Page 1

HALF VIRUS You're less human than you think

Official government fuel consumption figures in MPG (Litres per 100km) for the E-Class Estate Range: Urban: 15.0 Model shown is a Mercedes-Benz E 350 CGI BlueEFFICIENCY

Avantgarde Estate with

optional metallic paint at £620.00, optional privacy glass at £350.00 and optional 18" alloy wheels at £775.00. Total Price:

(18.8)-38.2 (7.4), Extra Urban: 30.4 (9.3)-60.1 (4.7), Combined: 22.1 (12.8)-49.6 (5.7). CO2 emissions: 299-150g/km. ÂŁ41,220.00 on-the-road (price includes VAT, delivery, maximum Road Fund Licence, number plates, new vehicle registration fee and fuel). Prices correct at time of going to print.


Volume 205 No 2745

NEWS 5 6

T ime to rethink the IPCes future UPFRONT Calls for a global asteroid agency, Personal genomics for prospective parents





Forget Mars...

Helping Haiti one text message at a time, Technicolor dinos, "Quantum spread" threat to Hawking inflation bet Young blood makes old mice youthful. Pill to make soldiers super-survivors 14 IN BRIEF Brain cells from mouse tails, Run like your ancestors, Jittery crickets transmit spider-senses, Crows bear grudges

Our next giant leap is here


Cover image NASNJPL

T he perils of e-banking, Fishy sensors could help subs navigate, Predicting the road ahead

OPINION 22 There's nothing in it An international protest will reveal the emptiness of homeopathy once and for al l, says Martin Robbins 23 One minute with... Matthieu Ricard, molecular biologist turned Buddist monk, on "mind science" 24 LETTERS T hat's life, Sustainable seafood 26 Burt Rutan The legendary engineer and space-tourism pioneershares his deep and sometimes u nexpected passions


Half VirUS

.. .

You're less

human than youthink

FEATURES 2B Forget Mars (see right) 32 Halfvirus (see right) 36 Nowwe know it... Knowledge is being stored in ever more fragile and ephemeral forms, Will we forget it all if catastrophe strikes? 40 The comedy circuit What happens when your brain gets the joke

• •

REGULARS 24 ENIGMA 44 BOOKS & ARTS Reviews Hunting for God among rationalists, Intellectual-property pirates, Rough guide to the elixirs of youth, Putting biogeography on the map, True cybercri mes 46 Gallery Transforming whale song into art 56 FEEDBACK Smart bombs and the White House 57 THE LASTWORD Can you solve the New Scientist/Discovery Channel challenge? 4B JOBS & CAREERS

Coming next week The strangest liquid Waters amazing properties revea led

Triumph of the commons Crowdsourcing has given a surprising boost to relief efforts in Haiti

PLUS When the oceans bri m med with wha les



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30 January 2010 I NewScientist 13

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Like it or not, its closed world of peer review is no longer possible, let alone desirable. The job of scientists is to test theories to The IPCC has done g reat work, but n eeds to move with the times destruction, which inevitably makes science adversarial at times. Dispute is good; consensus LET'S hear it for the Intergovernmental truth whose deliberations are open to scrutiny. stultifies. It is neither surprising nor disturbing There is plenty of new science to assess. But it that disputes about the science break out, Panel on Climate Change. A big round of makes little sense to have to wait six years applause, please. Really. It has done amazing, within the IPCC and outside it, and such disagreements need to be out in the open. between assessments: though reflection, Herculean work. The IPCC was tasked by the governments and time for the replication offindings, are Many scientists were unhappy about what essential, why not have an annual report? they saw as excessive caution in the last of the world to deliver an encyclopedic The organisat ionalso needs to be more consensus on the state of knowledge about assessment - reflected, for instance, in under­ focused on providing the science that will one of the most far-reaching yet divisive reporting of emerging science on how address emerging policy challenges. Its best questions of our time. And this grouping of disintegrating polar ice sheets might recent work is in its special reports on topics accelerate sea level rise beyond anything yet thousands of scientists, taking time out from such as aircraft emissions. A special report on revealed in climate models. Such argument their regular jobs has, for more than two geoengineering would be invaluable, as would should be open to public view. A wider decades, delivered. Thanks to the IPCC's work, a dispassionate assessment of how to measure discussion of the uncertainties here would the world's nations have come together to and verify national greenhouse gas emissions, have been more honest and avoided giving decide that we must prevent our planet a false reassurance. warming by more than 2°C - even if achieving "The wider review made possible So let the IPCC embrace such debates, rather that goal is proving difficult, to say the least. by the blogosphere can improve than retreat from them in the name of spurious The serious error, reported here two weeks science and foster public confidence" consensus. Climate scient ists have felt under ago, that led to the inclusion in an IPCC report of mistaken claims about how fast Himalayan siege from critics, as leaked emails last year amply demonstrated. But that is no reason to glaciers are melting is undoubtedly damaging and carbon sinks such as soils and forests. Should the IPCC remain as an dismiss all criticism as necessarily unwarranted, to the panel's reputation. But it does not in any way undermine the conclusion that human­ intergovernmental body - in other words, uninformed or politically motivated. answerable to national governments from Some argue that the views of an untutored induced climate change is happening, is around the world? Yes, it probably should. It dangerous and requires urgent action. blogger, or even a scientist from another was the US, during the Reagan presidency back discipline, should never carry the same weight However, the IPCe's heroic days are probably over. The case for anthropogenic in the lg8os, that insisted on this. Atthe time, as those of someone with a lifetime's expertise many scientists were dismayed, fearing climate change has been established; the in a relevant field. But if occasionally the political interference in the panel's published emperors of the lab have no clothes, someone Nobel prize is won. So it is time for a rethink of where the IPCC is going, and what its future reports. But these fears largelyfailed to has to say so. The wider review of science made possible by the blogosphere can improve role should be. Two years ago, in the aftermath materialise, and the fact that national of the last major assessment report, many governments all sign off each report has science and foster public confidence in its scientists argued that the task should have reinforced the IPCC's authority. But public methods. Scientists should welcome the begun then. It is no less urgent now. attitudes to science are changing. The IPCC outside world in to check them out. Their We still need the IPCC to serve as a seeker of was established before the internet revolution. science is useless if no one trusts it. •

Let the sunlight in on climate change

What's hot on SPACE Earth calling: A short history of radio messages to ET

From carefully crafted binary code to the sound of vagina I contractions, we round up humanity's radio messages tothe stars •


g gets real Three-dimensional maps like Google Earth usually show the world as it used to be, A way to use live webcams to update the latest changes to buildi ngs and streets lets them show it as it really is

BLOGMy Botox hell It's a threat to facial expressions in Hollywood actors, but could the wrinkle treatment also be used in a bioterror attack? Unregulated production of Botox, the toxin that causes the deadly food poisoning botulism, has prompted fears that it could be used asa weapon COMPUTING A step beyond multitouch

As gadget lovers awaitan expected tablet computer from Apple, we review a series of

patents for an interface like never before, It'll be a cinch to type without a keyboard, and you'll be able to activate buttons simply by hovering your finger overthem EVOLUTION Bats and dolphins separately evolved same sonar gene The finding is unusual, because most creatures that independently evolved characteristics such as eyes, tusks orwings generally took different genetic routes to get there, Bats and dolphins, however, trod an

identical genetic path to evolve a vital component of echolocation BLOGMaligned prion protein gets a new image

Prion proteins have a bad reputation, notoriously causing variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, buta new study suggests they are important in maintaining the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells, boosting the speed of nerve impulses For breaking news, video and online debate, visit

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 5


How green's algal power? ALGAE have been touted as a solution

primary drawback." Clarens says.

to environmental worries over biofuels. but they may be a long way from providing a truly green option.

