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SCIENCE•HISTORY•NATURE•FOR THE CURIOUS MIND

SLEEP DEPRIVATION COULD HELP TO FIGHT DEPRESSION p16

ASIA EDITION | VOL 10 ISSUE 2

WILL WE EVER BE ABLE TO FORECAST THE WEATHER? p80

WILDLIFE ON THE BORDERLINE p54

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SECRETS OF THE BRAIN How 'minibrains' being grown in labs could reveal the mysteries behind human development and disease p28


TV HIGHLIGHTS How to Stay Young S2 You may be free from grey hairs and wrinkles, but do your insides tell a different story? A team of health experts meet ordinary people to reveal how quickly their organs, skin, muscles and brain are growing old. Discover the secrets that could hold the key to living longer, healthier lives.

Premieres 12 February Mondays at 9.30pm (JKT/BKK) 10.30pm (SIN/HK/MY/TW)

Where the Wild Men Are with Ben Fogle Adventurer Ben Fogle meets more people who’ve ditched a life of debts and daily grind for something different. These intrepid adventurers have made their homes in some of Earth’s most remote locations. From the Sahara Dessert to the Guatemalan jungle, discover the reality of leaving it all behind.

Premieres 19 February Mondays at 8.40pm (JKT/BKK) 9.40pm (SIN/HK/MY/TW)

Trust Me, I’m a Vet The team run a brand-new study to find the best way to help your pet lose weight, reveal how to create a calm environment for stressed-out cats, and investigate the nutritional pros and cons of wet and dry pet foods.

Premieres 27 February Tuesdays at 9.40pm (JKT/BKK) 10.40pm (SIN/HK/MY/TW)

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THE FLIP SIDE OF ADVANCEMENT Apart from New Year festivities, one other thing was welcomed with much excitement in the final week of last year. The new season of Black Mirror was released, a show that has elicited in its loyal viewers an eerie sense of foreboding towards the rapid rate at which our world is becoming dependent on technology. Such is the power of science fiction though, it has an almost anticipatory nature to it. It could occasionally even trigger an idea that science eventually uses as a template for future innovation. After all, the flatscreen TV was at one point just a fancy bit of animation on The Jetsons. Remember that? The truth is, though, that we still need ample technological advancement for the good of the world. While the extremes can be scary, it is also true that technology is needed for dealing with real issues like disease, climate change or even for energy conservation and sustainability practices. One such example is our cover story this month, where Simon Crompton takes us through the research on the human brain that could help tackle difficult diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and autism (p28). Elsewhere in the issue, we also explore the ways in which technology can help improve methods of weather forecasting (p80). With the amount of devastation that can be caused to humans, animals and the environment by natural disasters, this is one place where pioneering research is crucial. That’s it from us this month, we hope you enjoy this issue as much as we enjoyed curating it!

BBC Earth Magazine Includes selected articles from other BBC specialist magazines, including Focus, BBC History Magazine and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

www.sciencefocus.com www.historyextra.com www.discoverwildlife.com IMPORTANT CHANGE:

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BBC Earth Magazine provides trusted, independent advice and information that has been gathered without fear or favour. When receiving assistance or sample products from suppliers, we ensure our editorial integrity and independence are not compromised by never offering anything in return, such as positive coverage, and by including a brief credit where appropriate.

Experts in this issue…

DUNCAN GEERE Duncan Geere is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Gothenburg, Sweden. This month he explores the technology behind weather forecasts. (p80)

HAYLEY BENNETT Hayley Bennett is a freelance science writer based out of Bristol, UK. In this issue she talks about the lithium reserve within the Bolivian salt plains. (p72)

KRISTA SCHLYER Krista Schlyer is an award-winning photographer and writer focused on conservation, biodiversity and public lands. She is the author of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. (p54)

JONATHAN ELPHICK Jonathan Elphick is a natural history author, editor and consultant. He is an eminent ornithologist and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. (p36)

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CONTENTS

VOL. 10 ISSUE 2

FEATURES 14 Adventurous Escapades In Eastern Australia Why the Australian continent is the ultimate destination to experience nature and wildlife like never before 28 Unlocking the Secrets Of The Brain From autism to Alzheimer’s, lab-grown mini-brains could be the key to solving the biggest mysteries about human development and disease 36 Harpy Heaven Jonathan Elphick documents his observations of the rarely spotted harpy eagle in Panama

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54

42 When Grief Gripped A Nation Dominic Sandbrook investigates the outpouring of emotion that followed Princess Diana’s death 48 Rewild Your Diet Prof Tim Spector reports on how he gave his microbes a treat by living with the Hadza people 54 Wildlife On The Borderline The barriers along the US-Mexico frontier carve up habitats and age-old migration routes, impacting on a host of species 62 The Bloody Road To Partition Yasmin Khan describes some of the images that define the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan 72 Digging For Electricity The Bolivian salt plains hide vast reserves of lithium. With demand for rechargeable batteries set to soar, could this be the site of a new gold rush?

28 REGULARS 3 Welcome A note from the editor sharing her thoughts on the issue and other ramblings 80 Will We Ever Be Able To Forecast The Weather? Duncan Geere investigates why even in today’s advanced 6 Snapshot Stunning snaps from across the fields of world we still have trouble predicting the weather history, nature or science

RESOURCE 94 Book Review This month, we list out our favourite literature from last year that you must add to your shelf 96 Time Out Crossword puzzle to stimulate your brain 4

Vol. 10 Issue 2

28 Comment & Analysis Helen Czerski on rainbows in ice 97 My Life Scientific Helen Pilcher talks to Dr Andrew Digby about career changes and the charismatic

98 The Last Word Robert Matthews on why natural disasters don’t worry us more

UPDATE 14 The Latest Intelligence Sleep deprivation could help to fight depression; consciousness restored in man after 15 years in a vegetative state… 85 Q&A Do blind people see in their dreams? How are calories in food calculated? Are the fish in a shoal all the same age? Why do I weigh less in the morning?


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UK TEAM Editor: Eckart Bollman Production Editor: Daniel Down Reviews Editor: Daniel Bennett Commissioning Editor: Jason Goodyer Science Consultant: Robert Matthews Contributing Editor: Emma Bayley Art Editor: Joe Eden CONTRIBUTORS Acute Graphics, Peter Bentley, Dan Bright, JV Chamary, Alexandra Chueng, Brian Clegg, Charlotte Corney, Helen Czerski, Lewis Dartnell, Emma Davies, Alice Gregory, Alastair Gunn, Tom Ireland, Christian Jarrett, Raja Lockey, Mark Lorch, Magic Torch, Tim McDonagh, James Olstein, Helen Pilcher, Duncan Geere, Hayley Bennett, Adriana Castro, Yasmin Khan, Krista Schyler, Tim Spector, Dominic Sandbrook, Jonathan Elphick, Simon Crompton DISTRIBUTORS Singapore - Pansing Distribution Pte Ltd Malaysia - MPH Distributors Sdn Bhd Thailand - Asia Books Co., Ltd Hong Kong/China/Macau - Times Publishing (HK) Ltd SUBSCRIPTION AGENTS Singapore - The Learning Craft, Adept Learning, ilovereading.sg, JSim Education, Magazine & Journal Subscription Services, Starmags International Malaysia - Worldwide Magazines Services Sdn Bhd Hong Kong - MI Asia Limited Taiwan - Jade Mountain Creative Marketing

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BBC Earth Magazine, MCI (P) 002/09/2017, ISSN 2529-7503, PPS 1875/01/2016 (025609), is published by Regent Media Pte Ltd under license from Immediate Media Company Bristol Limited. Copyright © Immediate Media Company Bristol Limited. No part of this publication is to be reproduced, stored, transmitted, digitally or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher. The information contained herein is accurate at time of printing. Changes may have occurred since this magazine went to print. Regent Media Pte Ltd and its editors will not be held liable for any damages, loss, injury or inconvenience, arising in connection with the contents of the magazine. Regent Media Pte Ltd will not accept responsibility for unsolicited contributions. Printer: KHL Printing Co Pte Ltd (197801823M) Address: 57 Loyang Drive Singapore 508968. The BBC logo is a trade mark of the British Broadcasting Corporation and is used under licence. © British Broadcasting Corporation 1996

A publication of

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Snapshot

Naples at Night Crew aboard the International

replaced in newer developments

Space Station took this

by orange sodium bulbs (yellow-

photograph of the city lights of

orange). To the northeast, the

Naples and the Campania region

lightless gaps between the homes

of southern Italy. The Naples

and businesses are agricultural

region is one of the brightest in

fields. The bright yellow-orange

the country; roughly three million

complex amidst the fields is the CIS

people live in and around this

emporium, the largest commercial

metropolitan area.

retail facility in Europe. The large

The different colours of lights in the

black circular area in the photo is

scene reflect some of the history of

Mount Vesuvius, the only active

development in the area. The green

volcano on Europe’s mainland.

lights are mercury vapour bulbs, an older variety that has been

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PHOTO: NASA


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Snapshot

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The Bluest of Ice Acquired on November 29, 2017 by Operation IceBridge during a flight to Victoria Land, this image shows an iceberg floating in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound. The part of the iceberg below water appears bluest primarily due to blue light from the water in the Sound. The undersides of some icebergs can be eroded away, exposing older, denser, and incredibly blue ice. Erosion can change an iceberg’s shape and cause it to flip, bringing the sculpted blue ice above the water’s surface. The unique steplike shape of this berg—compared to the tabular and more stable berg in the top-right of the image— suggests that it likely rotated sometime after calving. Operation IceBridge—an airborne mission to map polar ice—recently made several flights out of the McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations, giving researchers greater access to the interior of the icy continent. For the ninth year in a row, flights over Antarctica have turned up ample science data, as well as spectacular images. PHOTO: NASA

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SPECIAL FEATURE

THRILLING ESCAPADES IN EASTERN AUSTRALIA These three states on the east coast of the Australian continent can be the perfect source of adrenaline for your next vacation 1. ACTION PACKED: NEW SOUTH WALES SOAK UP SYDNEY No matter how popular it gets, the stunning Sydney harbour will still captivate first-time and returning visitors alike. Take to the stunning water at a pace of your choosing. You can take a ferry to soak in the views and use the slow speed to capture the perfect shot, or get the wind in your hair by trying jetboating. You could even test your endurance by kayaking across the water. Lounge on any one of Sydney’s 70 sparkling beaches, or get active as you dive with sharks at Manly SEALIFE. Refuel with a yum cha feast in Chinatown or tuck into a hearty pie at Harry’s Café de Wheels; this city truly has it all.

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MIGHTY BLUE MOUNTAINS Just a 90 minute drive to the west of Sydney, The Three Sisters is an iconic rock formation which happens to be a part of the World Heritage Blue Mountains. Ideal for canyoning and caving, the mountains have deep fissures gouged from the sandstone over eons. Jenolan Caves is a labyrinth of stalactitelined limestone chasms carved by underground rivers. Scenic World takes you into the Jamison Valley floor, via railway, cable car and skywalk. Follow the boardwalk through the trees and take in the sounds and tranquillity of the Jurassic rainforest. OUTBACK DISCOVERIES For generations the continent has attracted visitors hoping to get a real taste of 1950’s outback Australia. Broken

Hill is the perfect solution, a unique outback experience complete with an authentic milk bar, famous sodas, and milkshakes. The local mailman also takes visitors out on tours, a first hand opportunity to witness his epic 550 km mail run. If not on foot, visitors can even take a camel safari to see indigenous animals, reptiles, birds and vegetation, along with a chance to explore the Mundi Mundi ruins, steep water-filled gullies, dry creek beds and ranges, all on a working sheep and cattle station. SURF’S UP! No trip to Australia is complete without at least taking a shot at surfing. First-timers can head to Australia’s most famous strip of sand, Bondi Beach, to learn to surf. Let’s Go Surfing’s friendly and professional staff can help you catch the


GET YOUR HEART RACING

wave of your dreams. Palm Beach, the most northerly of Sydney’s beaches, is a huge crescent of sand which is another great spot for surfing. It also happens to be the stunning locale from the Home and Away TV series.

2. BACKPACKING BOUNTY: QUEENSLAND TAKE A DIVE ON THE WILD SIDE Another one for the bucket list, visitors can head to the Great Barrier Reef for a lesson in diving. The reef is the only natural organism that can be viewed from outer space, and is known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Between the months of June and August, join fellow travellers at the only place in the world that let’s you swim with the dwarf minke whale.

Unlike other bridge climbs in the world, Brisbane’s Story Bridge Adventure Climb allows you to actually climb up and abseil down. Thrill seekers can also head to the only bungy site in Australia at the AJ Hackett in Cairns. Catch great views over the rainforest and out to the Great Barrier Reef, that is if you find yourself brave enough to keep your eyes open on the way down. DIG A DINO AT THE AUSTRALIAN AGE OF DINOSAURS The Age of Dinosaurs is not just a museum – it’s a living heritage that continues to uncover secrets from the past. Located in Winton, in north Queensland, this is the only place in the southern hemisphere where people can actually get their hands on dinosaurs by volunteering to drill the soil off the bones, or by taking part in a dinosaur dig each August. FUN AND GAMES AT GOLD COAST An international fun-filled destination that also boasts some of Australia’s best, most consistent waves, Gold Coast is certainly a worthy addition to this list. Apart from lounging at the beach or surfing the waves, you can also head inland for treks in the World-Heritage listed rainforest of the Gold Coast hinterland. There you can swim in crystal-clear rock pools, explore rainforest retreats like Mount Tamborine, and see Australia’s largest glow-worm colony.

3. ALL IN ONE: VICTORIA THE ULTIMATE AUSSIE ADVENTURE From abundant wineries to craft breweries, at just a 1.5 – 3.5 hours drive away from the city, visitors can discover a variety of natural vistas and abundant activities. The area abounds in stunning beaches ranging from the Great Ocean Road and Mornington Peninsula, as well as iconic native animals at Phillip Island, the Yarra Valley and the Grampians regions. The Grampians region is also renowned for its national parks and world-class climbing. CYCLE IN THE CITY Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the international governing body for sports cycling, named Melbourne ‘Bike City’. Humble Vintage rents out fully restored vintage bikes and custom-made maps that show you the coolest attractions, bars and shops off the beaten track. For shorter trips, the Melbourne Bike Share Scheme allows patrons to hire bikes with rates as low as AUD3.00 a day for trips lasting up to 30 minutes. GET UP CLOSE WITH NATURE Give back to the environment by booking a ‘voluntourism’ or ‘wwoofing’ (willing workers on organic farms) holiday. Programs include Koala Conservation and Tiger Quoll Conservation at the Great Ocean Ecolodge, as well as volunteer packages with penguins at the Phillip Island Nature Parks. Conservation Volunteers Australia also provides many programs for the perfect eco-vacation. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Update

THE LATEST INTELLIGENCE

PSYCHOLOGY

SLEEP DEPRIVATION COULD HELP TO FIGHT DEPRESSION

Although counterintuitive, a bout of sleeplessness could help tackle depression

Large study finds that ‘wake therapy’ is as effective as antidepressants

PHOTOS: GETTY

According to the Office of National Statistics, anxiety or depression affects almost one in five adults in the UK. Currently, counselling therapies and antidepressant drugs are the most common form of treatment, but it can take weeks or months until positive effects are seen. Now, a meta-analysis carried out at the University of Pennsylvania has found that medically supervised periods of sleep deprivation can temporarily reduce symptoms in as little as 24 hours.

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Sleep deprivation therapies could offer new hope to sufferers

E X P E R T

C O M M E N T

ALICE GREGORY

PHOTOS: GETTY, THE FRANCIS CRICK INSTITUTE

PROFESSOR OF SLEEP PSYCHOLOGY, GOLDSMITHS, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON

It’s been known for some time that sleep deprivation has potential antidepressive effects, but exactly how effective it is and how it works has remained a mystery. To investigate this further, the team compiled data from a carefully selected group of 66 studies dating back some 36 years, selecting these from an initial ‘long list’ of more than 2,000 pieces of research. They found positive results in around 50 per cent of patients, regardless of their age, gender, condition (for example, bipolar disorder or postpartum depression) or the type of medication they were taking, if any. Furthermore, partial sleep deprivation – sleeping for three to four hours followed by forced wakefulness for around 20 hours – was just as effective as being deprived of sleep for 36 hours in a single sitting. “These studies in our analysis show that sleep deprivation is effective for many populations,” said Dr Elaine Boland, lead author of the paper published in The Journal Of Clinical Psychiatry. “Regardless of how the response was quantified, how the sleep deprivation was delivered, or the type of depression the subject was experiencing, we found a nearly equivalent response rate.” Further study is now needed to determine precisely how sleep deprivation brings around a reduction in the symptoms of depression and to identify those who could potentially benefit the most from the treatment, researchers say.

“FURTHER STUDY IS NOW NEEDED TO DETERMINE PRECISELY HOW SLEEP DEPRIVATION BRINGS AROUND A REDUCTION IN SYMPTOMS”

“The links between sleep and depression are wellestablished within the field of psychiatry. People who suffer from depression often suffer from insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness), for example. Associations are complex, and researchers have investigated whether manipulating sleep might have positive consequences for depression. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aimed at improving insomnia has led to reduced depression symptoms over time. The meta-analysis described here focuses on another technique: sleep deprivation. This is a long established technique that seems somewhat counterintuitive, and lies in stark contrast to the therapy mentioned above. In the meta-analysis, it was found that restricting sleep is a rapid and useful intervention for approximately half of those suffering from depression. I think that this intervention holds great promise. However, it’s currently unclear as to how this might be realised. The problem is that when those with depression are permitted to sleep normally again, the benefits tend to disappear. So while sleep deprivation may not yet be a very useful intervention, the technique could perhaps be developed in ways so as to reduce depression symptoms over longer periods. As the authors note, the next step is to further understand the mechanisms by which sleep deprivation improves mood. Could it help to reset the body clock, perhaps? Could elucidation of the neurotransmitters involved help us to develop treatments in the future? We don’t yet know where this knowledge will take us, but meta-analyses of this type are important in telling researchers where we need to go next.”

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Update

THE LATEST INTELLIGENCE

ANTHROPOLOGY

Neanderthals’ offspring developed in a very similar way to our own, new research has shown – with the differences in rates of development thought to account for the physical differences between the two species. A team led by Antonio Rosas at the Spanish National Research Council studied a male Neanderthal child who died aged around eight years old, and whose remains were discovered in the El Sidrón cave in Piloña, Spain in 1994. At the time of his death, he was 111cm tall and weighed 26kg. The Spanish team found that the child had developed to almost exactly the same degree you’d expect to see in an eight-year-old male child today, with two key differences. First, his brain cavity had only reached 87.5 per cent of its adult size, compared to a modern human child where the brain cavity would already have reached its full size. It’s thought this slightly slower rate of brain development enabled Neanderthals to grow larger.

