid part of blood – from young mice 10 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016


Michael Le Page

can reinvigorate the brain and muscle. To find out if plasma from young people might have the same benefits, Minami and her team took blood samples from 18-year-olds, and injected them into 12-month-old mice. At this age, the equivalent of around age 50 for people, the mice start to move more slowly, and perform badly on memory tests. After receiving two human plasma injections a week, for three weeks, the middle-aged mice ran around like young mice. Their memories seemed to improve, and they were much better at remembering the route

most important when it comes to protecting the environment. If done on a large scale, the process would reduce the demand for land to grow food for livestock, as well as the demand for wild fish to feed to farmed fish. “You need millions of tonnes to have an impact,” says Shaw. But it would also increase emissions of carbon dioxide, accelerating global warming. “Using fossil fuels as an energy source as opposed to sunlight is not very environmentally sound,” says Bob Rees at Scotland’s Rural College in Edinburgh, UK. One day, the technology might

also feed space explorers. SpaceX head Elon Musk’s plans for Mars exploration include generating methane and oxygen for making rocket fuel. Some could be used to make food, too. “We have been in touch with SpaceX,” says Shaw. The process relies on microbes that feed on methane. These methanotrophs essentially “burn” methane to get energy, producing CO2 and water as waste products. Some of this energy is then used to combine other methane molecules into more complex organic molecules – food, in other words. This ability first evolved billions of years ago – it likely predates photosynthesis – and today methanotrophs can be found wherever there’s methane to feast on, from cold seeps on the sea floor to ponds and marshes. Calysta is using a bacterium called Methylococcus capsulatus. The bacteria are grown in vats, fed methane, and are then dried and turned into pellets. The idea was first explored by Norway’s stateowned oil firm, Statoil, which in the 2000s built a plant capable of producing 10,000 tonnes of feed a year. At the time, gas prices were high and the product hadn’t been approved in the EU, so the plant closed. Now that approval is in place and natural gas prices are lower, Shaw is betting that the technology is ready for the big –Food for thought– time – as is rival Unibio. ■

around a maze than untreated mice of the same age. “Young human plasma improves cognition,” says Minami, who presented her findings at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, California, on 14 November. “The blood of young people must have something in it that’s important for keeping them young,” says Victoria Bolotina, at Boston

“The blood of young people must have something in it that’s important for keeping them young”

University in Massachusetts. Minami says she has pinpointed some factors in young blood that might be responsible for these benefits, but she won’t reveal what they are yet. She hopes to translate the findings into an anti-ageing treatment – one that might help those who are feeling the effects of their brain ageing. “There’s anecdotal evidence that people experience benefits after blood transfusions,” Minami says. Alkahest is already trialling young blood in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Jessica Hamzelou ■

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THIS WEEK Mystery radio bursts spew gamma rays too

IVF eggs from leftover DNA Jessica Hamzelou

COULD this be a way to make more eggs? A technique that uses their genetic leftovers could double the number collected in IVF. In a typical IVF treatment, a woman takes drugs to stimulate more eggs to mature and be released than normal. A doctor then surgically removes the eggs and fertilises them in the lab. The healthiest embryos are then implanted in the uterus in the hope they will develop into a fetus. To be successful, it helps to have lots of eggs in the first place. With drugs, most women can produce around 10 to 15. But older women or those with a low egg reserve release much fewer, meaning they may need more rounds of IVF treatment to get pregnant. Now Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and his colleagues have found a way to increase the number of eggs. In the two cell divisions that create an egg, three other tiny cells are 12 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

also produced. These are known as polar bodies and eventually degrade, but they each contain all the DNA a normal developing egg would have, prompting Mitalipov to wonder whether this could be put to good use. His team collected eggs from 11 volunteers using the standard IVF approach, which involves collecting eggs just as the first polar body forms. Instead of discarding the polar body, the researchers placed it alongside an egg donated by another individual that had its DNA-containing nucleus removed. These eggs were able to incorporate the polar body, which seemed to replace the missing nucleus. This meant each woman had a set of her own eggs, plus donor ones carrying her DNA in their nuclei. The eggs were then fertilised using sperm from a donor. “Most of the resulting embryos look very normal,” says Mitalipov, who subjected them to rounds of genetic and epigenetic testing to screen for any signs of unusual development (Cell Stem Cell,

BLASTS of radio waves from space may deliver a much bigger wallop than expected. For the first time, we have seen one of these enigmatic fast radio bursts occurring together with a spurt of gamma rays, meaning their joint source may be a billion times more energetic than we thought. FRBs have proved baffling since their discovery in 2007. Each torrent of radio waves lasts no more than a few milliseconds and we have only –Don’t waste the scraps– spotted 17 of them so far. Finding accompanying signals at other wavelengths may be the key to Although the technique decoding their source. But to observe could in theory double the such a paired event, we would have to number of eggs produced in be watching the same area of the sky IVF, at the moment Mitalipov with a radio telescope and a telescope reckons it could increase the operating at different wavelengths number by 50 per cent. “That is when an FRB occurs there. actually huge for IVF,” he says. “We’ve been really unlucky so far: “Around 60 per cent of IVF we’re almost always looking in the patients have infertility due to wrong places to be helpful,” says age. The number of eggs these Emily Petroff at the Netherlands women have declines.” Institute for Radio Astronomy. The procedure has benefits But now we have a match. Derek and drawbacks, says Bert Smeets Fox at Pennsylvania State University at Maastricht University in the and his colleagues studied old data Netherlands. “It’s nice that they from the Burst Alert Telescope on are able to reuse the material NASA’s Swift spacecraft to see if any [from the polar body], but you

still need a donor egg,” he says. “This points to their source He points out that the extra eggs also have donor DNA in their being a more catastrophic event such as a supernova mitochondria – small bodies that or neutron star merger” generate power for the cell. This probably communicates with gamma-ray bursts coincided with nuclear DNA, and we don’t know FRBs. They found one example from whether having DNA from two 2013 ( different sources will cause any That challenges lower-energy problems later in life, he says. explanations for FRBs and points to “The simpler thing to do would their source being a more catastrophic be to have children younger, event such as a supernova or neutron or freeze your eggs at a younger star merger. But it also increases age,” says Smeets. the mystery in some ways, Fox says. The technique would have “The whole suite of properties that to be approved before it can be we observed doesn’t really line up offered in fertility clinics, but it exactly with any of the predictions.” looks safe, says Jacob Hanna at Finding more bursts will help. “I’ve the Weizmann Institute of Science got my party hat ready,” says Petroff. in Rehovot, Israel. “There are no “I think we’ll have the answer in the red flags or scary signs,” he says. near future.” Leah Crane ■ “It looks as safe as possible.” ■



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IN BRIEF Red squirrels carry leprosy in UK

Smallest sliver of time shows electrons fleeing atom FOR the first time, physicists have measured changes in an atom to the level of zeptoseconds, or trillionths of a billionth of a second – the smallest division of time yet observed. In this case, the speed demon was an electron escaping the bonds of its parent atom when struck by a photon. This electron ejection is known as the photoelectric effect, and was described by Albert Einstein in 1905. Previous experiments could only measure what happened after the electron was kicked out, says Martin

Schultze at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany. Now, he and his colleagues have measured the ejection of electrons from a helium atom from start to finish with zeptosecond precision (10-21 seconds), marking the smallest time slot ever measured. To do this, they fired ultraviolet laser pulses lasting 100 to 200 attoseconds (10-18 seconds) at a helium atom to start exciting its pair of electrons. By making many readings and calculating their statistical spread the team could measure events with a resolution of 850 zeptoseconds. They found the ejections took 7 to 20 attoseconds (Nature Physics, The results are an important window into the quantum behaviour of atoms, especially how their electrons interact with each other, says Schultze.

Sweet scent of plastic fools seabirds BIRDS may follow their noses to dangerous, fake feasts. Plastic fouls oceans across the globe and often ends up in the bellies of birds. It is not clear why they mistake garbage for grub, says Matthew Savoca at the University of California, Davis. Perhaps plastic looks like a tasty treat. However, many seabirds find dinner by sniffing out their quarry. “And yet no one’s actually tested the way 14 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

plastic smells before,” says Savoca. To do this, his team tied mesh bags containing plastic beads to two buoys off the Californian coast. After about three weeks, the researchers retrieved and stashed the beads in airtight vials. They found that gas from the sea-soaked samples contained a sulphur compound known to attract some birds, unlike untreated plastic beads

(Science Advances, Dying algae cells emit the same rotten-egg odour, so it is often an indication that algae-eating krill – the birds’ prey – are nearby. Savoca’s team thinks this means that plastic in the ocean becomes covered in algae that produce the sulphur stench, luring birds. Indeed, their literature review found that sulphur-seeking seabirds consumed plastic about six times as often as those that don’t seek it out.

RED squirrels in the UK and Ireland have been found to carry several strains of leprosy. In a study of 110 dead red squirrels, those in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Wight were found to be carrying a bacterial strain that is closely related to a virulent form of leprosy endemic in Mexico. Animals on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour carried a different strain, similar to one previously found in a 730-year-old skeleton buried just 70 kilometres away (Science, The discovery of this medieval leprosy strain so long after it was eliminated from humans was completely unexpected, says team member Stewart Cole, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The chance of catching the disease from a squirrel is thought to be low, and most healthy people are naturally immune to leprosy.

Bunnies eat toxic diet to scale peaks AFTER rampaging through Australia’s low-lying regions, European rabbits are muscling into its mountainous areas. In 2011, Ken Green at the National Parks and Wildlife Service noticed rabbits living above the winter snow line in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. Faecal pellets show that the rabbits feed on the leaves of alpine eucalyptus trees, also known as snow gums, when the grass is buried by snow in winter. This is surprising because gum leaves are hard to digest and contain toxins like tannins and phenolics. Native animals that eat them, such as koalas, have special adaptations. How the rabbits manage it is not clear (Australian Mammalogy,

Where did we come from? How did it all begin?

And where does belly-button fluff come from? Find the answers in our latest book. On sale now. Introduction by Professor Stephen Hawking

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WANT to protect your child’s mental well-being? Consider sending them to Scouts or Guides. A study of data on almost 10,000 people born in the UK in 1958 has found that being a member of the Scouts or Guides during childhood is linked to a lower risk of mental illness in middle age. Chris Dibben at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and his colleagues found that 28 per cent of the study’s participants had been involved in one of these clubs, and that these people were 15 per cent less likely to suffer from anxiety or mood disorders at the age of 50 (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, “It’s quite startling that this benefit is found in people so many years after they have attended Guides or Scouts,” says Dibben. These groups both aim to develop self-reliance and resolve, and often involve outdoor activities. The team did not find any association between better mental health and participating in church or some other voluntary groups. While Scouts or Guides were not likely to come from a family of any particular socio-economic status, the study suggests that the benefits of membership may reduce the link between poorer backgrounds and a higher likelihood of mental illness.

Taste Europa’s ocean by sampling its atmosphere A SPACECRAFT flying past Europa may be able to sample its watery plumes – even if they stopped erupting weeks earlier. Beneath its icy shell, Jupiter’s moon is thought to host a deep, salty ocean that could be one of the best places to look for life in the solar system. In 2012, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted evidence that plumes of water vapour vent from this subsurface sea into space – good news for proposed missions to test for signs of life. One potential problem is that

the plumes appear to be intermittent: Hubble didn’t see another sign of them until 2016. But now Ben Teolis and his colleagues at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, have suggested a way to sample the plumes even if they are not active when a spacecraft gets there. Europa’s gravity may pull material from the plumes back to the surface, creating a layer of frost. Later, some of those particles bounce back, either through evaporation or being

thrown upwards when charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere hit the surface. These particles feed Europa’s atmosphere. That means an orbiting spacecraft can reconstruct days or weeks of previous activity just by sampling it (Icarus, We could even draw a map of fresh features on the moon’s surface. “You don’t actually have to be flying by Europa at the same location and same time as a plume is present,” Teolis says. “You don’t have to get that lucky.” SHIMPEI ISHIYAMA & MICHAEL BRECHT

Scouting for good mental health

Quantum computer photon translator FUTURE quantum computers will be made of exotic things like pink diamonds and cold atoms. But how to get different components to talk to each other? Now, researchers have devised a way to allow one component to efficiently transmit information to another, while retaining its quantum character. Each of these diverse systems has its own strengths, and linking them together by exchanging photons would combine their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. But they would need a device in the middle to convert photons from one spread of frequencies to another, without destroying their delicate quantum state. Christine Silberhorn at the University of Paderborn in Germany and her colleagues have designed such a system (arxiv. org/abs/1610.08326v1). Only part of it has been built so far: the researchers have managed to convert infrared photons to a visible wavelength – keeping their quantum state intact – with a success rate of about 75 per cent. The technique could be scaled up to a full system including many chips, Silberhorn says.

Fondled rats reveal brain’s tickle spot RATS are ticklish just like us, and their reaction has now been used to identify the brain cells involved. When rats are tickled on their belly they emit ultrasonic shrieks of delight. “It’s remarkable the similarities between rats and humans – the fact they vocalise and clearly enjoy tickling so much,” says Michael Brecht at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany. By implanting electrodes into the somatosensory cortex – the brain region that registers touch – Brecht and his team have identified the neurons that activate physical

responses to tickling (Science, doi. org/bsxv). “We managed to pinpoint the ticklish spot in the brain,” says Brecht. The team found that stimulating these brain cells was enough to make the rats giggle. They also discovered that rats respond less to tickling when they are stressed. Tickling is something dogs and apes also enjoy, and Brecht thinks it might have an evolutionary role in social bonding. “Tickling is a really weird phenomenon, so is it a trick by the brain to encourage sociality and playfulness?” he asks.

19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 17


A nation changes How will the surprise election of Donald Trump affect the rights of US citizens at home and their country’s role in global crises? New Scientist investigates



Unless Donald Trump was lying about his proposed climate policies, we are on course for more than 3 °C of global warming. The big triumph of the recent Paris climate agreement was that all countries, not just rich ones, pledged to limit their emissions. Poor countries are supposed to receive $100 billion per year by 2020 to help them achieve this, but many rich nations are already failing to deliver the promised funds. With Trump saying he will move to block US climate funding, that money is now even less likely to appear. That will give many countries a legitimate reason not to deliver on their Paris pledges. What’s more, these commitments don’t go far enough. The Paris agreement says we must limit warming to at most 2 °C relative to pre-industrial

18 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

times, but we won’t meet that target even if all countries stick to their current pledges. The deal was only ever intended to be a starting point, with countries regularly reviewing and improving their action plans. The trouble is that there is no way to enforce this. Although the ratcheting-up part of the agreement is legally binding, in practice it depends entirely on

It could take several years for the US to formally withdraw from the agreement, but the legal wrangling is not what matters. The US is the world’s second biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, so we need it to slash emissions as fast as possible – any backtracking would be a disaster. Under the Paris deal, the US has promised to reduce its emissions in 2025 to a third below 2005 levels. To achieve this, it would not only have to implement all proposed policies but also come “The US is the world’s up with new measures. There second biggest emitter is now zero chance of that of CO2, so we need it to happening. slash emissions as fast There is a dark silver lining, however. If Trump’s actions as possible” trigger a prolonged global recession, that could cause trust and reciprocity: “I’ll do it if emissions to fall. But without you do it.” If the US fails to deliver action to switch to alternative on its promises – and it is already energy sources, emissions not doing enough – there is no would rise again when the world chance other countries will scale economy eventually recovers, up their actions to stick within just as happened after the the 2 °C limit. 2008 financial crisis. Could other countries try to force the US to act? Perhaps – if those countries that put a price on carbon banded together and imposed import tariffs on US goods unless it, too, set a carbon price. That might seem unthinkable to some – but so did a Trump presidency. Of course, Trump may not be in the White House for long. But even if a Democrat committed to climate action replaces him in 2020, the damage will be done. By the time Trump’s successor takes office, the world will already have emitted enough CO2 to warm the planet by 1.5 °C – the limit that the Paris agreement says we should, –Is backsliding on climate inevitable? - ideally, keep to. Michael Le Page

2 ABORTION The availability of abortions in the US will soon come under attack, because Donald Trump has vowed to rescind women’s abortion rights at the federal level. Abortion provision across the country was enshrined in law by a landmark 1973 court ruling known as Roe versus Wade. Trump wants to overturn this by appointing conservative judges to the US supreme court. It has nine seats, with one vacant since February. When the abortion issue came before the court earlier this year, the status quo was upheld five to three. Assuming that Trump fills the vacancy by selecting a judge who is anti-abortion, that would only take the score to five-four. But two of the liberal judges are elderly and might stand down in the next four years; any conservative replacements would tip the balance back to an antiabortion stance. “It all depends on whether the oldest justices can