Using waste water instead of fertilisers helps. but not enough . he says. The only trick that tipped the balance in favour of algae i n h is models was to use nutrient-rich

Unlike maize. soya beans and oilseed rape (canola). algal farms don't take up valuable farmland. so algae-based biofuels don't threaten food supplies. However. Andres Clarens at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has modelled the

household waste like concentrated urine to fertilise the algae. but this would require new infrastructure

environmental impacts of algal farms and concludes that they require six times as much energy as growing land

are overcoming these challenges. For instance. bioreactors are being developed as more efficient

plants - and emit significantly more greenhouse gases (Environmental

alternatives to open-pond algae farms. To date. they have been

Science and Technology. 001:


prohibitively expensive. but a group atjacobs University i n

"You have to add a whole lot more fertilisers. and the environmental cost of producing these is the

Bremen. Germany. is developing affordable reactors that could slash the environmental impact of algal farms.

and so is no short-term fix. Others say recent advances

undersea telecommunications cables to detect its electric field. RECENT natural disasters have Such fields are created as made it all too clear that we need electrically charged salts in cheap and simple ways to prepare seawater pass through the for nature's wrath. That's the Earth's magnetic field. Computer modelling by Nair's thinking behind a novel approach to tsunami detection, which team shows that the electric field generated by the tsunami that would use the submarine cables that supply your broadband. struck south-east Asia in 2004 Existing warning systems use induced voltages of up to 500 pressure sensors on the seafloor millivolts. Their calculations show to detect the weight of a tsunami this is big enough to be detected by voltmeters placed at the end of in the water column above. Only five countries own such sensor the fibre-optic and copper cables arrays - the US, Australia, that carpet the floor of the Indian Ocean. The work will appear in the "The 2004 Indian Ocean journal Earth, Planets and Space. The idea has its limitations, tsunami created an electric field big enough to be though. Cables would not reveal detected by voltmeters" the exact location or direction of the ts unami, and you would Indonesia, Chile and Thailand have to subtract noise created partly due to the high cost of by fluctuations in the Earth's installation. This lack of coverage magnetic field, tides and the cable leaves many countries vulnerable itself to avoid misleading signals. to a tsunami strike. Still, "it seems promising", says Now a team led by Manoj Nair Bill McGuire of University College London. But he points out that it's at the National Oceanic and just as important to set up a system Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, have proposed to quickly pass on warnings to a cheaper way to detect an coastal towns after a tsunami approaching tsunami: use has been detected.

Tsunami tip-off

6 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

Family planning THINKIN G of starting a family? There's now a screening service to enable you and your partner to check if you are carrying genes for serious genetic diseases. For $349, Counsyl of Redwood City, California, runs genetic tests on saliva samples to see if prospective parents carry mutations that lie behind more than 100 inherited conditions. Many of the mutations involved are "recessive" variants that cause disease only when

passed on by both parents - and so can lie hidden in families for generations. Counsyl is working with fertility clinics so that couples at high risk can have IVF with pre-implantation screening to select healthy embryos. Some geneticists fear that the results may cause unnecessary worry and subsequent medical costs. "Once you get up to about 100 conditions, the odds are that everybody's going to be a carrier," suggests Michael Watson ofthe American College of Medical Genetics in Bethesda, Maryland.

The mysterious shrinking babies 81RTHWEIGHTS in the US are falling

gestation. What's more. women in

but n o one knows why. according to a study of 36.8 mill ion infants born between 1990 and 2005.

the US now smoke less and gain more weight during pregnancy. which should make babies heavier. Oken

As2-gram d rop i n the weight of full-term singletons - from a n average of 3.441 to 3.389 kilograms has left Emily Oken's team at Harvard Medical School scratching their heads (Obstetrics Iii Gynecology. vol 115. p 357). It can't be accounted for by

suggests that u nmeasured factors. such a s diet or exercise. could explain why babies are being born lighter. "For your average baby. 50 g rams probably makes n o d ifference at all;' she stresses. Butthose born substantially lighter could be at

a n i ncrease i n caesarean sections or i n duced labours. which shorten

increased risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life.

For daily news stories, visit


Lead balloon

Asteroid agency

The US is facing a "helium crunch", and it's bad n ews for cryogenics researchers, the aerospace industry

FANCY working for the asteroid defence agency? You might get the chance if a report on the threat from asteroid impacts sinks in. A huge number of asteroids

and electronics manufacturers, says a National Research Council report. The reason? The US government's ill­ advised decision to sell off its helium reserves a decade ago. The panel

"The agency would spring into action and defend the planet if an asteroid is found on a collision course"

pass close to Earth's orbit. One such asteroid is Apophis, which has a small chance of hitting us in 2036. Last week a US National Research Council panel iss ued a report on how best to respond to this threat. It recommended Supersonic skydive setting up an international body that would s pring into action and THIS may be the ultimate defend the planet if an asteroid is extreme-sporting event. A "space found on a likely collision course. diver" will try to smash the record The agency could even organise for the highest jump this year, and become the first person to go a space mission to deflect the supersonic in free fall. rock. "It is the only natural In 1960, Joe Kittinger jumped disaster we know about where from an altitude of 31,333 metres. we could actually prevent it," His record has never been broken. says panel-leader Irwin Shapiro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Now one skydiver has announced plans to make an attempt. Center for Astrophysics in Felix Baumgartner will jump Cambridge, Massachusetts. from a balloon 36,575 metres The report also found that existing surveys probably won't reach the goal set by US Congress "You turn into a g iant fizzy; in 2005 to find go per cent of near­ oozing fluid from your eyes Earth asteroids that are 140 metres and mouth, like something out of a horror film" across or larger by 2020. A new space telescope could meet the above the US. He should reach goal by 2022, says the panel, but supersonic speeds after 35 seconds. it would cost over $1 billion. The resulting shock wave " is a big concern", admits Art Thompson, technicaldirector of Baumgartner's "Stratos" team, which is sponsored by energy-drink company Red Bull. " In early aircraft development, they thought it was a wall they couldn't pass without breaking apart. In our case, the vehicle is flesh and blood." The jump height is above a threshold at 19,000 metres called the Armstrong line, where atmospheric pressure is so low that body-temperature fluids start to boil. If your mask or suit were Born (smaller) in the USA breached above this line, says

worries that the US will become a net helium importer in 10 to 15 years.

Rotavirus vaccine An oral vaccin e against a major cause of diarrhoea, rotavirus, which kills 500,000 children each year, is to be i ntroduced in 44 poor countries by

Thompson, "all the gases in your body go out of suspension, so you literally turn into a giant fizzy; oozing fluid from your eyes and mouth, like something out of a horror film". Another worry is uncontrolled spin, which could knock Baumgartner out. Sensors will monitor for signs of this, as well as checking heart rate.

Swine flu extremes WE'VE long been warned of swine flu's split personality: mild in most cases, but severe in a few. Now the figures are bearing this out. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 282 people under 18 died in the HINI flu pandemic in the US, between its start in April 200g and 9 January 2010. This means that swine flu's death toll of under-18s is already four times higher than the average killed in recent years by flu during normal flu seasons. Yet blood antibodies analysed by the UK Health Protection Agency suggest that one-third of under-ISs in the parts of England hit hardest by the first wave of the pandemic caught flu. That is 10 times more thanwere estimated to have fallen ill based on the number that sought medical help. This suggests many cases were very mild (TheLancet, DOl: 1O.1016/S0140-6736(og)62126-7).

2015, says the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation. The vaccine reduced i nfections by 65 per cent in Mexican i nfants and by 61 per cent in South Africa and Malawi.

Dark no longer A mission to catalogue the solar system's "dark" objects has found its first near· Earth asteroid. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Satellite Explorer tracked down 201 0 AB78 by its i nfrared glow - it had been missed by visible light telescopes. Roughly a kilometre wide, itfortunately poses no threatto Earth.

Spine stem cell first A man with the fatal neurodegenerative condition amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is the first person everto receive injections ofstem cells into the spinal cord. Neuralstem of Rockville, Maryland, plans to treat 18 more ALS patients with the stem cells, which are designed to repair damaged nerves. They are derived from spinal cells extracted from an 8-week-old fetus.

Tigercra sh According to a WWF report, habitat loss and a demand for body parts for Asian medicine has led to a 70 per cent drop in tiger n u m bers from the g reater Mekong, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. That leavesaround 350 i n the region and 3200 globally.