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“Developing a large brain involves significant energy expenditure and, consequently, this hinders the growth of other parts of the body,” said Rosas. “In Homo sapiens, the development of the brain during childhood has a high energetic cost and, as a result, the development of the rest of the body slows down.” Second, the thorax area of the skeleton appears to have more developed more slowly. The Neanderthal specimen’s thorax resembled that of a five- or six-year-old human child, with the cartilaginous joints of the middle thoracic vertebrae and the topmost vertebrae yet to fuse. “The delay of this fusion in the vertebral column may indicate that Neanderthals had a decoupling of certain aspects in the transition from infancy to the juvenile phase. Although the implications are unknown, this feature could be related to the characteristic enlarged shape of the Neanderthal torso, or slower brain growth,” said Rosas.

LEFT: Spain’s El Sidrón caves contain Neanderthal fossils and tools, which are of great interest to researchers ABOVE: Skeleton of the Neanderthal boy

PHOTOS: PALEOANTHROPOLOGY GROUP MNCN-CSIC, SANDRA GOUTTE, ALAMY

NEANDERTHAL BOY’S SKELETON REVEALS THEY GREW MUCH LIKE MODERN HUMANS


NEUROSCIENCE

ZOOLOGY

ADORABLE BRAZILIAN FROGS CAN’T HEAR THEMSELVES SPEAK Two species of tiny frogs, known as pumpkin toadlets, which live on the floor of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, are unable to hear their own (and each other’s) cries, it has been discovered. This makes them the only two species known to have evolved in this way. The discovery was made by a team of scientists from Brazil, Denmark and the UK, led by Dr Sandra Goutte from Brazil’s Universidade Estadual de Campinas. In order to find a mate, most frog species signal their presence to members of the opposite sex by calls, but making such calls consumes energy and can attract predators. The two species of pumpkin toadlet also make such calls, but laboratory testing at the University of Southern Denmark suggested they are unable to actually hear them, while anatomical studies at Cambridge University confirmed that the part of

The pumpkin toadlets’ bright colours warn predators of their toxicity

the ear that would normally detect the high frequencies involved is vestigial in the two species involved. In other words, like the human tailbone, it’s still there but no longer does anything. Jakob Christensen-Dalsgaard from the University of Southern Denmark said: “We have never seen this before: these frogs make sounds that they cannot hear themselves.” Goutte added: “One would think that if a signal is not perceived by its target audience, it would be lost through evolution.” It’s thought that the calls have been retained because the bright orange toadlets have replace auditory with visual signalling, and that the throat-swelling that produces the call is now the way the toadlets attract a mate – with the resulting call now a mere by-product of this visual signal.

CONSCIOUSNESS RESTORED IN MAN AFTER 15 YEARS IN A VEGETATIVE STATE A vagus nerve stimulator being used to treat epilepsy

A 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years following a car accident has shown signs of consciousness after receiving pioneering nerve stimulation therapy. The outcome challenges the belief that disorders of consciousness that persist for longer than 12 months are irreversible. The procedure, which was carried out by a team of neuroscientists based at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, involved implanting a device into his chest to stimulate his vagus nerve – a major nerve that runs down through the body from the brainstem and is involved in walking and many other important motor functions. The same therapy is used to treat seizures. One month after the implant, the man went from being in a completely vegetative state to being able to turn his head, follow objects with his eyes and listen to his therapist reading a book. Recordings of brain activity also revealed major changes in areas of the brain involved in movement, sensation, and awareness. After many years in a nonresponsive state, he had entered a state of minimal consciousness. “Brain plasticity and brain repair are still possible even when hope seems to have vanished,” said lead author Dr Angela Sirigu. The researchers are now planning to extend the study to further investigate the technique. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Update

THE LATEST INTELLIGENCE

NEUROSCIENCE

BRAIN-COMPUTER INTERFACE ALLOWS MUSIC TO BE COMPOSED BY THOUGHT Beethoven famously composed several of his masterpieces while he was essentially deaf – but surely even he would be impressed with this piece of research. A team at TU Graz in Vienna has created a brain-computer interface, or BCI, that allows musicians to compose using just the power of their thoughts. Based on an established BCI that is used to enable severely disabled people to write, the system works by flashing up a series of options – notes, pauses, chords etc – onto a screen placed in front of the user. When the patients focus on their desired options, minute changes occur in their brain waves. These changes are picked up by a special cap fitted with electrodes, and relayed back into the software, 20

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which then pieces the user’s decisions together to form a musical score of their composition. The project could eventually give physically impaired people an opportunity to express themselves with music, the team says. “The results of the BCI compositions can really be heard. And what is more important: the test persons enjoyed it. After a short training session, all of them could start composing and seeing their melodies on the score, and then play them. The very positive results of the study with bodily healthy test persons are the first step in a possible expansion of the BCI composition to patients,” said study leader Prof Gernot Müller-Putz.

PHOTOS: GETTY, RICHARD WALLBACK/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

A competitor uses a brain-computer interface at 2016’s Cybathlon Championship


GENETICS

BUTTERFLY WINGS ‘REPAINTED’ USING GENE EDITING Butterfly wings have been given a new look by researchers who used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to alter the colours and patterns of their distinctive markings. The international team based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama focused their attention on the WntA gene – a gene known to strongly influence the staggering diversity of shapes and colours found in butterfly wing patterns in nature. They discovered that by ‘rewiring’ this gene using the DNA-snipping tool CRISPR, they were able to customise the wing markings of seven different butterfly species. “Imagine a paint-by-numbers image of a butterfly,” said researcher Owen McMillan. “The instructions for colouring the wing are written in the genetic code. By deleting some of the

instructions, we can infer which part says ‘paint the number 2s red’ or ‘paint the number 1s black’. Of course, it’s really a lot more complicated than this, because what is actually changing are networks of genes that have a cascading effect on pattern and colour.” The team hopes that the findings will eventually help them to learn more about how the colourful insects evolved. “The butterflies and moths, or Lepidoptera, are the third largest group of organisms known on the planet,” said Dr Arnaud Martin. “Once we have identified the sets of genes that are regulated by a gene like WntA, we can look at the sequence of different butterflies in the family tree to see when and where these changes took place during the 60 million years of butterfly evolution.”

A normal Heliconius sara butterfly is shown on the left; the same species that has had its genes edited using CRISPR is shown on the right

THE DOWNLOAD

BJ 581 What’s that – BMW’s snazzy new hatchback? Miles off. It’s the designation that’s been given to the grave of a 10th-Century Viking warrior found in Birka in south-east Sweden. Cool. So why are we talking about it? When the grave was first unearthed in the 1870s, the shields, swords, axes and remnants of horses buried alongside the body led researchers to believe it belonged to a male Viking warrior. But they were wrong? Yep. A new DNA analysis has found the skeleton only has X chromosomes, and no Y chromosomes. This means it must have belonged to a woman. Wow! Does that mean this was the grave of a real-life shield-maiden? Well, there’s a bit of disagreement among researchers. Some say that there is still no solid proof the Viking woman was a warrior. Others say that if we automatically assume men buried in such a manner were warriors, then why would we make different assumptions when the body is female? Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Update

THE LATEST INTELLIGENCE

PETS

“WE NEED BETTER EXPERIMENTS TO FIND OUT WHAT DOGS KNOW”

Dogs don’t recognise changes to their own appearance – the ‘mirror test’ of intelligence. But as dog cognition expert Dr Alexandra Horowitz explains, there’s a reason they fail Why is self-recognition a sign of intelligence? Self-recognition comes out of the comparative cognition field, where people test if non-human animals can problem solve, imitate or learn, just as we would ask of children. Some questions are about meta-cognition – thinking about thinking. One meta-cognitive skill is ‘theory of mind’ – the realisation that others have minds different from your own, and know things you don’t. Humans gain this skill after about the age of three. What is the mirror test? This involves looking at yourself in the mirror and recognising that something has changed. The story goes that [psychologist] Gordon Gallup was shaving, and wondered if his captive chimpanzees would look in a mirror and see themselves the way he did. So he put a mirror in their enclosure. They attacked because there was a chimp running at them, but they soon learned and started to examine themselves. He surreptitiously marked chimpanzees on the forehead with an odourless red dye and recorded their behaviour the next time they saw their reflection. His chimps touched the mark on 22

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their own head, not the mirror, and tried to smell the dye on their fingers. That was considered passing the mirror self-recognition test. Which animals pass the test? Dolphins have passed using marks on their sides and a reflective surface in their aquarium, moving their bodies in unusual ways to see the mark. One African elephant passed the test and magpies have passed. But a number haven’t passed, like rhesus macaque monkeys. Dogs don’t pass the test. But think about differences in sensory equipment and what’s important for animals – whether they live with others, their social organisation, whether they groom themselves. All seem relevant to whether one might pass. With dogs, you have not a visual but an olfactory [scent-driven] creature. So how did you test dogs? I looked at a natural dog behaviour: they urinate, leaving information in their pee. They also sniff other dogs’ urine markings, so something is communicated, presumably about identity. They’re interested in who else is around. So I designed an ‘olfactory mirror’. I collected urine

PHOTOS: GETTY, ALAMY ILLUSTRATIONS: DAN BRIGHT

ABOVE: Microbots could one day be used to target cancer cells, like in this artist’s impression


YOGIS

Practising yoga for just 25 minutes a day can boost brain function and the ability to control negative actions, researchers at the University of Waterloo have found. The effect is thought to be due to the release of endorphins and increased blood flow in the brain.

THE CHEERFUL

Being in a good mood when you get a flu jab could boost its protective effect, researchers at the University of Nottingham have found.

GOOD MONTH BAD MONTH from 35 dogs and put small amounts of the urine into canisters with air holes, then exposed the canisters to the dogs. The dogs spent less time sniffing their own urine and longer sniffing other dogs’. But then I took their odour and added anise (the scent of liquorice) to it. Sure enough, they spent more time sniffing their own odour with this mark.

BELOW: The mirror self-recognition test was based on an experiment with chimpanzees

So are dogs smarter than we think? We have to take seriously what it’s like to be an olfactory creature, and how that revises what their cognition might be. It’s possible that dogs have a thorough understanding of themselves. Simply the fact we haven’t been able to answer these questions previously shouldn’t lead us to assume that dogs don’t have the capacity – we just need better experiments to find out what it is that dogs already know.

PANDAS The black and white bears recently had their conservation status downgraded due to rising numbers, but all is not well in China’s bamboo forests. Satellite images show that their habitat is still smaller than it was 30 years ago.

MEAT LOVERS Eating lots of processed red meat can raise your chances of getting Type 2 diabetes by more than 20 per cent, a team in Singapore has found. They believe it is due to the high levels of the iron-rich compound heme.

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Update

THE LATEST INTELLIGENCE

W H AT W E L E A RNED T HIS MON T H

BABIES CAN LEARN THE VALUE OF HARD WORK

Cassiopea jellyfish have algae living in their tissues. When the jellyfish lie upside-down on the seabed, the algae is exposed to sunlight so it photosynthesises and provides food for the jellyfish

A study at MIT showed that babies as young as 15 months old persevered more with tasks they were attempting if they had previously seen an adult struggling hard to achieve something.

FISH HAVE PERSONALITIES

MOODS ARE CONTAGIOUS, DEPRESSION ISN’T A US study has found that teenagers whose friends are in a good or bad mood are more likely to feel the same way – although this doesn’t apply if their friends are severely depressed.

GIRAFFES’ LONG NECKS MAY BE A COOLING MECHANISM Giraffes’ necks are an evolutionary mystery, but a new study suggests that distributing body mass in this way enables them to present a smaller surface area to bright sunlight, and hence keep cool. 24

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ZOOLOGY

JELLYFISH SLEEP, DESPITE HAVING NO BRAINS Science still can’t fully explain why we need sleep, but many current theories involve clearing the brain of waste chemicals. A rethink maybe required, however, because research at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) shows that Cassiopea jellyfish, which have no brain at all, exhibit similar sleep behaviour to humans and other mammals. Cassiopea, the upside-down jellyfish, are known for sitting on the ocean floor and pulsating. So how can you tell if they’re snoozing? Scientists use three criteria to define ‘sleep’ across the animal kingdom. Is the creature less active? Is it less responsive to external stimuli? And if you deprive it of ‘sleep’, is it more prone to such a state afterwards? The Caltech team monitored the jellyfish 24 hours a day and found that they pulsate about 39 times per minute at night, compared to 58

times per minute by day. In an experiment where a shelf in the water was pulled out from under them, jellyfish in this slower-pulsating state took longer to reorient themshelves on the ocean floor than jellyfish that were ‘awake’. Finally, if the jellyfish were ‘prodded’ with jets of water during the night, they tended to fall into the quiescent state the next day when they would usually be awake. This suggests that jellyfish, which are an ancient group of animals, do indeed sleep, suggesting sleep may be a behaviour acquired early on in our evolution and never abandoned. “Jellyfish are the most evolutionarily ancient animals known to sleep,” said researcher Ravi Nath. “This finding opens up may more questions. Is sleep the property of neurons? And perhaps a more far-fetched question: do plants sleep?”

PHOTO: CALTECH

University of Exeter researchers studying Trinidadian guppies found that particular guppies were consistently more cautious, curious or aggressive than others across a range of situations and environments.


GENETICS

HUMAN EMBRYO DNA SUCCESSFULLY EDITED FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE UK A team at the Francis Crick Institute in on to form an embryo. However, the team London has used DNA editing technology to found that if they manipulated a specific uncover the role of a gene that plays a key gene they were able to stop the eggs from role in the early development of human producing a protein called OCT4, rendering embryos. The finding could open the door to them incapable of forming into a blastocyst. creating new treatments for fertility “One way to find out what a gene does in problems, developmental disorders, and the developing embryo is to see what even adult diseases such as diabetes that happens when it isn’t working. Now we have may originate during the early demonstrated an efficient stages of life. way of doing this, we hope The researchers used a that other scientists will use it DNA editing technique called to find out the roles of other CRISPR to alter the genetic genes,” said Dr Kathy Niakan. code of 41 human embryos “If we knew the key genes CRISPR is a gene-editing donated by couples who had that embryos need to tool that acts like a pair of successfully undergone IVF develop successfully, we ‘molecular scissors’, allowing treatment. In a regular, could improve IVF treatments researchers to snip out individual healthy pregnancy, the cells and understand some causes ‘letters’ of DNA code and in the egg divide for around of pregnancy failure. It will rearrange them, altering the seven days until they form a take many years to achieve gene’s function. ball of around 200 cells called such an understanding, our a blastocyst, which then goes study is just the first step.”

WHAT IS CRISPR?

It’s hoped the embryo research could lead to new fertility treatments

IN N U MBERS

2,370 The temperature, in degrees centigrade, of an asteroid that smashed into what is now Canada 40 million years ago – the hottest temperature of any object ever known to be on the surface of the Earth.

30 MINUTES The maximum time period we should be inactive for. Moving for at least a few minutes every half hour can help prolong your life, researchers from the University of Columbia say.

6,000 The percentage of all of the world’s known plant species that are currently growing in botanical gardens across the globe. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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COMMENT & ANALYSIS HELEN CZERSKI ON … RAINBOWS IN ICE

W

e love it when a gift that we’ve carefully chosen makes someone happy. But when the recipient of the present is a small child we have to accept that the real source of joy is often the packaging rather than its contents. Physicists have a similar streak, and can often be left in a corner happily playing with something that isn’t meant to be the main attraction. This time, the culprit was one particular chunk of ice, on a day that had been filled with the stuff. The star of the show was a cave in the side of a glacier, and we had spent an afternoon working there, filming for a BBC documentary. But right at the end of a long day, when everyone was tired and ready to go home, our guide said a child had once told him there were rainbows in the ice at one specific spot next to the cave. He fished out an ice axe, hacked into an unassuming glacial pimple, and out came a chunk of ice filled with rainbows. Except that wasn’t quite it – there were sheets of blues, pinks and greens, glinting inside the clear ice. And once I had been given this toy to play with, I didn’t want to leave. As the colours in the ice were the same as those seen on soap bubbles, they were a dead giveaway of what was going on. Light hitting a thin soap film can reflect off both the near and far surfaces, and when those two reflections overlap with each other, some colours of the rainbow are enhanced and some suppressed. In any one spot, we just see one colour, the one that comes from the specific mix of the rainbow that’s on offer from that place. And only some combinations are possible, which is why blue, pink and green dominate. But there was no soap in the ice to cause the effect. Instead, there must have been incredibly thin, sheet-like cracks, and light was reflecting 26

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off the near and far surfaces of the cracks. The blue colours told me that some of these cracks were only a few hundred nanometres thick, and as they widened, the colours merged into yellow, then pink, and then green. The colours let me see the width directly. But ice cracks all the time. When you put an ice cube into a drink, you quite often hear the popping sound as cracks form. In this case, it’s because the outer ice expands slightly as it warms (before it melts) and the mismatch in size between inside and outside forces the structure to break. So why do we never see colours in an ice cube? I suspect that it’s because the cracks in an ice cube are too wide – they just open up until the inside and outside of the ice cube are the same size. My guess is that the cracks in this glacial ice followed hidden layers of stress, possibly left over from the ice flowing sideways under pressure. Instead of pulling apart, the two surfaces were just shunted over each other, leaving a truly tiny gap in between. The final sideways shimmy might even have been caused by the impact of the guide’s ice axe. As I held the ice, I could see the colours fading as the warmth of the sunlight softened the ice and the cracks vanished. The guide commented that this was the most excited he had seen me all day. I could have spent hours there, looking at the prettiest fracture patterns I had ever seen. But everyone else was hungry and waiting for me, so eventually I had to leave. Still, I carried my excitement home with me, because the unexpected colours in the ice had been the best toy of the day. 

Dr Helen Czerski is a physicist and BBC science presenter. Her book, The Storm In A Teacup, is out now

ILLUSTRATION: KYLE SMART

“HE FISHED OUT AN AXE, HACKED INTO A GLACIAL PIMPLE, AND OUT CAME ICE FILLED WITH RAINBOWS”


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SCIENCE

UNLOCKING THE

SECRETS OF THE

BRAIN From autism and schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s, lab-grown mini-brains could be the key to solving the biggest mysteries about human development and disease WORDS BY SIMON CROMPTON

Scan this QR Code for the audio reader

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ILLUSTRATION: MAGIC TORCH


SCIENCE

tacks of little plastic dishes in a laboratory incubator, each one holding a free-floating blob of human brain might sound like the stuff of science fiction. But this is no futuristic flight of the imagination: these strange creations, known as brain organoids, are already being cultivated in labs all over the world, and researchers believe they could unlock some of the deepest secrets of how our brains grow and what happens when they go wrong. “I don’t think that any of us set out to try and grow a brain in a dish,” says Madeline Lancaster, a neurobiologist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. “If you’d asked me even just a few months before I started working on it, I would have said it was completely nuts – but in my case, it was an accident!” Lancaster’s accidental experiments with organoids started when she was a postdoctoral researcher working in Vienna with molecular biologist Jürgen Knoblich, investigating how the brain forms during development in the womb. She started by growing brain stem cells in flat layers in a dish, but soon realised they lacked many of the key characteristics of nerve cells in a real brain. In search of a better method she tried a new technique for growing neural ‘rosettes’ – flat, flower-like circles of cells that were more realistic, albeit still two-dimensional. “When I put the cells in the culture dish, there was something wrong with the reagents that I was using,” she says. “Rather than forming these nice flat rosettes, mine were forming these weird, floating balls. I thought they looked interesting, so I continued growing them.” Speaking to other researchers in the field, she discovered that some of them had also seen these strange blobs, but had thrown them away because they looked wrong. But while these brain balls looked curious from the outside, what Lancaster found inside was fascinating. Each was made from bulging layers of cells connected by cavities, just like the fluid-filled ventricles that connect the hemispheres of the cerebral cortex in a real brain. Even the layers of cells mimicked the arrangement in normal brain tissue, with stem cells lining the ventricles and layers upon layers of more specialised cells and neurons built up towards the outside.