“What will women with unwanted pregnancies do? It won’t quite be a return to widespread backstreet abortions” hang on until the next election,” says James Trussell at Princeton University. If Roe versus Wade is overturned, individual states would be free to change their own abortion laws. Several


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conservative ones, such as Louisiana and Kentucky, have long tried to chip away at abortion rights, so they might enact extreme restrictions or bans. What will women who have unwanted pregnancies do then? It won’t quite be a return to the days of widespread backstreet abortions. Those who can will travel to states where abortion is still legal, says Trussell. That already happens in the UK, where women from Northern Ireland cross to England for abortions. For those up to nine weeks pregnant, there is also the option of “mail-order abortions” – buying the abortion pill online. The practice is safe, and is increasingly common in countries where abortion is illegal. Although a small percentage of women need to go to hospital to complete the process, they can claim they are having a miscarriage and doctors will be none the wiser. But getting the pills isn’t necessarily straightforward. While there are some reputable online pharmacies based in India, they aren’t easy to identify if you don’t know what to look for. There are charities, such as Women on Web, which help women seeking an abortion by giving medical advice and sending

30-minute flight to the US, there will be 10 to 15 minutes to order a counter-strike which would not be countermanded. But it could be used in other scenarios. “There is nothing to prevent a launch for very little reason,” says Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council, an arms control think tank in London. Would Trump hit the button? He has said he would be “very, very slow on the draw” but has refused to rule out using nukes. If they are never used, he has asked, “why do we make them?” The answer is deterrence, based on fear of retaliation. Trump’s –Rights in jeopardy - refusal to rule out use of nuclear weapons is in fact close to existing pills without charge if necessary. US policy. His suggestion that At the moment, though, they they could be used against ISIS, don’t deliver to the US. Rebecca however, is very far from it. Gomperts from Women on Web The use of existing nukes is one says that’s because the organisation is based in Canada and they fear it may be targeted “Trump has said he by US anti-abortionists. would be ‘very, very But with Trump’s victory, slow on the draw’ but Women on Web is reconsidering has refused to rule out its position. “This is going to really affect abortion,” says Gomperts. using nukes” “We are now having board meetings to see what we can do thing; promoting proliferation to help women in the US. It’s is another. Trump wants to something we would really “renegotiate” last year’s deal like to be able to solve without with Iran to limit its uranium jeopardising all our other work.” Clare Wilson enrichment, which could result in the agreement falling apart. And as North Korea strives for NUCLEAR WEAPONS nuclear capability, Trump has suggested neighbouring Japan and South Korea might do the “A man you can bait with a tweet same. He has said that US allies is not a man we can trust with should pay more for the nuclear weapons.” The words of protection offered by the US his defeated opponent, Hillary nuclear umbrella – or else defend Clinton, reflect what is perhaps themselves, “including with the biggest anxiety over Donald nukes”. But both nations have Trump: can he be trusted with the signed the Non-Proliferation power to launch Armageddon? Treaty, which commits them to Every US president has constant not develop their own nuclear access to a nuclear launch device weapons. Abandoning that pledge only they can activate. Dating could kill the treaty. While the from the cold war, the system treaty hasn’t disarmed the major envisages that if Russian nuclear nuclear powers, it has kept the missiles are detected making their likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia


And now for some (slightly) good news… For those who value science, there is little consolation in seeing Donald Trump bound for the White House. But in areas like space exploration and access to certain drugs, things might continue as usual or even improve, with a few caveats. Trump himself has said little about space exploration. But in an article last month for SpaceNews, two of his space advisers, Robert S. Walker and Peter Navarro, sketched out what a Trump NASA plan would look like: more getting away from Earth, less observing it. “Today, [NASA] has been largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring,” the pair wrote. “NASA’s core missions must be exploration and science – and inspirational!” NASA should stop conducting climate-change monitoring and instead aim for human exploration of our “entire solar system” by the end of the century, they say. Trump’s NASA will probably keep partnering with private industry – continuing Barack Obama’s space strategy.

LOOSER ON DRUGS Trump has promised to remove a ban on importing medicines and speed up the approval of generic drugs. This could make such drugs cheaper and easier to buy, but might mean pharmaceutical companies have fewer incentives to develop new medications. One drug had a great night last Tuesday. Recreational marijuana was legalised in California, Massachusetts and Nevada, and other states passed medical marijuana provisions. It’s impossible to tell how the Trump administration will react to this development, but the man himself seems indifferent to it, so the measures stand a chance of sticking around. Lisa Grossman

19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 19

from developing the bomb. In October, a large majority of UN member states voted to start work on a new treaty that bans nuclear weapons for everyone. Existing nuclear nations – apart from North Korea – rejected the idea, as, ominously, did Japan and South Korea. Non-nuclear NATO members backed it, hoping to boost global anti-nuclear norms. Those may not last long in the Trump era. He has long called NATO “obsolete” and questioned US commitments to Europe. The threat of losing US defence support could lead to a military build-up in Europe. The role of deterrence could then fall to the small UK and French nuclear arsenals, which would then be more likely to be upgraded. Thomas Homer-Dixon at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, sees a more insidious threat. He believes Trump could pick fights abroad and incite attacks on alleged enemies at home, generating a constant “emergency” to bolster his support. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has long admired, uses such tactics. “The risk of a slide into war which ultimately involves nuclear weapons is very real,” says HomerDixon. “Trump has an insatiable need to dominate, and he seems incapable of ignoring a slight.” Debora MacKenzie

20 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

most by any dismantling of the act are those who gained coverage under the law, mainly lowerincome individuals and those with pre-existing conditions,” says Benjamin Sommers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, who revealed the scale of Obamacare’s benefits in practice in a study earlier this year. “The evidence is quite clear that the ACA has been very successful at expanding health insurance, reducing the percentage of the population without coverage to its lowest rate in history,” says Sommers. “All this is potentially –Some provisions may survive - at risk given the election result.” Even more people in the US could suffer if Trump follows through on proposals to alter HEALTHCARE how federal money goes towards subsidising healthcare. It will be back to the bad old days At present, the subsidies are for at least 20 million Americans filtered through the national if Donald Trump follows through health insurance system, on his election promises to repeal Medicaid, but with numerous Obamacare. regulations and conditions on The scheme, formally known how individual states run their as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), programmes. Trump has provides health insurance to many proposed replacing this system who had previously gone without. with one in which each state gets Since meeting with President a block grant, which could run out Barack Obama post-election, if there are too many claimants. Trump now says he will keep parts A detailed analysis in of the act, but the exact details of September by the Commonwealth its replacement remain to be seen. Fund, a healthcare foundation in New York City, estimated that repealing the act would leave 19.7 million people uninsured “If Trump’s campaign in 2018, almost all on low and promises are acted on, moderate incomes. Instituting a the fate of Obama’s block grant would leave a further Affordable Care Act 25 million without insurance, it concluded. And if insurers were is bleak” allowed to sell across state lines as Trump has suggested – something “If the campaign promises are currently not permitted as each acted on, the fate of Obama’s state has its own insurance Affordable Care Act is bleak,” says guidelines – that would maroon Nadereh Pourat at the University a further 17.5 million as a result of of California, Los Angeles. “The reallocated Medicaid subsidies. greatest impact is loss of health “That would be quite insurance coverage by about consequential even aside from 20 million who gained it through the impact on Obamacare, since Obamacare.” it would affect the more than 50 Most of those losing out would million Americans with Medicaid be the poorest in the country. coverage before the expansion,” “Undoubtedly, the people harmed says Sommers. Andy Coghlan

5 SURVEILLANCE A man who has expressed enthusiasm for spying on his adversaries is about to receive mass surveillance powers. It’s common knowledge that the US collects massive amounts of data on phone and internet communications involving both its own citizens and people abroad. The National Security Agency (NSA) can read text messages, track social media activity and hack your webcam. Since Edward Snowden revealed this spying in 2013, privacy activists have criticised Barack Obama for not doing enough to curb the agency. Now, Obama’s failure to act could turn into a cautionary tale: don’t build a surveillance state, because you don’t know who will end up in charge of it. During his campaign, Donald Trump railed against Apple after it resisted unlocking the iPhone of one of the perpetrators of last year’s mass shooting in San Bernadino, California. In July, he invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton and publish her emails. He has also spoken in favour of allowing the surveillance of mosques in the US and of asking Muslims to register in a federal database. “I tend to err on the side of security,” he said last year. So how might Trump wield the government’s surveillance





–Will spooks have a field day?-

COMMENT powers? He could try to roll back reforms put in place by Obama, such as limitations on when and how the NSA can collect and store people’s data. He can decide which countries the US spies on. He might choose to push much harder against companies that decline to build government “back doors” to their technology. Trump has also promised to exact revenge on his enemies, such as the women who have accused him of sexual assault. Back when details of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping came to light, analysts were caught snooping on their partners and

“Don’t build a surveillance state, because you don’t know who will end up in charge of it”

A dangerous embrace? The ancient power of fear can lead us to downplay today’s big risks and seek succour in unlikely places, say Dan Ariely and Vlad Chituc FEW researchers in the history of psychology are as controversial as Harry Harlow. His most famous experiment was to socially isolate infant rhesus monkeys and give them a choice of two surrogate mothers: one made of bare wire that dispensed milk, and one of soft cloth that dispensed nothing. The monkeys most often put emotional comfort ahead of material needs, clinging near constantly to their cloth mothers. In nature, emotions and selfinterest usually align: mother monkeys mostly give comfort and milk. Emotions are how evolution motivates us to do what’s needed to survive. A baby triggers love, so we nurture; a rustle at night triggers fear, so we run. However, our modern environment, the one in which Donald Trump has become US president-elect, is not natural. Emotions still call us to action, but often don’t align with what’s most important. We are more willing to take our shoes off and wait hours in line at airport security than to take steps to address climate change, even if we are convinced it is real. One problem, although

love interests. Could Trump take similar advantage? Now that he has been elected, privacy activists are advising the public to switch to secure platforms, such as the Tor internet browser or encrypted messaging apps like Signal or Telegram. Some wonder what, if anything, Obama could do to dismantle the government’s surveillance powers before he steps down in January. Fight for the Future, a non-profit organisation in Boston, has called on him to “unplug the NSA”, deleting all data on US citizens and taking down its monitoring infrastructure. “If Trump wants to spy on hundreds of millions of “It is notable that Donald Trump pawned the nation’s Americans, make him build this long-term interests for the capacity from scratch,” it says. “The powers of one government motivating power of fear” are inherited by the next. Reforming them is now the spectacularly rare, evokes primal greatest responsibility of this fears on a visceral level; the other, president, long overdue,” tweeted whose high risk of long-term Edward Snowden last Thursday. harm is beyond doubt, does not. “To be clear, ‘this president’ Emotions can mislead. Consider means this president, right now. the aftermath of 9/11, in which Not the next one. There is still nearly 3000 people died. With the time to act.” Aviva Rutkin ■ wounds still vivid, people in the

US naturally chose to fly less, and it took about a year for air travel to return to normal levels. In the meantime, they were more likely to drive, something that felt safer but was actually more dangerous. One researcher calculated that this additional road travel led to about 1500 more deaths. Of all the emotions that compel us to act, fear is most easily triggered – with good reason. If we feel afraid in what is actually a safe situation, it usually doesn’t matter that much. But if we are caught unawares in a dangerous one, we risk losing everything. Last week, the US elected somebody who knows the power of fear well. Although many forces got us here, it is notable that Trump pawned the nation’s long-

term interests for the motivating power of fear at nearly every step. Despite virtual unanimity among economists that free trade and immigration offer net benefits to even the poorest, and an even stronger consensus that human-driven climate change is a real and impending threat, Trump instead stoked fears about Mexican rapists and a Chinese conspiracy to take US jobs. Voters had a choice between slow, incremental progress and fear. Fear won. ■ Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University and the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight, both in North Carolina. Vlad Chituc is a researcher at the centre 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 21


Authenticating atrocity Online images can provide crucial evidence of human rights abuses. Aviva Rutkin meets a squad dedicated to weeding out the fakes


PICTURES of what look like mass graves. Videos of explosions in city centres. The internet is awash with potential evidence of human rights abuses in some of the world’s most pressing conflicts. But it can be tough to sift the real evidence from the fakes, or to work out exactly what an image shows. This is the challenge facing the Digital Verification Corps. Launched by Amnesty International in October, the corps is training students and researchers to authenticate online images so they can help human rights organisations gather robust evidence on modern-day crimes. “The use of smartphones has basically proliferated, and so too has the amount of potential evidence. But the actual verification of that is critical,” says Andrea Lampros at the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center (HRC). “That’s what makes it valid and usable – and that requires a tremendous amount of people power.” The corps will be based at the HRC and two other centres at the University of Pretoria in South rights abuses difficult. “There’s no Africa and the University of Essex, such thing as good enough,” says UK. Members have begun sorting Dubberley. “With verification, through images from around the there is no 100 per cent, because world, such as the Syrian Archive, you were not there or your a database of more than 2000 colleague wasn’t there.” videos showing possible human “How can we bolster rights violations in Syria. individuals who have the The data they’re working courage to come and with can come from “absolutely testify about atrocities?” anywhere”, says Sam Dubberley, a media consultant leading the project. That can mean familiar Even if you can establish what platforms such as Facebook, has happened from an image – Twitter, and YouTube, as well that a helicopter has been shot as secure messaging apps like down in Syria, for example – it WhatsApp or Telegram. doesn’t necessarily mean a Poor picture quality can make human rights abuse has occurred. identifying potential human So the corps simply aims to 24 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

Corps members are also trained to scour images for landmarks, such as schools or mosques, which they can compare with satellite data. If they’re familiar with the language in a video clip, they can listen for clues. They also learn to use weather forecasts and information about the phase of the moon to narrow down the time frame. There’s even an online tool called SunCalc that shows how shadows fall at any time of day anywhere in the world. “It’s very much an area where we’re learning all the time,” says Dubberley. “It’s a lot more important to tread cautiously and to be careful than to make some wildly spurious claim.” At the HRC, corps members are also trying to gather evidence in support of ongoing human rights cases. Lawyers are realising the value of doing research through publicly available information, says Alexa Koenig at the HRC. “But when you’re talking about actually trying to bring that –War-torn Syria : US bombs ISIS– information into court as evidence, there are additional gather as much information as considerations.” possible. The first step is a reverse For the images and videos to image search. By using tools such work as evidence in a courtroom, as TinEye, corps members can lawyers will need to find a way to pinpoint when a photo was first explain the verification process posted online and quickly rule to judges. They must also show out obvious fakes. a chain of custody for the data. Next, the corps tries to confirm For example, can they prove when and where the image was where it came from, and that taken. Social media often strips it hasn’t been tampered with? out valuable metadata, and this Koenig says the goal is to information can also be modified. support witnesses. “How can Where metadata is available, the we ultimately bolster these team might use those details to individuals who have the quiz someone whose says the courage to come and testify image is theirs. Does information about these atrocities, so about the type of camera used they’re ultimately supported to take the photo, for example, and their voice has a power that match that person’s story? it wouldn’t otherwise?” ■

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NO BRAILLE? No problem. A tiny camera worn on the fingertip could help blind people read more easily. To read printed material, many visually impaired people use apps that translate text to speech. Snap a picture and the app reads the page aloud. But users can find it difficult to photograph texts, and these apps have trouble parsing complex layouts, such as a newspaper or menu. Jon Froehlich and his colleagues at the University of Maryland have developed a device, nicknamed HandSight, that uses a tiny camera originally developed for endoscopies. Measuring just one millimetre across, the camera sits on the tip of the finger. As the wearer follows a line of text with their finger, a computer reads it out. Audio cues or haptic buzzes help guide them, for example changing pitch or gently vibrating to nudge their finger into the correct position ( Down the line, the creators of HandSight imagine a smartwatch-like device that blind people could use to discern other visual characteristics, like colours and patterns. “They’re already using fingers all of the time to explore the physical world,” says Froehlich. His team hopes that HandSight will “augment the fingers with vision to allow visually impaired users to get a sense of the non-tactile world”. Aviva Rutkin ■


Tiny camera lets blind people read with their fingers

–Learning is child’s play for AI–

Google’s DeepMind AI discovers physics


PUSH it, pull it, break it, maybe them before making a choice. even give it a lick. Children The second experiment also experiment this way to learn featured blocks, but this time about the physical world. Now, they were arranged in a tower. artificial intelligence trained by The AI had to work out how many researchers at Google’s DeepMind distinct blocks there were, again and the University of California, receiving positive or negative Berkeley, is taking its own baby feedback depending on its answer. steps in this area. Over time, the AI learned it had “Many aspects of the world, to interact with the tower – like ‘Can I sit on this?’ or ‘Is it essentially pulling it apart – to squishy?’ are best understood work out the correct answer. through experimentation,” says DeepMind’s Misha Denil. He and “This kind of learning is similar to how animals or his colleagues have trained an humans are able to solve AI to learn about the physical problems” properties of objects by interacting with them in two different virtual environments It’s not the first time AI has ( been given blocks to play with. In the first, the AI was faced Earlier this year, Facebook used with five blocks that were the simulations of blocks to teach same size but had a random neural networks how to predict mass that changed each time the whether a tower would fall over. experiment was run. The AI was The technique of training rewarded if it correctly identified computers using positive and the heaviest block and given negative feedback is called deep negative feedback if it was wrong. reinforcement learning, an By repeating the experiment, approach that DeepMind is well the AI worked out that the only known for. In 2014, it used the way to determine the heaviest method to train an AI to play Atari –Make a point of reading– block was to interact with all of video games better than humans.