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 7


Haiti gets help from net effect

not one of the volunteers was anywhere near Haiti. The 4636 texting service is part of a new generation of web-based efforts to help disaster relief that has emerged from the revolution in texting, social networking and crowdsourcing. Its impact on the A n ew g e n e ration of i nternet tools is l i nki n g u p ground is tangible. For example, a Haitian clinic texted 4636 that peo p l e i n n eed with those who ca n bri ng rel i ef it was running low on fuel for its generator. Within 20 minutes the t04636. Reports of trapped Red Cross said it would resupply. Justin Mullins people, fires, polluted water 4636 is run by a small organisation called UshahidLcom, 18 Jan 09:16: Please can someone sources, and requests for food, find some helpfor myfriend water and medical supplies. originally set up in Kenya to 2 children that are alive under Hundreds of volunteers translated gather reports of violence after their house at 4813 Ruelle Chretien them from Creole and French into the 2008 election. Within days English, tagged them with a ofthe earthquake on 12 January Lalu et Poupla Haiti. After the earthq uake, the text location and passed them on to that flattened Haiti's capital messages came streaming in Port-au-Prince and numerous aid agencies on the ground. Yet 8 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

surrounding towns, it had set up a Haitian operation and recruited hundreds of volunteers to help translate messages, many of them Haitians living in the US. The service is free, courtesy of Digicell, Haiti's largest mobile network operator, which had 70 per cent of its network running within 24 hours ofthe quake. Nicolas di Tada, who helped set up 4636 on the ground in the first days after the disaster, says that was the easy part. "The challenge was making responders on the ground aware of us." A stroke of

"A Haitian clinic texted that it needed fuel for its generator. The Red Cross responded in 20 minutes"

In this section

• "Quantum spread" threat to Hawking bet, page 10 • Young blood makes old mice youthful, page 11 • Pill to make soldiers super -survivors, page 13

luck made a big difference. One of the first texts was from a hospital which had 200 beds, and doctors, nurses and medical supplies on standby, but no patients, because hardly any relief agencies knew they were there. Forwarding that message on told a large number of organisations about 4636. Now, radio stations help spread the word. As people generally don't send messages to say their request

the location of 4636 texters. LESSONS FROM KATRINA Specialist volunteers have also been recruited to analyse satellite began collectin g The key to crowdsourcing, or using information about missing people a dispersed, informal network of pictures. ImageCat, a company from sites such as Red Cross Family based in Southampton, UK, is people to collate information, is Links and Then, a centralisation. Without that, things being funded by the World Bank g roup of developers at Google offered can go very wrong. to assess the damage - a job that to centralise the i nitiatives into a usually takes weeks or months. When hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, dozens of websites single data repository and produce The firm divided before and after a person-finder tool that anybody images released by remote­ rushed to help by settin g up person­ could embed o n their site. finder services. But the rush turned sensing satellite operators into Emails began circulating to ask into a disaster: the sheer n u mber of Soo-square-metre areas and organisations and websites to point distributed them to dozens of different databases made it almost impossible to track down individuals. to Google's site or host its person­ specialists at universities in the UK, US and Europe. Within a few "One project has built finder tool, which has since become I n the wake of the earthquake i n an online database to the de facto place to look for missing Haiti, the lessons seem to have been days, they had identified every friends or relatives in Haiti. learned. Within hours, a site called mon itor the capacity collapsed building in Port-au­ Prince, around 5000 in total. of hospitals in real time" The World Bank is using ground. That's crucial, says Vinay countries is now by text. New has been fulfilled, Ushahidi has the information to assess the no way of knowing how successful cost of rebuilding in the region. tools for using data transmitted Gupta, an energy policy analyst it has been. Still, "the system is in text messages have emerged and CrisisCommons volunteer in The volunteers are now working unprecedented", says Christopher on a higher resolution aerial London. CrisisCommons operates in developing countries, run by Csikszentmihalyi, director of around a wiki page where people relatively small companies like survey carried out last week to and organisations in Haiti post the Center for Future Civic Media categorise the scale of damage Ushahidi. These organisations are at the Massachusetts Institute able to work quickly using limited their needs. Requests are picked to each building. up by volunteers who answer resources in difficult conditions, ofTechnology. CrisisCommons is behind Other initiatives have harnessed many other projects, including making them well-placed to assist them according to their skills. A number of factors have one to build a Craig's List-style the power and multitude of in disaster relief. web users. CrisisCommons Then there's the social "we need, we have" website to link come together to make this a media revolution that allows has organised thousands of people offering resources to those defining moment for the web. crowdsourcing to take place. The volunteers to improve the map of that need them, and an online One of the most important, says translators on 4636, most of whom Haiti available on the open-source database to monitor the capacity Munro, is the spread of mobile have never met, are continually of hospitals in real time. site OpenStreetMap. When the communications infrastructure disaster struck, the map showed to the developing world, asking each other's advice in a Most impressive of all is that little more than three main roads the projects are the result of reflected in the fact that much chat room. Twitter has played a big and a small network of smaller communication in poorer requests from responders on the role in relaying news, and many aid agencies log their activities roads. The volunteers used a host of sources, such as satellite images Collective map-making on Facebook. But most of all, it is the knowledge that large-scale and information from people In the days after the earthquake volunteers around the world chipped in to d ramatically i mprove the resolution of online maps of Haiti on the ground, and ended up activities can be coordinated through online networks that constructing the most detailed PRE-EARTHQUAKE 25 JANUARY 201 0 map available, showing the has given individuals and organisations the confidence position of hospitals, triage centres and displacement camps. to collaborate in this way. None of this is to say that Government agencies are printing the maps to hand online collaboration has solved the problems of disaster relief. out in the field, and uploading Aid agencies still have a hugely them to mobile GPS units. difficult job to do on the ground. "The OpenStreetMaps have been our most important resource," says Robert Munro, a 4636 volunteer and a linguist at Stanford University, California, who analyses the role that text messages play in the developing world. U shahidi volunteers use them to pinpoint with an accuracy of a few metres 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 9


Quantum threat to Hawking's bet NASA's Wilkinson Microwave A nisotropy Probe found STEPHEN HAWKING is something inflation's footprints in the of a gambler when it comes cosmic microwave background, to physics, placing bets on radiation emitted about 370,000 years after the big bang. But everything from the action of black holes to the discovery of WMAP was not sensitive enough gravitational waves. The bad news to s pot signs of gravitational for Hawking is that a touch of waves. The Planck satellite was "q uantum smearing" could launched in May 2009 to get a significantly lower his chances much more detailed picture ofthe of winning his latest wager. CMB. It is looking for the imprint of such waves by studying the tiny In 2002, Hawking bet his University of Cambridge variations in temperature of the colleague Neil Turok that CMB from point to point in the cosmologists would soon discover sky. Hawking is betting that primordial gravitational waves the strength of the waves will be and so verify the theory of above a certain value. If he is right, inflation. Our universe is thought Planck should spot them. to have undergone inflation - a However, the chances of Planck period of exponential expansion­ seeing signs of gravitational a fraction of a second after the big waves depend on exactly what modelled inflation using the Higgs potential, and also added bang, generating ri pples in the happened during inflation, fabric of space-time called one more variable, which dictates according to Qaisar Shafi of the gravitational waves. University of Delaware in Newark. just how much the inflaton "There is a chance that Planck interacts quantum mechanically with other fields when inflation may miss it," says Shafi. ends. This "coupling" would have Inflation was triggered by a HAWKING 'S WAG ERS transferred energy and created field in the early universe called • In 1975, Stephen Hawking bet Kip the radiation that led to the the inflaton, whose energy Thorne that the X-ray source Cygnus density fell slowly, like a ball formation of matter, argues Shafi. X-I does not harbour a black hole. The calculations show that the rolling down a gentle slope. Thorne was to get a subscription to According to Einstein's equations Penthouse if he won, while Hawking of general relativity space-time In the beginning . . . asked for a subscription to British expanded exponentially, the The evolution ofthe "inflaton" field that satirical magazine Private Eye if he process only stopping when the caused the universe's rapid expansion won. Hawking lost the bet. inflaton reaches the bottom of the can be descri bed with different slopes slope. The simplest models • Hawking a nd Thorne betJohn � Evolution of inflaton field Preskill in 1997 that black holes assume that the slope- also called Potentia I energy destroy everything that falls i nto the inflaton potential - resembles of inflaton field them, and that no i nformation can a very shallow parabola. escape black holes. Hawking Now Shafi is arguing thatthe SIMPLE conceded he was wrong in inflaton potential should be 2004, giving Preskill a baseball modelled on another field that encyclopaedia. Thorne has not physicists think exists in nature: admitted defeat. the Higgs field, which gives all • In 2000, Hawki ng bet Gordon elementary particles their mass. Kane $100 that the Higgs boson will The Higgs potential is shaped like not be discovered by the Tevatron a Mexican hat (see diagram). collider at Fermilab in Batavia, "If nature chose it for the Higgs Illinois. The collider is still searching. field, then maybe it also chose it En ergy density of inflaton field for the inflaton," says Shafi. He Anil Ananthaswamy

10 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

higher the degree of coupling, the lower the strength of the gravitational waves generated by inflation. Also, the possible values for the strength of gravitational waves will be spread out over a much wider range than predicted in simpler models. That may mean that their actual strength may turn out to be below the threshold that the Planck satellite is capable of detecting. "The quantum [couplings] smear the predictions," says Shafi, who will present his work at the Dark Matter 2010 conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, in February. Hawking, however, remains optimistic. In August 2009 at a meeting in Cambridge he reiterated his prediction that gravitational waves will be observed at strengths Planck can observe. Hawking has yet to name his stake though. "So far, Stephen hasn't named an amount," says Turok, now at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. <II was willing to take it at even odds for any amount." •