S

A bright-field microscopic image of a cerebral organoid. In real life, this ‘mini-brain’ is 1cm across

Despite their ‘mini-brain’ nickname, these organoids are a long way from being full-size human organs. They’re around half a centimetre in diameter – roughly the shape and size of the eraser on the end of a pencil – and they lack key structures such as blood vessels, which limits how big they can grow. Organoids are also remarkably hardy, as long as they’re grown in a scrupulously clean environment, and can stay alive for more than a year. Lancaster’s mini-brains are enabling her to prise open the ‘black box’ of human brain development. Because

“Despite their ‘mini-brain’ nickname, these organoids are a long way from being full-size human organs”

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PHOTOS: MRC-LMB, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

BUILDING A BRAIN


One of Madeline Lancaster’s cerebral organoids, seen here in cross-section

Cambridge neurobiologist Madeline Lancaster was the first person to start growing ‘mini-brains’

The process of building a ‘mini-brain’ starts with a genetically modified human skin cell

they reflect the cell types and organisation of a growing human brain, organoids are opening a window into time of life that has previously been inaccessible to science. “People have done MRI scanning on children and even babies to look at how the brain wiring changes, but when it comes to those early events – how neurons are made, how many, which types and where – we can’t answer them, no matter how good our MRI machine is. But I think what’s happening in these dishes reflects what’s happening in an actual embryo. We know this because the end product looks a lot like a real brain, so we have a tractable system to start asking some of these fundamental questions about brain development.” Lancaster is also using her mini-brains to answer an even deeper question: what makes a human brain human? We share more than 95 per cent of our DNA with our closest primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, but our brains are much bigger and undoubtedly different. By comparing brain organoids grown from chimp stem cells with those from humans, she and her team are watching how these differences emerge from the earliest stages of development. There’s even the possibility of using new genetic engineering techniques to switch human and chimp genes around in mini-brains – something that would be impossible to do in living animals – to pin down the precise molecular pathways that make the human brain so special.

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SCIENCE

WIRING UP Mini-brains don’t just allow researchers to study normal developmental processes. Sergiu Pasca, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University in California, is using them to understand what goes wrong in autism, schizophrenia, epilepsy and other neuropsychiatric disorders. “Most of the psychiatric drugs we have today have been discovered by chance – we know very little about the origins of these disorders and the question is why?,” he asks. “Unlike cancer biologists, who can take out a tumour, put it in a dish and find ways to treat it, we cannot do that with the brains of our patients with mental disorders!”

Pasca and his team have managed to grow mini-brains for more than two years – a staggering 800 days is their current record – and shown that they can generate most of the same cell types and structures found in real human brains. They’re using the technique to investigate the roots of severe autism and epilepsy syndromes, by generating organoids with IPS cells derived from skin samples of affected children and then carefully comparing them with cultures grown from healthy cells. “We can use electrodes to measure how the cells are talking to each other, and microscopy to see how the cells move and make connections with each other,” he explains. “Many of the genes associated with these disorders are involved in the connections between nerve cells, so we can see how the gene changes in these patients are impairing the communication within the brain in a non-invasive way.” He’s now taking these ideas even further, sticking together organoids that mimic different regions of the brain and studying their interactions – a technique he describes as ‘brain Lego’. The team is using these hybrids to spy on the brain as it wires itself up, focusing on what happens to so-called inhibitory neurons that normally help to calm down brain activity but are faulty in people with epilepsy and autism. “Inhibitory neurons are not born in the cortex on the surface of the brain: they are born in a very deep region of the forebrain and have to migrate millimetres over many months after birth,” Pasca says. “It’s really fascinating to watch in our cultures – they kind of pull themselves up and jump along.” But when Pasca and his colleagues looked at organoids grown using cells from patients with a form of autism that is associated with epilepsy, they saw a very different picture. The inhibitory cells were moving in a very peculiar way, jumping more often but less efficiently and eventually getting left behind. Impressively, the researchers were then able to identify a drug that could rescue these lagging cells, correcting the wiring defect and pointing towards a potential future treatment for children suffering from the same condition.

“Pasca and his team have managed to grow mini-brains for more than two years – a staggering 800 days is their current record” 32

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PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

The brain-like appearance of these organoids raises ethical as well as scientific questions. Can they think, and are they conscious? According to Lancaster, the answer is almost certainly no. “I think of them as being a bit like brain tumours,” she says. “Tumours contain many more neurons than our mini-brains in a dish, but no one is concerned that their brain tumour is thinking or has consciousness, and nobody is sad that it has been taken out and thrown away. That’s what we have here. It’s not an organised network, and it cannot make a functional thinking circuit – it’s a ball of brain tissue, and just because you have neurons doesn’t mean it can think.” Today, she and her team are growing mini-brains from human embryonic stem cell lines – the multi-purpose cells originally found in very early human embryos, but now cultivated in the lab. She’s also using so-called induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells: adult cells that have been pushed back to an embryonic state with a cocktail of molecules first discovered by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Depending on the exact conditions used, Lancaster can nudge her organoids to develop all kinds of cells, from the fluffy choroid plexus (which would connect with blood vessels in a real brain) to pigmented light-sensing cells that are usually found in the retina at the back of the eye. “There’s just so many cell types to look for,” she says, “But depending on the method we use, every time we look for something that we know should be there, we find it.”

Sergiu Pasca holding ‘mini-brains’ used to study the development of conditions such as autism


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SCIENCE

Selina Wray at work in her laboratory at University College London

INTO OLD AGE

One of the cerebral organoids used by Sergius Pasca in his research into neuropsychiatric disorders

An X chromosome: the red areas at the end of the ‘arms’ are telomeres, which play a role in ageing

ALL THE ORGANOIDS It’s not just brains: researchers are creating three-dimensional organoids from many different types of tissue, not only to study healthy development but also to discover what happens when things go wrong and to develop future therapies. Here are some of the types they’ve managed to grow so far…

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Meanwhile at University College London, neurologist Selina Wray is using brain organoids to look at neurodegenerative conditions that start at the other end of life, including Alzheimer’s disease and fronto-temporal dementia. “Normally we have to work with postmortem brain tissue from patients, but you’re only ever looking at the end stages,” she says. “It’s almost like coming to the scene of a crime after the criminal is gone, and you’re trying to piece together a sequence of events by looking at the damage that’s been left. I want to build models in the lab which will let us look at the very beginning of the disease – because if we understand the first things to go wrong, that’s when treatment should be more effective.” In a similar way to Pasca and Lancaster, she’s taking samples of skin from patients with dementia,

GUT

LUNG

Scientists have made organoid versions of many parts of the gastro-intestinal tract, from taste buds to the intestines and stomach. Intestinal organoids can be manipulated to produce insulin, suggesting possible future treatments for diabetes.

Although they’re a long way from a ‘lung in the lab’, lung organoids grown using reprogrammed stem cells from patients with diseases such as chronic asthma and cystic fibrosis could be useful models for finding new treatments.


CHARLIE ARBER & CHRIS LOVEJOY/UCL PHOTOS: UCLA, SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY,

turning them into IPS cells and then growing organoids. Wray can spot differences compared with organoids from unaffected people after just a few months, finding increased levels of the forms of certain molecules that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. However, there’s a problem with this approach: mini-brains mimic the very earliest stages of life, while dementia is a problem that takes decades to develop. To solve this, researchers are working on clever hacks to speed up the ageing process. One idea is to add in genetic changes that mimic progeria – a rare disorder that causes dramatic premature ageing. Another approach is to meddle with the structures protecting the ends of DNA inside cells, known as telomeres, which act as a kind of countdown clock as we age. As well as studying the underlying processes that drive dementia, Wray thinks that mini-brains have a lot of potential for helping to identify the right treatment for individual patients. “I feel excited by the idea of personalised medicine – that you could take somebody’s cells and grow organoids in the lab, screen a panel of drugs against them and say, ‘Okay, we think this person will respond to drugs ABC, but this person will respond better to drugs XYZ,’” she says. “That’s happening in cancer biology, this idea of being able to stratify patients on a molecular basis, and while I think we are a long way off, I love the idea of growing someone’s neurons so we can work out what therapies we should be giving them.”

“Mini-brains mimic the very earliest stages of life, while dementia is a problem that takes decades to develop” Sergiu Pasca is similarly enthusiastic about the potential of mini-brains to change lives. “Our organoids are grown from cells taken from real patients,” he says. “These kids have severe neurodevelopmental disorders that really impair their lives, and to think that a few months later you can derive brain tissue from those patients in a dish and start asking questions about how the disease may arise – that’s what makes this exciting.” 

BREAST

THYMUS

HEART

Mammary organoids grow the same branching structures that are seen in human milk ducts. Because many breast cancers start from such ducts, these organoids are providing vital insights into tumour growth.

The thymus gland is the place where infection-fighting immune T-cells mature. Thymus organoids can produce functional human T-cells, which could potentially be used to restore the immune system in transplant patients.

Cardiac organoids are revealing hidden regenerative pathways that could be reactivated to treat heart disease. Researchers also created organoids with functional, beating chambers, as a model for studying heart failure.

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NATURE

Seeing a harpy eagle nest is a Holy Grail for birdwatchers. Jonathan Elphick strikes gold in Panama, a hotspot for the world’s most powerful raptor

HARPY H E AV E N 36

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JOĂƒO MARCOS ROSA

It may recall the mythical Roc, but the harpy eagle is no figment of our imagination. The giant raptor has evolved massive feet and bearlike claws to snatch monkeys and sloths from the treetops


NATURE

arlos turns and grins. “I think we’re finally going to see the adult eagle this morning,” he says. “Are you excited?” As our four-wheel-drive bumps down a rainforest track towards the PanAmerican Highway, there is a resounding chorus of “You bet!” The day before we had made the long journey to a recently discovered harpy eagle nest. Though we were thrilled by the single huge fluffy white chick as it peeked over the edge of its eyrie, it was disappointing not to spot a mighty adult as well. Since the chick is already about six weeks old, its parents will now be bringing back food – mostly monkeys and sloths – rather infrequently. There is still a good chance of a sighting, however. Any encounter with a harpy eagle – a species that regularly features near the top of ‘birds-to-see-before-you-die’ lists – is a red-letter day. We’re keen to try our luck again. Harpy eagles breed only once every two or three years, one of the longest reproductive periods of any raptor. While pairs may nest again in the same tree, there is no guarantee: they might move elsewhere for subsequent nesting attempts. So whenever an easily observable active nest is found, word spreads like wildfire among

C

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ABOVE: Visiting an active nest is your only realistic chance of spotting harpy eagles, which despite their size can melt into the forest with ease

rangers and guides and then further afield, and lodges start filling up with eager birders from all over the world. Celebrated as Panama’s national bird, the harpy eagle occurs in greater numbers here than anywhere else in Central America. Measured by confirmed active nests, the country’s harpy population is third-largest in the species’ entire range, from southern Mexico south to north-east Argentina. Only Venezuela and Brazil have more harpies. But Panama hosts the highest density, with 800 or more breeding pairs by some estimates. Most are in the Darién, the easternmost province. The harpy eagle is classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened, though this label is somewhat misleading because in many regions it is rare and declining. The Global Raptor Information Network prefers to class the species as Critically Endangered in Mexico and Central America, and as Vulnerable in South America. Deforestation is an important factor, but the main threat is persecution. Eagles are killed for trophies, because they are wrongly seen as a threat to chickens, pigs and other livestock, and by some native Americans for their magnificent crest and wing feathers, used to make arrowheads and head-dresses.


CANOPY TOWER: FROM RUIN TO ECOLODGE Slim and dapper in his jaunty red hat, Raul Arias de Para may be 70 but still has a child’s delight in wildlife. In 1999, this ex-banker and politician-turnedconservationist, whose grandfather was a founder of the Republic of Panama, had a brilliant idea. He decided to convert an abandoned US military radar facility near the Panama Canal into a bird- and mammalwatching lodge, which he named Canopy Tower. Its now-famous upper deck has a 360° vista across the surrounding rainforest, providing stunning eye-level views of otherwise hard-to-see canopy birds, from toucans to tanagers, while monkeys and sloths entrance viewers from the floor below. Find out more at www.canopytower.com

THE HARPY EAGLE IS A SPECIES THAT FEATURES NEAR THE TOP OF ‘BIRDS-TOSEE-BEFORE-YOU-DIE’ LISTS.

Why Panama has a relatively healthy population of harpies is unclear, but it may be due to abundance of prey. In South America there are more raptor species and mammalian predators – including humans – competing for food. Also, the Emberá and Wounaan tribes native to the Darién tend to practise low-level subsistence hunting (which does not include the taking of sloths) and small-scale shifting cultivation, neither of which appears to pose any threats to the eagles. On the second day of our quest, I join guide Carlos Bethancourt and wildlife photographer David Tipling for a bleary-eyed pre-dawn breakfast. Our base is the newly opened Canopy Camp, some 50km from the great expanse of remote rainforest covering much of the Darién, where our target nest lies.

ABOVE: A tiny, recently hatched fluffy chick is dwarfed by the powerful feet of its parent. Amazingly, it will be adult-sized in five to six months

We drive along an increasingly potholed road for an hour, before reaching the small town of Yaviza. At this point the Pan-American Highway, which connects Alaska and the southern tip of South America, peters out for a substantial distance. Here we enter the famous Darién Gap – a near-pristine world of rainforest and swamp extending for 160km, well into northern Colombia. It is still dark as the Panamanian border police check us out. Then we board a dugout canoe with an outboard motor and begin speeding along the Chucunaque River. As dawn breaks, and mantled howler monkeys proclaim their presence from the treetops with amazingly loud roars, we at last arrive at the settler village of El Real. We climb into a pick-up truck for the short drive to the headquarters of Darién National Park, where we are joined by two park rangers. Finally, hearts in mouths, we walk a trail through the rainforest to the harpy eyrie.

A DREAM COME TRUE Gazing up at the nest far above, we do not have long to wait. A grey-plumaged adult suddenly appears, every bit as spectacular as I had hoped. It lands near the nest, its enormous rounded wings spread wide. A lifetime dream for many birders has, for our small party, come true. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Though not quite the largest bird of prey – that title belongs to the condors – the harpy eagle is arguably the most powerful. It measures around 0.9–1m from meat-cleaver beak to tail. The wings, which span up to 2m, are relatively short for the eagle’s size, but combine with a long tail to give this mighty bird – like a giant sparrowhawk – great manoeuvrability in flight. The tail acts like a rudder as it steers through the dense forest. As with sparrowhawks, females are considerably larger than their mates – at a maximum of 9kg, they weigh up to twice as much. Harpies hunt mainly by making short flights from one tree to another, pausing at each look-out to locate unwary sloths and monkeys, their chief prey. The dark interior of the forest renders hearing more important than vision. These eagles have a large circular facial disc like that of owls and harriers, which directs sound into the ears and enhances hearing in a similar way to cupping your ears with your hands. Such hefty prey requires some heavy lifting. Harpies’ immensely thick legs and feet are powerful enough to rip sloths and monkeys from branches. The talons are the largest of any raptor, the sabrelike hind claw being up to 7cm long. A big female harpy can fly off clutching a male howler monkey or adult brown-throated sloth weighing almost as much as she does. Even so, many hunting attempts will end in failure. Harpies also prey on other arboreal mammals, suchas kinkajous, opossums and olingos, as well as iguanas and large birds such as macaws. Very occasionally they may take the odd ground-dwelling animal, such as a young peccary, armadillo or snake.

RICHNESS OF ANIMAL LIFE Seeing this stunning predator may have been the high spot of my trip – literally, as the nest was over 30m above the forest floor – but there was so much else to marvel at. Panama is phenomenally rich in wildlife for a compact country slightly smaller than Scotland. It hosts 1,000 species of bird (about 100 more than have been recorded in the whole of Europe) and over 10,000 plant species, including some 1,200 orchids and 1,500 trees. New species are being discovered every year. The harpy eagle seems an appropriate symbol of all this diversity – its domain, the rainforest canopy, is the richest part of the richest land habitat on Earth. Researchers estimate that 60–90 per cent of rainforest life is found mainly or exclusively in this sunlit layer, which typically soars 30–45m above ground level. In the Darién, the rainforest canopy is the home of the aforementioned monkeys, sloths and kinkajous, not to mention toucans, parrots, trogons, tanagers and a myriad other colourful birds, as well as many species of frog, lizard, bat and countless invertebrates, especially ants. By contrast, shade cast by the dense umbrella of the canopy makes the forest interior a dark environment, with as little as five per cent of sunlight filtering down to the lower layers – the understorey and shrub layer. The forest floor receives even less light: typically just two per cent. This is why so little vegetation grows there. Shallow soils mean that trees are often toppled by storms. A big tree crashing down creates an open area that allows light to break in, bringing new opportunities for trees, shrubs and vines to create a jungle of vegetation in a short time. One particular rainforest feature with which the harpy eagle is closely associated is the presence of extra-tall trees reaching 40–60m that tower above the canopy. Known as emergent trees, these form what is sometimes called the ‘overstorey’. A common example in the Darién is the cuipo, which has a massive pale grey 40

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A fully grown youngster, by now sporting the species’ famous crest. It will be four years before it acquires its first adult plumage


During migration periods flocks of raptors funnelpast the capital, Panama City

HOW TO SEE PANAMA’S HARPY EAGLES Harpies like to nest in the prominent fork of a huge emergent tree, with enormous boughs offering sweeping vistas of the surrounding forest.

THE HARPY EAGLE SEEMS AN APPROPRIATE SYMBOL OF DIVERSITY. ITS DOMAIN IS THE RICHEST PART OF THE RICHEST LAND HABITAT ON EARTH trunk that bulges at the base. This is one of the trees most favoured by eagles for their nest. Pairs of harpy eagles mate for life and share the task of building the impressive stick structure, often wedged in a large fork, adding green leaves and seed pods to the shallow cup. Although no courtship rituals are known, the male and female have been observed to call softly to one another and rub their powerful bills together while nest-building, presumably helping to reinforce the pair bond. Female harpies lay two eggs, but are not known to rear more than one chick, failing to incubate the second egg (should both eggs hatch, the younger chick will likely fail to compete with its sibling).The incubation period is about eight weeks. The youngster, which has white down, generally fledges at between six and seven months of age, but even after that length of time may still beg for food from its parents. It will be protected by them for a further three or four months.