The company was subsequently bought by Google. “Reinforcement learning allows solving tasks without specific instructions, similar to how animals or humans are able to solve problems,” says Eleni Vasilaki at the University of Sheffield, UK. “As such, it can lead to the discovery of ingenious new ways to deal with known problems, or to finding solutions when clear instructions are not available.” The virtual world in the research is only very basic. The AI has a small set of possible interactions and doesn’t have to deal with the distractions or imperfections of the real world. But it is still able to solve the problems without any prior knowledge of the objects’ physical properties, or the laws of physics. Ultimately, this work will be useful in robotics, says Jiajun Wu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For example, this method of learning could help a robot figure out how to navigate precarious terrains. “I think right now concrete applications are still a long way off, but in theory, any application where machines need an understanding of the world that goes beyond passive perception could benefit from this work,” says Denil. Timothy Revell ■ 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 25



VR to make you nauseous The fun doesn’t have to end with cybersickness, finds Aviva Rutkin


processing of the player’s input is delayed to mimic a slower reaction time, the image becomes blurry and shaky, and the colour contrast is reduced so it’s harder to see. These effects are also likely to increase feelings of cybersickness. Cybersickness sets in when people become disconnected from the physical reality of their body, says Thomas Stoffregen at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. It’s similar to getting seasick: people need time to figure out how to adjust their body to the rolling motions of a boat. This feeling gets stronger the more immersive the virtual world, which is why cybersickness is such a problem in VR and other simulators. “Nobody ever got sick playing Pac-Man, but when you play Pac-Man there’s no pretense that you have entered the PacMan world,” says Stoffregen. “The more that you experience the virtual world as being real, the more likely you are to try and sort of synchronise the control of your body relative to that world.” But von Mammen and his team suggest that these negative physical effects can be harnessed to enhance a VR experience. Of 64 people who tried their game at a campus event, 43 experienced some negative side effects, such as dizziness, while playing or after taking off the headset. However, most people said they enjoyed playing, giving it an average rating of 4.36 out of 5. “People still had fun despite being cybersick,” says von Mammen. The researchers conclude that cybersickness doesn’t necessarily take the fun out of VR, and can actually contribute to the –Becoming unfit to drive– enjoyment. ■

26 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

Hyperloop in the UAE Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes. That’s the goal of a new agreement between Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One and Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority to explore the feasibility of high-speed pneumatic transport in the United Arab Emirates. To complete the 160-kilometre journey, passenger pods would zoom at up to 800 kilometres per hour through sealed tubes at reduced air pressure.


The number of people who have

been killed while trying to take a selfie, according to an analysis led by Hemank Lamba at Carnegie Mellon University ( abs/1611.01911)

Deep learning 2 go Facebook has made neural nets that you can run on your phone. The company’s apps will now make use of the Caffe2Go deep learning system to apply artistic filters to videos. In future, the neural nets could be used for tasks including translation and object recognition. “Part of what’s exciting is to see what creative ideas people come up with now they can do this,” says chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer.


SICK game, bro. Believe it or not, game, I think it provides the a new virtual-reality game is experience of living through designed to make its players something outside of everyday feel nauseous. experiences,” says von Mammen. “Cybersickness” describes His team has built a VR the side effects experienced by racing game called Drink & some people when they try VR. Drive, presented this month at The symptoms are similar to the ACM Symposium on Virtual those of motion sickness, “Cybersickness sets in including headache, nausea and when people get fatigue. It’s a thorn in the side of disconnected from the most VR developers, who want physical reality of their to find ways to overcome the problem so people can enjoy their games or experiences Reality Software and Technology without getting queasy. in Munich, Germany. But Sebastian von In the game, the player races a Mammen and his colleagues car around a track scooping up at the University of Augsburg, diamonds. But if they hit a can of Germany, see a possible upside to beer, their in-game blood alcohol the phenomenon. “Cybersickness content goes up – and a number of for any serious app is definitely a changes designed to reflect the no go, but in the context of a fun effects of drinking kick in. The


Work Smarter


Search for thousands of STEM opportunities, from graduate recruitment to CEOs


28 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

Major fault on the line MEET Hacker the humpback whale, so named because it spent a day and a half entangled in a subsea internet cable – the yellow cord visible in the bottom right of the picture. Luckily for Hacker, its plight was spotted by wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen, who was out in his boat searching for new picture opportunities during the polar winter in the Kaldfjorden, a whale-rich fjord near Tromsø in northern Norway. Rikardsen alerted the local coastguard, then returned that same night with a friend in a bid to find and free the whale. After an hour or so, they spotted it, but it seemed scared and stayed away. “Gradually, the whale started to understand we were there with good intentions,” says Rikardsen. “We were sure it was tangled in fishing gear, and struggled for about 4 or 5 hours to free it, but we couldn’t cut through the cord,” he says. “It came right alongside our tiny boat, all 30 tonnes of it, and could easily have tipped us over, but instead, it was asking for help.” The coastguard crew, pictured here, arrived in the early hours. They eventually had to give up, but the whale luckily survived the night. In the morning, they summoned a diver from the fire and rescue team, who went down and investigated. The cord was wrapped round the whale’s head, disappearing into its mouth at the bottom of the picture, before reappearing on the other side, winding round a fin and tangling up the tail. Eventually, after some difficulty, the whale was freed. Only then did the rescuers realise that the cord was a subsea internet cable that should have been 170 metres down on the bed of the fjord. But for Rikardsen, there was a price to pay. His village, Skulsfjord, had no network or cellphone coverage for more than a fortnight until the cable was replaced. Andy Coghlan

Photographer Audun Rikardsen

19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 29


New Scientist is 60 years old this week, and what better thing to do on a landmark birthday than wax lyrical about a different time. But we’re not going to hark back to the past. We’re going to gaze another 60 years forward, to 2076. Over the next 18 pages we will delve into how science and technology might upturn the world as we know it, for good and ill. Along the way we’ll allow ourselves some reminiscences too. First, though, some advice about how to think about the future from our editor-in-chief



OURNALISM has famously been described as “the first rough draft of history.” New Scientist’s own brand of journalism – which is 60 years old this week – is a bit different. We aim to provide a first rough draft of the future. Over the past 60 years we have not just reported new discoveries and inventions in science and technology. We have also tried to explain why they matter and where they’re likely to lead. That’s not easy. There can be very fine lines between testable predictions, educated guesswork and flights of fancy. Many early issues of The New Scientist contain eerily prophetic stories about ideas and issues that would go on to shape the world – that rough draft of the future. We hope the same will be true of what we’re 30 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

publishing today. But it is very much a rough draft: then, as now, attempting to predict the future in detail is a largely futile enterprise. The internet, global warming, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering were all on our radar in 1956. But our ideas about how they might pan out bore little resemblance to how they have actually evolved, particularly when it comes to their social ramifications. Ubiquitous information has not created rationalist utopias, ecological catastrophes have not culled our population and we have neither super-human machines nor people, though we’re getting there. Can we hope to do any better at predicting the future today? One way to proceed is to simply extrapolate: in other words, look at what’s happening now and assume that the

trends you see will continue. This works well when you can expect a system to remain governed by the same principles. Celestial dynamics don’t vary much, so we can predict with confidence that Halley’s comet will return to our skies in 2061. As systems get more complex, however, accurate prediction becomes more difficult. Long-term weather forecasting, for example, is fearsomely hard. When we think about social change, it becomes harder still. There are far more factors to take into account and they unfold in complex and interacting ways. Linear extrapolation invariably fails: it’s the kind of thinking that leads people to jokily ask “where’s my jetpack?”, a question borne of post-war trends in transport and the space race – none of them relevant today.


In some circles, extrapolation has given way to exponentialism – the belief not only that what is happening will keep happening, but that it will happen ever faster. Adherents of this view have elevated Moore’s law, which states that computer processors double in complexity every two years, to the status of a natural law governing all sorts of things. Accept this and it makes for dizzying outcomes in surprisingly short order. You end up with a technological singularity, a point at which superintelligent machines usher in an age of runaway technological advance, with unfathomable consequences. This is perhaps the most transformative change conceivable in the next 60 years. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that will happen any time soon, and nor do many AI

researchers (see page 32). Moore’s law is not a law of nature but a self-fulfilling prophecy that has held because people strived to make it hold. They are now beginning to struggle because the actual laws of nature have intervened. And while the current pace of AI research is stunning, I expect there will be some bumps in the road there, too. So prediction and extrapolation are of limited use: fine up to a point if you need to place semiconductor orders, perhaps, but not so much if you want to work out how semiconductors are changing society. Is it futile to think about the future, then? Not entirely. We’re bound to get most things wrong – although some futurologists have bucked the trend (see page 48). But perhaps we can get enough right to make a difference.

New Scientist is an optimistic publication. We think the future can be better than today. But we are not Panglossian. We do not simply insist that we reside in the best of all possible worlds; we think we have to make it so. That’s what humanity has always striven to do. And we only succeed if we think about the future. In that spirit, in this issue we’re indulging in some educated guesswork about what might happen over the next 60 years. We have chosen scenarios that look plausible today – which might mean they look as naive as those jetpacks tomorrow. Perhaps you should think of this as a guide to what the future will almost certainly not be like. Sumit Paul-Choudhury is editor-in-chief of New Scientist 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 31


What if…


32 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity… beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue” (Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, vol 64, p 1). More recently, the idea of a technological singularity has been popularised by Ray Kurzweil, who predicts it will happen around 2045, and Nick Bostrom, who has written a bestseller on the consequences. There are several reasons to be fearful of machines overtaking us in intelligence. Humans have become the dominant species on the planet largely because we are so intelligent. Many animals are bigger, faster or stronger than

“There are reasons to be fearful of computers” us. But we used our intelligence to invent tools, agriculture and amazing technologies like steam engines, electric motors and smartphones. These have transformed our lives and allowed us to dominate the planet. It is therefore not surprising that machines that think – and might even think better than us – threaten to usurp us. Just as elephants, dolphins and pandas depend on our goodwill for their continued existence, our fate in turn may depend on the decisions of these superior thinking machines. The idea of an intelligence explosion, when machines recursively improve their intelligence and thus quickly exceed human intelligence, is not a particularly wild idea. The field of computing has profited considerably from many similar exponential trends. Moore’s law predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years, and it has pretty much done so for decades. So it is not unreasonable to suppose AI will also experience exponential growth. Like many of my colleagues working in AI, I predict we are just 30 or 40 years away from AI achieving superhuman intelligence. But there are several strong reasons why a technological singularity is improbable.



owever you look at it, the future appears bleak. The world is under immense stress environmentally, economically and politically. It’s hard to know what to fear the most. Even our own existence is no longer certain. Threats loom from many possible directions: a giant asteroid strike, global warming, a new plague, or nanomachines going rogue and turning everything into grey goo. Another threat is artificial intelligence. In December 2014, Stephen Hawking told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race… It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Last year, he followed that up by saying that AI is likely “either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity”. Other prominent people, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, have made similar predictions about the risk AI poses to humanity. Nevertheless, billions of dollars continue to be funnelled into AI research. And stunning advances are being made. In a landmark match in March, the Go master Lee Sedol lost 4-1 to the AlphaGo computer. In many other areas, from driving taxis on the ground to winning dogfights in the air, computers are starting to take over from humans. Hawking’s fears revolve around the idea of the technological singularity. This is the point in time at which machine intelligence starts to take off, and a new more intelligent species starts to inhabit Earth. We can trace the idea of the technological singularity back to a number of different thinkers including John von Neumann, one of the founders of computing, and the science fiction author Vernor Vinge. The idea is roughly the same age as research into AI itself. In 1958, mathematician Stanisław Ulam wrote a tribute to the recently deceased von Neumann, in which he recalled: “One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and

What a difference


THE “FAST-THINKING DOG” ARGUMENT Silicon has a significant speed advantage over our brain’s wetware, and this advantage doubles every two years or so according to Moore’s law. But speed alone does not bring increased intelligence. Even if I can make my dog think faster, it is still unlikely to play chess. It doesn’t have the necessary mental constructs, the language and the abstractions. Steven Pinker put this argument eloquently: “Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.” Intelligence is much more than thinking faster or longer about a problem than someone else. Of course, Moore’s law has helped AI. We now learn faster, and off bigger data sets. Speedier computers will certainly help us to build artificial intelligence. But, at least for humans, intelligence depends on many other things including years of experience and training. It is not at all clear that we can short circuit this in silicon simply by increasing the clock speed or adding more memory.

THE ANTHROPOCENTRIC ARGUMENT The singularity supposes human intelligence is some special point to pass, some sort of tipping point. Bostrom writes: “Human-level artificial intelligence leads quickly to greaterthan-human-level artificial intelligence… The interval during which the machines and humans are roughly matched will likely be brief. Shortly thereafter, humans will be unable to compete intellectually with artificial minds.” If there is one thing that we should have learned from the history of science, it is that we are not as special as we would like to believe. Copernicus taught us that the universe does not revolve around Earth. Darwin showed us that we are not so different from other apes. Watson, Crick and Franklin revealed that the same DNA code of life powers us and the simplest amoeba. >

In 1956, the world’s population was about 2.8 billion. Everest had only been climbed twice, the Mariana trench was unconquered and only the third ever expedition to the South Pole reached its goal 3 weeks before The New Scientist was launched. The idea that Mars was at least partially covered in vegetation was “fairly well established”. In quite a few other ways, too, science and technology were unrecognisable. The standard model of particle physics didn’t exist, just a confusing menagerie of subatomic particles. Quarks, the fundamental building blocks whose combinations explain this profusion, weren’t proposed until 1964. Big bang theory was still on the fringes. The cosmic microwave background, a sea of radiation produced in the aftermath of the big bang that supports many of modern cosmology’s discoveries, had been predicted but not yet observed. Another theory struggling for acceptance was plate tectonics; two papers published in 1956 helped sway the doubters. Also in earth sciences, a paper called “The carbon dioxide theory of climatic change” provided an inkling of what would be a major preoccupation 60 years later. DNA’s structure had been determined in 1953, but whether or not DNA was the genetic material was unclear. The oral contraceptive pill, the most influential medical breakthrough of the 20th century, was still in development. One of the world’s first commercial computers, the Bendix G-15, went on sale in 1956 for $49,000; it computed with vacuum tubes rather than transistors. Only about a third of homes in the UK had a television. Both the US and USSR had announced plans to put a satellite into orbit but success still looked miles away; the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 shocked the world.

SPECIAL ISSUE 6 0 T H A N N I V E R S A RY Issue 1 22 November 1956

Issue 262 23 November 1961

Issue 522 24 November 1966

For more about past issues see page 63

And artificial intelligence will no doubt teach us that human intelligence is itself nothing special. There is no reason to suppose that human intelligence is a tipping point, that once passed allows for rapid increases in intelligence. Of course, human intelligence is a special point because we are, as far as we know, unique in being able to build artefacts that amplify our intellectual abilities. We are the only creatures on the planet with sufficient intelligence to design new intelligence, and this new intelligence will not be limited by the slow process of human reproduction and evolution. But that does not bring us to the tipping point, the point of recursive selfimprovement. We have no reason to suppose that human intelligence is enough to design an artificial intelligence that is sufficiently intelligent to be the starting point for a technological singularity. Even if we have enough intelligence to design super-human artificial intelligence, the result may not be adequate to precipitate a technological singularity. Improving intelligence is far harder than just being intelligent.