For daily news stories. visit

INSIGHT Europe's livestock farmers want laxer laws on genetically modified imports GENETICALLY modified crops are everywhere, it seems - even in Europe, Strict laws designed to keep the Eu ropean Union free of unauthorised GM crops and products are not working, and a re posi n g problems for the EU's €l50 billion livestock industry, according to farmers' representatives, They say that supp l ies of animal feed for pou ltry and pigs are being refused entry at E uropean ports when found to contain even trace amounts of unauthorised GM material. Under Europe's "zero-tolerance" laws on GM contamination, introduced in 2007, the presen ce of even a few seeds of unauthorised GM material will rule outan entire shipment. The animal feed industry says that the laws are unworkable because GM mate rial is a l most ubiquitous, given today's global supply chain, "Though we understand the consumer concern in Europe, we don't understand zero tolerance because it closes down trade," says Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of Copa-Cogeca a coalition of groups

representing 15 mi l l io n EU farme rs in total. He claims that European pig and poultry farmers will go out of business unless the EU adopts a more pragmatic screening approach by setting a threshold - say 0.5 per cent - beneath which GM contamination is tolerated, Pesonen says such tolera n ces "


Consignments of Canadian flax were blocked at Europe's ports

operate for other contaminants, incl uding pesticides and heavy metals, So why not for GM mate r ial, much of which has been cleared fo r human cons umption elsewhere in the world? Last year 200,000 tonnes of conventional animal feed - mainly soy and maize - were refused entry to the EU when they were found to contain small amounts of GM maize varieties, Then flax from Canada was found to contain traces of a GM variety named CDC Triffid that was withdrawn from commercial sale i n 2001. Following a ban on flax more than 100 shipments

were rejected, but trade is slowly resuming, The rejected tonnage is only a fraction of the 32 mi llion tonnes of feed imported each year, But it leads to delays to subseque nt consignments, higher prices and a reluctance by importers to risk further shipments, Prices will be higher still this year, says Peso n en owing to droughts i n South America and a growing market for American farme rs sel l ing crops to China, which accepts mixed shipments, I nc reasing numbers of GM crop varieties are on the way. At present, a round 30 varieties are grown around the world, but that is predicted to quadrup l e by 2015, making sc reening trickier than ever, A further complication arises because all the European commissioners are due to be replaced in February. A spokeswoman for the health commission, which i ntroduced the zero-tolerance policy to satisfy widespread misgivings in E urope about the safety of GM crops, says that "intensive consultations" on feed imports have already taken place, "Once the new commission is established, it will have to consider howto proceed on this matter," she says, Andy Coghlan .

components in the young mice's blood passed into the older animals and prompted these youth-givi ng changes, Based on further experiments, Wagers suspects these blood

the bone marrows of old mice. the

components may prompt the repair of the old mice's worn-out cells by

because IGF-1 is vital for muscle and bone growth and antibodies might

blocking a hormone called insulin-like

leak into the rest of the body. Instead, her team is now looking for a way to block the chemical signal that


Elixir of youth lurks in blood of 'conjoined' mice AN UNUSUAL experiment in which the blood supplies of old and young mice

Although old mice make more blood stem cells and more niche cells than young mice. many a re faulty and don't repair the body as efficiently as the younger equivalents, "The reason the old a nimals have too many is probably an attempt to compensate for these flaws," Wagers says. Old

were bound together as if they were conjoined twins has boosted hopes of one day giving new life to old bodies. A team led by Amy Wagers of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston,

mice also make too many myeloid blood cel is, which contribute to inflammation and the development

Massachusetts, discovered that the blood of the young a nimals seemed to rejuvenate ageing blood stem cells in the bone marrows of the older mice, It also revitalised so-called "niche" cells in the bone marrow, which n o u rish, support and stimulate

B ut when Wagers's team yoked 21-month-old mice to young mice just 2 months old, all these age-related changes were reversed: the mice made fewer myeloid cells and more lymphoid cells (Nature, 001: 10.10381 nature08749), The researchers

blood stem cells,

conclude that as-yet· u nidentified

of cancer, and too few lymphoid blood cells, which orchestrate tissue repair.

"The young mice's blood flowed into the older animals, prompting youth-giving changes"

niche and stem cells remained young, It's not safe, though, to slow agei ng i n old people by injecti ng antibodies into the bone marrow that neutralise IGF-1, says Wagers. That's

switches on IGF-1 production, exclusively in the bone marrow. Attempting to slow ageing using blood transfusions from young

g rowth factor 1, which has been implicated in the ageing process. IGF-1 accelerated ageing in mouse

people, to mimic more directly what happened in the yoked mice, is also out, says Wagers. A "one-off"

n iche cells, as the team expected, and when the researchers injected

exposure to the relevant blood factors won't reverse ageing, it would need to be constant. Andy Cog h lan .

antibodies that neutralise IGF·1 into

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 11


Feathered dinosaurs reveal their true colours MEET Sinosauropteryx, a cousin of T. rex and the first dinosaur whose plumage has been brought into dazzling full-colour focus. The discovery comes thanks to a technique devised last year at Yale University to establish the colour of fossilised bird feathers. It has now been applied to a dinosaur fossil in a breakthrough study that offers the prospect of finally working out what some of the feathered dinos of prehistoric Earth really looked like. The Yale team used a form of scanning electron microscopy to reveal the iridescent, starling-like colours offeathers from a 47-million-year-old fossil bird (Biology Letters, DOl : 10.lOg8/

rsbI.2oog.0524). Now Michael Benton ofthe University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues have applied the technique to Sinosauropteryx fossils from the lehol formation in Liaoning province, China. This showed the presence of microscopic colour­ bearing cell structures known as melanosomes in the 125-million­ year-old fossil's feathers (Nature, DOl: 10.1038/natureo8740). The melanosomes had previously been mistaken for the bacteria that often colonise the soft tissues of well-preserved fossils. But Benton's team found that the pattern of these spherical and sausage-shaped structures was identical to that of melanosomes

the middle of its back. The new study shows that the feathers on its lemur-like tail formed broad orange and white stripes. Benton hopes further studies will work out what the head and back feathers look like. He says it should be possible to see melanosomes for many different colours in fossilised dinosaur feathers. "I think we will see a mad rush of work where people will observe fossilised melanosomes all over the place," he says. So will Hollywood have to remake Ju rassic Park in more accurate colours? Probably not. Feathers are extremely rare in in modern bird feathers. the fossil record, and sampling The 1.2-metre-long, flightless, them for melanosomes does meat-eating Sinosa uropteryx is irreversible damage to the fossil. It is therefore likely that only a the most primitive known feathered dinosaur. It sported a select few dinosaurfossils will ever Mohican-style bristly feather crest be subjected to the technicolor along the top of its head and down screen test. james O'Donoghue •

. . . and fossil traps show how some perished

a n d a beak. It appears to have eaten plants, although it belonged to a

FOLLOWING in someone's footsteps

group of predators. The victims were less than 1 metre tall a n d 1 to 3 metres long, says

was a bad idea for a few unlucky dinosaurs. A rare fossil haul of feathered dinosaurs suggests they perished after falling into the deep muddy footpri nts of larger beasts.

Eberth, so they would have been too short to push against the bottom, which was l or 2 metres beneath the surface of the watery mUd. Their arms would have been covered with

David Eberth of the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller,Alberta, Canada, found partial skeletons of 18 small two-legged dinosaurs in the 160-million·year-old sediments from

mud· slicked feathers and too small to pull them out of the hole (PALAIOS, 001: 10.2110/palo.2009.p09-028r). "Finding a ny fossil remains like these,

an a ncient marsh in China. They were stacked on top of each other, apparently after becoming trapped in roughly circular swampy pits. The pits contain distinctive red

"The t h in crust would have hidden the trap from an unsuspecting small dinosaur"

fragments of crust mixed into the mUd. The palaeontologists reckon

whose presence depends on the behaviour of other d i n osaurs is

this is the result of large, heavy sauropod feet breaking through a crusty surface layer to watery mud beneath. A thin crust would have formed hiding the trap from an

bizarre," Eberth says. There are few small dinosaur fossils from the period. "It's a really interesting find," and expands the known behaviours of two-legged

unsuspecting small dinosaur but unable support its weight.

dinosau rs, says David Fastovsky of the U niversity of Rhode Island,

Fifteen of the fossils were 12 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

Limusaurus inextricabilis, an odd bipedal dinosau r with short arms

Kingston. Jeff Hecht .