WHEN TO GO Harpy eagles can be seen year-round. Tourist high season, when it is mainly dry, is December–April; most rain falls in May–October. Visit in October–December to experience one of the world’s great avian spectacles. Three million North American hawks, kites and vultures migrate south across the isthmus of Panama, and many millions of

A rare photo of an adult harpy eagle carrying opportunistic armadillo prey. Sloths and monkeys are usually on the menu

songbirds, waders and other migratory birds also pass through. ACCOMMODATION Canopy Tower and its sister locations Canopy Camp and Canopy Lodge can be visited on all-inclusive seven-night birding packages, which offer a chance of spotting harpy eagles as well as many other rainforest species. Details at www.canopytower.com.

The immature eagle goes through a sequence of plumages and will remain within 100m or so of the nest for at least 15 months – and in the same general area for up to 30 months. Observations of captive birds indicate that females may not breed until they are five years old, and males at some stage before they are nine. Should an eagle evade disease and injury, and persecution by humans, it stands a chance of surviving 25 or even 35 years. Indigenous Emberá communities in the Darién are using their valuable knowledge of the forest to help locate harpy nests, giving a boost to lodges like the three in the Canopy ‘family’, and to tourism in Panama in general. The Emberá in turn make money from taking visitors in dugout canoes and selling handicrafts. By these means they can afford to reject any financial incentives offered by loggers, and thus maintain their respect for the forest and its wildlife. Watching the eagle nest with Carlos and David, I can’t help wondering what fate has in store for its spectacular young inhabitant. Species like harpy eagles, that reproduce so slowly, can be extremely vulnerable to changes in their environment. But I take heart from the fact that ecotourism is giving the forest in this corner of Panama a much more secure future.

Jonathan Elphick, an ornithologist and natural-history author, has visited Panama several times. His books include The World of Birds, published by the Natural History Museum Vol. 10 Issue 2

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A CARPET OF FLOWERS Mourners left more than a million bouquets outside Kensington Palace in the wake of Princess Diana’s death in a car crash on 31 August 1997. The scale of public grief “escalated to a point when few people could remember a precedent”, says Dominic Sandbrook

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WHEN GRIEF GRIPPED A NATION

BRIDGEMAN

What does the extraordinary outpouring of emotion that followed Princess Diana’s death tell us about the state of Britain 20 years ago? Dominic Sandbrook investigates

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relationship with the dead woman. “She was,” he told the cameras that morning, “the people’s princess.” Later, Blair himself admitted that it sounded like “something from another age. And corny. And over the top.” But it caught the public imagination for a reason. For in the next few days, the popular reaction to Diana’s death escalated to a point when few people could remember a precedent. Outside her London home, Kensington Palace, well-wishers left more than a million bouquets. At the family home, Althorp, so many people tried to bring flowers that the police begged them to stay away because the traffic chaos was endangering public safety. When Diana’s funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 6 September, an estimated three million people poured into the streets of London, while a further 2.5 billion people watched the worldwide television coverage.

A GLOBAL SPECTACLE I was in the Balkans that summer, backpacking after graduating from university. Diana’s death made the front page of every Bulgarian newspaper for days. On the day of her funeral, my friends and I were in a little Black Sea fishing village. At the appointed hour, a man came out into the square carrying a battered old television, and

In 1997, Britain was just emerging from a period in which crying in public was regarded as a sign of weakness the locals gathered around to watch the pictures. The spectacle of the villagers solemnly listening to Charles Spencer’s eulogy, delivered in a language almost none of them understood, was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. Twenty years on, Diana’s death remains an obvious landmark in our recent history. Yet the passions that surrounded it – the fury at the popular press, which was thought to have hounded her to her grave; the outcry at the royal family, who were criticised for their reluctance to mourn more publicly; even the enthusiasm for Tony Blair, who saw his public satisfaction rating rise to a record high – have now faded to the point when many feel almost embarrassed to recall them. In the aftermath of the wedding of Prince William, the diamond jubilee and the birth of

In pictures: Britain mourns the ‘people’s princess’ in 1997

LEFT: Princess Diana during a visit to an Angolan minefield, 15 January RIGHT: A visibly shaken Tony Blair reacts to the news of Diana’s death, 31 August

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FROM L TO R: Charles Spencer and Princes William, Harry and Charles at Diana’s funeral

REUTERS/GETTY

here are moments in history when you can feel a nation changing course, and the summer of 1997 felt like one of them. On the first day of May, the British electorate had unceremoniously slammed the door on 18 years of Conservative government, handing Tony Blair’s Labour party the biggest landslide in postwar history. When, in the small hours of the morning, Blair addressed Labour’s election-night party at the Royal Festival Hall, he began with the words: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” At lunchtime the following day, as his car pulled into Downing Street for the first time, London was bathed in brilliant sunshine. Britain, Blair had once said, must be a “young country” again. And as the new prime minister shook hands with the lines of Labour activists waving their Union Jacks, there was a palpable sense that something had changed. Three months later, on Sunday 31 August, Blair was in his constituency home in the north-east of England when he heard the terrible news that Diana, Princess of Wales had been killed in a car crash in Paris. Almost immediately his thoughts turned to what he would say, scribbling some thoughts on the back of an envelope. Among them was a phrase suggested by his press chief, Alastair Campbell, that came to capture the public’s


a new heir, the monarchy has never been more popular. Despite having left office 10 years ago, Tony Blair is arguably one of the least popular public figures in the country. And even Diana herself has disappeared from our national conversation to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable in those heady days after her death. By 2016 there were even reports that her grave at Althorp was overgrown and neglected, a metaphor for the way the most photographed woman in the world has faded from our national story. What does it all mean? And what will future historians make of the moment when, as the legend has it, a nation wept as never before, and when the monarchy itself seemed in peril?

GETTY

PUBLIC FRENZY The first obvious point is that Diana’s death was not unprecedented. Royal occasions have always provoked public fervour and commanded vast crowds, while one of the few certainties of history is that the death of an attractive young woman, especially one with small children, will always produce more public tears than the demise of an older one, or a man. The frenzy following Diana’s death was indeed different from the more solemn reactions to the deaths of George VI in 1952 or Victoria in 1901. But

Elton John sings ‘Candle in the Wind’ in Westminster Abbey

there is actually a good precedent for the events of 1997: the death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817. As the eldest child of the future George IV, Charlotte would have become queen if she had lived. Like Princess Diana, she was the child of an unhappy marriage with a complicated love life of her own. Her father tried to arrange a match with the Prince of Orange, but despite signing a marriage contract, she eventually broke off the engagement. At one point, when her father tried to confine her to her house, she fled, managing to escape by the simple process of running into the street and hailing a cab. Not surprisingly, all this made her a national celebrity: whenever she took a coach to the seaside, she was invariably mobbed by huge crowds. Alas, after a successful marriage to the future Leopold I of Belgium, Charlotte died at the age of 21 while delivering a stillborn son. In the aftermath, the country was plunged into mourning. Even the poorest people in the land were reported to be wearing makeshift black armbands, while the capital’s shops, the docks, the law courts and the Royal Exchange closed for two weeks. The story goes

that demand for colourful ribbons and other bright clothes collapsed so completely that manufacturers begged the government to reduce the mourning period, which they resolutely refused to do. As the Whig politician Henry Brougham remarked: “It really was as though every household throughout Great Britain had lost a favourite child.” One lesson of Charlotte’s death is that there is nothing the British people enjoy so much as a chance to indulge their taste for public sentimentalism. But there was an obvious difference between 1817 and 1997. In the age of the Regency, nobody talked of the stiff upper lip. In the late 1990s, thanks not least to Paul Gascoigne (pictured below left), who had wept so spectacularly at the end of the 1990 World Cup, Britain was only just emerging from a long period in which public tears were generally regarded as weak and unmanly. In this context, the outpouring of national sentiment at Diana’s death had a clear political connotation. The outgoing Conservative administration had not only been dominated almost entirely by men, it had been led by a prime minister immensely unlikely to burst into tears in public, the determinedly understated and ostentatiously unemotional John Major.

Spectators weep at the funeral procession, Whitehall, 6 September. Two out of three Britons professed to being upset, or very upset, by Diana’s death

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Princess Charlotte of Wales, died 1817 Like Diana, Charlotte captured the public imagination like no other member of the royal family. When the daughter of the future George IV died in childbirth at the age of 21, The Times thought it a national “calamity” – although the radical poet Shelley claimed that the execution of three men in Derby, who had been convicted of plotting against the government, was a much greater calamity. When her funeral was held in Windsor, thousands turned out to watch, and “the road and streets through which it passed were lined with spectators”. Afterwards, Charlotte’s doctor, who blamed himself for her demise, committed suicide. Princess Charlotte’s death in childbirth was deemed a national “calamity”

Victoria’s funeral procession snakes through London, February 1901

Queen Victoria, died 1901 Since Victoria was 81 when she died, her death hardly came as a shock. But, as she had been on the throne since 1837, millions of people had never known another monarch, and her funeral was a genuinely international event, with one of the largest gatherings of European royals in history. Victoria had left detailed instructions, asking for her coffin to be draped in white, and requesting a military procession, with the coffin on a gun carriage. Again the funeral was held in Windsor, with thousands lining the streets. But every city in the British empire observed a period of mourning, from Canada to India.

Horatio Nelson, died 1805 Perhaps the most spectacular and emotional funeral in British history was that of Lord Nelson, killed during the victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson was not only an all-conquering admiral who had saved his country from invasion, he was a national celebrity. When his body lay in state in

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Greenwich, the crowds were so great that thousands were turned away. The funeral ceremonies took five days, including a procession along the Thames and a simple but moving ceremony at St Paul’s, which ended with the sailors from HMS Victory ripping up their ship’s battle-torn flag.

A contemporary illustration shows the funeral carriage carrying Nelson’s body outside St Paul’s Cathedral


With its invocations of the people against a remote elite, 1997 can look like a harbinger of things to come But if Major was a man who always seemed uncomfortable talking about his feelings in front of the cameras, Blair was different. And his visibly emotional reaction – the tremor in his voice, the sentimentalism of his words – struck a chord with a nation rediscovering the intoxication of collective tears. There was another element to the death and funeral of Princess Diana: the extraordinary prominence of a man who, only a few years earlier, would have been an utterly implausible guest at such a solemn royal occasion. This was Elton John, whose rendition of ‘Candle in the Wind’, which he memorably performed at Westminster Abbey, soon became the most popular single of all time. Released on Saturday 13 September 1997, ‘Candle in the Wind’, rocketed to number 1 within minutes of the shops opening. By lunchtime that day, most stores had already sold out; the next day, Mercury Records sent a thousand employees to the printing presses to prepare another million copies for Monday. By this point the record had already sold more than 600,000 copies, going platinum in just 24 hours. By the end of the year, sales had reached almost 5 million, which meant that one in five households owned a copy.

ROCK ROYALTY In a wider context, the remarkable thing was not the song’s astounding popularity so much as the fact that Elton John had performed it at all. He was hardly an obvious candidate to sing at such a solemn royal occasion. The former NME journalist Barbara Ellen thought “a pop song at a royal funeral seemed about as appropriate as receiving holy communion in a nightclub toilet”. Meanwhile the Spectator’s Simon Hoggart wrote that “there was something deeply moving about the sight of a plump, rednosed gay in a ginger wig performing at a royal occasion of any kind”. One reader of the Guardian was less deeply moved. “Who suggested that Elton John sing

The gun carriage carrying Diana’s coffin approaches Westminster Abbey. An estimated 2.5 billion people watched her funeral on television

at the funeral?” complained Raul Jaylan of London N11. “I’m sorry, but this man made Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert look cheap. Hopefully he will at least take that stupid rug off his head.” But as the record sales suggest, most people were rather more charitable. Indeed, at one level the success of ‘Candle in the Wind’, like the spectacle of Diana’s funeral itself, was a powerful reminder that no successful monarchy can ignore the appeal of popular culture. Fifteen years later, after the concert that marked the 2012 diamond jubilee, the conser-vative columnist Peter Hitchens lamented that the Queen had “pledged allegiance to the vile new culture of talentless celebrity”. Yet monarchies have always harnessed the energies of their most successful, fashionable and popular cultural figures, from Hans Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII and Handel’s coronation anthems for George II to the Queen’s cameo alongside James Bond at the 2012 Olympics. In that sense, there was nothing inappropriate about Elton John’s presence at Diana’s funeral. The greatest temptation is to see the reaction to Diana’s death as a reminder, in an increasingly individualistic age, of the appeal and power of collective national sentiment. Twenty years on, when our politics is much more visibly informed by questions of patriotism, national identity and collective belonging – Scottish or British? British or European? – the first week of

September 1997 looks like a harbinger of things to come. After all, squabbles about flags and invocations of the ‘people’ against a remote elite are only too common today. Yet perhaps Diana’s death also serves as a lesson that, whatever grand pattern we impose on the past, it can never be anything other than a partial and misleading sketch. Yes, millions turned out for her funeral. But a poll afterwards found that, while two out of three people said they had been upset or very upset by her death, the rest had been relatively unmoved. Three out of ten had either laid flowers or wanted to; yet seven out of ten had no intention of doing so. During the funeral, as the historian Thomas Dixon remarks, the television cameras unwaveringly zoomed in on faces streaked with tears or contorted with emotion. What they did not capture, though, were the faces that remained unmoved, or the millions of people who were simply doing something else. No doubt there were many people like that in 1817, too: those who simply got on with their lives, even as their neighbours pulled on the black crepe. Historians rarely mention them, of course. But they were there, all the same. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and television presenter. His books include Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 (Penguin, 2013) Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Hadza hunt for food using traditional bows and arrows. Here, they’ve killed several vervet monkeys 48

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Fancy some porcupine, baobab and honey (with bee larvae) for dinner? Don’t grimace: this hunter-gatherer menu might hold the secret to a healthier you. Prof Tim Spector reports on how he gave his microbes a treat by living with the Hadza people

REWILD YOUR DIET C

PHOTO: GETTY

Scan this QR Code for the audio reader

limbing to the top of a huge rock after a gruelling nine-hour drive in a 4x4 over bumpy tracks, we knew we had arrived. It had been an epic journey just to start this unorthodox camping trip. Here in Tanzania, a stone’s throw from the famous Olduvai Gorge site of the earliest human remains, with the stunning plains of the Serengeti in the distance, we marvelled at the amazing sunset over Lake Eyasi. I had not come here just to look at the scenery, though, breathtaking as it was. Strangely, I had signed up for a scientific experiment with my gut microbiome. This vast community of trillions of bacteria and fungi inhabit every nook and cranny of your gastrointestinal tract, and have a major influence on your metabolism, body weight, propensity to illness, immune system, appetite and mood. These microbes mostly live in your lower intestine (the colon) and outnumber all the other cells in your body put together. Conceptually, we should view them as a newly discovered organ, weighing slightly more than our brains and nearly as vital. There are some organs we can live without, including our spleen, gall bladder, tonsils and appendix, but we wouldn’t survive long without our gut microbes. Intriguingly, no two microbiomes are the same – we are all unique. And more than ever, we’re finding out just how important these microbes are. According to research, the richer and more diverse the community of microbes is in your gut, the lower your risk of disease and allergies. This has been shown in animal tests and also in human studies comparing the microbes of people with and without particular diseases. Examples from recent work at King’s College London include studies of diabetes, obesity, allergy and inflammatory diseases like colitis and arthritis. Examples from recent work at King’s College London include studies of diabetes, obesity, allergy and inflammatory diseases like colitis and arthritis. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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SCIENCE Artificially coloured microscopic image of the human intestine, showing its array of beneficial microbes (yep, all those little shapes are microbes)

than the average Brit. Jeff and his team had previously worked out that the average Hadza person eats around 600 species of plants and animals in a year and has huge seasonal variation. They have virtually none of the common Western diseases such as obesity, allergies, heart disease and cancer. In contrast, most Westerners have fewer than 50 species in their diet and are facing an epidemic of illness and obesity. From looking at our UK data, we can see a clear link between the amount and varieties of plants we eat and gut diversity.