Finally, computer science already has a welldeveloped theory of how difficult it is to solve different problems. There are many computational problems for which even exponential improvements are not enough to help us solve them practically. A computer cannot analyse some code and know for sure whether it will ever stop – the “halting problem”. Alan Turing, the father of both computing and AI, famously proved that such a problem is not computable in general, no matter how fast or smart we make the computer analysing the code. Switching to other types of device like quantum computers will help. But these will only offer exponential improvements over classical computers, which is not enough to solve problems like Turing’s halting problem. There are hypothetical hypercomputers that might break through such computational barriers. However, whether such devices could exist remains controversial.

The idea of a technological singularity supposes that improvements to intelligence will be by a relative constant multiplier, each generation getting some fraction better than the last. However, the performance of most of our AI systems has so far been that of diminishing returns. There are often lots of low-hanging fruit at the start, but we then run into difficulties when looking for improvements. This helps explain the overly optimistic claims made by many of the early AI researchers. An AI system may be able to improve itself an infinite number of times, but the extent to which its intelligence changes overall could be bounded. For instance, if each generation only improves by half the last change, then the system will never get beyond doubling its overall intelligence. 34 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

There are many fundamental limits within the universe. Some are physical: you cannot accelerate past the speed of light, know both position and momentum with complete accuracy, or know when a radioactive atom will decay. Any thinking machine that we build will be limited by these physical laws. Of course, if that machine is electronic or even quantum in nature, these limits are likely to be beyond the biological and chemical limits of our human brains. Nevertheless, AI may well run into some fundamental limits. Some of these may be due to the inherent uncertainty of nature. No matter how hard we think about a problem, there may be limits to the quality of our decision-making. Even a super-human intelligence is not going to be any better than you at predicting the result of the next EuroMillions lottery.


THE FUTURE So there are many reasons why we might never witness a technological singularity. But even without an intelligence explosion, we could end up with machines that exhibit super-human intelligence. We might just have to program much of this painfully ourselves. If this is the case, the impact of AI on our economy, and on our society, may happen less quickly than people like Hawking fear. Nevertheless, we should start planning for that impact. Even without a technological singularity, AI is likely to have a large impact on the nature of work. Many jobs, like taxi and truck driver, are likely to disappear in the next decade or two. This will further increase the inequalities we see in society today. And even quite limited AI is likely to have a large influence on the nature of war. Robots will industrialise warfare, lowering the barriers to war and destabilising the current world order. They will be used by terrorists and rogue nations against us. If we don’t want to end up with Terminator, we had better ban robots in the battlefield soon. If we get it right, AI will help make us all healthier, wealthier and happier. If we get it wrong, AI may well be one of the worst mistakes we ever get to make. ■ Toby Walsh is a professor of AI at UNSW Australia and Data61, Australia’s Centre of Excellence for ICT Research. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. His forthcoming book is Thinking Machines: The future of artificial intelligence (Black Inc, August 2017)

What a difference


What if…

Let’s not kid ourselves: everything we think we know now is just an approximation to something we haven’t yet found out. That is the frustrating, exhilarating lesson history teaches us about fundamental theories of nature. Take Newton’s universal law of gravity. It did sterling service describing falling apples and orbiting planets for over two centuries, but eventually gave way to a “righter” theory – Einstein’s general relativity. Ditto the solidly intuitive outlines of classical mechanics: dig down to the level of subatomic particles, and we find them fogged in a haze of quantum uncertainty. Quantum theory explains matter’s small-scale workings. General relativity describes the universe’s large-scale evolution. Each theory is very right in its own way, but has omissions and inconsistencies that convince us that they, too, are just placeholders for something better. A unified “theory of everything” would take us to places where quantum theory and relativity break down – beyond a black hole’s event horizon, for example, or the very first instants of the universe. Heady stuff – and many a great mind has come a cropper in the chase. Einstein’s twilight years were largely spent in an isolated, fruitless quest for ultimate enlightenment. Things haven’t moved on much. String theory, which seeks unification by replacing fundamental particles with tiny scrunched-up strings, has



come – and not yet gone, despite much criticism of its lack of testable predictions. Rival approaches such as loop quantum gravity have sprung up, but also brought no breakthrough. An ill wind for the next 60 years? Mike Duff of Imperial College London, who has been studying theories of everything since the late 1960s, is surprisingly chipper about how much longer it will take. “I’m sceptical of making predictions, ” he says, “but if pressed, I’d say it will take more than 10 years, but less than 100.” Carlo Rovelli of Aix-Marseille University in France, a leading light in loop quantum gravity, is also optimistic. “Sixty years in the future we will have a theory of quantum gravity, in my opinion,” he says. If so, that will be a beginning, not an end. Theories earn credibility only gradually. Some predictions of general relativity, such as black holes and gravitational waves, were fully appreciated and explored only in the 1960s. The existence of gravitational waves was finally confirmed earlier this year.

Complicating matters for a unified theory is that it will kick in at insanely high energies far beyond our wit to reproduce. Experimental proof, if any is possible, is likely to be subtle and indirect, perhaps taking the form of patterns imprinted in the cosmic microwave background – radiation left over from the big bang – for example. For similar reasons, immediate practical benefits are unlikely – although never say never, says Rovelli. “I don’t see technological applications of the theory right now,” he says. “But nobody imagined GPS back in the 1970s when I started studying general relativity.” So don’t expect any eureka moment – more a long, slow evolution. But equally, expect the unexpected. When Paul Dirac unified quantum theory and Einstein’s special relativity in the 1920s to provide a full description of the electron, he ignored his equation’s prediction of a second, almost identical particle. The discovery just a few years later of the positron opened our eyes to a whole new world that we have yet to explore fully – that of antimatter. A theory of everything based on string theory, say, might prove the existence of a “multiverse” of further universes, vastly increasing the scope of what we can hope to know – or not. That’s all part of the fun of the chase, says Duff. “Most scientists are trying to become masters at the game,” he says. “Theoretical physicists are still trying to understand the game.” Richard Webb

“The world has entered a phase of spectacular technological advances.” So said The New Scientist in its debut leader column in 1956. The editors got it spot on. We asked some historians of science to nominate the most influential innovations of the past 60 years

1957: ARTIFICIAL SATELLITES On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union sent the first artificial satellite into orbit. Although launched under the auspices of the International Geophysical Year, a project intended to unite nations, it was a decisive moment in mounting cold war tensions. It escalated the space race as the Soviet Union and the US vied for supremacy. Beyond the geopolitical posturing, the launch of the satellite and its 21-day orbit heralded a new era for how we understand our planet and life on it. Today, in addition to a myriad of scientific uses such as observing the thickness of polar sea ice, satellites are fundamental to global communication networks. Without them, the Olympics would have never been broadcast to an international audience and you wouldn’t be able to find your way around via GPS. Although not all are still active, today there are more than 600 geostationary satellites, orbiting 35,000 kilometres above our heads.

Alexander Hall, Newman University, Birmingham, UK

1965: KEVLAR In 1965, US chemist Stephanie Kwolek was working for the DuPont chemical company developing fibres that > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 35


What if…

WE CRACK FUSION AND SOLVE OUR ENERGY PROBLEM? Atomics and director of the US-based DIII-D fusion programme. One is developing materials that can withstand prolonged exposure to plasmas. The other is sustaining the intense magnetic fields needed to confine the plasma. Cracking all three would be an epochmaking breakthrough. Fusion would largely free us from fossil fuels, delivering clean and extremely cheap energy in almost unlimited quantities. Or would it? Fusion power would certainly be cleaner than burning fossil fuels, but it wouldn’t be carbon neutral. The reactors do not emit carbon directly, but construction, fuel production and waste management inevitably have carbon footprints of their own. Fusion also creates radioactive waste, albeit a type that decays in decades rather than hundreds or thousands of years. Nor will fusion power be too cheap to meter. The reactors are astronomically costly to build – ITER has ballooned to more than €20 billion. Nobody will spend that sort of money if they can’t recoup their investment. But once up and running, operating costs will be modest. The oceans contain enough

deuterium to fuel fusion reactors for tens of thousands of years. Tritium is extremely rare in nature but can be easily made from lithium, which is also abundant. Could the whole world run on fusion power? In principle yes, but it is unlikely in practice. Operators will want to run fusion plants as much as they can to recover their investment, so they will probably generate mostly baseload power. Peaks in demand will probably have to be met by energy storage technologies such as ultracapacitors, charged up by solar and wind. We will also have to think up new ways to power planes and other technologies that cannot run directly on grid power. Fusion could still revert to type and remain a future technology 60 years from now. Solar and wind are unlikely to satisfy all of our needs. In that case, we may have to default to nuclear fission, with all of its downsides – accidents, long-lived waste and weapons proliferation worries. Superconductivity (see page 41) and geoengineering (see page 44) may come to our rescue. But all things told, we really need plenty of home-made sunshine by 2076. Jeff Hecht


We already live in a world powered by nuclear fusion. Unfortunately the reactor is 150 million kilometres away and we haven’t worked out an efficient way to tap it directly. So we burn its fossilised energy – coal, oil and gas – which is slowly boiling the planet alive, like a frog in a pan of water. Recreating the sun on Earth would go a long way to solving that problem, but it is a biggie. Research started more than 60 years ago; the leading fusion reactor design, the tokamak, is half a century old. Tokamaks trap heavy hydrogen isotopes inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field, heating and squeezing the plasma so that deuterium and tritium fuse to release energy. After testing a series of increasingly large tokamaks, fusion researchers agreed 10 years ago to build a huge one in France called ITER. If everything goes to plan – which it almost certainly won’t – in 2035 ITER will produce 500 megawatts of energy for a few hundred seconds. That will make it the first fusion reactor to produce more energy than it takes to operate. Even then, two big hurdles will remain, says Mickey Wade, vice president of General

36 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

could withstand extreme conditions, mainly for use in car tyres. She observed entirely novel properties in one polymer she synthesised: it would form liquid crystals in solution and possessed straight molecules. When the polymer solution was “spun”, a new class of synthetic fibres emerged, ones which were exceptionally stiff, lightweight and strong. The best known of these is Kevlar. It has hundreds of wide-ranging applications including bulletproof and stab-proof vests, which have saved thousands of lives around the world. Kwolek’s research also led to a new field of polymer chemistry. For this, in 1995 she was awarded the DuPont Company’s Lavoisier medal for outstanding technical achievement, the first woman to receive this honour.

What if…

Life arose on Earth almost as soon as the planet had cooled enough to be habitable – and as far as we know, it has never arisen again in the 4 billion years since. That long dry spell may end within the next few years, though, as researchers near the goal of making life from scratch in the lab. Already, geneticists have synthesised a bespoke genome and inserted it into a bacterium. They have also altered the genetic code of other bacteria to get them to use new, non-natural building blocks to make proteins. But all these efforts start with a living organism and merely modify it. A more ambitious effort starts with nonliving, chemical ingredients – sometimes familiar nucleic acids and lipids, but sometimes radically different structures such as self-assembling metal oxides. The researchers aim to coax these chemicals across the Darwinian threshold where they begin to replicate themselves heritably and evolve – the key criteria for calling the system alive. If this can be achieved, the implications would be enormous. Most fundamentally, synthetic life would complete the philosophical break – one that Darwin started – from a creation-centred view of the living world. “It’ll prove pretty decisively that life is nothing more than a complicated chemical system,” says Mark Bedau, a philosopher of science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Most scientists already think this way, of course, but



synthetic life would make the point in a way the wider world could not ignore. Moreover, creating it in the lab would prove that the origin of life is a relatively low hurdle, increasing the odds that we might find life elsewhere in the solar system (see page 42). A second genesis would also give biologists an independent point of comparison to understand what makes life tick. And because we made it, we would be able to modify it, changing the ingredients to learn which features are truly essential. The stuff we will end up calling “natural life” is so encumbered with billions of years of evolutionary baggage that it’s impossible to distinguish between what is truly essential for life and what has become essential for our particular sort, says Steven Benner from the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida. Newly created life would give experimentalists a cleaner system for testing life’s needs. Practical payoffs are likely to be further in the future. Any new life form would be so feeble at first that it couldn’t

survive without coddling in the lab, so biotechnologists who want to produce particular molecules or degrade toxic waste, for example, will have better success modifying natural life. In the long run, however, artificial life might grow robust enough to thrive on its own. If so, it would allow biotechnologists to escape the constraints of natural life to accomplish new goals. “We can explore all sorts of possible payoffs,” says Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK. But those benefits bring risks, too. A free-living, independently evolving life form is, by definition, no longer entirely predictable or controllable. Biotechnologists will need to design effective “kill switches” in case the new life becomes pathogenic or harmful in other ways, and policy-makers and ethicists will need to work out when and how to trigger them. The public may try to stymie the whole enterprise, amid the usual accusations of playing God. Discussions on the implications of synthetic life need to start soon. “Within a short time, this could be a serious issue,” says Bedau. Bob Holmes

Elizabeth Bruton, Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, University of Manchester

1966: CCTV When the real Nineteen Eighty-Four W a arrived, Big Brother technology was no longer the stuff of fiction. Closed-circuit television was already in action, and it was here to stay. If you are in a public space right now – on a train, at a shopping centre or an airport – chances are that hidden cameras are watching and recording your every move. CCTV originated as a product for ordinary people to use at home. In 1966, Marie van Brittan Brown, an African American nurse, finally lost patience with the reluctance of the New York emergency services to investigate calls from her neighbourhood of Queens. Along with her husband Albert, she filed a patent for a movable camera that could show images on a TV screen of whoever was at the front door. CCTV soon became a ubiquitous instrument of surveillance, now relied on for tracking terrorists, recognising number plates and monitoring industrial processes. Worldwide, 100 million concealed cameras are in operation. Critics question whether the benefits justify this expensive > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 37


What if…

The year is 2066. The sun rises dimly in a rust-coloured sky, lighting up the hydroponic fields. In the first permanent habitat on Mars, intrepid explorers are waking up to start another 24.5-hour day. Elon Musk thinks it’s possible. In September, the SpaceX founder unveiled his (still somewhat vague) plan for sending humans to Mars in the next decade or so, and suggested that we might have a million people living full-time on the Red Planet by the 2060s. NASA’s more conservative plan sees the first humans going there in the 2030s. We’ll have to get moving. Before settlers can start building a life, we would need to set up everything they need to merely survive on the surface. This means launching tonnes of life-support equipment, habitats, energy-generation systems, food, and technology for extracting breathable oxygen and drinkable water from the air. That’s a huge challenge. The shortest journey time between Earth and Mars is roughly five months, but that would only be possible around once every two years when the planets align with one another. In the most optimistic scenario, this gives us about 22 ideal launch opportunities to lay the groundwork for human settlement by 2060. And as the recent failure of the ExoMars lander (right) shows, landing on Mars is tricky: it has enough gravity to accelerate a craft’s descent, but such a thin atmosphere that parachutes won’t slow it down enough. The heaviest thing that ever landed on Mars, the 1-tonne Curiosity rover, used a combination of parachutes, retrorockets and a daredevil dangling device called a sky crane. 38 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016



Given that we don’t know how to land a mass heavier than that on the surface, planners have their work cut out. SpaceX plans to use a technique called supersonic retro-propulsion – basically reversing down with the booster rocket firing to slow the descent – and hopes to test the system in 2018. NASA has agreed to help with the project, in exchange for access to some of what we learn from it. That’s not to mention the hazards of the journey and after landing. These include high levels of radiation, the threat of solar flares, dust that covers solar panels and could rip through lungs like shards of glass, and temperatures as low as -125 °C. And we don’t know how to grow food there. But let’s assume we overcome all these challenges. Then what? Fans of space exploration like to point out that humans have set off from their homes in search of a new life somewhere remote and possibly dangerous many times. Getting on a boat for the New World

often meant you would never see your home or family again. What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die. When European explorers struck out for the Americas, they hoped to find resources that they could sell back to their homeland, or at least a spot to establish a farm. Mars has few resources. The first settlers will be dependent on the home world for a very long time. Self-sufficiency by 2060 seems very ambitious. One thing that settlers could usefully do, though, is science. A human could do research in an hour that takes a Mars rover months. And, of course, research on growing food would take on much more urgency. We do have a model for such a remote yet invaluable research outpost: Antarctica. No one lives there permanently, but people make sojourns lasting a year or two to do science that is not possible anywhere else. Mars could be similar. Another difference from past expansions into terra incognita is that Mars settlers will be in constant communication with Earth, albeit delayed a few minutes by the limits of light speed. Those of us still on Earth will almost certainly watch their lives unfold. We will see everything that goes right, and everything that goes wrong. Whether we push further into the solar system or retreat back to Earth will probably depend on the balance of those two things. If we figure out how to get food and air and a way of living on the Red Planet, it seems likely that we could adapt those ideas for other planets or, more probably, moons. Mars will be the first big test of whether we can become a multiplanetary species. Lisa Grossman

invasion of privacy. Although crimes in car parks have been halved, the evidence suggests that CCTV provides little deterrent in other public settings.