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to other injuries before giving them a saline transfusion. He then injected some of the pigs with valproic acid, gave others a blood transfusion and left the remainder untreated. Just 25 per cent ofthe pigs receiving only saline survived for 4 hours - the typical time it takes to get hospital treatment ­ while 86 per cent of those injected "We're looking for a pill that would keep a person alive for long enough to get them to hospital"

with valproic acid survived. All those that had a blood transfusion lived (Surgery, DOl: 10.1016/ j.surg.2009.04.007). Alam is currently repeating the trial to make sure valproic acid does not hinder survival in the longer term. If so, he will apply for permission to do human trials acetylations, Alam wondered by the end ofthe year. if these drugs might improve "It's exciting," says John Holcomb of the Center for survival after blood loss. His team previously showed Translational Injury Research at the University ofTexas in that valproic acid, an H DAC inhibitor already used to treat Houston. "They're looking at epilepsy, increased survival rates resuscitation in a different way." the battlefield," says Hasan Alam Earlier studies by Alam's team in rats that had lost a lot of blood. Linda Geddes of Massachusetts General Hospital It seemed to be doing this by showed that rats that naturally A LUCKY few seem to be able in Boston. "What we're looking for preventing acetylation, causing survive traumatic blood loss also certain" survival pathways" to experience fewer changes in gene to laugh in the face of death, is a pill or a shot that would keep a person alive for long enough to expression than those that die or surviving massive blood loss remain switched on. and injuries that would kill others. get to them to a hospital." suffer complications. He thinks Now Alam has repeated the the same might be true in humans. study in pigs. He anaesthetised When the body loses a lot of Now a drug has been found that "Every person has this capacity to might turn virtually any injured the animals, drained 60 per cent blood, it tries to compensate by person into a "super-survivor", of their blood, and subjected them survive a huge insult, but most of going into shock. This is a set of emergency measures to raise blood by preventing certain biological the time it's dormant," he says. mechanisms from shutting down. pressure and conserve energy, "That's why the same insult kills How lives a re lost The drug has so far only been such as increasing heart rate and some people while others laugh Keeping inju red sold iers al ive for l o n g tested in animals. If it has a similar shutting down expression of some e n o u g h t o make i t to hospital could vastly and move on. What we're trying re d uce deaths from battlefield injuries effect in humans, it could vastly proteins. However, if the body to do is make you super-resistant improve survival from horrific stays in shock for more than a using the pathways and proteins short time, it can lead to organ that already exist:' injuries, particularly in soldiers, OF by allowing them to live long failure, and death soon follows. However, Graham Packham of OCCUR BEFORE enough to make it to a hospital. Recent studies have suggested Southampton General Hospital, that around 6 or 7 per cent of Loss of blood is the main UK, who is investigating the use problem with many battlefield genes change their expression of H DAC inhibitors to treat cancer, in response to shock, via the says it isn't yet clear howvalproic injuries, and a blood transfusion the best treatment, although removal of "epigenetic", chemical acid, which reacts with a wide range � of molecules, is actually prolonging additions to the genome called replacing lost fluid with saline can help. But both are difficult to acetylations. As histone � survival. "It's not clear whether � this is driven by valproic acid's transport in sufficient quantities. deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors "You can't carry a blood bank into can prevent the removal of such � epigenetic activity," he says. •

Pill to turn soldiers into super-survivors


30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 13


Why you stand to lose more in old age

I f a crow doesn't trust you it won't forget your face

If the crows were later approached by someone wearing the same mask, they loudly scolded the intruder. Yet the birds ignored the same person if they were wearing a mask of former US Vice-President Dick

WILD crows can recognise individual human faces and hold a grudge for years against people who have treated them badly. This ability - which may also exist in other

cheney - which no one had worn while ringing the birds. "Most of the time you walk right up to them and they don't care at all," says Marzluff.

wild animals - highlights how carefully some animals monitor the humans with whom they share living space. Field biologists have observed that crows seem to recognise them, but it was unclear whether the birds distinguish people by their faces or by other distinctive

The crows' a ntipathy to the caveman mask has lasted more than three years, even though they have had no further bad experiences with people wearing it. The crows responded less strongly to other details of a person's dress. such as the presence of a hat or a coloured armband

features of dress, gait or behaviour. To find out, John Marzluff atthe University of Washington in Seattle and cOlleagues donned a rubber caveman mask and then captured and ringed (or banded) wild American crows.

(Animal Behaviour, 001: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.12.022). This shows that crows pay close attention to humans, noting which individuals pose a threat and which do not, says Doug Levey of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Hey presto! Brain cells from mouse tails IN A feat of cellular alchemy, connective tissue from a mouse's tail has been transformed directly into working brain cells. Ordinarily, so drastic a makeover would require the creation of so-called induced pluripotent stem cells and then turning these into neurons, an inefficient process that can take weeks. Marius Wernig and colleagues at Stanford University in 14 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

California discovered that inserting a cocktail of three genes into fibroblasts turns them directly into neurons in just days (Nature, DOl: 10.1038/ nature08797). "The real surprise was that this conversion is extremely efficient," he says. By many indications, these neurons are the real deal. Under a microscope, they look like a kind of mouse brain cell found in the

cortex and they can form synapses to send and receive signals from others. Wernig expects that the cells will integrate into a mouse's brain 足 an experiment that's in the works. If they do, cells produced using a similar process might one day be used to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease in humans. But first, Wernig must work out how to produce different kinds of neurons and show that the method is safe.

AGEING may cloud your financial judgement, thanks to "noise" in an area of the brain critical for predicting pay-offs. Gregory Samanez-Larkin, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, scanned the brains of11o men and women aged 19 to 85 with functional MRI as they played 100 rounds of a game in which they had to choose one of three possible investments. Volunteers between 67 and 85 took longer to figure out the shrewdest investment, and activity in the striatum, a region critical to sensing reward, was more sporadic. This area only lit up strongly in some rounds, whereas in younger volunteers activation there was consistent . Samanez-Larkin suggests the fluctuating activity could act like noise, clouding someone's ability to work out the best investment (journal ofNeuroscience, 001: 10.1523/jneurosci.4902-09-2010).

Alien Earths - but no alien Jupiters IF WE ever travel to the nearest solar system, it would be good to know the kind of planets to expect. Now we have the best hint yet. The Alpha Centauri dual star system is thought to host rocky Earth- mass worlds, but this assumes they could form in the turbulent conditions associated with the opposing gravitational tugs of paired star systems. To find out, Jian Ge ofthe University of Florida in Gainesville and colleagues built a computer simulation of the system, which showed that moon-sized protoplanets - the precursors to larger worlds - could indeed form after about a million years. No gas giants would be created though, as any gas would be dispersed (

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Two moons, two different fates IT IS a tale of two moons, sent on different paths by a traumatic event. Jupiter's two biggest moons - apparently close kin are in fact quite different inside. Heavy pummelling by icy comets could solve the mystery. At first glance. Ganymede (pictured) and Callisto are twins. The moons are si milar in size. mass. and overall composition. Ganymede. though. has a solid rock core surrounded by a thick layer of ice. while Callisto has a mixture. Amy Barr and Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, think they know why: the moons were pummelled to differing degrees by wayward comets during the "late heavy bombardment", a cataclysmic period that began 3.9 billion years ago. According to their model, a comet impact can create a bowl揃 shaped region of liquid water beneath the surface. Rock fragments will clump at the base, and because they are denser than the ice-rock mixture beneath. would slowly sink to the core of a moon. This separation of ice and rock would have been greater on Ganymede because it would have experienced more collisions than Callisto. Ganymede orbits closer to j upiter, whose gravity pulled in passing debris (Nature Geoscience, 001: 10.1038/nge0746).

Jittery crickets pass spidey-senses to offspring A MOTHER'S care sometimes knows no bounds. It turns out that crickets manage to forewarn their offspring of lurking spiders, despite the small maUer ofnever actually meeting them. Jonathan Storm, a behavioural ecologist now at the University of South Carolina Upstate, in Spartanburg, briefly exposed lab足 grown female crickets to wolf spiders whose fangs had been immobilised with wax, then studied the behaviour of their subsequent offspring. He found that their offspring

remained motionless for longer in the presence of spider silk or droppings than the offspring of mothers that had not been exposed to spiders. Staying still is one of the ways that crickets avoid becoming spider food. Exposing the eggs or juvenile crickets themselves to spider cues did not alter their behaviour, suggesting the mothers had influenced this aspect of their young's behaviour during the egg's production. The maternal heads-up was effective: "forewarned" crickets

also knew to make use of a crack in their cage to hide from spiders. They survived three times longer in the presence of spiders than the offspring of naive mothers, on average (Am erican Naturalist, DOl: 10.1086650443). Wild-caught crickets from spider-rich habitats also produce more cautious offspring than mothers from spider-poor habitats, Storm found. He does not know whether the mother's warning is transmitted to the egg via maternal hormones or some other mechanism.