“The Hadza have virtually none of the Western diseases such as obesity, allergy, heart disease and cancer” HUNTING WITH THE HADZA

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence that babies born via caesarean section miss out on some of the microbes they would obtain through a vaginal birth, which may make them more vulnerable to obesity, allergies and asthma. We know that a good diet is key to maintaining diversity. While the definition of a good diet in the West is still controversial (such as the fat versus sugar debate), everyone agrees that large amounts of fruits and vegetables are key. As part of an experiment for my book The Diet Myth, I bravely volunteered my student son Tom to eat all his meals at McDonald’s for 10 days so we could observe his microbes. He lost nearly 40 per cent of his gut diversity in that time and has only partly recovered – as he keeps reminding me. What we then wanted to find out is whether someone with a healthy, stable microbiome could see the conditions inside their gut improve in just a few days. The chance to test this in an unusual way came when my colleague Jeff 50

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Leach invited me on a field trip to Tanzania, where he has been living and working among the Hadza, one of the last remaining huntergatherer groups in all of Africa. I had first met Jeff about three years ago. Jeff is a larger-than life Texan and I was fascinated by his work and how he had tried to change his own microbes – even resorting (against all medical advice) to transplanting some poo from a healthy Hadza hunter into his own bottom using a turkey baster. I lacked Jeff’s daredevil genes so didn’t fancy repeating that experiment, but I was keen to do something just as exciting and hopefully less messy. My own microbiome is pretty healthy nowadays – indeed, I came top among the first 100 samples we tested as part of our gut analysis project MapMyGut, although I have since been beaten by several others. It turns out the Hadza have a diversity that is one of the richest on the planet and about 40 per cent higher than the average American and about 30 per cent higher

The plan was for me to spend an intensive three days living like a hunter-gatherer during my stay at Jeff’s research camp. I was not allowed to wash or use alcohol swabs and I was expected to hunt and forage with the Hadza as much as possible, exposing myself to dirt, blood, and baboon and baby poo. The Hadza seek out and live with the same animals and plants that humans have hunted and gathered for millions of years. The interaction between the microbes in the Hadza’s home and our own human cells is an evolutionary dance that has been played out here for millennia, shaping our immune system and making us who we are today. After an interesting but restless first night’s sleep, trying not to step on scorpions when going for a pee, I found a large pile of baobab pods had been collected for my breakfast. Baobab pods have a hard coconut-like shell that cracks easily to reveal a chalky flesh around large, fat-rich seeds. The baobab is the staple of the Hadza diet: it’s packed with vitamins, contains fat in the seeds, and has large amounts of fibre. The Hadza mixed the chalky bits with water and whisked it vigorously for two to three minutes with a stick until it was a thick, milky porridge that was filtered – somewhat – into a mug. It was surprisingly pleasant and refreshing, and the vitamin C provided an unexpected citrus tang. My next snacks were the wild berries on many of the trees surrounding the camp – the commonest were small, slightly sweet kongorobi berries. These have 20 times the fibre and polyphenols of


PHOTOS: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY, JEFF LEACH

A Hadza man with a variety of foods including baobab (large greyish pod) and kongorobi berries (orange), both of which are packed with fibre

cultivated berries, which are bred for looks and sweetness. This was powerful fuel for my microbiome. After hanging out with the women and children doing some foraging, I had a late lunch of a few high-fibre tubers dug up with a sharp stick and tossed on the fire. These took a little effort to eat – mine was a bit too ‘al dente’ like tough, earthy celery. Babies were being breastfed and passed around for everyone to cuddle and play with. I never saw or heard any crying and they all looked healthy. They are weaned on baobab from six months and have 20 times the fibre intakes of Western kids. Some had large pot bellies – but rather than suggesting malnutrition, it showed their high fibre intakes and the resulting gas from the fermentation. I quickly learnt they were in no discomfort and were also amused by their noisy farts. After my baobab juice I soon joined in! A few hours later we were asked to join a hunting party to track down porcupine, which is a rare delicacy. Even Jeff hadn’t tasted this creature in his four years of field work. Two nocturnal porcupines had been tracked to their tunnel system in a termite mound. After several hours of digging and tunnelling by the slimmest of the Hadza, who occasionally shouted to his mates on the surface to dig more holes, the animals were spotted. Two porcupines were eventually cornered, speared and thrown to the surface. A fire was lit. The spines, skin and valuable organs were expertly dissected and the heart, lung and liver cooked and eaten straight away. The rest of the fatty carcass was taken back to camp for communal eating. It tasted much like suckling pig. We had a similar menu the next two days, with the main dishes including hyrax – a strange, furry, guinea pig-like animal and some birds I didn’t recognise caught by the older children. I expected more berries for dessert – but we were in for a treat. With the help of some birds called honeyguides, a bee nest that was ripe for harvesting had been spotted 10m up a baobab tree. One of the Hadza used small wooden stakes to nimbly climb the tree and then confused the bees with smoke so they wouldn’t attack (much!). When the ‘honey hunter’ descended, grinning, covered with a dozen bee stings, he brought a bucket full of the best golden orange honey I could ever imagine – full of fatty honeycomb, pollen and protein from the larvae. The combination of fat and sugars made our dessert the most energy-dense food found in nature and may have competed with fire in terms of its evolutionary importance a million or so years ago. Microbes from the bee gut are now found living happily inside the Hadza colons. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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HOW TO BOOST YOUR MICROBIOME The microbes in your gut can help you to get thinner, be happier and live longer. Here’s how you can give them a helping hand… 1

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1. INCREASE YOUR FIBRE INTAKE. Aim for more than 40g per day, which is about double the current averages. Fibre intake has been shown to reduce heart disease and some cancers, as well as reduce weight gain. 2. EAT AS MANY TYPES OF FRUIT AND VEG AS POSSIBLE, AND TRY TO EAT SEASONALLY. The variety may be as important as the quantities, as the chemicals and types of fibre will vary, and each support different microbial species. 3. PICK HIGH-FIBRE VEGETABLES. Good examples are artichokes, leeks, onions and garlic, which all contain high levels of inulin (a prebiotic fibre). Some vegetables like lettuce have little fibre or nutrient value. 4. CHOOSE FOOD AND DRINKS WITH HIGH LEVELS OF POLYPHENOLS. Polyphenols are antioxidants that act as fuel for microbes. Examples are nuts, seeds, berries, olive oil, brassicas, coffee and tea – especially green tea. 5. AVOID SNACKING. Also, try to increase intervals between meals to give your microbes a rest. Occasionally skip meals or have an extended fast – this seems to reduce weight gain.

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6. EAT PLENTY OF FERMENTED FOODS CONTAINING LIVE MICROBES. Good choices are unsweetened yoghurt; kefir, which is a sour milk drink with five times as many microbes as yoghurt; raw milk cheeses; sauerkraut; kimchi, a Korean dish made from garlic, cabbage and chilli; and soybean-based products such as soy sauce, tempeh and natto. 7. DRINK A BIT OF ALCOHOL. In small quantities, alcohol has been shown to increase your gut diversity, but large amounts are harmful to your microbes and your health. 8. STEER CLEAR OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS LIKE ASPARTAME, SUCRALOSE AND SACCHARINE. These disrupt the metabolism of microbes and reduce gut diversity – in animal studies this has led to obesity and diabetes. Ditch the processed foods too, as these also upset microbes’ metabolism. 9. SPEND MORE TIME IN THE COUNTRYSIDE. People living in rural areas have better microbes than city-dwellers. While you’re at it, dust off your trowel: gardening and other outdoor activities are good for your microbiome.

10. STROKE ANIMALS. Studies have shown that people living with dogs have more microbial diversity. 11. AVOID ANTIBIOTICS AND NONESSENTIAL MEDICINES. Antibiotics destroy good and bad microbes, and it can take weeks to recover, so don’t take them unless you need them. Their use is also associated with obesity and allergies in animals. Even common medications like paracetamol and antacids can interfere with microbes. 12. DON’T BE HYGIENE OBSESSED. Fastidious washing and overuse of antibacterial sprays may not be good for your gut. 13. SPEND TIME CLOSE TO A LEAN PERSON. Studies in mice have shown that leanness may be contagious. Microbes from a lean animal can reverse obesity in a fat one, but strangely, obesity microbes are harder to transmit than lean ones. 14. AVOID FOOD AND VITAMIN SUPPLEMENTS. Only a tiny proportion of supplements have been shown to be beneficial. Instead, focus on eating a diverse range of real food to get all your nutrients.


“My gut microbial diversity and number of species increased by 20 per cent”

Honey straight from the comb is an important energy source for the Hadza, and many rank it as their favourite food

PHOTO: JEFF LEACH

HOME TRUTHS

One lasting impression was how little time the Hadza spent getting food. It appeared as though it took just a few hours a day – as simple as going round a large supermarket. Wherever you walked there was food – above, on and below ground – with plenty of time for chatting, practising archery and socialising around the fire. I did briefly get a tiny glimpse of the other more dangerous side of their lives. While

the porcupines were being dissected, I had a call of nature and went off to produce a stool sample for my experiment. When I returned 10 minutes later, clutching my test tubes, the hunting party had disappeared. When I realised they weren’t playing games on me, I had a moment of feeling totally alone and useless with no clue which way to go. After some aimless wandering and shouting I returned to the old fire. This should have been reassuring, were it not

for the leftover entrails that would soon attract hyenas. I only had my poo-testing kit as a weapon. Luckily the Hadza are the best trackers in the world and on noticing I wasn’t with them – to my immense relief – they rapidly found me. It felt like an eternity. Twenty-four hours we were back in London with my cherished poo samples, which we sent to the lab for testing. The results showed clear differences between my starting sample and after three days of my forager diet. The good news was my gut microbial diversity and number of species increased by a stunning 20 per cent, and contained higher levels of many beneficial bacteria that we know can fight against obesity and inflammation. The bad news was, after a few days of my usual food and environment, my gut microbes had virtually returned to where they were before the trip. There were exceptions, though, and I have managed to retain a few African microbes that seem to be enjoying their new home and diet. Within five years, I predict testing our microbes will be routine, as we personalise our diets to suit our own microbial species and to help reduce diseases. Until then, I believe everyone should make the effort to improve their gut health and microbe diversity by rewilding their diet and lifestyle (for tips, see opposite page). Understanding the intimate relationship between our food, our environment and our microbes should encourage us to be more adventurous and branch out from our usual dull cuisine. Every now and then I would highly recommend reconnecting with nature and our ancestral past to give our microbes a treat.

Prof Tim Spector is professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. He tweets from @timspector Vol. 10 Issue 2

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WILDLIFE ON THE

BORDERLINE The barriers along the US–Mexico frontier carve up habitats and age-old migration routes, impacting on a host of species WORDS AND PHOTOS BY KRISTA SCHLYER

Scan this QR Code for the audio reader

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After travelling the US–Mexico border wall for 90m, looking for a place to cross, these collared peccaries turned away. This stretch of wall in Arizona bisects the San Pedro River corridor

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t the southern end of Arizona’s Huachuca mountains, the United States meets Mexico on a rocky precipice where a sweeping vista unfolds. To the east, the international boundary reaches towards the horizon through an ocean of pale winter grasses where jackrabbits hide and great horned owls hunt. To the south, the deep grooves of the upper San Pedro River watershed stretch across the border, extending into the foothills of the Huachucas as secret passageways for bobcats and black bears. To the west, the immense San Rafael Valley sprawls southwards as a sea of golden grass where shy pronghorn antelopes roam. And all around, dark mountain ranges tower like islands in the lazuli desert sky, their deepest shadows sheltering the footsteps of jaguars. This landscape radiates a wild calm, but beneath the surface are two conflicting realities: the borderlands region encompasses one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America, while rapidly becoming one of the world’s most militarised and divided places. Over the past decade, just over 1,000km of border wall have been constructed along this 3,200km-long frontier. Most construction has been exempted from environmental laws that would have protected critical habitat and migration pathways for endangered species. And in January, the new US president vowed to expand border wall construction and to intensify militarisation of this land. Yet from a steep mountainside overlooking the border, geopolitical tension drifts away on a fresh westerly wind. This immense landscape remains the kind of special space where wildlife can thrive, and humans can find that unique brand of respite particular to vast open spaces.

A

STANDING IN THE WAY Seeking out some of this wild solace, I hike a trail from the Montezuma Pass in Coronado National Memorial, a protected area managed by the US National Park Service, through the mountains to the border, where a monument was placed in the 1850s when the United States bought this land from Mexico under the Gadsden Purchase.

USA CALIFORNIA San Diego Tijuana

THE CURRENT STATE OF THE BORDER

Where the USA meets Mexico, a 3,200km stretch of land bridges the tropical and temperate zones. This is a landscape of wild surprise, shared equitably by the north and south of the natural world.

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NEW MEXICO

ARIZONA

Douglas Nogales

Ciudad Juárez

Existing border fence

El Paso

TEXAS Del Rio Ojinaga

MEXICO

Eagle Pass

Laredo Nuevo Laredo McAllen Reynosa

Brownsville


ONE OF THE MOST BIODIVERSE ECOSYSTEMS IN NORTH AMERICA IS RAPIDLY BECOMING ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST DIVIDED PLACES Such monuments were erected all along the border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. But today this particular one carries a weighty importance – it is situated on one of the few migration pathways remaining to a suite of transnational grassland species. The US–Mexico border, a line drawn in the sand by two nations, is fundamentally defined by a natural boundary at the overlap of the temperate and tropical zones. Here the north and south meet and mingle, sharing an assortment of trees, cacti, wildflowers and grasses that don’t coexist anywhere else. Natural borders like this are unusual places, prone to biological extravagance. Prior to the Gadsden Purchase, this land was claimed by Mexico, and before that Spain. In the millennia that preceded Spain’s conquest of North America, it was the domain of native people; and before that, it belonged to the jaguar. Strength, adaptability and stealth earned the jaguar its position as an apex predator in the Sonoran Desert. “Jaguars evolved here in North America before they moved south into the tropics. So in a very fundamental sense they belong here,” says Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. And somewhere out within this grassland sea, or padding through shadows in the river corridor, the jaguar still roams. Only now the big cat is fighting for its existence in an arid world at the boundary of two nations.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: The best hope for the continued survival of bighorn sheep is open travel corridors; The border wall has fragmented bobcat habitat; Kangaroo rat populations are being split by walls built through the California dunes; Elf owls are facing habitat destruction in the borderlands; Migration corridors are being severed by border barriers

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CENTRAL TO JAGUAR CONSERVATION ARE TWO BASIC NEEDS: SPACE AND PATHWAYS FOR TRAVEL

In the early 20th century, jaguars started to disappear, largely due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1963, the last known female jaguar in the United States was killed near the Grand Canyon, and for decades the largest cat in the western hemisphere was feared to have been driven to extinction in the US. But then, in the 1990s, a ray of hope appeared in the form of a photograph captured in southeast Arizona. Since then, there have been hundreds of photos and sightings of male jaguars. “We don’t know where the nearest female is,” Serraglio admits. “We know there is a breeding population around 200km south of the border, but we don’t know if there are some closer, even in the United States. Jaguars are so cryptic.”

IN SEARCH OF A MATE Researchers know that young male jaguars are coming to the US to find new territory. They live here for a few years until a biological urge kicks in, and then head back to Mexico to find the nearest female. “They have to go back,” Serraglio says. “They have to find a female.” Jaguar researchers believe that when the northernmost female jaguars begin to branch out, if migration pathways are open to them, they will find their way to the United States. And when that female pioneer arrives, Seraglio says, it will be a gamechanger. In the meantime, conservation organisations have been working to raise awareness and create a plan 58

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CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: The border wall now bisects the grasslands of the Coronado National Memorial and San Pedro River corridor; A gila monster on a conservation property in Mexico; A male jaguar in southern Arizona; Altamira oriole in Lower Rio Grande Valley

for restoration. Central to jaguar conservation are two basic needs: space and pathways for travel. “Like most apex predators, jaguars need large areas of wilderness,” Serraglio explains. “And they travel long distances to find what they need. Connectivity is critically important for jaguars.” This puts the future of this cat at the mercy of the prevailing US policy of building walls and expanding militarisation of its southern border. “If jaguars are ever going to recover in the United States, the breeding population in northern Mexico must be able to expand north,” Serraglio says. And jaguars are not alone. The US began intensifying border enforcement in 2005 when Congress approved several measures aimed at fast-tracking the construction of a wall. In addition to mandating 1,120km of wall, the federal measures removed environmental and other bedrock protections for land, people and wildlife. Since that time, about one-third of the border has been walled, largely over landscapes set aside specifically for wildlife and wilderness. Dismissal of environmental law along much of the border has jeopardised populations of numerous species, including the jaguar, ocelot, collared peccary, pronghorn antelope and black bear. For many species, the wall poses a direct threat by blocking access to scarce water and food resources. Barriers have also isolated individuals from mates on the opposite side of the border, which worries biologists.


A 2011 study found that black bears in the Sierra Madre mountains are genetically linked with bears across the border in south-east Arizona; any barrier that separates bears in Mexico from those in the US will threaten this isolated southern population. “Black bears are much less abundant in Mexico,” says Juan Carlos Bravo, who directs the Mexico Program for the Wildlands Network, an organisation focused on restoring landscape connectivity. “They depend on open corridors into the United States for genetic diversity.”

TRAGEDY FOR TOADS The fallout from this may not become apparent for years, as genetic poverty takes its toll on the bears. But for some species, the growing divisions in this landscape have already hit hard. Immediately after the border wall was built in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, scientists filmed Sonoran Desert toads jumping against its steel, time after time, until they were taken by predators or died of dehydration. In 2012, a herd of pronghorn in the San Rafael Valley began disappearing. An investigation found that after the border barrier was put up, all of the breeding males were isolated on its southern side. All of these impacts were predictable outcomes of adding large obstacles to the landscape, Bravo notes. “It goes against modern conservation practice to build a barrier.” Vol. 10 Issue 2

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The construction of a border wall has destroyed and fragmented critical habitat all along the border. In Texas, where the Rio Grande delineates the frontier, more than 95 per cent of the native habitat has been lost to human development. The remaining five per cent is located almost entirely on wildlife refuges along the river corridor. This scant remaining habitat provides a lifeline for endangered wild cats, imperilled reptiles and insects, and globally important bird populations.

VITAL HABITAT More than 500 species of bird depend on the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Many make their homes along the river, while others rely on its relatively lush surroundings to rest and refuel after gruelling flights over the Gulf of Mexico or the vast deserts to the west. Every remaining acre of native habitat here may make the difference between death and survival for migratory birds such as northern cardinals, altamira orioles, green jays, kiskadees and many more. Bobcats also use the Rio Grande. But in 2009 researchers found that after the border wall fragmented wildlife refuges in southern Texas, bobcats were killing bobcats and dying on roads as they fought over shrinking territory and roamed the Lower Rio Grande Valley searching for new homes. 60

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ABOVE: A desert cottontail at the border wall during its construction in southern Arizona. The barrier restricts the passage of the species and other land mammals

For conservationists, the rise of border walls constitutes a tragedy of epic proportions for thousands of wild species. And this threat to global biodiversity goes well beyond the borders of North America, as more nations reinforce their borders worldwide. Here in the Huachucas, looking out over the San Pedro River and the mountains rising above the Mexican grasslands, the intention of newly elected president Donald Trump to expand the US–Mexico border wall casts an ominous pall. For now, however, the border at the foot of the Huachucas is defined by a 2.5m-high barbed-wire fence. It poses little obstacle to the jaguar, which can jump over this barrier or sneak under if need be. Recent evidence shows jaguars are doing just that. In late 2016, a camera-trap captured the image of a new jaguar in Arizona – one whose sex could not be determined. The mere possibility it may be that long-awaited female caused jaguar conservation hopes to soar. But to the east of the Huachucas, an 11m-high wall has already been built right up into the foothills, a wall that stretches for dozens of miles across the San Pedro Valley. I myself have witnessed numerous species trapped by this wall, including collared peccaries, animals with an important ecological role as both a prey species and seed distributor. The imposing edifice also blocks the passage of pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits and indeed every other


A WORLD OF BARRIERS

Jaguar: UA/USFWS; stag: Frank Sommariva/Imagebroker/FLPA; ass: Eric Dragesco/naturepl.com; wolves: Franck Fouquet/Biosphoto/FLPA; dingo: Andy Rouse/naturepl.com

In 2015, construction began on more border walls worldwide than at any other time in recorded human history. Barriers between Russia and Ukraine, Burma and Bangladesh, Mexico and Guatemala, Turkey and Syria have all gone up in the past few years, largely motivated by fears of terrorism and increasing human migration. A total of 63 walls were built or under construction by the end of 2015, compared with fewer than 20 when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Here are four examples of how barriers are affecting wildlife in Europe, Asia and Australasia.

terrestrial animal, through one of the most critical passages in the region for wildlife. Climate change can only worsen the situation, as it begins to exacerbate droughts and intensify heat in the desert. “With such huge uncertainty due to climate change, we have to preserve the options for these species to adapt,” Serraglio says. “One of the best ways to do that is to maintain connectivity.” The borderlands represents the only viable future for the jaguar in the US, and for so many other species entwined in the region’s web of life. Each creature here has adapted to survive in a desert, but their greatest test may yet rise before them. “For thousands of years jaguars were revered by indigenous cultures as superhuman,” Serraglio says. “But they can’t climb that wall.” 