Patricia Fara, University of Cambridge, president of the British Society for the History of Science

What if…

WE RE-ENGINEER OUR DNA? It is April 2021. Tarou Yamada is born in Tokyo, making headlines around the world. “The miracle boy,” some newspapers dub him. That’s because Tarou’s father is unable to produce sperm because of a mutation on his Y-chromosome. He is thus, in theory, completely infertile. Yet genetic tests confirm that Tarou is his son. To make Tarou’s conception possible, a fertility clinic took stem cells from the father, corrected the Y-chromosome mutation using CRISPR genome editing and then derived sperm cells from the corrected cells. Those edited sperm cells where then used to fertilise the mother’s eggs, cementing the change into all of his nuclear DNA. In other words, Tarou Yamada is the first person whose genome has been edited. He will not be the last. While some countries have tightened regulations banning genome editing after the news of his birth (Japan has no such law at the moment), others have decided it is justified for purposes such as allowing infertile parents to have children that are biologically their own. Soon there are dozens of genome-edited children being born every year, then hundreds, then thousands. These children are indistinguishable from typical children of the same age, because their genomes are entirely normal. This is how the germline genome editing revolution is likely to begin. There is much talk about such editing of heritable DNA to prevent children getting genes for diseases such as cystic fibrosis from their parents, but almost all such diseases can already be prevented by screening IVF embryos before implantation. Why should would-be parents opt for genome editing when pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, as it’s called, is safer and cheaper? PGD is only good for weeding out one or two harmful mutations at a time. With genome editing, it should become possible to make dozens of changes at a time. Once germline editing starts to be used for infertility, fertility clinics are likely to offer to tweak other genes at the same time. Opponents of genetic engineering will call

this a slippery slope; for proponents it is sensible, even humanitarian, progress. We all have hundreds of harmful mutations that increase our risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental disorders and so on, so why not fix the worst ones if you are at it? In fact, once it can be done safely, it is arguably immoral not to. And why stop there? There are beneficial gene variants that make people immune to HIV or less likely to become obese, for instance. Perhaps as soon as the 2030s, some countries may allow these variants to be introduced. Such interventions would be extremely controversial. Even more so would be adding gene variants that improve personality, intelligence or other traits that we value highly. As yet we don’t know how to do that – we have yet to discover any single gene variant that makes anything like as much difference to IQ as, say, having rich parents or a good education, for example. In fact, the brain is so complex that we may never be able to predict what effect a specific mutation has. This means introducing a brain-altering mutation that does not already occur naturally would be a huge leap in the dark, one that neither parents nor regulators should ever allow. But genome editing can definitely make individuals less prone to all kinds of diseases. And as it starts to becomes clear that genome-edited children are on average healthier than those conceived the oldfashioned way, wealthy parents will start to opt for genome editing even if there is no pressing need for them to do so. Will this allow the elite to give their children yet another advantage, and widen the already gaping chasm between rich and poor? Quite possibly. But let’s end with an optimistic prediction: by the time New Scientist’s 120th anniversary comes around, many countries will routinely and uncontroversially offer genome editing to any would-be parents who want it, on the basis that the cost of the treatment is far outweighed by the savings in healthcare costs over a person’s lifetime. Michael Le Page

1967: HOME PREGNANCY TEST In 1967, Margaret Crane was designing cosmetic packaging at Organon Pharmaceuticals in New Jersey when she paid a visit to the company’s pregnancy testing lab. Struck by the rows and rows of urine samples that doctors had sent in, she had an idea: why not give women the power to find out if they were pregnant without going through a doctor? This was a time when abortion was illegal and birth control inaccessible. If a single woman became pregnant, she faced widespread condemnation. Married women who did not want to have any more children – or didn’t want children at all – were often criticised as “unnatural” by their husbands, doctors and wider communities. Crane developed a prototype using a plastic paper-clip container and the same chemical compound used in the lab. Her managers rejected her invention, fearing the hysterics a woman would experience if she discovered she was pregnant without a doctor’s supervision. Despite this, the company secretly went about developing its own prototype. Crane showed up at their final product design meeting uninvited, entered her own design and, when it was deemed the best, voluntarily signed away her rights to it for $1. Ten years later, the home pregnancy test was available, and women were finally able to find out if they were pregnant without a doctor – and without judgement. This was revolutionary in giving women control over their own bodies, and led to wider feminist campaigns regarding effective birth control and safe access to abortion.

Jessica van Horssen, University of Leeds

1970s: SOLAR POWER Strictly speaking, solar cells are a Victorian technology: the first one was built in 1883. It converted only 1 per cent of the solar energy into > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 39


What if…



It’s surprisingly hard to imagine a world without scarcity. When we think about the end of material needs, it’s usually our own, says John Quiggin, an economist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. But what about everyone’s needs? “Scarcity is the basis of our fundamental economic system,” he says. This is the capitalist paradigm whose principles are, to most of us, as non-negotiable as the laws of physics. How would the economy work if everything was free? Who would make things if no one got paid? Isn’t this just communism? Trying to envision a world not organised around the market is a bit like a fish thinking about what’s outside the water. Jeremy Rifkin did it in his 2014 manifesto The Zero Marginal Cost Society. Capitalism, he contends, is almost done eating itself. “It’s the ultimate triumph of the market” – a final transition to a society in which automation has brought the cost of producing each additional unit of anything near to zero, and products are essentially free. For a taster of how this looks, consider the music and publishing industries. The internet has made the production and distribution of content incredibly cheap. Though painful for some, Rifkin sees this trend as the harbinger of a new paradigm

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that will spread to all other industries. A critical enabler will be fabrication devices that can make almost anything on demand: think of today’s 3D printers but immensely more sophisticated, like a modern computer versus a 1960s electronic calculator. Within 60 years, these devices might have evolved into machines called molecular assemblers. The term was coined in 1977 by Eric Drexler. He imagined a nano-fabrication device capable of manipulating individual molecules with sufficient speed and precision to produce any substance you desire. Press a button, wait a while, and out come food, medicine, clothing, bicycle parts or anything at all, materialised with minimum capital or labour. We can’t know what such a world would look like – but the outlines are becoming visible. Rifkin thinks fabricators will be the engines of a sharing economy. The concept of ownership will give way to access (think Spotify and Uber for everything); purchases will give way to printing whatever you need. Within 20 years, he says, “I don’t think capitalism is going to be the exclusive arbiter of economic life. It will share the stage with its child.” Within 60 years, capitalism might have left the building completely. In its place will be a society in which all our basic needs are met. Rifkin calls his new economic vision“the commons”, but it goes beyond the economy – it will be the new “water” we swim in. You will have a job, but it won’t be for money. The company you work for will be a non-profit. Your “wealth” will be measured in social capital: your reputation as a cooperative member of the species. So when you contribute to open-source code that makes a better widget, you’ll enjoy a “payment” in the form of an improved reputation. Apps that track your contribution to the commons – whether by your input at work, your frugal use of energy, or other measures of reputation – will let you cash in your karma points for luxuries, say, an antique chair that was conspicuously not built by a fabricator. Even in the commons, we’ll still be human. Sally Adee

Issue 769 16 September 1971

Issue 1019 23 September 1976

Issue 1284 17 December 1981

Issue 1528 2 October 1986

Issue 1796 23 November 1991

What if…



Thirty years is a long time to wait for the next big thing. But for half of New Scientist’s lifetime, a select group of researchers has been sure that a world-changing discovery is just around the corner. If it happened it would bring “revolutionary change for our normal life,” according to Yanming Ma of Jilin University in Changchun, China. The breakthrough in question? A superconductor that operates at room temperature and ambient pressure. Sounds riveting, I know. But bear with me. Superconductors are materials that conduct electricity with no resistance. The phenomenon was first discovered by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who in 1911 saw mercury’s resistance drop to zero at 4.2 degrees above absolute zero. Other materials were found to be superconducting

at slightly higher temperatures, but the need for extreme refrigeration limited the usefulness of the phenomenon. Until 1986, that is. That was when we discovered the high temperature superconductors, which abruptly stop resisting below roughly 100 kelvin (which is -170°C: the term “high temperature” is a relative one). Suddenly, creating room temperature superconductors didn’t seem so far-fetched. That second great leap forward hasn’t happened – yet. So far we have not bettered what we found 30 years ago, says Paul Attfield of the University of Edinburgh, UK. Materials have been discovered that superconduct at somewhat higher temperatures, but only when under extremely high pressures. For now, superconductors remain entirely impractical for the killer applications that would allow them to change the

world: transport and electrical power transmission. Superconductors are a strong barrier to magnetic fields, meaning that a magnet will levitate above them. This makes them perfect for highly efficient and very fast maglev trains that hover above their tracks, suffering no energy loss from friction. Energy loss, or rather its absence, is also key to their usefulness in supplying power. When we send electricity from power stations to consumers, it runs through wires that resist its flow. The result is that we have to generate far more power than we ever get to use. With superconducting cables, we lose none. That also means that a battery using superconducting materials could remain charged forever. Both technologies would help solve many of the world’s energy problems at a stroke without having to rely on the other great future energy revolution, nuclear fusion (see page 36). “Humankind would live in a world of superconductivity,” says Mikhail Eremets of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. There is no fundamental theoretical roadblock to room-temperature superconductivity, says Eremets. In August, a team led by Ivan Božovic’ of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, published a groundbreaking paper in the journal Nature that might point the way. “It suggests a strategy change in our quest,” Božovic’ says. “I’m optimistic.” Michael Brooks

electricity, though, and failed to set the world alight. It was not until the late 1950s that the technology found a real-world application in the space race. In 1958, a solar cell was used as a backup power source for NASA’s Vanguard 1 satellite, and soon all satellites were powered by the sun. Space applications drove a steady improvement, but also kept the price high, which meant that it was not until the 1970s that the first solar panels were installed on Earth. Since then, prices have dropped dramatically while the cells themselves have continued to improve. Solar panels for general use now peak at around 25 per cent efficiency, which makes solar power a potential game changer. It is finally able to compete with fossil fuels, both in terms of price and efficiency.

Kanta Dihal, University of Oxford

1974 PERSONAL 1974: COMPUTING The emergence of personal computers is just the kind of slow, cumulative process that human perversity likes to attribute to a single origin point. Many popular histories go for 1974 and the launch of the MITS Altair 8800, although single-user computers were in fact much older. IBM had marketed one in 1957, but it was a business machine costing $55,000. The Altair cost $400 and inspired a legion of new enthusiasts. Yet it was a bare-bones box with input switches and indicator lights, appealing only to technical minds. The familiar keyboard and monitor set-up became mainstream in 1977, when firms including the fledgling Apple achieved major US sales. In the less affluent UK, personal computing caught on in the early 1980s with the Sinclair ZX81, a basic, cut-down tool that proved ideal for understanding future possibilities. The BBC Micro also defined many youngsters’ first experience of computers because of its use in schools. > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 41


What if…

WE HIT PEAK POPULATION? Could the population bomb be about to go off in the most unexpected way? Rather than a Malthusian meltdown, could we instead be on the verge of a demographic implosion? To find out how and why, go to Japan, where a recent survey found that people are giving up on sex. Despite a life expectancy of 85 and rising, the number of Japanese is falling thanks to a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman, and a reported epidemic of virginity. The population, it seems, are too busy (and too shy) to procreate. It’s catching. Half the world’s nations have fertility rates below the replacement level of just over two children per woman. Countries across Europe and the Far East are

teetering on a demographic cliff, with rates below 1.5. On recent trends, Germany and Italy could see their populations halve within the next 60 years. The world has hit peak child, says Hans Rosling at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Peak person cannot be far behind. For now, the world’s population continues to rise. From today’s 7.4 billion people, we might reach 9 billion or so, mostly because of high fertility in Africa. The UN predicts a continuing upward trend, with population reaching around 11.2 billion in 2100. But this seems unlikely. After hitting the demographic doldrums, no country yet has seen its fertility recover. Many demographers expect a global

crash to be under way by 2076. Governments may try to halt the fall – though Singapore has been trying for a generation and still has the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.8. And once the number of fertile women starts to decline, reversing the trend will be very hard. The population boom will turn to bust. What will this mean for the future of our species? By 2076, children will be rarities. For the first time in history most of us will be old. The brash, hormone-driven cultures that shaped the 20th century seem doomed. Innovation could dry up. It could trash our economies, too. Some economists say that Japan’s repeated recessions since the 1990s are due to the burden of ever more oldies. Maybe Europe is going

the same way. China could be next, as its population is set to peak in about 2030. Demographic determinists fear our species is on a slow downward spiral. We could go out not with a demographic bang but with an incontinent whimper. Yet it may not be like that. A grey society will certainly be different. But perhaps, like today’s ageing rock stars, we will find that being old isn’t so bad. Old could be the new young. And older societies are less prone to taking up arms. A world with fewer of us would also give the planet’s ecosystems a break. Malthus would be off the agenda. Instead, ecologist Edward O. Wilson’s call for a century of ecological restoration could take wing. Nature, at least, would enjoy the silver lining. Fred Pearce

What if…

WE DON’T DISCOVER ALIEN LIFE? For decades now, and with ever-increasing sophistication, we have been searching the universe for signs that we are not alone. Rovers are probing the surface of Mars. Scientists are planning missions to other promising spots such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, both of which may harbour liquid water. The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will let astronomers sample the atmospheres of exoplanets for chemical signatures of life. And radio astronomers have long been listening for transmissions from intelligent extraterrestrials. 42 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

So far, we have found nothing. What if it stays that way? What if, by mid-century, we have visited every life-friendly place in the solar system, eavesdropped on radio transmissions from a hundred million stars and peered at millions of exoplanets without finding the slightest trace of life? When should we give up and decide we’re alone? Never, say those involved in the search. “I can’t even imagine when it’s time to give up,” says Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s astrobiology programme. “With all the other planets around all the other stars, it’s impossible to imagine that life wouldn’t

have arisen somewhere else.” There are, after all, roughly 100 billion galaxies in the known universe, each with roughly 100 billion stars. Such numbers make even highly improbable events likely to happen somewhere – and the origin of life may not even be all that improbable (see page 37). A failure to find alien life would make the searchers doubt their methods and assumptions, not the existence of their target. “You have to think really hard about how you define life. It’s not like in Star Trek where you have a tricorder and get a nice big “bing!” sound when you point it at

The conventions of the PC were laid down by IBM and its PC 5150 (or simply the IBM Personal Computer) of 1981. Ever cheaper, increasingly user-friendly and boosted from the mid-1990s by public internet access, the machines laid the groundwork for a mass digital culture. Traditional computers have now been joined by smartphones, media-streaming televisions and online control systems for the home.

James Sumner, University of Manchester


1978: MRI 1978

something alive,” says Jon Willis, an astronomer at the University of Victoria, Canada, and author of a new book on the search for alien life. We can look for water and oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets, for example, but there’s no guarantee that alien life needs those molecules. We can listen for radio signals from an extraterrestrial civilisation, but who’s to say they don’t have a better method of communicating that we’re unaware of? And even if life exists on an exoplanet, we’re unlikely to know it unless it’s abundant enough to modify the entire atmosphere.