Flu in pregnancy changes fetal brain THE brains of monkeys whose mothers had flu while pregnant resemble those of people with schizophrenia. The finding backs up studies in people that suggest flu in mothers-to-be affects the brain of the developing fetus. Previous research had found that the children of women who caught flu while pregnant are more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life. To investigate further, Sarah Short and Chris Coe at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, infected 12 pregnant rhesus monkeys with mild flu. Their19 offspring seemed to develop normally. Yet MRI scans of the 1-year-old juveniles 足 equivalent in age to a 5 to 7-year足 old human child - revealed that their brains had features similar to those seen in people with schizophrenia, including less grey matter in the cortex and enlarged ventricles. Monkeys whose mothers had not had flu did not have these features (Biological Psychiatry, DOl : 10.1016/ j.biopsych.2009.11.026). The team will now monitor the monkeys for behaviour similar to that seen in schizophrenia. In the meantime, Coe advises would-be mothers to get seasonal flu shots.

Run on tiptoe like your ancestors HUMANS living millions of years ago were endurance runners, but how

endurance runners land heel-first. The result suggests that our

did they do it without air-cushioned soles? The secret might have been

ancestors were toe-runners. This may simply reduce pain. In racetrack

to land on the balls of theirfeet. Daniel Lieberman at Harvard University and colleagues compared

tests. the team showed thatthe impact on the foot is seven times as great in heel-first runners. "It's

the gait of endurance runners i n the U S and Kenya a nd found that

like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer three times your body

more than two-thirds of those who grew up running barefoot or had trained themselves to do so as adults ran on their tiptoes. landing on the balls of the feet first (Nature,

weight," says Lieberman. This is because the collision force depends on how much mass comes to a dead stop. Lieberman says. In a heel-first run ner, the lower leg

001: 1O.1038/natureOB723). The trend is unusual: 80 per cent of

stops suddenly on impact in addition to part ofthe foot.

30 january 2010 1 NewScientist 1 15

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with na notu be i n k FED up with your MP3 player running out of juice? Maybe your shirt could help. A newly developed carbon-nanotube足 based ink that can soak into fabrics could turn clothing into wearable batteries. Yi Cui and colleagues at Stanford University in California created the ink, made with single足 walled carbon nanotubes. The team dyed porous fabrics with the ink to create a conductive textile with very low resistance. The fabric maintained performance after repeated washes, suggesting that the ink is durable (NanD Letters, DOl: 10.1021/nl903949m). Cui says it's possible to treat the dyed material with an electrolyte to create a fabric capacitor capable of storing and releasing electrical charge. That, he says, means the techniq ue could be harnessed to power wearable devices.

a way that closes the windows and traps the caesium. "The trigger for closing the trap the nano-tra p comes from the caesium-sulphide interactions in the material," says THE molecular equivalent of Kanatzidis. Even if other ions such a Venus fly trap could capture as sodium are present, they bond water-borne nuclear waste. so strongly to water molecules that So say Mercouri Kanatzidis and N an Ding from Northwestern they can't react with the sulphide, he says (Nature Chemistry, DOl: University in Evanston, Illinois. They have synthesised a suI phide足 1O.1038/nchem.519). Kanatzidis thinks the flytrap containing material with a could be used to trap radioactive flexible structure that mimics caesium at nuclear disposal sites. the flytrap's jaws. It's elegant chemistry, says The structure has "windows" Alan Dyer at the University of measuring 0.8 nanometres by 0.3 nanometres - just large enough Salford, UK, but it's unclear ifit for caesium ions to squeeze could perform as well as existing through. Once inside, the caesium materials. "I'd want a lot more bonds with sulphide ions, and this com parative studies to see what changes the material's structure in its true worth was," he says.

H ot waste? Call i n

Power- u p clothes

35m boo k s co uld be stored on a single cartridge made u sing a new type of storage tape developed by IBM and F ujit s u

"Over Holland, you'd just find how many cows there are" Dirk Smit of Shel l's exploration R&:Darm acknowledges that the co m pany's airborne detector,

designed to spot oil deposits by the methane they release, may fac e p ro bl e m s in h eavi l y populated areas where cattle are raised (, 21January)

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 17


Benevolent hackers poke holes in e-banking

that runs the payment system and says thatthe firm is fixing the problem. The card's manufacturer, NXP, told New Scientist that it is the card issuers themselves that decide how to implement their encryption security, and that NXP advises each issuer not to use the same set of 16 encryption keys on The more po pular o n l i ne ba n ki n g and cred it-laden smartca rds become, all the cards it issues. Elsewhere, another group of the more the i r secu rity is com i ng under scruti ny - a n d bei n g fou n d lack i n g security researchers has taken aim at a card reader that is used to the hack worked, he used the cards verify online banking payments. little persistence, says Murdoch. Jim Giles to purchase items such as coffee Take the Mifare family of The reader, used by some smartcards devised by NXP ONLINE banking fraud doesn't European banks, plugs into a and ice cream. The cards only just affect the naive. Last year, have to come near a reader to be computer using a USB connection Semiconductors of Eindhoven, the Netherlands. The " Classic" Robert Mueller, a director at activated, so a hacker with Robin and launches a supposedly secure the US Federal Bureau of browser. Users place their bank version of the card is used to carry Hood-style inclinations could hide a system in a public place so Investigation, admitted he'd come small amounts of credit - one card into the reader, which then within a mouse-click of being a that anyone walking close enough creates a secure connection with German bank allows up to â&#x201A;Ź1S0 to be stored on the card - or for would find that their card had victim himself. Now the extent the bank via the browser. The public-transport tickets, such as of the problem has been brought magically filled up. system was designed to allow into sharp relief, with computer "It's so simple," says Kaspar. customers to safely sign off the Oyster travel card in London. Weaknesses in the Classic card's "Anyone can buy a reader for scientists warning that banking transactions such as transfers culture is increasing the around $30:' Criminals can between bank accounts. security first became apparent when researchers partially reverse also download free software likelihood that customers That, at least, is the theory. Felix engineered the card's encryption are using vulnerable systems. that can be used to read the Grabert and colleagues, also at the The convenience of online system in 2007. Now a grou p from encryption codes on the card. Ruhr University, designed a piece the Ruhr University in Bochum, banking and electronic money Kaspar has notified the company of software that attacks the has led to a revolution in the way Germany, has built on that work to develop a qUick and we save and s pend our earnings. Banking websites and payment straightforward method to alter the credit stored on some types systems are relentlessly targeted ofthe card. by criminals, though, so continuous improvements in The Classic cards use 16 separate encryption keys to protect the security are needed to prevent fraud. But as was revealed at this information stored on the card. week's Financial Cryptography Timo Kaspar and colleagues studied the codes on one set ofthe and Data Security conference in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, cards currently in use, which are some of the best-known security systems can still be compromised "A hacker with Robin H ood­ style inclinations could relatively easily. All too often, banks' security 'mag ically' fill the cards of passers-by with credit" systems are developed in secret, so their flaws are only identified when they are deployed, says being used as a payment system by a million people in Germany. Steven Murdoch, a security researcher at the University of They found that each card used the same set of 16 codes and, once Cambridge. This opens a window the team had identified them by of opportunity for criminals. Weaknesses in three widely building on the 2007 hack, Kaspar was able to alter the information used financial security systems highlight the extent of the stored on any card that used the system, if given access to the card. problem. These systems, used by Using a card reader built by millions of people every day, can the team, Kaspar was able to add in some cases be breached using credit to blank cards. To prove that off-the-shelf technology and a 18 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

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modified browser as soon as it launches, disabling its security. It can then surreptitiously alter the details of the account that is due to receive transferred money, siphoning off money to an account ofthe hacker's choosing. Grabert says he has alerted the banks that use the system and also the producer of the smartcard reader. Both are addressing the problem. That reader is only given to corporate customers, who use it to process large numbers of transactions. But systems used to protect online consumer purchases also show flaws, warn Murdoch and his Cambridge colleague Ross Anderson. Many online transactions contain an extra layer of security - such as "Verified by Visa" or "MasterCard Secure" - which is run by card companies. Customers enter a password, which has to be checked byVisa or MasterCard before the transaction can be completed. The system was designed to combat fraud in online card

transactions. Unfortunately, say Murdoch and Anderson, the system fails to follow many established security gUidelines. For example, the Verified by Visa form pops up in the centre of shopping websites, much like a phishing attack might. This means customers may become less wary of other threats, says Anderson. Customers also have to select a password when the system is activated for the first time. Anderson has previously shown that without explicit guidance people tend to choose weak passwords. Visa were asked for comment, but had not done so at the time of writing. All of these security issues can be fixed without too much effort, but their existence is symptomatic of a wider issue, says Murdoch: the secrecy culture of banks is resulting in systems being deployed with all-too-obvious weaknesses in them. Companies should be more open to external help, he says, and have independent experts inspect their systems. •

Fishy sensors to keep su bmers i b l es o ut of tro u ble Hair-like sensors dotted along the lateral line of a fis h's body provided the in sp i rati o n

for a new type of un derwater detection system



The hair- l i ke piezoresistor g en erates a s i gna l when bent by water motion


.\... '-

� I.... Ll,...!-... ..