Krista Schlyer has studied the US–Mexico borderlands for 10 years. She is the author of Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall

1 Czech Republic/Germany

2 Mongolia/China

3 Croatia/Slovenia

4 Australia

815km fence Reason for border: During the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was heavily guarded and electrified. Impact on wildlife: The Iron Curtain fell over 25 years ago but red deer on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany still do not cross the divide, which is now forest and open land with no barrier. A study of 300 deer found the animals on each side of the border maintained old boundaries and were completely separate populations.

670km razor-wire fence Reason for border: Reduce flow of asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq. Impact on wildlife: 349km of the fence cuts through the Dinaric Mountains that contain one of the most important wolf populations in Europe. Out of 10 wolf packs, five have their home ranges in both countries. While some wolves have shown an ability to cross, there is no guarantee they will remain connected with their core population in the south. There is a chance the populations will become isolated and inbreed.

4,710km fence Reason for border: The original fence was built following a border treaty in 1962. In 2008, the Chinese built a 100km fence to protect livestock from wolves. Impact on wildlife: Khulan, or Mongolian wild asses, were fitted with GPS collars in a 2013 study, which demonstrated that the fence presented an absolute barrier in the south-east Gobi Desert. While the barrier restricts wild ass movement and migration between countries, the border area has become a grazing refuge for the animals in harsh winters.

5,531km fence, Queensland Reason for border: To protect domestic sheep from dingo predation. Impact on wildlife: The north-western side of the fence habituates a larger dingo population and subsequently kangaroo and emu numbers have fallen due to predation. But fewer dingoes on the southern side has led to an increase in kangaroos there. Where dingoes have been exterminated altogether, a rise in numbers of red foxes (an introduced species) has led to a reduction in small native mammals, including bandicoots. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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THE BLOODY ROAD TO PARTITION 2017 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the British Raj. Yasmin Khan describes eight of the images that define the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan. Then, in a timeline on page 70, she explores some landmark moments in the turbulent story of India’s partition

WAITING IN LINE Men queue for drinking water in a refugee camp in New Delhi, 1947. Between 12 and 15 million people were displaced by partition – by the end of 1947, more than 3 million of them were living in camps. Many were driven there by escalating ethnic violence 62

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GETTY IMAGES

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Mountbatten and Gandhi take tea 1 April 1947

The last viceroy is sworn in 24 March 1947 Louis Mountbatten was the final viceroy of India after almost 200 years of British rule. The 1st Earl of Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, arrived in India on 22 March 1947 and – as this image shows – were sworn in at a ceremony in the Durbar Hall of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi two days later. A great grandson of Queen Victoria, Mountbatten enjoyed theatrical ceremonies, but he also had extensive powers. As head of the British administration in India, he was responsible for planning the departure of the British from India and for finding a solution to the deadlock between the different Indian political parties. Mountbatten had been dispatched to India by the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, with instructions to secure the fastest possible transfer of power. Within two months of his arrival, he had finalised a plan to partition the subcontinent into two separate states – Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India – and transferred power a year faster than anyone had expected. Edwina also played a decisive role in the drama, developing an intimate personal relationship with Jawaharal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress, the party that was spearheading the move towards independence. The Mountbattens remained in the subcontinent after independence (until June 1948), and Louis acted as first governor-general of independent India.

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With partition negotiations locked in deadlock, Mahatma Gandhi and Louis Mountbatten endeavoured to find a way forward over a cup of tea in the garden of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. This image was a brilliant piece of propaganda, as the British needed to show to the world that they were consulting with the most important Indian nationalist leader. It shows the two men enjoying a drink that was grown on Indian plantations but had, by now, become quintessentially British. The leaders had long discussions about Gandhi’s life in South Africa, but the conversation mostly focused

on India’s political stasis. How should Mountbatten accommodate the different constitutional demands at the time of independence? The leaders’ meetings were cordial but Mountbatten was upset that Gandhi refused any possibility of partition as a solution (he described Gandhi as “Trotskyist” in private letters of the time). Gandhi continued to talk of British policies of ‘divide and rule’. Although, ultimately, the Congress did reluctantly agree to the partition of India, Gandhi never endorsed it. On independence day in August the same year, he refused to celebrate, spending the day fasting and in silent prayer.


A partition of literature Summer 1947

ALAMY

This famous image, taken by the American photographer David Douglas Duncan, seems to show the division of a library, with stacks of books allocated to India and Pakistan. As the mountain of literature grows ever larger, the young librarian BS Kesavan struggles with his mammoth task. The photograph – published in Time magazine in 1947 – seems to epitomise the petty yet momentous nature of the division between the two new countries. Many squabbles erupted in government offices about the fair allocation of goods. Mundane objects that belonged to the state, including cutlery, stationery and office furniture, were divided up between India and

Pakistan respectively on a 4:1 ratio. Yet this photograph may have been staged or doctored. As the writer Anhad Hundal pointed out, the books in the Imperial Secretariat Library in New Delhi, where the photograph was taken, were never actually divided. Nonetheless, there was a proposal to divide this library, and many others were unquestionably split up. Worse still, a huge number of archives and precious manuscripts were lost during the chaos that followed partition. Indians and Pakistanis continued to contest lost property and possessions for many decades after 1947, and some residential property disputes continue to the present day.

Mundane objects, including cutlery and office furniture, were divided up between India and Pakistan on a 4:1 ratio Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Jinnah marks the birth of Pakistan 14 August 1947

Leaders thrash out a plan for partition

Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the leader of the Muslim League and hero-worshipped by many south Asian Muslims. It’s fitting therefore that he led the celebrations for the new state of Pakistan in Karachi, on 14 August 1947. Educated in Britain, Jinnah often wore Savile Row suits, but on this day he sported a white sherwani (a knee-length coat) and a north Indian hat called a karakul. Despite the celebrations there was much uncertainty about the new state, and the role of religion within it. Jinnah himself was ambivalent about the territory that had been granted to Pakistan, describing it as “moth eaten”. In just over a year he would be dead, leaving Pakistan bereft of a leader who could unify many different competing ethnic groups.

3 June 1947

GETTY IMAGES

This photograph marks the moment when fewer than a dozen men agreed to divide the whole of the Indian subcontinent, a population of 400 million. On 3 June 1947, Abdul Rab Nishtar, Sardar Baldev Singh, Acharya Kriplani, Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan – representatives of the Muslim League, the Sikh parties and Congress – sat around a small table with the British viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, and Lord Ismay, Mountbatten’s chief of staff. They agreed that the plan to partition would go ahead. The Indian leaders look tired and apprehensive, but Ismay (second left) smiles, perhaps with relief that an agreement has finally been reached. The plan was announced in the House of Commons in London that evening. At the same time, Mountbatten and the leaders of the different parties took to the radio to explain the decision to an expectant and nervous south Asian population. Mountbatten declared: “The whole plan may not be perfect: but like all plans its success will depend on the spirit of good will with which it is carried out.”

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A desperate exodus 19 September 1947 Trains overcrowded with refugees, packed onto the roof and clinging to the sides – like the one near New Delhi, shown above – became the defining image of partition. At least 12 million people moved between India and Pakistan. Many travelled by train, but others walked in long foot columns, while some crossed the border by car or plane. The scale of the migrations was unplanned, and caught the British and Asian politicians by surprise. Confusion followed, as some people

were urged to return or to stay in their homes. In early September 1947, it became clear that the safest way forward was to exchange the populations across Punjab. This soon became official policy, organised by the military. The majority of the refugees were from Punjab but hundreds of thousands also moved in both directions from other parts of India and Pakistan, including Bengal, Bombay, North West Frontier Province, Sind and United Provinces.

At least 12 million people moved between India and Pakistan. Many travelled by train but countless others crossed the border in long foot columns

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GETTY IMAGES

This moving image was taken by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, showing a harrowed mother hugging a relative beside the grave of her child

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The despair of the refugees October 1947

GETTY IMAGES

This iconic image of a young Muslim boy looking out over a New Delhi refugee camp with his head in his hands seems to define the confusion and anxiety of the partition period. A quarter of a million refugees passed through New Delhi in the summer of 1947, using makeshift cloths and sheets to separate their temporary homes. Most would make new homes in Pakistan, although many perished from disease and

violence along the way. The camp in this picture was at Purana Qila, the old fort of New Delhi. The boy sits upon the fort’s ramparts while, on the horizon are the cupolas of the Red Fort, the seat of Mughal power in India, which had been a British barracks since 1857. This image was also taken by Margaret Bourke-White, who travelled widely in India in 1947 for Life magazine, and took many of the defining images of partition.

Yasmin Khan is associate professor in 18th to early 20thcentury British history at the University of Oxford. Her books include The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2007) Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Key milestones in the partition story…

In 1945 India emerged from the Second World War a transformed nation – both economically and politically – and its people craved freedom from British rule. It was a divided nation. The nationalist Congress Party leaders – Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – claimed to represent all south Asians but they were struggling to keep their movement non-violent, and had spent several of the war years in prison. In 1946 the British decided to leave India but could not settle the question of a constitutional settlement.

Violence blights north and east India Extreme violence broke out in late 1946 in north India, particularly in the regions of Noakhali (Bengal), Bihar and the United Provinces. This was different to earlier episodes – not just in scale, but also because women and children were increasingly being targeted. Gandhi toured the afflicted regions to try and bring peace to the troubled areas. He threatened to fast until death if the violence did not stop. Meanwhile, local political leaders and agitators from all communities were involved in spreading rumours and increasing ethnic tension.

15 August 1947

14 August 1947

Independence day for India

Bloodshed mars Pakistan’s birth

India celebrated Independence Day 24 hours after Pakistan, in the capital, New Delhi. While the celebrations went ahead, nearby refugee camps continued to fill. Older princely states were also being absorbed into the new state. The unsettled status of Kashmir – and whether it belonged to India or Pakistan – soon led to war. Jawaharlal Nehru became India’s new prime minister but it would take another two years for India to write a constitution and over four years to hold a general election.

Pakistan marked its independence one day before India. The new state was made up of two wings, East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. While people celebrated the creation of the new nation state, parts of the country were engulfed in violence. One in five people in the new state was a refugee, a fact that threatened Pakistan’s very survival.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with India’s new flag in July 1947 70

Late 1946

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17 August 1947

August–October 1947

Boundary judgment increases tensions

12 million people hit the road

The British judge Cyril Radcliffe was asked to draw the boundary between the new states of India and Pakistan. He did so with the help of south Asian members of the Bengal and Punjab Boundary Commissions. Using the 1941 census, Radcliffe considered the majority and minority populations in the districts to be divided, but was also allowed to consider cultural and economic factors. The announcement of the boundary line was held back until after independence day. Inevitably, many were deeply disappointed by the decisions that Radcliffe made.

In the early days of partition, politicians initially urged people not to move home. But this policy soon fell victim to events on the ground. Many refugees across the Punjab – caught between the two new states – were soon calling for their own homeland. Soon the states were organising a formal ‘exchange of population’ in the Punjab, which would see 6 million people moving in both directions.

GETTY IMAGES

The end of the Second World War


Gandhi – pictured in his mobile hut in East Bengal, 1946 – threatened to fast until death if the violence didn’t stop

20 February 1947

March 1947

Attlee intervenes

Refugees flee Punjab violence

British prime minister Clement Attlee (pictured below) was determined to see Britain withdraw from India as soon as possible. He was concerned by the deterioration of loyalty to the British in the Indian armed forces, and worried about increasing ethnic violence. On 20 February 1947, despite being unable to find agreement among Indian parties, Attlee announced that the British would leave India no later than the summer of 1948. He also announced he would replace the viceroy, Archibald Wavell, with Louis Mountbatten.

A convoy of Sikhs migrate to East Punjab, c1947

After Attlee’s statement, violence intensified in Punjab. In early March, under intense pressure, the Unionist Party leader in Punjab, Khizr Tiwana, resigned from his role as prime minister of the province. With Tiwana gone, a bloody battle for Lahore erupted. The violence triggered the first wave of Punjabi refugees, as the more prosperous decided to move to safer parts of the country, and started to remove their valuables and assets.

17 July 1947

3 June 1947

Boundary force proves toothless

The plan to partition is unveiled

A Punjab Boundary Force was created from units in the Indian army, with the aim of restoring law and order. But, such was its ineffectiveness, it was disbanded after just 32 days. Even at its peak, the force covered no more than the 12 most ‘disturbed’ districts of Punjab, and consisted of only 25,000 men. This meant that there were fewer than two men to a square mile. British troops were still in India but – far from being used to contain the violence – were being demobilised following the Second World War.

Mountbatten achieved the agreement to the partition plan that he so craved during meetings with south Asian leaders on 2 and 3 June. With this plan allowing people in Bengal and the Punjab to decide if they wanted to divide their provinces – and new borders not yet settled – there was great uncertainty about what the 3 June plan meant for ordinary people, and which areas would end up in India or Pakistan. The plan also saw the British bringing forward the date of independence by an entire year.

30 January 1948

GETTY IMAGES/ALAMY

Gandhi’s murder stuns India

Crowds surround Gandhi’s funeral pyre, New Delhi, 1948

On 30 January, Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist fiercely opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s demands for a secular, pluralist state, and his attempts to make peace with Pakistan, walked into a prayer meeting at Birla House in New Delhi and shot the leader in the chest three times. Gandhi’s death was a massive shock to the Indian nation and helped to bring partition violence to a halt. Nonetheless, the subcontinent would continue to be afflicted by sporadic bloodletting, and refugees would continue to cross the borders of Bengal and East Pakistan for many years.  Vol. 10 Issue 2

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The Bolivian salt plains hide vast reserves of lithium. With demand for rechargeable batteries set to soar, could this be the site of a new gold rush? WORDS BY HAYLEY BENNETT TRANSLATION BY ADRIANA CASTRO PHOTOS BY DANY KROM/REDUX/EYEVINE

DIGGING FOR ELECTRICITY igh up in the Andean Mountains in Bolivia is a vast expanse of white desert, the world’s largest salt flat: Salar de Uyuni. Stretching 160km from west to east, its cracked surface heals during the rainy season to form a giant natural mirror. Until recently, this extraordinary environment had kept all but migrating flamingos, salt rakers and the most intrepid of tourists at bay. Just below the surface, however, is something that the mining industry is itching to get its hands on: 10 million tonnes of lithium. This soft, silvery metal is the stuff of the rechargeable batteries that power our smartphones and laptops. In the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ covering the borders between Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, lithium is extracted from brine beneath the crusts of salt plains. These three South American countries alone hold 56 per cent of the world’s lithium stores. Bolivia’s lithium is thought to have leached from the surrounding Andes into a prehistoric lake that dried to form the present-day salt flat. It contains more lithium than even the most productive flat, Chile’s Salar de Atacama. The Bolivian government is shelling out millions to help unlock the potential of this huge, untapped resource, but whether it all pays off may depend on the future of the electric car industry.

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SCIENCE PREVIOUS PAGE: Raúl Martinez at an evaporation pool, where lithium carbonate is concentrated from brine. Miners must protect their skin and eyes from the Sun’s UV radiation and the surface glare

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MAIN IMAGE: Evaporation pools, separated by levees, concentrate the lithium BELOW RIGHT: Lithium-rich brine is pumped from beneath the crust

MINING THE BRINE Lithium carbonate is extracted from the salt desert by piping brine from below the crust into large evaporation pools. Three litres of Salar de Uyuni brine contain less than a gram of lithium metal, so it is concentrated under the glare of the Sun before being collected for processing. The lithium at Salar de Uyuni is also bound up with magnesium, which has to be removed before the lithium can be turned into electrodes and electrolytes for batteries. Right now, there is only one working pilot plant at the salt flat, where, as former director of communications for the plant, RaĂşl Martinez, explains, 99.7 per cent pure, battery-grade lithium is being produced. “This project demonstrates that the Bolivians have all the potential to obtain lithium carbonate of commercial and battery-grade in the salt flats,â€? he says. However, the state mining company Comibol may need to scale up its operations. It shipped less than 30 tonnes of lithium carbonate in 2016, making the target of 10,000 tonnes by 2021 seem like a stretch. Bidding for construction of a second plant, designed by German company K-UTEC, is underway.

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LEFT: A young boy amuses himself by playing football while his dad makes bricks for building salt hotels

UNCERTAIN TIMES The Bolivian government plans to plough $925m into the lithium industry by 2019. President Evo Morales dreams of building a high-tech future for his country, based on manufacturing smartphone and electric car batteries. However, outsiders claim he needs foreign investment, and so far this hasn’t been particularly forthcoming. What’s more, there’s no guarantee of lucrative markets like China being reliant on lithium in the future. Prof Martin Bertau, director of the Institute of Technical Chemistry at TU Bergakademie in Freiberg, Germany, thinks lithium battery-powered cars may only be a short-term solution for China, while another potentially greener technology based on methanol fuel cells ramps up. “If direct methanol fuel cell cars emerge [in China], lithium electrical vehicles may lose their significance overnight,” he says. “It is this scenario that truly will not be helpful for Bolivia.” There also remains uncertainty over the environmental damage that could be caused by widespread lithium mining on the salt flat, with accusations flying back and forth between mining and environmental organisations. According to Martinez, all mining activities at Salar de Uyuni must comply with state regulations to reduce their environmental impact. The Bolivian National Evaporite Resources Authority has switched from lime-based to sulphate-based technology because this produces less sludge, although research on the impacts of sulphate in this environment is scarce. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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TOP RIGHT: The Salar de Uyuni salt flat covers over 10,000 square kilometres MIDDLE RIGHT: Compounds extracted from the brine are stored in large silos BOTTOM RIGHT: Battery-grade lithium carbonate MAIN IMAGE: This aerial shot gives a bird’s-eye view of a brine-filled evaporation pool

SUPPLY AND DEMAND Demand for lithium in batteries has risen on average by 20 per cent a year since 2000. The most powerful Tesla Model S electric car (the P100D) carries a 100kWh rechargeable battery, with each 6kWh of performance requiring around 5kg of battery-grade lithium carbonate. What makes the market situation unpredictable is that lithium has other uses – the most important being for strengthening and coatings in glass and ceramics. It’s almost impossible to predict accurately what the future of the lithium industry will look like, but earlier this year, Bertau published a paper on lithium supply and demand in the journal Energy Storage Materials that gives us a shortterm idea. 140,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate were produced in 2014. If electric cars really take off, demand could reach 300,000 tonnes by 2020, or less than 200,000 tonnes in a more modest scenario. Bertau thinks the modest scenario is more realistic but, either way, it looks like lithium is going to be in demand for some time yet. What this will mean for the Bolivian mining industry, and those who depend on it, remains to be seen.  78

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WILL WE

EVER BE ABLE TO FORECAST THE WEATHER? In October 1987, the Great Storm wreaked havoc across the south of the UK, taking everyone by surprise. Now, 31 years on, why do we still have trouble predicting the weather? WORDS BY DUNCAN GEERE

n the morning of 16 October 1987, southern England woke to a scene of devastation. Eighteen people were dead, and thousands of homes were without power. Fifteen million trees had fallen across the country, irreparably changing the landscape and blocking roads and railways. In Folkestone, a 110-metre Sealink ferry was discovered marooned on the beach. A pier on the Isle of Wight was almost totally demolished.