If today’s searches meet with silence, researchers will just head back to their drawing boards to design better, more sensitive ways to look next time. Of course, they might be wrong. Maybe we really are utterly alone, an astonishing and highly improbable one-off. If so, scientists might have to rethink their ideas about the conditions required for the origin of life, and about what makes Earth unique. And with that comes a great burden, says Willis. “If the universe really is empty, and we’re the first, there’s a huge responsibility on us not to kill ourselves.” Bob Holmes

When René Laennec developed the stethoscope in the early 1800s, his aim was simple: to “see” inside the living body. His invention became the symbol of medical practice and sparked a search for ever more precise ways of visualising our inner workings. The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 was a huge breakthrough, but arguably the most important technique of all was magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It has complex origins, starting with Nikola Tesla’s discovery of the rotating magnetic field in 1882. But the key insight came in 1971, when physicist Raymond Damadian showed that tumours and other bodily tissues responded differently when exposed to strong magnetic fields and pulses of radio waves. Realising the possible application, Damadian filed a patent for an “apparatus and method for detecting cancer in tissue”, but his design was never put into production. Instead, a team led by Peter Mansfield at the University of Nottingham, UK, took up the challenge. His team presented the first image of real clinical value at a conference in Virginia in 1978. Since then, the use of MRI scanners in hospitals has expanded rapidly: around 60 million scans are now performed worldwide every year. They have transformed early cancer diagnosis and more recent > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 43


What if…

It’s 2076 and the skies are looking decidedly milky. On windy plains and in parts of the seas that have been turned over to wind farms, a different kind of tower has been built alongside the turbines. They suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Vast parcels of land have been given over to forest. Trees are grown, harvested and burned for energy in power plants that don’t let CO2 escape to the atmosphere. Instead, emissions are captured and pumped into underground storage reservoirs. Ships dump powdered minerals into the water to soak up CO2 and reduce ocean acidification. All these technologies are a desperate rearguard action to reverse more than two centuries of greenhouse gas emissions. But they are not entirely up to the task and, anyway, we are still emitting greenhouse gases. So, 10 to 18 kilometres up in the atmosphere, a fine spray of particles shields Earth from the sun and keeps us cool. It’s what is making the skies that little bit whiter. “I think it’s very likely that in 60 years we’ll be using both technologies,” says John Shepherd of the University of Southampton, UK. He is referring to the two flavours of geoengineering: sucking CO2 out of the air and deploying a sunshade to bounce some of the sun’s rays back out into space. Like many climate scientists, Shepherd thinks climate talks are going too slowly. Even if industrial emissions were to drop rapidly – a big if – some sectors pose an intractable problem. We have no real replacement for aeroplane fuel and feeding people demands intensive agriculture, which accounts for a quarter of global emissions. That is why we will have to suck CO2 out of the air. And because that is a long way off, we will probably also have to rely on “solar radiation management”. The most studied version is spraying fine particles of sulphate into the stratosphere, yet its consequences are still poorly understood. Computer models suggest there will be winners and losers. While a sunshade could lower global average temperatures to pre-industrial levels, there would be regional 44 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016



differences. Northern Europe, Canada, Siberia and the poles would remain warmer than they were, and temperatures over the oceans would be cooler. Global warming is predicted to make wet regions wetter and dry ones drier. Models suggest a sunshade would rectify this, but, again, not in a uniform way. Tropical regions that depend on seasonal rains could suffer most, with monsoons drying up. Shepherd fears all this will feed into international disputes. He envisages some kind of global council where governments lobby for a climate that meets their needs. Some might prefer a slightly warmer temperature, for tourism or agriculture. But nations whose coral reefs draw in visitors

will probably want more CO2-sucking technologies to counter ocean acidification and bleaching. There’s a final, bitter twist. What goes up must come down, and so a sunshade would have to be continually replenished. If something were to happen – say, a complete breakdown of some international geoengineering agreement – and we stopped spraying sulphates, the consequences would be catastrophic. Within a decade or two, temperatures would soar to where they would have been without the sunshade. Warm regions would fry, and who knows what tipping points we would fly past. The consequences do not bear thinking about. Catherine Brahic

developments, including functional MRI (fMRI), allow us to see the workings of the human brain in ways previously unimaginable.

James Stark, University of Leeds

What if…


CIVILISATION COLLAPSES? There are 7.4 billion people on the planet – nearly three times as many as there were 60 years ago. The UN estimates that in another 60 years we will be approaching 11 billion. Others say that population will peak soon, then fall gradually as we hit resource limits. There is another possibility: that hitting those limits causes our surprisingly fragile civilisation to collapse, triggering a global die-off. Civilisation may appear robust, but is actually a juggling act. We keep all the balls in the air using densely coupled networks of manufacturing, trade, money, employment, food, water, transport, energy, technology, healthcare, geopolitics and law and order. Each network depends on all the others through many feedback loops. In other words, civilisation is an adaptive, complex system – and such systems are susceptible to catastrophic failure. Loss of any essential subsystem can cause the entire edifice to crash, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even small glitches are big trouble, as we saw in 2008 when local financial failures cascaded though coupled systems to cause the global crisis we are still feeling. With civilisation itself, we don’t know what subsystems, or how much loss, would be enough to get us in serious trouble. But we have some idea what might trigger collapse. If global warming, for example, causes methane

release from frozen deposits, we could get positive feedback: further warming, further release and runaway rising temperatures. Farming systems would fail in the face of rapid changes in weather, pests and diseases. Millions would starve. Other major risks are nuclear war (see page 46) and global pandemic. As well as killing millions, these scenarios could trigger general collapse. Economic systems are sensitive to losing key workers, especially those who are “hubs” linking many others, such as truck drivers and oil refinery operators. An epidemic with a death rate like the 1918 flu, for example, would knock out key people crucial to food supply, civil order, transport, electricity and many other support systems. As things come unstuck, ever more people die for ever more reasons, more subsystems fail and collapse accelerates. Couldn’t we all just hunker down and go back to business as usual when the storm is over? The problem is that once complex systems collapse, they stay collapsed. The lesson from history is that a less complex, alternative stable state from our past would re-emerge. It could be small, authoritarian city states, or even a return to hunting and gathering. The moral of this story? We need to do something about pandemic preparation, greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear proliferation – and above all the fragility of a closely coupled global society with little resilience.

Debora MacKenzie

Issue 2051 12 October 1996

Issue 2299 14 July 2001

Issue 2573 14 October 2006

Today, tamoxifen is one of the world’s best-selling breast cancer drugs. However, it almost did not see the light of day. Compound ICI 46,474, as it was first known, was synthesised in 1962 by Dora Richardson, who was working on developing a contraceptive pill for ICI. The compound was found to stimulate rather than suppress ovulation, and ICI nearly stopped the project. It was saved partly because the team’s leader, Arthur Walpole, threatened to resign, and pressed on with another project: to develop tamoxifen as a treatment for breast cancer. Even then, its market appeared small – it was mainly used as a palliative treatment for advanced breast cancer. A turning point came in 1980 when clinical trials showed that it was also beneficial when used alongside surgery and chemotherapy in the early stages of the disease. Later, trials demonstrated that it could prevent occurrence or recurrence in women at risk. Although tamoxifen has side effects, its usefulness in treating and preventing a major cause of death makes it a medical breakthrough of huge significance.

Viviane Quirke, Oxford Brookes University


Issue 2840 26 November 2011

You may not have heard of automated collaborative filtering, but you have almost certainly used it. It mediates nearly all of your online experiences. Without it, the internet would be very different and much less useful. The term “collaborative filtering” was first used in 1993 by Doug Terry, a software developer for Xerox, in descriptions of an information filtering system he was working on. This system, Tapestry, was designed to defeat the growing menace of information overload by prioritising documents according to its users’ preferences. Previous systems only let users search according to predetermined categories. Tapestry allowed them to annotate > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 45


What if…

THE WORLD TURNS AGAINST SCIENCE? AFTER the polymath John von Neumann died in 1957, his friend and collaborator Stanisław Ulam wrote a tribute to a man who did more than almost anyone to advance science and technology in the post-war world. Ulam recalled that von Neumann worried about science losing public support: “The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” Von Neumann was far too pessimistic: the past 60 years have seen staggering scientific and technological progress (see “What a difference 60 years makes”, page 33 onwards). But times change and

public attitudes are fickle. Could his prediction come true in the future? “I do worry that public opinion might turn,” says Jack Stilgoe of University College London, who researches the impacts and perception of science and technology policy. “If people feel that innovation is benefiting the wrong people, making the rich even richer and overlooking other social needs, then they may well get disenchanted.” Will we still love technology when robots have taken our jobs, or when insurance companies demand huge premiums because humans are the most dangerous drivers on the roads? Will people smash up self-driving taxis, just as Luddites

attacked automated looms? In some small, angry pockets, the backlash is already in full swing. Former mathematician Ted Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, has just published a book called The Anti-Tech Revolution. “He seems to think that the only way around this is to radically scale back our scientific and technological ambitions, even if that involves a violent downshifting in human lifestyles,” says sociologist Steve Fuller at the University of Warwick, UK. “The book is quite sane. It’s written like he’s instructing a revolutionary cell how to stop science and technology from destroying the planet.” Stilgoe is sceptical. “Societies in rich countries have become

exquisitely dependent on science and technology, so there really is no possibility,” he says. But if it did happen, the consequences would be terrible. “A change in public mood that discourages all forms of scientific research would produce technological and economic stagnation,” says Harvard University historian of science Matthew Hersch. “We would face technical and financial ruin.” The social ramifications would be horrific too. “When the faculties of colleges and universities stop learning new things, the education they provide atrophies and degrades into dogma, half-truths, and untested assumptions misremembered from error-ridden texts.” Michael Brooks

What if…

THERE’S A NUCLEAR WAR? Sabres are rattling again between Moscow and Washington, not to mention India and Pakistan, feuding over Kashmir. China’s nuclear arsenal is growing. Some still fear the nuclear intentions of Iran. North Korea is a nuclear power. The cold war may be over, but the weapons and geopolitical flashpoints are still there. Could nuclear war happen sometime in the next 60 years? The world still possesses around 10,000 nuclear warheads, overwhelmingly in Russia and the US. But let’s assume these two nations do not press the button, and that tensions eventually explode between India and Pakistan. 46 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

Most people away from South Asia might imagine such a conflict would not threaten them too much. Think again. The two countries have just over 200 relatively small nuclear warheads between them. Suppose they unleash half of them, a hundred 15-kilotonne weapons the size of Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The carnage from the blast, as well as firestorms and radiation in megacities like Karachi and Delhi, would kill millions. But that would be just the start, according to simulations by Alan Robock of Rutgers University in New Jersey and Michael Mills at the National Center for Atmospheric

Research in Boulder, Colorado. The fires would send about 5 million tonnes of hot black smoke into the stratosphere, where it would spread round the world. This smog would cut solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface by 8 per cent – enough to drop average winter temperatures by a startling 2.5 to 6°C across North America, Europe and much of Asia, and not just for a few days. It would take around five years for the impacts to peak, and the repercussions would still be felt strongly after a decade. Besides a nuclear winter, climate models predict that rainfall would be reduced as

documents, then included these annotations in searches. Gradually, users would collaboratively rank, or filter, the most useful information. Over the next 20 years, this method developed further and required fewer inputs from the user. Automated collaborative filtering (ACF) software is now vital to navigating the estimated 4.5 billion websites that make up the internet. It structures our searches, prioritises our social media and news feeds, generates suggestions on shopping sites, filters email and acts as a romantic and professional matchmaker. However, it isn’t without downsides. ACF is behind the echo-chamber effect. By reinforcing our connections to people who have similar views and interests, it obscures other perspectives, with important social consequences.

Elizabeth Haines, Science Museum research associate



weather systems lost energy. The Asian monsoon would collapse: that’s two billion people with as much as 80 per cent less water. The Amazon basin and the already arid Southwestern US and western Australia would scarcely do better. The smoke would heat the normally chilly stratosphere by around 30 °C, unleashing nitrogen chemistry that would destroy much of the ozone layer. But skin cancer might be the least of our concerns. Near-iceage temperatures would cause frosts capable of reducing the growing season in the world’s mid-latitude bread baskets by up to 40 days. This, combined with meagre rainfall and

blistering UV, would cause crop yields to plummet. Nuclear winter would deliver global famine. All this, remember, from a small regional war. Steven Starr of the University of Missouri has calculated that a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia could throw 150 million tonnes of smoke into the air. That would block 70 per cent of sunlight and cool much of the world by 20 ˚C or more. Unable to grow food, most people would starve to death. One of the greatest geopolitical achievements of the past 60 years was to avoid a nuclear war. Fingers crossed for the next 60. Fred Pearce

For an invention to be great it has to do two things: touch many people’s lives, and make a big difference. The cellular mobile phone has achieved both. Nearly all of us use them. We spend our lives prodding a screen. Truly personal computers, they entertain us, organise our diaries, play our music, interface with our social media and, once in a blue moon, we use them to talk. The aptly named Douglas Ring first described the cellular idea in the 1940s in an internal report at Bell Labs, where it gathered dust for more than two decades. The first cellphones you could buy date from the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that, in one country after another, they became ubiquitous. What’s more, unlike televisions, washing machines and other widespread gadgets, the mobile phone is a rare case of a technology that is so important we carry it everywhere. If I look at myself, I find only a handful of essential inventions: clothing and shoes (Palaeolithic), keys and money (Neolithic), glasses (medieval) and, the sole newcomer for 600 years, the mobile phone.

Jon Agar, University College London 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 47


The man with

THE FUTURE INSIDE HIM From the 1950s, science fiction writer ;\IVQ[íI_4MU began firing out startlingly prescient explorations of our present and far beyond. His vision is proving unparalleled, says Simon Ings


OSTED everywhere on street corners, the idiot irresponsibles twitter supersonic approval, repeating slogans, giggling, dancing…” So it goes in William Burroughs’s novel The Soft Machine (1961). Did he predict social media? If so, he joins a large and mostly deplorable crowd of lucky guessers. Did you know that in Robert Heinlein’s 1948 story Space Cadet, he invented microwave food? Do you care? There’s more to futurology than guesswork, of course, and not all predictions are facile. Writing in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones and elevator muzak, and foresaw the creeping eeriness of today’s media-saturated shopping mall culture. But even Bradbury’s guesses – almost everyone’s guesses, in fact – tended to exaggerate the contemporary moment. More TV! More suburbia! Videophones and cars with no need of roads. The powerful, topical visions of writers like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke are visions of what the world would be like if the 1950s (the 1960s, the 1970s...) went on forever. And that is why Stanisław Lem, the Polish satirist, essayist, science fiction writer and futurologist, had no time for them. “Meaningful prediction,” he wrote, “does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.” He wanted more: to grasp the human adventure in all its promise, tragedy and grandeur. He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings. And, as far as I can tell, Lem got everything – everything – right. Less than a year before Russia and the US played their 48 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

game of nuclear chicken over Cuba, he nailed the rational madness of cold-war policy in his book Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961). And while his contemporaries were churning out dystopias in the Orwellian mould, supposing that information would be tightly controlled in the future, Lem was conjuring with the internet (which did not then exist), and imagining futures in which important facts are carried away on a flood of falsehoods, and our civic freedoms along with them. Twenty years before the term “virtual reality” appeared, Lem was already writing about its likely educational and cultural effects. He also coined a better name for it: “phantomatics”. The books on genetic engineering passing my desk for review

He was born on 12 September 1921 in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine). His abiding concern was the way people use reason as a white stick as they steer blindly through a world dominated by chance and accident. This perspective was acquired early, while he was being pressed up against a wall by the muzzle of a Nazi machine gun – just one of several narrow escapes. “The difference between life and death depended upon… whether one went to visit a friend at 1 o’clock or 20 minutes later,” he recalled. Though a keen engineer and inventor – in school he dreamed up the differential gear and was disappointed to find it already existed – Lem’s true gift lay in understanding systems. His finest childhood invention was

“He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings” this year have, at best, simply reframed ethical questions Lem set out in Summa Technologiae back in 1964 (though, shockingly, the book was not translated into English until 2013). He dreamed up all the usual nanotechnological fantasies, from spider silk space-elevator cables to catastrophic “grey goo”, decades before they entered the public consciousness. He wrote about the technological singularity – the idea that artificial superintelligence would spark runaway technological growth – before Gordon Moore had even had the chance to cook up his “law” about the exponential growth of computing power. Not every prediction was serious. Lem coined the phrase “Theory of Everything”, but only so he could point at it and laugh.

a complete state bureaucracy, with internal passports and an impenetrable central office. He found the world he had been born into absurd enough to power his first novel (Hospital of the Transfiguration, 1955), and might never have turned to science fiction had he not needed to leap heavily into metaphor to evade the attentions of Stalin’s literary censors. He did not become really productive until 1956, when Poland enjoyed a post-Stalinist thaw, and in the 12 years following he wrote 17 books, among them Solaris (1961), the work for which he is best known by English speakers. Solaris is the story of a team of distraught experts in orbit around an inscrutable and apparently sentient planet, trying to come to terms with its cruel gift-giving (it insists on

“resurrecting” their dead). Solaris reflects Lem’s pessimistic attitude to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It’s not that alien intelligences aren’t out there, Lem says, because they almost certainly are. But they won’t be our sort of intelligences. In the struggle for control over their environment they may as easily have chosen to ignore communication as respond to it; they might have decided to live in a fantastical simulation rather than take their chances any longer in the physical realm; they may have solved the problems of their existence to the point at which they can dispense with intelligence entirely; they may be stoned out of their heads. And so on ad infinitum. Because the universe is so much bigger than all of us, no matter how rigorously we test our vaunted gift of reason against it, that reason is still something we made – an artefact, a crutch. As Lem made explicit in one of his last novels, Fiasco (1986), extraterrestrial versions of reason and reasonableness may look very different to our own.