An array of sensors i n d ifferent orientations allows the direction of the water motion to be determined

A PRESSURE sensor that mimics the way a fish's lateral line works could help submersible craft navigate.

by fixing an array around a plastic pipe and measuring the response to various objects placed in the water,

The technology could improve underwater robots' ability to detect hazards, such as deep sea vents

incl uding a live crayfish. The a n i mal's wiggling legs generated a pattern of pressure signals that enabled the

and shi pwrecks, when the water is too murky for a camera to work

team to calculate its precise location in relation to the pipe. Because the

effectively, or the object is too close for sonar, says Douglas Jones at the U n iversity of Illi nois at

hairs in the array a re oriented at right angles to each other, the direction of the water motion can be easily

Urbana-Champaign. determined (see diagram). Finally, the distance to the object The lateral line is a sense organ that runs along the sides of most fish can be worked out in the same way and enables them to detect changes in water pressure. This al lows fish to "This sensor will prevent


underwater vehicles from becoming trapped by unseen obstacles"

sense depth and the direction of the current, a nd also means they can swim in synchronised schools even in darkness. The line is peppered with hair cells called neuromasts that fire

a fish WOUld, by moving water in the

in response to pressu re waves. The pattern of signals generated along

direction of the object and timing how long it takes to receive an echo

the line al lows the fish to pick out the tiniest flick of a nearby tail. Jones, alongside Chang Uu at

(Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, 001:

10.108811748·3182/5/11016001). "We're hopeful it will be useful for

Northwestern U niversity in Evanston, Illinois, made an artificial n euromast

making sure any underwater vehicle doesn't get trapped by u nseen

by adding boron to a 500-micrometrelong silicon hai r to create a stress­ sensitive resistor. As the hair bends i n response to water motion, its resistance changes, allowing the

o bstacles," says Jones. "This could help in object detection when you are moving very close to the seafloor," says Steve McPhail of the National Oceanography Centre i n

force of the water's movement to be calculated.

Southampton, U K , w h o is designing a robot submarine that will search for

The researchers tested the sensor

hydrothermal vents. Paul Marks . 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 19


Fi nd out what's g o i ng on beneath yo u r wheels ROAD accidents could be slashed if cars had better data on weather and road conditions, according to Sony and VTT, Finland's top transport-research lab. Erecting electronic road signs is expensive and warnings are frequently missed, says Nikolaos Georgis of the Sony Technology Center in San Diego, California. Along with colleagues, he's filed for a US patent for an in-car computer system which contains a database of the speed limits on every road in the nation. It could be built into the satellite navigation or entertainment system, he says. If the in-car computer can then acquire a stream oflocal weather

data, perhaps from a nearby digital TV transmitter, it could calculate new stopping distances and display or announce a new recommended speed limit. It could even assume a measure of control to prevent the car exceeding certain speeds in wet or icy conditions. That latter option doesn't appeal to Pertti Peussa, an R&D engineer with VTT in Tampere, Finland. "What happens if you are passing a truck with an oncoming car on the horizon and suddenly your vehicle s peed is lowered?" Peussa has been working with Volvo and Fiat to find out which car sensors are best for the direct detection of adverse road

conditions - and developing software that advises the driver of the appropriate speed. With funding from the European Union, they have been pointing infrared lasers, microwave radars and cameras at the road ahead of cars to detect the surface conditions. Radar proved to be the best option as

it is able to detect dry, wet, icy or snowy road surfaces 30 metres ahead. Lasers often missed ice, while low light foiled cameras. The ultimate aim, says Peussa, is to design friction sensors that can be mounted within tyres, but they are years away, he says: the heat and shock tyres experience is "murder for sensors". Paul Marks .

N a n o printer cou l d have cel ls l i n i n g u p to be tested

Th e secret m at h emati ci a n s

Michael Faraday prize lecture, Wednesday 1 0 February

5.30pm-S.30pm, The Royal Society

Profe ssor Marcus

du Sautoy, Un iversity of Oxford

for interesting new structures

"liS lecture will be webcast LIVE at royalsodety. org/live. Visit our video

to frame their c reative process.

archive at royalsoclely. tv to View lectures

Artists a re constantly on the hunt

Thro u g h the work of artists l i ke Borges a n d Oa l i , Messiaen and Laban, Professor d u Sautoy wil l explore the hidden mathematical ideas that underpin their creative output but wi l l a lso reveal that the work of the mathemati cian i s sometimes n o less d riven by strong aesthetic values. Admission free - no ticket or advanced booking requifed Doors open at 4. 45pm and seats will be allocated on a first路 come first-served basis.

20 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010


demand within 48 hours of delivery.

The Royal Society

&-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW 1Y 5AG Tel +44 (0)20 7451 2683 Fax +44 (0)20 7930 2 1 70 Email Web royalsociety.orglevents-diary Issued: January 20 1 0 DES1 760 Registered Charity No 207043

BORROWING a trick from the office photocopier may make it possible

This process produces an imbalance in the quantities of positive and

for a n anoscale printer to precisely manipulate biological cells for use in artificial tissue. In 2007,John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana颅

negative ions in the printed ink, but the team realised that by switching the polarity of the voltage, they could solve that problem a nd also print i ntricate patterns of positive or negative

Champaign and COlleagues produced a printer small enough to print electronic ci rwits from conductive ink on the nanoscale. By modifying the technique, they think it would

charge onto the substrate (Nano Letters, 001: 1O.10211nI903495f). Once a pattern of charge is printed onto a substrate, the static could attract charged molecules and cells,

be possible to manipulate biological cells or biomolecules such as DNA,

marshalling them into shape in the same way toner inside a photocopier

says Rogers. The team's electrohydrodynamic jet (e-jet) printer works by

is forced into the required design. "[But) xerography itself does not offer comparable resolution," says Rogers.

establishing a voltage difference between its metallic nozzle and a

The technique could complement cell-printing techn iques for artificial

substrate below. The resulting electric fields cause charged ions in the ink to congregate in a meniscus at the nozzle. Because the charged ions repel one another, the meniscus

tissue man ufacture by helping to guide cells too fragile to be printed into position inside a 3D matrix. "It could be very useful indirect manipulation of cells," says Vladimir

deforms into the shape of a cone, creating an u ltra-fine tip from

Mironov, a biofabrication researcher at the Medical University of South

which tiny ink droplets are shed.