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The culprit was the Great Storm of 1987, as it became known. Forming in the Bay of Biscay north of Spain and sweeping up across the country, it brought gusts of up to 185km/h (115mph) and sustained winds of more than 80km/h (50mph) across the south-east. The passage of the storm’s warm front increased temperatures by up to 10°C, while barometric pressure fell to 951 millibars. It was the worst storm to have hit southern England and northern France in almost 300 years.


PHOTO: GETTY

Forecasters had seen it coming. Five days earlier, the BBC’s farmers’ forecast warned that the weather would be “becoming very windy later in the week”. By the middle of the week, however, the computer models that meteorologists use to make their predictions had become more uncertain. Shipping forecasts continued to warn of dangerous weather, but the inland forecasts cautioned of rain rather than winds. On the lunchtime news, weather presenter Michael Fish issued a now infamous proclamation that there would be no hurricane, and by the time most people went to bed, no warnings of unusually strong winds had been issued on TV or radio. As the night continued, however, the storm grew stronger and stronger. Meteorologists began to realise what was happening and issued ever-worsening alerts to emergency services and the government. At 10:35pm on 15 October, Force 10 gales over the channel were forecast. At 1:40am on 16 October, warnings of Force 11 were issued. The military was notified that its assistance may be required to deal with the storm’s consequences. So why was this particular storm so damaging? “One thing people talk about when they remember the storm was just how warm it was that night,” says Dr Pete Inness,

TOP: The Sealink ferry Hengist remained beached for a week after the 1987 storm, and it took four months to repair

a meteorologist at the University of Reading. “The subtropical air mass sitting in the middle of the storm provided a huge amount of heat energy to spin the storm up.” “There was also a very small feature developed within it, which we today call a sting jet, but was unknown to meteorologists in 1987,” adds Mel Harrowsmith, head of civil contingencies at the Met Office. “A sting jet is, effectively, a small core of very strong winds, and they tend to happen towards the back end of a storm. So you get this very narrow, very strong core of wind that touches down on the ground and can cause a lot of devastation.”

VIRTUAL WEATHER Computer simulations of the atmosphere work in pretty much the same way today as they did back in 1987, and it’s a three-step process. The first step is to collect data from meteorological stations on the ground, buoys in the ocean, weather balloons in the sky and satellites up in orbit. This can tell us what the state of the atmosphere is at any given time. That data is then plugged into the computer model itself – a set of equations that reflect how air and water (the chief components of weather) behave under different circumstances. Hot air tends to rise over cold air, for example, and holds more water vapour. But as hot air rises it cools, and the water vapour condenses out into water droplets – just like on your mirror when you take a shower. That’s how a cloud is made. Finally, to get a forecast, the atmosphere is split up into a series of ‘boxes’. Each box is given data from real-world observations and then allowed to develop according to the equations defined in step two. By seeing what happens in those different boxes over time, we get a weather forecast.

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M I C HA E L

FIS H

VINDIC ATED

Why the weather forecaster was right after all

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The reason why forecasts can go wrong is the potential for mistakes in all three of these stages. In the first stage, we might not collect enough data: it’s impossible to know the exact weather in every part of the globe – particularly over the ocean – so sometimes we have to make an educated guess on what numbers to put in. Plugging in numbers that are even slightly wrong will create an error that grows larger over time – just like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and eventually causing a hurricane. Meteorologists refer to this as ‘chaos’, and it’s the main reason why forecasts get less accurate over time. Even if you did have perfect data, you might not get a correct forecast because the equations aren’t quite right. Meteorologists are constantly tweaking the physics of their models in response to the latest research, and the complexity of the atmosphere means that it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before we can perfectly predict what the weather will do in every circumstance. Finally, there are those boxes, which meteorologists refer to as the ‘resolution’ of the model. Think of them like the pixels of your laptop or smartphone: the more you have, the better the picture you get, but the more computing power it takes to run them all at the same time. The same is true for weather models. This may be why the Great Storm of 1987 was so poorly forecast. “The boxes

TOP: Around 15 million trees were uprooted during the storm, including historic specimens at Kew Gardens and Hyde Park

PHOTOS: GETTY X2, BBC, NOAA

For many, the defining image of the Great Storm of 1987 was weather forecaster Michael Fish standing before the nation, promising there would be no hurricane. Someone had phoned the BBC earlier, he told viewers, with fears that one was on the way. “Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t,” he cheerfully said. A few hours later, the south-east of England was hit by the worst weather it had seen in almost 300 years. In subsequent days, as the damage was assessed, newspapers were filled with vitriol for Fish and the Met Office’s perceived failure to get the forecast right. The Met Office admitted that its radio and TV bulletins had predominantly warned of rainfall rather than strong winds, and conducted an internal investigation which resulted in improved weather data collection in the northern Atlantic and a change in how severe weather warnings were issued. Fish, however, stuck to his guns, pointing out that he’d followed up his reassurance with warnings that the weather would become very windy, and claiming that his hurricane comments referred to a storm that had recently hit Florida. It was a fair defence: the term ‘hurricane’ refers to tropical cyclones, not those that originate outside the tropics, as the Great Storm did. While wind speeds reached a level on the Beaufort scale labelled ‘hurricane force’, the Great Storm was never a hurricane. Fish was effectively right, but it mattered little: his name was forever associated with embarrassingly incorrect predictions.


“On the lunchtime news, Michael Fish issued a now infamous proclamation that there would be no hurricane, and by the time most people went to bed, no warnings had been issued” back then were about 150km by 150km,” Harrowsmith says. “So if you have a small feature inside that box, the model cannot see it.” The sting jet that made the storm particularly damaging was about 50km across, making it impossible for the model to take it into account.

ON THE UP Since 1987, meteorologists have made substantial progress in all three areas of weather modelling, making forecasts far more reliable. “Our four-day forecast now is as accurate as our one-day forecast was 30 years ago,” says Harrowsmith. Some of that progress is down to increased supercomputing power. In 1982, the Met Office computers could handle 200 million calculations per second. In 1997, that figure was one trillion calculations per second, and earlier this year, the Met Office installed a new supercomputer capable of a stunning 14 quadrillion (that’s 14 with 15 zeros after it) calculations per second.

A RE

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GE T T I NG

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But that’s not all. We now have access to more weather observations, chiefly due to improvements in satellite and radar technology. The Met Office is in the middle of upgrading its radar network to be able to see not only where it’s raining but also the size and shape of raindrops. This will help forecasters to differentiate between rain and snow – revealing whether that oncoming storm is a downpour or a blizzard. We also have much more data from the Atlantic. “As a result of the Great Storm, the Met Office realised they didn’t have enough observations over the ocean,” says Dr Hannah Christensen at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. “So they set up a lot more observational buoys out to the west and south, to fill in some of the gaps.” Plus, new techniques like ensemble forecasting – where several forecasts are run at the same time with slightly different starting data – can give us an idea of how certain a forecast is. If all the models still come up with the same forecast, meteorologists can be more sure it’s correct.

H U R R IC ANES ?

Dr Dann Mitchell, climate scientist at the University of Bristol

In the Atlantic basin, the hurricane season normally lasts from June to November, peaking in September. The fact that we’ve seen eight hurricanes as of 25 September, 2017 is markedly out of the ordinary – the average per season is six. However, perhaps more profound is the sheer number of strong hurricanes: 2017 was the first time in recorded US history that three Category 4+ hurricanes had made landfall in a single season. But whatever the remainder of the season brings, it’s unlikely to be as active as the famous 2005

season. This saw Katrina, one of 15 hurricanes that year, devastate the US coastline and left much of New Orleans underwater.

With sea levels rising, storm surges can make it further inland, potentially leading to more widespread flooding.

Is there a link with climate change? We know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more rain than a cooler atmosphere, so the downpour over Texas during Hurricane Harvey may have been worsened by climate change. We also know that hurricanes get their energy from the heat in oceans, so warmer oceans are theorised to lead to stronger hurricanes, although not necessarily to a change in the number of storms. But it’s too early to say for sure whether the strong hurricanes we’ve been seeing recently are a result of climate change. To know this, we need to see a trend over a longer period, so time will tell. We’re more sure, however, that climate change will worsen the impact of any storm surges caused by a hurricane’s strong winds.

Are we getting better at predicting hurricanes? The hurricane path is perhaps the most important part of a forecast because you need to prepare when a hurricane’s on its way. This is especially true if the system is travelling over low-lying islands, where storm surges can be devastating. Due to these risks, the US has invested heavily in predictive research, and now a reasonable forecast of a hurricane’s path can be made three to five days ahead of time. A day before the hurricane hits, we can forecast its centre to within about 64km (40 miles). It was remarkable how close to the forecast Hurricane Irma came, and this undoubtedly saved lives.

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On the subject of uncertainty, one of the biggest changes for forecasters over the last three decades has been in the way that a forecast is communicated. Where once we were told it was going to rain, for example, we’re now told there is a 60 per cent chance of rain. “For a long time the Met Office was reluctant to put out probabilistic information, and some of their reluctance came from the idea that the public wouldn’t know how to use the information,” says Christensen. Different weather forecasting services use probabilities in different ways, but the Met Office explains on its website

LEFT: When Hurricane Irma battered the Caribbean, meteorologists predicted the path of the storm with pretty good accuracy

“A number of meteorologists are investigating the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve forecasts”

A radome, seen here on top of a weather radar, protects the sensitive antenna from bad weather

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FUTURE FORECASTING With continued improvements in computer power and our understanding of atmospheric physics, there’s little doubt that our forecasts will also continue to improve. Inness says that some meteorologists are investigating automated rocket- or drone-launching buoys that could gather data on developing systems across the Atlantic. “You wouldn’t use them every day,” he says, “but they could come in handy if you knew there was a weather system in that area and were particularly uncertain about how it was going to develop. It’s not fantasy by any means.” Meanwhile, a number of meteorologists are investigating the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve forecasts, by using past weather data to learn from inaccurate forecasts and make predictions about future weather patterns. “At the moment it seems to be in a very exploratory phase,” says Christensen, “but there are results coming out which show that AI has the potential to help us process our enormous amount of observations to improve our simulations of the atmosphere.” But the better we get at forecasting, the harder it is to tease out further improvements – and the more demanding the audience gets. “These days, we’ll do a 10-day forecast and we can predict that timescale with reasonable accuracy,” says Rebekah LaBar, a consultant meteorologist for MetraWeather in New Zealand. “But there are always people that ask us: what’s the coming summer going to be like? How many hot days are we going to have?” Ultimately, there’ll probably never be such a thing as a perfect weather forecast. No matter how good our models and how powerful our supercomputers, chaos means that even tiny mistakes in our observations will grow out of control over time, causing some degree of uncertainty in our predictions. But as atmospheric science continues to progress, a mistake on the scale of the Great Storm is looking increasingly like a thing of the past. Storm clouds today rarely take us by surprise. But it’s always worth packing a raincoat, just in case. 

Duncan Geere is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Gothenburg, Sweden

PHOTO: GETTY, ALAMY, LARS COMMUNICATIONS

ABOVE: Forecasting is more accurate than ever, and the public can now get probabilities of poor weather

that its probabilities indicate how likely it is that precipitation will fall at some point during a specified period in a specified location. So a 70 per cent chance of rain in Scotland, for example, means that there’s a seven-in-ten chance that some rain will fall anywhere north of the border. “If you have the communication channels to present those uncertainties, this extra information can help people to make decisions to protect themselves and their property,” says Harrowsmith.


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BY OUR EXPERT PANEL

Do blind people see in their dreams?

PHOTO: GETTY

People who are born blind, or become blind early in life (before around five or seven years of age), do not experience visual imagery when they dream. People who became blind later typically do retain some visual imagery when they dream – but less so than in sighted individuals. A study by Danish researchers found that the longer someone has been blind, the less likely they are to dream visually. And while those who were born blind may not see in their sleep, they are more likely than those with sight to experience auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile components to their dreams. AGr

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Squirrels can even sniff out nuts that are buried under a layer of snow!

What makes mozzarella cheese so stretchy? Milk contains proteins consisting of coiled-up chains of molecules. When you make cheese, these proteins are separated out during the curdling of the milk, to make curds. In the manufacture of mozzarella, the curds are then put into hot, salty water. This uncoils the proteins and turns them into long strands, which are then repeatedly compressed and stretched. This forces the strands to line up, creating the famous stringy consistency. RM

How do squirrels find the nuts they buried? It was once thought that they just used their noses to sniff out buried nuts and that the majority were never actually located. But a 1990 study at Princeton University showed that squirrels actually have a good memory and can build a map of the route from one hidden nut to the next. They still use smell to find the caches of other squirrels, but they find a lot more of their own by memory. LV

Why does a drop of water improve the taste of whisky? Whisky is predominantly water and ethanol. One end of the ethanol molecule is hydrophilic (water-loving) and the other hydrophobic (water-hating). As a result, the ethanol tends to form a thin layer at the surface of the whisky, with the hydrophobic ends pointing up into the air. Elsewhere in the tipple, it clumps together, forming a so-called micelle, with the hydrophilic ends shielding the other parts of the molecule from the water. Many of the flavours in whisky dissolve better in ethanol, and therefore get locked away in the micelles. When water is added, this disrupts some of the micelles allowing more of the ethanol to migrate to the surface of the drink, along with the volatile flavours. Scientists and whisky connoisseurs agree that to get maximum flavour enhancement, you need more than a drop of water – diluting the whisky to about 25 per cent alcohol is ideal. ML

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IN NUMBERS

56

The percentage of green turtle nests lost from Florida’s Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, after Hurricane Irma.

289

The number of species of Japanese marine life that have washed up in the US on debris from 2011’s tsunami.

1,300 The length, in kilometres, of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which is currently being built.

Did Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbreed? How are calories in food calculated? Calories are a measure of the energy content of food, and as such play a key role in the science of nutrition. During the late 19th Century, scientists began the laborious task of measuring the calorie content of food by burning it in a sealed container and measuring the heat released. While studying the results, a rule of thumb emerged: weight for weight, fat contains nine calories per gram, around twice that in protein or carbohydrates. This led to the so-called Atwater system for calculating the calories in food without lab tests: work out the proportions of fat, protein and carbs it contains, and multiply by the relevant ‘Atwater factor’ giving the calories contained in each component. But while it’s quick and cheap, there’s growing concern the Atwater system misses subtleties of how the body uses calories. RM

Yes, and more than once! DNA analysis suggests that the earliest encounter between the two species was 100,000 years ago, just as the earliest wave of Homo sapiens was migrating out of Africa. They met Neanderthals moving eastwards from Europe to Asia and swapped genes. Later interbreeding periods happened 55,000 and 40,000 years ago, and each time we acquired some Neanderthal genes. Unless you are of sub-Saharan descent, your genome contains 1-4 per cent Neanderthal DNA. LV

THE THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

PHOTOS: GETTY X3, ALAMY X2, SHUTTERSTOCK ILLUSTRATIONS: RAJA LOCKEY

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF ALL THE TREES WERE CUT DOWN?

1. THE LOGISTICS

2. ECOSYSTEM COLLAPSE

There are three trillion trees in the world. The timber industry currently cuts down 15 billion a year, so at current rates it would take at least 200 years to fell them all – probably much longer because a lot of virgin forest is hard to reach. If you gave everyone aged 15 to 65 a chainsaw, they would have to cut down 625 trees each, which might be manageable in a year. But collecting and processing that timber would take much longer and 99 per cent of the trees would just lie on the forest floor, rotting and releasing 35 billion tonnes of CO2.

Eighty per cent of land animals and plants live in forests and without the trees most of them will die. Trees also keep the ground wet and cool, and help to drive the water cycle. A large tree can push 150 tonnes of water into the atmosphere each year, which then falls back on the forest as rain. With no trees, the land will heat up and dry out and the dead wood will inevitably result in enormous wildfires. This will fill the sky with soot that blocks out the Sun, causing failed harvests for several years and leading to worldwide famine. Vol. 10 Issue 2

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Longest-lived cells in the human body On average, the cells in your body are replaced every 7 to 10 years. But those numbers hide a huge variability in lifespan across the different organs of the body. Neutrophil cells (a type of white blood cell) might only last two days, while the cells in the middle of your eye lenses will last your entire life. And it’s even possible that your brain cells might have longer maximum lifespans than you do. In 2013, researchers transplanted neurons from old mice into the brains of longer-lived rats and found that the cells were still healthy after living for two whole mouse lifespans!

Brain cells 200+ years?

Eye lens cells Lifetime

Egg cells 50 years

How far offshore can wind farms be located? Sea depth is often the limiting factor when it comes to constructing offshore wind farms. Conventional turbines rest on the seabed and can’t be installed in water deeper than about 40 metres. In most regions this means they cannot be built more than 30km from shore. Floating wind turbines could, however, be a game changer. The floating turbines currently being installed at the Hywind wind farm near Peterhead in north-east Scotland can operate in water up to 1km deep. Such technologies could make it possible to build wind farms much further out to sea, where winds are typically stronger. AFC

Heart muscle cells 40 years

Skeletal muscle cells 15.1 years

Fat cells 8 years

Hematopoietic stem cells 5 years

Liver cells 10-16 months

Pancreas cells 1 year

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PHOTOS: JAN ARNE WOLD/STATOIL/ATLAS, GETTY X2 ILLUSTRATION: RAJA LOCKEY

Intestinal cells (excluding lining) 15.9 years


The floating wind turbines being installed at Hywind were built in Norway and towed across the sea to Scottish waters

Why are lips red? In the 1960s, zoologist Desmond Morris suggested that a woman’s lips evolved to signal sexual receptiveness, by mimicking increased blood flow to the genitalia. Research has shown that men do find the colour red attractive, but a 2012 study at the University of Kent found that men didn’t prefer a red vulva, specifically, over a pink one. So lip colour might just be a consequence of the thinner skin there, which improves sensitivity. LV

Are fish in a shoal all the same age?

In general, yes. Swirling, spiralling shoals are usually made up of fish of the same species and same size, and hence age. This is partly to confuse predators. Being a similar size, shape and colour makes it difficult for a hunter – a seal, dolphin or bigger fish – to make out and target a single prey fish. Other benefits of forming shoals include swimming efficiency and finding food. Roughly half of all fish species form shoals at some point and one in four species, including sardines, herring and anchovies, live permanently in shoals and get agitated when they’re on their own. HS Vol. 10 Issue 2

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& QA W H AT C O N N E C T S…

FACT OR FICTION?

1.