PRONE TO MALFUNCTION Lem understood the importance of history as no other futurologist ever has. What has been learned cannot be unlearned; certain paths, once taken, cannot be retraced. Working in the chill of the cold war, Lem feared that our violent and genocidal impulses are historically constant, while our technical capacity for destruction will only grow. Should we find a way to survive our own urge to destruction, the challenge will be to handle our success. The more complex the social machine, the more prone it will be to malfunction. In his hard-boiled postmodern detective story The Chain of Chance (1975), Lem imagines a very near future that is crossing the brink of complexity, beyond which forms of government begin to look increasingly impotent (and yes, if we’re still counting, it’s here that he makes yet another on-the-money prediction by describing the marriage of instantly accessible media and global terrorism). > 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 49


50 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

LEM AND US New Scientist and Lem often crossed paths, as his choice of reading material (above) and our archive reveal




SOLARIS (1961)


Say we make it. Say we become the masters of the universe, able to shape the material world at will: what then? Eventually, our technology will take over completely from slow-moving natural selection, allowing us to re-engineer our planet and our bodies. We will no longer need to borrow from nature, and will no longer feel any need to copy it. At the extreme limit of his futurological vision, Lem imagines us abandoning the attempt to understand our current reality in favour of building an entirely new one. Yet even then we will live in thrall to the contingencies of history and accident. In Lem’s “review” of the fictitious Professor Dobb’s book Non Serviam, Dobb, the creator, may be forced to destroy the artificial universe he has created – one full of life, beauty and intelligence – because his university can no longer afford the electricity bills. Let’s hope we’re not living in such a simulation. Most futurologists are secret utopians: they want history to end. They want time to come to a stop; to author a happy ending. Lem was better than that. He wanted to see what was next, and what would come after that, and after that, a thousand, ten thousand years into the future. Having felt its sharp end, he knew that history was real, that the cause of problems is solutions, and that there is no perfect world, neither in our past nor in our future, assuming that we have one. By the time he died in 2006, this acerbic, difficult, impatient writer who gave no quarter to anyone – least of all his readers – had sold close to 40 million books in more than 40 languages, and earned praise from futurologists such as Alvin Toffler of Future Shock fame, scientists from Carl Sagan to Douglas Hofstadter, and philosophers from Daniel Dennett to Nicholas Rescher. “Our situation, I would say,” Lem once wrote, “is analogous to that of a savage who, having discovered the catapult, thought that he was already close to space travel.” Be realistic, is what this most fantastical of writers advises us. Be patient. Be as smart as you can possibly be. It’s a big world out there, and you have barely begun. ■



Issue 2308 15 September 2001 photographed on Lem’s typewriter, left

In Solaris, Lem demonstrated that he is one of the few science fiction writers who really understands, in his guts, that any alien creature will have far less in common with humans, after five billion years of separate development, than a bacterium. Marcus Chown, 1987

THE CYBERIAD (1965) My favourite part is an extended analysis of dragons, which puts them into the same category as electrons, thus explaining why many people don’t believe in them. Martin Sherwood, 1975 It’s a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation, and social structures. Very mind-expanding, with a fantastic sense of humour. Cosmologist Sean Carroll, 2010

SUMMA TECHNOLOGIAE (1964) Stanisław Lem used to “mend” German vehicles so they would break down. The habit never left him. With this masterwork of non-fiction, Lem has taken Western civilisation for a spin, with spectacular consequences. The book will be a fabulous shock to those who know only his science fiction… not for the faint-hearted. Simon Ings, 2013

PEACE ON EARTH (1987) A witty and scathing satire on the insanity of the arms race. It is a clever and very funny book, placing the reader inside the left hemisphere of split-brain protagonist, Ijon Tichy. Like him, we have a sense of only ever knowing half of what is going on. Elizabeth Sourbut, 1995

IMAGINARY MAGNITUDE (1973) A book consisting of introductions to books which don’t (yet) exist. “I’ve been banging my head against his ‘introduction to a review of the history of the study of literature generated by artificial intelligences’,” writes one of our journalists. “Deeep.” Anonymous, 2008



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Playing politics The powerful have always manipulated our baser natures. They can do better, says Pat Kane

The Ethics of Influence: Government in the age of behavioral science by Cass R. Sunstein, Cambridge University Press, £19.99


THE cover of this book echoes its core anxiety. A giant foot presses down on a sullen, Michael Jacksonlike figure – a besuited citizen coolly holding off its massive weight. This is a sinister image to associate with a volume (and its author, Cass Sunstein) that should be able to proclaim a decade of success in the government’s use of “behavioural science”, or nudge theory. But doubts are brewing about its long-term effectiveness in changing public behaviour – as well as about its selective account of evolved human nature. Nudging has had a strong and They are entreaties to change illustrious run at the highest level. our habits, to accept old or new Outgoing US President Barack norms, but they presume that Obama and former UK Prime we are ultimately free to refuse Minister David Cameron both set the request. up behavioural science units at However, our freedom is easily the heart of their administrations constrained by “cognitive biases”. (Sunstein was the administrator Our brains, say the nudgers, of the White House Office of are lazy, energy-conserving Information and Regulatory mechanisms, often overwhelmed Affairs from 2009 to 2012). by information. So a good way Sunstein insists that the powers to ensure that people pay into that be cannot avoid nudging us. their pensions, for example, is Every shop floor plan, every new to set payment as a “default” in office design, every commercial employment contracts, so the marketing campaign, every public employee has to actively untick information campaign, is an the box. Defaults of all kinds “architecting of choices”. As exploit our preference for inertia anyone who ever tried to leave and the status quo in order to IKEA quickly will suspect, that increase future security. endless, furniture-strewn path “Ever tried to leave IKEA to the exit is no accident. quickly? That endless, Nudges “steer people in furniture-strewn path to particular directions, but also the exit is no accident” allow them to go their own way”. 52 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

These, and other limits to our “cognitive operations” – like “present bias”, where we focus on the short term and downplay the future, or our “unrealistic optimism” about our prospects, or our poor assessment of probable outcomes are fully deployed in Sunstein’s argument What critics nearly a decade ago were dubbing Sunstein’s “Homer Economicus” view of human nature (named after Homer Simpson and his notoriously defensive response to the challenges of life in Springfield) stands untouched. Sunstein’s Nudge (with Richard Thaler) was published in 2008, and the thinking behind it, while gaining quick traction, has barely progressed. The book is still largely predicated on data from research on American college kids. It is an expedient rationale

Liberal leaders embraced nudging as a way to circumvent debate

for governing mandarins, giving them a guilt-free alibi for their “liberal paternalism”. An early review of this book in The New Atlantic pointed out that Obama’s enthusiasm for nudging was, in the circumstances, perfectly understandable. Beating back the financial crisis of 2007– 2008, and facing an antagonistic Congress, the question was “how to use executive action to salvage something positive in the face of a hopeless political situation”? Nudges could change public behaviour without having to get a majority on the Floor. “This is not exactly what the candidate of hope and change had in mind by ‘hope and change’, ” writes David V. Johnson, “but it would have to do.” Sunstein makes useful

For more books and arts coverage, visit

Pat Kane is a writer and curator

The sailors’ curse It took centuries to nail the cause of scurvy. Why, asks Jonathon Keats Scurvy: The disease of discovery by Jonathan Lamb, Princeton University Press, £24.95

and the admiralty, yet persistently confounded both because its incidence was unpredictable and it came in countless guises. It could induce black gums, creaky bones, sensory overexcitement and derangement. One doctor aptly dubbed it “an Iliad of diseases”. With such confusion, the cause of scurvy was vigorously debated and attributed to everything from tainted fruit to lack of oxygen. More broadly, says Lamb, opinion “divided over a diet that was

EXPLORING the Pacific between 1768 and 1771, Captain James Cook measured the transit of Venus and mapped New Zealand’s coastline. But the achievement that most excited the Royal Society was the avoidance of scurvy on the Endeavour, a feat Cook attributed “Scurvy had countless guises, inducing black to the malt wort in the diet. For gums, creaky bones the next several decades, malt and derangement” was carried on all British ships. Yet scurvy plagued Cook’s next voyage, wreaking havoc despite either deficient or defective: similar sailing conditions and either there was something precautions (including plenty lacking in what was eaten, or of malt). His experiences are something present in it that emblematic of scurvy, a malady was inimical to health”. It took that was still plaguing sailors well the isolation of vitamin C in into the 20th century. As Jonathan the 1930s to fully establish Lamb shows in Scurvy, the disease malnutrition as the problem. was a major concern of scientists Even more striking than the time it took to nail the cause is The Royal Society was impressed the utter directionlessness that by Cook’s crew escaping scurvy preceded it. Lamb is careful to


distinctions between nudges and the other things governments and enterprises can do. Nudges are not “mandates” (laws, regulations, punishments). A mandate would be, for example, a rigorous and well-administered carbon tax, secured through a democratic or representative process. A “nudge” puts smiley faces on your energy bill, and compares your usage to that of the eco-efficient Joneses next door (nudgers like to game our herd-like social impulses). In a fascinating survey section, which asks Americans and others what they actually think about being the subjects of the “architecting” of their choices, Sunstein discovers that “if people are told that they are being nudged, they will react adversely and resist”. This is why nudge thinking may be faltering – its understanding of human nature unnecessarily (and perhaps expediently) downgrades our powers of conscious thought. From the psychology and neuroscience around play, creativity, dreaming and sleep, we can as easily derive a picture of human cognition that doesn’t recoil from the buzzing, blooming demands of everyday life, but exults in using imagination, stories, abstraction and metaphor to comprehend the world. Can we architect a society that supports our cognitive surpluses, rather than exploiting our cognitive limits? If “attention is a scarce resource”, as Sunstein writes, perhaps we might manage the coming march of automation a different way, by using it to reduce our overall working hours? This would then increase the zone in which our attention could be freely and creatively exercised. That rebellious, rock-star figure on the cover is entirely appropriate. The ethics of human creativity, and the structural conditions which support its flourishing, may prove to be the ultimate challenge to the nudgers. ■

show that the conquest of scurvy does not conform to the standard story of scientific progress. The benefits of citrus for preventing and curing scurvy were discovered and discovered again, only to be lost in the interim. There are myriad reasons for this elusiveness. Beyond the sheer capriciousness of scurvy, there’s the inconsistency of citrus as a source of vitamin C. For example, the popularity of citrus for treating scurvy in the mid-19th century led to the use of West Indian limes, which were far cheaper than Mediterranean lemons but also happened to contain far less vitamin C. Because the limes proved ineffective, all citrus was discredited and the medical establishment swayed back in the direction of attributing scurvy to contamination. Lamb admirably follows this circuitous path, scrupulously avoiding oversimplification. While he can get lost in the details, and his book would be better served by more rigorous organisation of his research, Scurvy serves as a worthy antidote to the sensationalism common in popular science writing. Indeed, it is the opposite of the boilerplate “vitamin that changed the world” narrative. Instead, medical science is shown in the context of contemporary prejudices and politics. Deeply informed by the history and literature of seafaring, Lamb’s book provides valuable insights into the workings of science that can even guide our expectations about research today. ■ Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher and conceptual artist 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 53


Take it easy! Rest and relaxation is a deeply serious business, finds Mary Halton

WE ARE all only a night or two of decent sleep away from being successful members of society, right? If we could just sneak a magical extra hour of shut-eye, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Such thoughts sustain many of us through hectic working days; the carrot getting us to the weekend is the chance for more rest. However, while sleep is the most obvious way we rest, neither naps nor nocturnal unconscious sojourns made it into the top 10 most popular activities revealed by the Rest Test, a survey of over 18,000 people in 134 countries. The results were compiled by the multidisciplinary team Hubbub, funded by the Wellcome Trust. As it turns out, from reading to daydreaming, rest is something we understand as a necessarily conscious experience, a deliberate disengagement from the rhythms of life’s obligations. But for Alex Pang, rest looks quite different. In Rest, his paean to a balanced life, he argues that work and rest are not opposing forces, but an essential, reciprocal partnership. With an emphasis on rest’s benefits for the creative mind, Pang proposes that it has a place in our lives as a learned skill – one to hone and tend just as we would practise a musical instrument or train for a race. Citing everyone Our brain is nearly as energetic at rest as it is when we are busy 54 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

from Charles Darwin to Steve Jobs, Mountain View campus, but he suggests our approach should quite another thing on London’s be as structured as for other tasks. noisy, crowded, polluted streets He highlights the importance of on a rainy November day. a daily routine and of deliberately Although many of us accept stopping at an allotted time, even the idea that we work effectively if we are at our productive peak. for only 4 hours a day, sadly the Although he overlooks the wide creative experiences of writers, acknowledgement that we enjoy artists and Victorian naturalists more leisure than our historical “Pang sees rest as a learned counterparts, it is useful to skill – one to hone and tend explore the cultural implications as we would practise a of the “competitive busyness” musical instrument” that pervades modern working life. Pang’s examples from the past are largely male because are unlikely to cause the downfall rest, creative or otherwise, has of the 9-to-5-plus-checking-yourpresumably been alien to many emails-out-of-hours. women throughout history. But there is a slower side to rest Yet there is a very Silicon Valley too, as evidenced by artworks flavour to his approach. Walking inspired by the Rest Test that were meetings are all very well and recently on show at an exhibition, good in Google’s aptly named Rest and its Discontents, curated


Rest: Why you get more done when you work less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Basic Books, $27.50

by Robert Devcic, founder of GV Art London. To judge by them, our definition of rest is amorphous. For some, it is the opposite of work, for others, the antithesis of noise. And it appears to be more easily signified by the absence rather than presence of certain qualities: so, mapped out across a peaceful Mile End Art Pavilion in London’s East End, were fragmented responses to the idea of restlessness by artists, researchers and activists from the Hubbub collective. While it didn’t provide much satisfaction for fans of hard data, there was a dreamlike quality to some of the film installations, which explored descriptive experience sampling – a method used to document people’s thoughts when their minds wander – distilled into aural and visual vignettes. Closing in on what the brain is up to during rest also features in one of Rest’s most interesting revelations: the default mode network. These interconnected regions of the brain switch on when we stop focusing on external tasks. Although this network has only been researched since the 1990s, studies indicate that it may have a vast influence on our lives, since it is implicated in everything from empathy to memory to cognitive impairment. This “resting state” is barely less energetic than the engaged brain. So while we may have a sardonic approach to “deliberate rest” and power naps, next time you’re caught staring into space, remember you’re busy exercising this vital neural network. ■ Mary Halton is a writer based in London

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Excluded from the uncanny valley used. It looks to me like an ordinary photo of a young woman. Family members say it certainly looks odd. Neuroscience researchers tell me I have normal object recognition and eyesight, but a severe deficit in face recognition. I wonder: do deficiencies in face processing in prosopagnosics have any bearing on the uncanny valley? Have faceblind people ever been tested in this context?

From Bob Cockshott London, UK

Laura Spinney’s description of the “uncanny valley” occupied by notquite-human images was fascinating (29 October, p 28). Having acquired face-blindness (prosopagnosia) following a stroke, I see nothing strange about the large image you

From Daniel Rollison London, UK

Nowadays we see human faces and bodies digitally altered into an uncanny state on film posters and fashion adverts everywhere. I am sure I am not the only one who finds some of them unsettling. Has research been done on their effects?

Data could build natural intelligence too From Jim Simons Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK In his overview of artificial intelligence, Nello Cristianini says that data is stronger than theoretical models (29 October, p 38). AI has emerged from simple statistical algorithms processing vast amounts of data. He also says that this has not furthered understanding about our own intelligence. Really? Humans are exposed to vast torrents of data every waking minute. A baby newly out of the womb shows little intelligence; intelligence slowly emerges as the data accumulates in the brain. Perhaps human intelligence is an emergent property of a sufficiently large body of knowledge, and perhaps



our brains have grown larger not to run fancier algorithms, but to store ever more data.

Machine learners that just can’t explain From Alan Bundy Edinburgh, UK Brian Horton suggests, possibly in jest, that we find out how people distinguish heroes from villains by letting an artificial intelligence watch thousands of films (Letters, 22 October). But statistical machine learning programs are notoriously unable to explain what they have learned. If their training is successful, they will work out how to distinguish heroes and villains in previously unseen films, but will not be able to explain how they do it. This is a serious failing for some potential applications. For instance, doctors take



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“Can this technology help with obesity or diabetes? Does it trick the digestive enzymes?” Timi gets real with a practical application of VR taste and chewing (12 November, p 23). Researchers hope so.

professional responsibility for their diagnoses and treatments. They cannot accept the output of a black box without some kind of explanation.

Fred Hoyle’s special carbon and us From Ernest Ager Exmouth, Devon, UK I wonder whether the “anthropic” argument that the activated state of carbon nuclei is “fine-tuned” may be missing something (22 October, p 34). If the laws of physics were just a little different, the argument goes, then the formation of carbon from helium would be much more difficult, and so carbon would be scarce and life would not exist. However, if the laws of physics were different, all the elements would be affected and all of chemistry would be different too.

Could some other “altered” element take carbon’s place as the one that allows an enormous number of possible compounds? It seems unjustifiably selective to limit the change to just carbon. From Eric Kvaalen Les Essarts-le-Roi, France Fred Hoyle in fact proposed that carbon must have a state with energy 7.68 megaelectronvolts above its unexcited ground state, rather than precisely the 7.65 MeV rest energy of three alpha particles. At the time, he said simply that this was necessary to explain why we see the amount of carbon we do.

Hybrid cars could cut particulate pollution From Alec Dunn Edinburgh, UK Michael Le Page mentions the contribution to air pollution from

brake pads and tyres (29 October, p 16). Regenerative braking, as used in hybrid vehicles, could reduce the former. Some time ago, I heard of a taxi driver with a hybrid car (common now) who had driven 250,000 miles around Vancouver, Canada, and was still on the original brake pads. Tyres are another issue, but we need the roads repaired first. Driverless cars should help in both areas.

X-raying asylum seekers is ruled out by law From Bryn Glover Kirkby Malzeard, North Yorkshire, UK Tim Cole rightly challenges the idea of submitting asylum seekers to X-rays in an attempt to verify their age (29 October, p 18). There is another reason not to: the law. The general principle is that an individual’s exposure be “as low

as reasonably achievable”. The UK Ionising Radiation Regulations demand that exposure be restricted “so far as is reasonably practicable”. They recognise that there is no safe limit, that all exposure to ionising radiation is hazardous, and that the hazard is cumulative. Any exposure not medically justified by the balance of harm and benefit is unlawful. I cannot perceive any medical benefit whatsoever for the asylum seekers from the proposed dental and other X-rays.

The urge to suppress transgender identity From Tash Lee Sydney, New South Wales, Australia I read with interest about how trans brains sense their bodies (15 October, p 12). Anything that helps understanding and >

‘Marvellous, thrilling... a page-turner’ Tim Radford,, Guardian

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LETTERS acceptance has to be positive. The article states that only around 27 per cent of young children who question their gender identity still do so by the time they reach puberty. Might this be influenced by factors such as society’s responses to trans people? Many may change their mind on their gender identity, but some will suppress their feelings or be in denial.

No more havens for the self-propelled human From Tim Boardman Stafford, UK I am concerned at the prospect of driverless “pods” occupying walkways and cycle paths in Milton Keynes (22 October, p 23). I often find cycle paths obstructed by parked motor vehicles, and in the pedestrianised centre of my town I have had some close encounters with a few careless mobility scooter users. If cyclists and pedestrians must soon compete with substantial driverless pods for dedicated spaces, I wonder what is left for the self-propelled human. TOM GAULD

Number-crunching history can save us From Frank Aquino West Leederville, Western Australia Laura Spinney’s account of the Seshat history-database project (15 October, p 38) is worth rereading again and again. It gives me hope that humanity (some of it anyway) really is trying to avoid the catastrophic errors of the past. Combine this with techniques for learning from big data, and the proposal in science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books of a statistical “psychohistory” may become a genuine field of study that allows us to steer humanity away from the worst of the future’s pitfalls.

Sex ratio and violence: can war shed light? From Martin Greenwood Stirling, Western Australia It is indeed counter-intuitive that a shortage of men makes communities more prone to violence (8 October, p 12). But historians should be able to conduct a statistical test of the

idea based on events that provide natural “experiments”. Both world wars killed larger numbers of men than women, resulting in gender imbalance in those of reproductive age. The 1914-18 war in particular destroyed much of a generation, and that loss was felt not just across Europe but in nations allied with the UK, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The US, in contrast, lost more troops to combat during the second world war. What were the respective effects on violent crime?

Let’s clear up some details of the ionosphere From Gordon Brimble Adelaide, New South Wales, Australia David Hambling writes that “at night, the ionosphere is denser and more reflective” (20 August, p 21). The ionosphere forms during the day as solar ultraviolet light ionises atoms and molecules in the atmosphere. As the atmosphere becomes less dense with altitude, and solar UV strengthens with altitude, the result is a layer (or layers) of free

electrons, densest at an altitude of 150 to 250 kilometres. At night the free electrons recombine with ions, emitting airglow, as you report in the same issue (p 34). This happens faster at lower altitudes where densities are higher. As a result, the height of maximum electron density rises, and the layer weakens. The ionosphere is less dense at night. During the day, the density of ions and molecules is so high that collisions dissipate the energy of low-frequency radio waves, resulting in absorption of the signal. Thus only high frequencies (short-wave radio) will reflect during the day. At night, reduced absorption makes the ionosphere a better reflector – but only for medium-wave signals.

In general, stay upwind of meat-eaters From Chris James Winchester, Hampshire, UK It is no surprise that eating protein leads to smelly farts (22 October, p 16). Carnivorous mammals – such as cats, dogs and most humans – have smelly faeces, whereas the herbivores – sheep, cows, horses – are in general much less odoriferous.

Where on earth is that hexagonal city? From Geoffrey Clark Douglas, Isle of Man As a town planner I had a great interest in your piece on traffic in honeycomb-patterned streets (5 November, p 17). But I could not identify the town or city in the bird’s-eye-view picture. Would you please identify it for me? The editor writes: ■ It is Grammichele in Sicily, Italy.

For the record ■ Our diagram of the stability of the universe plotted the mass of the top quark against that of the Higgs boson (29 October, p 36). 62 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

OLD SCIENTIST What was New Scientist talking about in Novembers past?

START as you mean to go on. That’s a pretty fair assessment of our first 60 years. On 22 November 1956, this magazine’s very first edition hit the news stands, and today New Scientist is still living up to its promise, made in that first issue, to inform and entertain “all those men and women who are interested in scientific discovery and its industrial, commercial and social consequences”. In the spirit of the post-war age, we also pledged to hunt for revelations that could “have a direct and vital application to the happiness of us all”. New Scientist has diversified hugely since then, especially since the advent of the digital age, but we’d like to think we still hold true to the values we expressed at our birth. We were certainly trying our best in 1983, when our 17 November issue discussed one of the earliest projects to generate what is now called renewable energy. A barrage across the Severn estuary on the UK’s west coast could provide as much energy as a second nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk in eastern England, we explained. The barrage “would last 120 years, or four times as long as a pressurised water reactor”. Passions were running high in the 1980s over the dangers of nuclear power (as pictured above), but our ethical enthusiasm was fruitless. Sizewell B was built; the barrage was not. But the issues thrown up are still arousing passions today, as witnessed by further arguments in favour of using tidal power in the Severn and debate over the UK government’s recent go-ahead for the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in Somerset. There was better news in 2002. Our 16 November issue reported that coffee may ward off diabetes – happiness on two scores. We suggested that as long as you washed down your diabetes-causing doughnuts with “at least seven cups of coffee a day”, you were only “half as likely to succumb” to the disease. Presumably the trade-off was insomnia and high blood pressure. Perhaps that’s one of the social consequences we were envisaging back in 1956?

Mick O’Hare

To delve more into the New Scientist archives, go to 19 November 2016 | NewScientist | 63


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constrains a reaction, “I always go on to state that the other reagent is called ‘INXS’. Unfortunately, as time has gone on, fewer of my high-school students seem to appreciate this reference.”

FIVE months since the UK voted to leave the European Union, the miasma surrounding Brexit shows no signs of clearing. Readers may recall that environment secretary Andrea Leadsom boasted to party activists in October that Chinese tourists were buying bottled English air for £80 a pop. Quite a wheeze – although we wonder why tourists don’t simply cap their own empty bottles for free before returning home. Nonetheless, the market for canned air is ballooning. Colleagues send a flyer for Boost Oxygen, a tinned variety that offers 150 breaths of 02 in a can, in five exciting flavours: peppermint, pink grapefruit, menthol. a flavour called “beauty” and, er, 95 per cent pure natural. Better make that four exciting flavours. The promo warns that “research shows oxygen consumption levels are as low as 21%”, a figure we can only describe as atmospherical. By way of a remedy, Boost promises that huffing on the scented oxygen offers reduced tension, reduced appetite and “limitless benefits for body and mind” – and, Feedback suspects, will leave you positively glowing should there be any naked flames nearby.

OUR colleagues have covered the alarming news that Samsung smartphones have been exploding into flames because of the volatility of their lithium batteries (22 October). “It is very rare to see an advert for a product coming with as honest a warning as the one for a Samsung smartphone I spotted at the Charles de Gaulle airport,” reports Tadeusz Kawecki. “It says ‘Rethink what a phone can do’.” PREVIOUSLY Feedback discussed the prominent references in scientific literature to musical figures such as reluctant Nobel prizewinner Bob Dylan and moptopped Scouse quartet The Beatles (29 October). Crispin Piney tells us that in addition to these examples, we may add the inspiration given by a certain rock star to David L. Davis at a Project Management Congress in 2001. In a paper titled A Philosophy of Project Management According to Meat Loaf, Davis provides a number of lessons, including the dangers of scope creep (“I’d Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That”) and methods for balancing cost, time and quality (“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”). As Crispin points out, the Bat Out of Hell singer “couldn’t have said it better”. OTHER artists may find themselves elegantly wasted on new readers. Teresa Gamellaro writes that when teaching high-school chemistry students about the concept of a “limiting reagent” whose exhaustion

IBM has admitted that a software crash which disrupted the Australian national census could have been easily resolved if the company had “turned one of its routers off and on again” 64 | NewScientist | 19 November 2016

MAYO maker Hellmann’s markets a tomato ketchup (“14% more tomatoes than the market leader”) that informs Colin Smythe that not only are the tomatoes sun-ripened, but also “sustainably grown”. “The copywriters are certainly pulling all the stops out,” says Colin, “but what exactly do they mean by it – can tomatoes be unsustainably grown?” Feedback’s forays into gardening tell us that any success in our greenhouse has proven to be very unsustainable indeed.

FAMOUS last words: after finding out that scientists were the most likely of any profession to want a postmortem status update to be published, Feedback wondered what posts the greats might have cued up for their deaths (5 November). Tony Lang thinks that Erwin Schrödinger’s last tweet would have asked his followers: “Before you lower my coffin into the ground, please open it to make sure I’m dead.” MORE posthumous papers: Mike Mellor writes in with the news that a reviewer of the new collection of Isaac Newton’s correspondence warns that most prospective readers “will not want to read Volume VI, as it contains a decline in Newton’s vigorous intellectual

activity and a private dispute between himself and [Gottfried] Leibniz from 1713–1718”. Mike says: “The fact that he was still arguing with Leibniz two years after Leibniz’s death in 1716 suggests Newton’s vigorous intellectual activity may indeed have declined quite considerably.”

BARRY CASH is a reader wellseasoned in the mystery of Himalayan pink “sea salt” (5 November). He shares a letter he sent to supermarket Waitrose questioning the origin of the substance, found in the store’s Ultimate Chocolate Collection. Customer-service rep Viv Arnold replied with remarkable specificity about the origin of the salt: the Khewra salt mine in Punjab, Pakistan, “310 km from the Himalayas, 260 km from Lahore, and 298 km from Amritsar, India”. However, Arnold did not share with Cash which sea can be found at this location.

SOME assembly required? Flat-packed furniture store IKEA hosts an online library of guidebooks, from which users can download a digital version of the assembly instructions for their many thousands of products. Brian Reffin Smith reports a prominent and alarming warning on the homepage informing any visitors: “Please note! This page is under construction.”

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THE LAST WORD Natural colour Is it possible for a light source to be anything other than white or a colour in the spectrum? For example, can one shine a brown light, or a pink one?

■ White light, as we see it, can be considered a mix of the three primary colours – red, blue and green – but sunlight emits all the colours of the visible spectrum (and beyond into ultraviolet and infrared, too). We can see this spectrum when using a prism or viewing a rainbow as the wavelengths are separated into individual colours. There are many different sources of light, but nothing natural emits brown or pink light. However, placing a filter in front of a white-light source to selectively block certain wavelengths and allow others to pass through would let you transmit any colour you like, so then pink or brown light would be possible. That said, finding the right materials and coatings to make such a filter would not be simple. Alternatively, a red-green-blue combination of light sources can be used to make any colour you choose by varying the brightness of the individual colours. This principle, which is used in televisions and phone screens, would permit you to project a pink or brown light by attaching a projector to your laptop. Richard Simons Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts Quebec, Canada

The writers of answers that are published in the magazine will receive a cheque for £25 (or US$ equivalent). Answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a daytime telephone number and an email address if you have one. New Scientist retains total editorial control over the published content. Reed Business Information Ltd reserves all rights to reuse all question and answer material that has been

■ Go to a theatre or some restaurants and you will see plenty of pink light. It’s just white with additional red. Brown light is more problematic. It’s actually a dim yellow – that is, yellow with additional black. Such a colour filter is available for theatrical lighting. John Woodgate Rayleigh, Essex, UK ■ Purple LEDs, which produce light using standard LED technology, are available commercially. Pink LEDs are also sold. These use a pink phosphor to convert blue or ultraviolet LED light into pink. Ultraviolet LEDs – as used in banknote forgery detectors – are now quite common. When used with suitable phosphors, they could produce any colour. Richard Lucas Hawley, Hampshire, UK

Vicious spin According to your “This is the end” feature (4 June, p 26): “When sunlight strikes asteroids they spin faster and faster, and many will centrifuge themselves into smithereens.” What causes this ever-increasing speed?

■ If ever there was a great name then YORP is it. The YarkovskyO’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack effect (no wonder it was abbreviated) causes an irregularly shaped asteroid to spin faster and faster under the action of incoming sunlight.

submitted by readers in any medium or in any format and at any time in the future. Send questions and answers to The Last Word, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU, UK, by email to or visit (please include a postal address in order to receive payment for answers). Unanswered questions can also be found at this URL.

The irregular shape is crucial, in the same way that blowing on a flat sheet of paper does nothing, but blowing on the same sheet folded into a windmill shape causes it to spin. The “blades” deflect the air, causing a net turning effect, or moment, and a change in angular momentum. With a perfectly spherical

“Over millions of years, an irregular asteroid gains angular momentum and its spin gets ever faster” asteroid, photons are absorbed and reradiated perpendicular to the surface. There is zero moment as the photons reradiate radially. But photons reradiating from an irregularly shaped asteroid each generate a tiny moment and the sum of all these will not be zero. Over millions of years, the asteroid gains angular momentum and because there is no friction in space, the spin gets ever faster. Eventually, it blows up due to the centrifugal force. There are a few videos online of wind turbines going too fast and disintegrating, and this is much the same thing. Hugh Hunt Reader in engineering dynamics and vibration Trinity College, Cambridge, UK ■ Asteroids’ spin can speed up or slow down as a result of incoming sunlight because these rocks heat up when illuminated but, due to a thermal lag, don’t give off the resulting radiation until they have

rotated. However, the process usually affects asteroids’ orbits more than their rotation. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will study the YORP effect on asteroid 101955 Bennu when it reaches it in 2018, with plans to collect and return samples to Earth. The effect is of special interest because it could influence whether Bennu strikes Earth in 150 years or so. Jay M. Pasachoff Visitor in planetary sciences California Institute of Technology Pasadena, California, US

This week’s questions HAMSTERVERSE

Whenever I read a description of the multiverse, it always talks about human decisions causing branches. What about animals and the decisions they make? Does my hamster deciding to eat the apple first rather than the pea cause a new branch? Brian Fairchild Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK SEASONS IN THE SUN

In August in England, eight weeks after the summer solstice, the direct heat from the sun on a fine day feels much hotter than it does in April, eight weeks before the solstice, although its elevation is the same. I understand that the air temperature will be warmer, but why does the radiation feel more intense? Or is it an illusion? Doug Fenna Ryde, Isle of Wight, UK

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