2. UNCERTAIN The research evidence is very weak either way. Relatively few studies have looked at the link between chocolate and acne (or milk fat and acne), yet all of them have serious problems with their methodology. Some trials were too short to rule out natural cycles of acne flare-ups, others had too few people, or didn’t have proper controls. One study simply involved a questionnaire asking people to recall what they had eaten while in college, years ago, and how bad their acne had been. While there is some evidence that diet can exacerbate acne in people who already suffer from it, there is no clear data to pin down whether it is caused by fat, sugar, hormones in milk, or cocoa. If chocolate does cause spots, the effect seems to be very small. LV

Fumes It was caused by petrol leaking into the sewers, creating explosive fumes. This happened after new water pipes were laid underground, alongside a petrol pipeline that crossed the city.

3.

Can we remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere? Removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is tricky. Some new technologies use chemical filters to extract CO2 from the air, but come with a hefty price tag. A more promising method relies on plants’ natural ability to absorb ambient CO2 as they grow, transforming it into biomass. Planting trees or crops therefore results in a net removal of CO2 from the air.

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Taking things one step further, this plant matter can be burned inside specially adapted power stations that produce energy while capturing the CO2 emitted and burying it underground. This technology is, however, still undergoing development. AFC

Explosions In 1992 a series of 10 explosions in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, killed more than 250 people. The explosions burst from directly under the downtown streets and left 15,000 people homeless.

Pipes The water pipes were made of galvanised iron to protect against corrosion but petrol isn’t corrosive so the fuel pipeline, owned by the Pemex company, was made from ordinary steel.

4.

Zinc The zinc coating on the galvanised pipes caused an electrolytic reaction that turned the damp soil into a battery. The steel pipe acted as the anode and was eroded away, causing the petrol to leak.

PHOTO: GETTY X4, SHUTTERSTOCK, VILAIWAN M FERNANDES/DESPLAN LAB/NYU DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY ILLUSTRATION: RAJA LOCKEY

Eating chocolate gives you spots

...EXPLODING STREETS AND ZINC?


W H AT I S T H I S ?

Visual system of a fruit fly This microscope image shows the developing visual system in a fruit fly. At the top is the retina, while the large round-shaped structure beneath is the brain’s optic lobe. Neurons (nerve cells) are coloured yellow, while their axons (long projections on neurons that conduct electrical impulses) are coloured blue.

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& QA W H O R E A L LY I N V E N T E D ?

W H AT ’ S I N…

SUNSPOTS

…IBUPROFEN TABLETS? Medical tablets are made from much more that just the active compound. Other ingredients are required to give the tablet volume, colour and to make sure the manufacturing process runs smoothly. IBUPROFEN The active ingredient only makes up 200mg of a standard tablet.

JOHANNES FABRICIUS

Caused by magnetic storms breaking through the Sun’s surface, these relatively cool patches appear as black spots that seem to move across the Sun’s disc. They are sometimes so large they can be seen with the naked eye through thin cloud or at sunset. As such, their existence has probably been known about since prehistoric times, and Chinese astronomers kept records of them over 2,000 years ago. However, the true nature of sunspots only became clear with the advent of modern astronomy in the early 17th Century. Belief in the Ancient Greek model of a perfect Universe was still widespread, making the very existence of ‘blemishes’ on the Sun deeply controversial. In 1611, the Jesuit scholar Christoph Scheiner insisted they were moons in orbit around the otherwise pristine Sun. Galileo was unconvinced, and argued for clouds in the solar atmosphere. The first person to show the sunspots were features on the Sun itself was a German astronomer named Johannes Fabricius. Using a pinhole camera, he observed clusters of sunspots for months, showing that they vanished over the Sun’s western edge, then appeared again two weeks later on the other side. This confirmed they were part of the Sun’s rotating surface – and made Fabricius the first solar scientist. RM

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LACTOSE This is used in many tablets, including aspirin and paracetamol, to bulk them out.

SILICON DIOXIDE This is added during the manufacturing process to help the various powders that make the tablet flow nicely together.

TITANIUM DIOXIDE This turns up in a lot of products, from tablets to sunscreen to paint. It is used as a white pigment.

Do all galaxies rotate in the same direction? If all galaxies formed from the same cloud of spinning material, we might expect their spin directions to be the same. This is similar to the planets of the Solar System, which all spin in the same direction as the proto-planetary cloud from which they formed (except for Venus and Uranus which were probably made to spin in the opposite direction by large impacts). But, although galaxies do not form from the same cloud of material, they are not randomly distributed in space; they form along ‘filaments’ with ‘voids’ in between. This means that protogalaxies actually are gravitationally linked

in small areas of the Universe and this is probably a result of the distribution of dark matter throughout the Cosmos. The matter in these filaments tends to move in a corkscrew motion towards the area of highest density. The result of this is that there can be a preferential direction of spin for galaxies forming in the same filament, although it also depends on the galaxy’s mass. Hence, if we look out into the Universe, there can be areas that appear to have a preferential direction for galaxy rotation, but averaged over the whole Universe, their spin direction is actually random. AGu

PHOTOS: GETTY X5 ILLUSTRATION: RAJA LOCKEY

GALILEO GALILEI

SODIUM LAURYL SULPHATE A detergent that crops up in many household products, including shampoo and toothpaste. In tablets it is used as a lubricant to stop the various ingredients sticking to manufacturing equipment.


Why does spicy food make my nose run?

Why do I weigh less in the morning? Spicy compounds are produced by plants to deter animals from eating them. They have evolved to be as irritating as possible to the mucous membranes of mammals. In fact, the capsaicin in chilli doesn’t actually cause tissue damage, but it triggers the nerve receptors that normally detect heat, and your nose is fooled into producing extra mucus to protect your sinuses. LV

Because you are alive! The chemical reactions that sustain you all require energy, and even though you aren’t eating in your sleep, these metabolic processes are still converting glucose molecules into carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. The air you breathe out contains 4 per cent CO2 and is saturated with water vapour. In a typical eight-hour sleep you will exhale 2,100 litres of air, containing 27g of water and 84 litres of CO2. The carbon in the CO2 weighs 42g. While 69g in a night doesn’t sound like much, you also lose weight from your sweat, the saliva you dribble onto the pillow, and from the skin flakes you shed into the sheets. This is why you need to change the bedding every now and again. LV

QUESTION OF THE MONTH

Will rising sea levels mean mountains have to be recalibrated? It’s not that simple. Although average height of the sea is rising, this does not affect Mean Sea Level (MSL). MSL is a reference level that refers to historical measurements. In the UK, MSL is defined by data that was collected from tide gauges in Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921. But mountain elevation isn’t measured relative to sea level anyway. Now, map makers use a geoid, which is a mathematical representation of the Earth, to define the reference height. The geoid is the hypothetical shape that all the oceans of the world would take if they were only affected by gravity and the Earth’s rotation. In other words, it excludes the effects of weather and tide. The geoid is determined by measuring the gravity fluctuations over the Earth’s surface, due to the varying thickness of the crust and densities of magma below. The reference geoid does get adjusted from time to time, and in 2016, Calf Top in the Yorkshire Dales was promoted from a hill to a mountain because changes to the geoid meant it was now 2cm taller than previously recorded. But this was because of more accurate modelling, not changing sea levels. LV

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RESOURCE

01

A FEAST FOR THE MIND

CURL UP WITH A BOOK

Here are 13 of our favourite long reads from last year

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THE ANIMALS AMONG US BY JOHN BRADSHAW

OTHER MINDS BY PETER GODFREY-SMITH

Why do we keep pets? Bradshaw argues that it goes beyond cuteness and companionship, and all the way back to an ancient connection in our shared past. Weaving together psychology and evolutionary science, the book will give pet owners a newfound appreciation for their furry friends.

The octopus is essentially an alien species right here on Earth – a sentient being whose intelligence has evolved entirely independently from our own. Godfrey-Smith peers into the minds of these cephalopods, revealing what they can tell us about the nature of consciousness itself.

BEYOND INFINITY BY EUGENIA CHENG

GASTROPHYSICS BY CHARLES SPENCE

It takes a talented writer to bring the concept of infinity to life, but Cheng’s infectious enthusiasm makes maths a delight. Discover why some infinities are bigger than others, and why there’s always room at an infinite hotel, even if it’s full.

In this breezy introduction to the new science of gastrophysics, Spence explains why our mealtimes are a truly multisensory experience. It turns out that everything from the background music to the colour and shape of our plates affects the taste of our food.

TESTOSTERONE REX BY CORDELIA FINE

ASK AN ASTRONAUT BY TIM PEAKE

The winner of this year’s Royal Society books prize, Fine cuts through gender stereotypes with panache, dispelling the myth that testosterone creates a deep-rooted division between the sexes and discussing what this means for the society we live in.

Who better to describe life in space than someone who’s walked the (space)walk? Tim pens answers to the public’s burning questions, revealing what space smells like, how he enjoyed a cosmic cuppa, and what it felt like to return to Earth.

INFERIOR BY ANGELA SAINI

CAESAR’S LAST BREATH BY SAM KEAN

The second book on our list to tackle gender stereotypes, Saini discusses how centuries of science have painted a distorted picture of sex differences, the impact this has had on women in society, and how we’re finally beginning to redress the balance.

Every breath we take tells a story as old as the Earth. Kean’s eye-opening guide to the science and history of our atmosphere takes in everything from radioactive pigs and spontaneous combustion to Julius Caesar’s final moments and some unforgettable performance art at the Moulin Rouge.

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02

GET GRAPHICAL

Last year has seen a wealth of beautiful, science-themed graphic novels and illustrated books. Here are some of our favourites…

OUT OF NOTHING BY ANIEL LOCKE & DAVID BLANDY

Combining science fact with dreamlike imagery, Locke and Blandy’s eye-popping graphic novel celebrates the ingenuity of the human mind. We travel across centuries from Gutenberg’s printing press to Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, via Picasso, Einstein, Rosalind Franklin and more.

ANATOMY BY HÉLÈNE DRUVERT & JEAN-CLAUDE DRUVERT

A cutaway book of the human body, Anatomy elicited gasps of delight in the office. Its flaps and delicate lasercuts allow kids to explore the organs, systems and senses that keep us alive, while the accompanying text provides a nice introduction to human biology.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE BY RACHEL IGNOTOFSKY

Discover (or rediscover) the work of 50 trailblazing female scientists in Ignotofsky’s gorgeously illustrated book. Familiar names like Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace sit alongside lesser-known pioneers such as Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first and more important entomologists.

MYSTERIES OF THE QUANTUM UNIVERSE BY THIBAULT DAMOUR & MATHIEU BURNIAT

Billed as ‘Tintin meets Brian Cox’, this book performs the tricky task of making quantum physics accessible. Join Bob and his dog Rick on a journey through the world of the very small, talking atoms with Einstein and eating crêpes with Max Planck.

GRAPHIC SCIENCE BY DARRYL CUNNINGHAM

With his crisp comic art, Cunningham tells the stories of seven scientists who history has rather overlooked. Mary Anning, Alfred Wegener, Fred Hoyle, Jocelyn Bell Burnell… they’re names you may have heard of, but Graphic Science underlines the importance of their work.

THE LOST WORDS BY ROBERT MACFARLANE & JACKIE MORRIS

Worried by the way in which natural words (acorn, dandelion, kingfisher, etc) are disappearing from children’s vocabulary, Robert Macfarlane has teamed up with illustrator Jackie Morris to produce this exquisite ‘spell book’, combining acrostic poems with hand-painted artwork.

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TIME OUT

CROSSWORD PUZZLE GIVE YOUR BRAIN A WORKOUT

DOWN 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 11 16 19 20 22 23 25 26 27 30 31 32 33 35 36 37

Frenchman set off an ember in lining (8) Fool king, in charge of an acid (6) Trendy, if tiny, displaying limitlessness (8) Slow down engineers by throwing dart (6) Total type of zero (8) Work together to get position indicator (10) Many CID characters are energetic (7) Blade twirled round shows ability to shine (6) Concoction is eaten in Greek winds (7) The Spanish have designation for part of tooth (6) Reported occasion for flavouring (5) Overweight fellow at a junction (3) Alright for a Greek character to have an animal (5) Endlessly debate sports equipment (10) Hear ripple put out by printer, say (10) Some bread for a swan (3) Fungus growing on chocolate (7) Boil pelt with relative (8) Criticise scare about a gland (8) Resistance to infection is often diplomatic (8) Weep, having gone off temperature reducer (7) Acceptable to spin guns around one nail (6) Relaxed as van is brought back by guide (6) I would work first on moon – that’s addictive (6)

ACROSS 9 10 12 13 14 15 17 18 20

Disorderly exit – scene is a way of life (9) Environmental transfer has nothing in tandem (8) Dullard of calibre (4) Sign about a domineering woman (6) About spy being a catalyst (7) Displace a strange, Ancient Greek doctor (9) Ugli variety in old America found in marshes (9) Tear us away to unknown river mouth (7) Enemy volunteers to get left in defensive position (6) 21 About to find honour in stupor (4) 24 Caught by Peter ordering virtual companion (8)

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26 28 29 31 34 36 38 39 40 41 42

Revolutionary claim involving compound (8) Free to wander around coral ridge (4) Ready-made pressure to judge sailor (6) Chap is confused by one Indian game (7) Exploding pulsar for a mineral (9) Dan’s sort upset by medium desert wind (9) Bear has opening in ear (7) Mother’s character? (6) Appearance is spiteful, by the sound of it (4) Sack everyone with bearing in defence (8) Scientist is at an organisation with Thomas (9)

ANSWERS

Solution to crossword in the previous issue


MY LIFE SCIENTIFIC DR ANDREW DIGBY “This month sees a milestone as we finish sequencing the genetic codes of all living ” How did a former astronomer come to care for the world’s weirdest parrot? This month, Helen Pilcher talks to Dr Andrew Digby about career changes and the charismatic kākāpō Have you always been interested in science? Always. My mum was a laboratory chemist at a brewer’s in Norwich. She encouraged me and my brothers to take an interest in science when we were kids. I loved going to local nature reserves and watching the sky at night. I also recorded the weather every day for seven years: rainfall, temperature, wind speed, that sort of thing. If we went on holiday, I’d get the neighbours to do it so there weren’t any gaps in my data. How did your scientific career begin? My PhD in astronomy led to a post-doc with NASA. We built an instrument that looks for planets in distant solar systems and deployed it on a US Air Force spy telescope, on a mountain in Hawaii. During the day, they’d use the telescope to snoop on satellites. It was all very secret. Then at night, when I went to use it, I had to be escorted everywhere because I’m not a US citizen. It was a bit crazy, but we did find some candidate planets. How did you come to work in conservation? I live and work in New Zealand now. When I first arrived, I got a job doing weather forecast modelling, but also did some voluntary work counting kiwi on the side. That led to a second PhD, studying the bioacoustics of kiwi calls, but I . never dreamed I’d end up working with ? What is a are these weird, green, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrots that are unlike any other bird. They are found only in New Zealand and have nearly 30 million years of unique evolutionary history. They’re also incredibly charismatic, but they’ve been decimated by invasive species so there are only around 150 alive. I’m now the scientific advisor for Recovery Program. the national

What’s that like? It’s like the premier league of conservation. Without our help, the species would undoubtedly go extinct. We manage the birds on predator-free islands and do everything we can to help them breed. This month sees a milestone as we finish sequencing the full genetic codes of all living and a handful of dead ones too. It’s the first time this has ever been done for all members of a species. Why is it so important to sequence the genomes of all ? of the It gives us a whole level of information that we’ve never had before. We can use this information to shed light on the birds’ family tree and problems such as infertility and disease. It’s going to be an amazing resource, available to anyone that wants to use it. But the is only half of my job. What’s the other half? I look after another endangered New Zealand bird called the . It looks like a bit like a non-endangered bird called the pukeko, and is often mistaken for it. Its main problem, however, is that it lacks ’s charisma. It’s in desperate need of some positive PR. |the Can you give it a mention, please? Consider it done. 

Dr Andrew Digby is a scientist for the Kakapo and takahe recovery programmes at the New Zealand Department of Conservation Vol. 10 Issue 2

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THE LAST WORD WHY DON’T NATURAL DISASTERS WORRY US MORE? HUMANITY OUGHT TO WISE UP ON THE LONG-TERM RISKS hat would you think if a nuclear-tipped missile zoomed through space and nearly hit a satellite or two? That’s pretty close to what actually happened on 12 October last year – except that the ‘missile’ was under no one’s control. Travelling at over 25,000 km/h, the housesized chunk of rock known as asteroid 2012 TC4 packed the punch of a few dozen atomic bombs as it flew overhead, at a similar altitude to many communications satellites. Yet after a bit of media coverage, the event soon went the way of all such ‘cosmic close shave’ stories, and disappeared off the news radar entirely. Even when one of these objects actually does make it through the atmosphere – as one did over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, injuring over 1,000 people – we all soon forget about it. But are we being too complacent? Many scientists argue that we are, and they claim to have evidence to prove it. The trouble is, that evidence isn’t very compelling. Exhibit A is that the chances of dying in an asteroid impact that trashes the planet are around one in 75,000 – that’s double the risk of being killed by lightning. But wait, that can’t be right, surely? After all, the last time the Earth got totalled was around 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out. The explanation lies in the fact that this risk depends on more than just how frequent the event is. While massive asteroid impacts are far rarer than lightning strikes, the likely death toll is millions of times higher – leading to that surprisingly high final risk figure. Multiplying the frequency of the event by its consequences has long been deemed the only scientific way to make decisions about risk – and the theory behind this is pretty solid. But as a way of getting people –and politicians – to take risks of natural disasters seriously, it doesn’t really work. That’s because the formula is only really helpful for deciding how best to protect the whole of

ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL BRIGHT

W

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“IT TAKES AROUND 20 YEARS FOR PEOPLE TO PARK THEIR CONCERNS ABOUT A REPEAT OF A PREVIOUS DISASTER”

humanity for the rest of eternity. But Joe Public – and especially Sir Joseph Politician – tend to have rather more short-term concerns, such as living long enough to see their kids grow up, or getting re-elected. For them, that is perfectly rational, too. So telling them they’re wrong to ignore risks on timescales so vast they’ll probably never experience them isn’t going to win them over. Cosmic catastrophes, which typically have timescales of centuries and more, run straight into this timescale problem – which is probably why few people outside academia worry about them. But natural disasters on much shorter timescales can still engender indifference. From California’s San Andreas fault to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, it’s clear that millions of people are quite capable of pondering the risks of living on the sites of far more frequent natural catastrophes and deciding they’ll probably be okay. So what kind of timescale do people take seriously when assessing such risks? Judging by the response of those living in hurricane zones, it takes less than a generation – around 20 years or so – for people to park their concerns about a repeat of a previous disaster. That’s far shorter than the average ‘return period’ of most forms of natural disaster, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or Category 5 hurricanes. In one sense, all of this bears witness to the astonishing resilience of the human spirit. But it also highlights a critical limit to human rationality –and a major challenge to those seeking to protect humanity from long-term disaster. Unless they can find some way of circumventing the timescale problem, their pleas for action are likely to be greeted by the classic response of each new generation to the dire warnings of their elders: “Yeah, whatever…”. 

Robert Matthews is visiting professor of

science at Aston University, Birmingham


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