Carolina in Charleston. Colin Barras .

dar n e l a c 0 1 0 2

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Overdosing on nothing An i nte rnati o nal p rotest this wee k a i ms to d e m onstrate the truth a bout h o m e o pathy - that there/s l itera l ly noth i n g i n it says Martin Rob bins AT 10.23 am on 30 January, more than 300 activists in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US will take part in a mass homeopathic "overdose". Sceptics will publicly swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic pills to demonstrate to the public that homeopathic remedies, the product of a scientifically unfounded 18th-century ritual, are simply sugar pills. Many of the sceptics will swallow 84 pills ofarsenicum album, a homeopathic remedy based on arsenic which is used to treat a range of symptoms, including food poisoning and insomnia. The aim of the "10:23" campaign, led by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, based in Liverpool, UK, is to raise public awareness of just exactly what homeopathy is, and to put pressure on the UK's leading pharmacist, Boots, to remove the remedies from sale. The campaign is called 10 :23 in honour of the Avogadro constant (approximately 6 x 1023, the number of atoms or molecules in one mole of a substance), of which more later. That such a protest is even necessary in 2010 is remarkable, but somehow the homeopathic industry has not only survived into the 21st century, but prospered. In the UK alone more than ÂŁ40 million is spent annually on homeopathic treatments, with ÂŁ4 million of this being sucked from the National Health Service budget. Yet the basis for homeopathy defies the laws of physics, and high-quality clinical trials have never been able to 22 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

demonstrate that it works beyond the placebo effect. The discipline is based on three "laws"; the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals and the law of succussion. The law of similars states that something which causes your symptoms will cure your symptoms, so that, for example, as caffeine keeps you awake, it can also be a cure for insomnia. Of course, that makes little sense, since drinking caffeine, well, keeps you awake. Next is the law of infinitesimals, which claims that diluting a substance makes it more potent. Homeopaths start by diluting one volume of their remedy - arsenic oxide, in the case of arsenicurn

album - in 99 volumes of distilled water or alcohol to create a "centesimal". They then dilute one volume ofthe centesimal in 99 volumes of water or alcohol, and so on, up to 30 times. Application of Avogadro's constant tells you that a dose of such a "30C" recipe is vanishingly unlikely to contain even a single molecule ofthe active ingredient. The third pillar of homeopathy is the law of succussion. This states - and I'm not making this up - that by tapping the liquid "We believe there is a risk in perpetuating the idea that homeopathy is equ ivalent to mod ern med icine"

in a special way during the dilution process, a memory of the active ingredient is somehow imprinted on it. This explains how water is able to carry a memory of arsenic oxide, but apparently not of the contents of your local sewer network. The final preparation is generally dropped onto a sugar pill which the patient swallows. Homeopaths claim that the application of these three laws results in a remedy that, even though it contains not a single molecule of the original ingredient, somehow carries an "energy signature" of it that nobody can measure or detect. Unsurprisingly, when tested under rigorous scientific conditions, in randomised, controlled and double-blind trials, homeopathic remedies have consistently been shown to be no better than a placebo. Of course, the placebo effect is quite powerful, but it's a bit like justifying building a car without any wheels on the basis that you can still enjoy the comfy leather seats and play with the gear shift. Even some retailers who sell the treatments have admitted there is no evidence that they work. In November, Paul Bennett, the superintendent pharmacist at Boots, appeared before the UK parliament's Commons Science and Technology Committee's "evidence check" on homeopathy. He was questioned by Member of Parliament Phil Willis, who asked: "Do they work beyond the placebo effect?" "] have no evidence before me to suggest that they are

Comment on these stories at

efficacious," Bennett replied. He defended Boots's decision to sell homeopathic remedies on the grounds of consumer choice. "A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available," he said. You might agree. You might also argue that homeopathy is harmless: if people want to part with their money for sugar pills and nobody is breaking the law, why not let them? To some extent that's true - there's only so much damage you can do with sugar pills short of feeding them to a diabetic or dropping a large crate of them on someone's head. However, we believe there is a risk in perpetuating the notion that homeopathy is equivalent to modern medicine. People may delay seeking a ppropriate treatment for themselves or their children. We accept that we are unlikely to convince the true believers. Homeopathy has many ways to sidestep awkward questions, such as rejecting the validity of randomised controlled trials, or claiming that homeopathic remedies only work if you have symptoms ofthe malady they purport to cure. Our aim is to reach out to the general public with our simple message: "There is nothing in it". Boots and other retailers are perfectly entitled to continue selling homeopathic remedies if they so wish, and consumers are perfectly entitled to keep on buying them. But hopefully the 10 :23 campaign will ram home our message to the public. In the 21st century, with decades of progress behind us, it is surreal that governments are prepared to spend millions oftax pounds on homeopathy. There really is nothing in it. â&#x20AC;˘ Martin Robbins is a spokesperson for the 10:23 campaign (,uk). He writes at layscien

Matth ieu Rica rd

One minute with . . .

The auth o r of The Art of Meditation discusses med itation,

m i nd tra i n ing and the need for a l ittle altruism in eco n o m ics

How did you become inv olved in the science of meditation? The Dalai Lama often describes Buddhism as being, above all, a science of the mind. That is not surprising, because the Buddhist texts put particular emphasis on the fact that all spi ritual practices - whether mental, physical or oral ­ are directly or indirectly intended to transform the mind, So it wasn't surprising that when a meeting was held in 2000 with some of the leading specialists in human emotions - psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers - they spent an entire week in discussion with the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India. Later we agreed to launch a research programme on the short and long-term effects of mind training - "meditation" in other words, What have we discovered about meditation and the human brain? Experiments have indicated that the region of the brai n associated with emotions such as compassion shows considerably higher activity in t h ose with long-term meditative experience, These discoveries suggest that basic human qualities can be deli berately cultivated through mental training, The study of the i nfluence of mental states on health, which was once considered fanciful, is now an increasing part of the scientific research agenda, Do you have to be highly skilled to experience the benefits of meditation? No, one does not have to be a highly trained: 20 minutes of daily practice can contribute significantly to a reduction of anxiety and stress, the tendency to become angry and the risk of relapse in cases of severe depression, Thirty minutes a day overthe course of eight weeks results in a considerable strengthening of the immune system and of one's capacity for concentration, It also speeds up the healing of psoriasis and decreases arterial tension in people suffe ring from hypertension,

PROFILE Matthieu Ricard is a F ren c h Buddhist monk with a PhD i n molecular biology, He has pa rticipa ted in nu merous ex pe rimen ts into the effects of meditation on the human b ra in

Tell us about your new book, The Art

of Meditation. The book tackles the question: why should we bother to meditate? The answer is that we all have the potential for positive change, which largely remains untapped, That's a great pity, because we know the virtue of training and learning. We spend years going to school and training in things l i ke sports, but for some strange reason we don't think that the same need applies to developing and optimising our human qualities. Tell us about the Mind and Life meeting that will discuss compassion in economic systems. At the conference - in Zurich in April - will be some bold economists who can demonstrate that altruists are able to influence global markets, In the past, such studies were often refuted by sceptical financial analysts, However, someone I ike Ernst Fehr, the famous Swiss economist, wi II show that if altruists make the rules and it is in the interests of selfish people to cooperate, t h en society can function in a more cooperative way. I nterview by Curtis Abra h a m

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 23


This thi ng called life From Joanna Jastrzebska Peter Aldhous warns us about the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ofMental Disorders (DSM) as if it will be something of a nuclear bomb (12 December 2009, p 38). I disagree. The DSM is not the only classification of mental and behavioural disorders. It is used mostly in the US. The rest of the world uses Section F of the World Health Organization's International Statistical Classification ofDiseases and Related Health Problems. Some doctors don't even consult a manual to reach their diagnoses. Aldhous reports on an editorial in the Psych iatric Times, where Allen Frances wrote that broadening categories within the DSM would result in the medicalisation of normality and "a deluge of unneeded medication". I would argue

that the effects will be hardly noticeable - because this is already happening. I have worked as a psychiatrist for 10 years, enough time to see an increasing number of people consulting psychiatrists for all sorts of life-related problems, and using diagnostic terms to tell us that they are depressed, bipolar or suicidal. At first, I thought that it was all the fault of us doctors, that we medicalise these poor, unhappy, non-coping people. But the longer I work, the more clearly I see that people want " a diagnosis" because a diagnosis means there must be a treatment, and a treatment amounts to an easy way of getting their life or themselves fixed. Then they ask for medication. They want tablets to stop them crying, although their mother died only two weeks ago, or something to calm them down when they become aggressive after they have a drink. They ask us to sort out their unruly

Enigma N u mber 1580 If you knew what I knew" ,

children who have never known any boundaries. They want it sorted and they want it now. This problem is partly a result of the modern pressure to be happy and advert-perfect all the time; if you aren't, there must be something wrong with you. Another part of it is the lack of life skills and poor social support networks courtesy ofthe decline of traditional family

structures and close friendships. I am astounded by the number of people who come to ask me for a diagnosis, and who are then unhappy when I try to explain that this is called "life". If the DSM is a bomb that is going to explode, it will probably generate more smoke than fire. North Sh ields, Tyne and Wear, UK

SUSAN DENHAM I played a little logical game with my two highly intelligent godsons, Proddy and Addy. I had in mind three d ifferent digits chosen from 1 to 8 and I whispered the product of the three to Proddy and the sum of the three to Addy. 1 explained all this to them and our conversation then went as follows: Me: "Proddy, can you now work out what my three numbers are?" Proddy: "No,"

Me: "Now do you think that Addy will be able to work out what my

numbers are?" Proddy: " N o, he will

not be able to work them out."

Addy: "Now I know what the numbers are!"

What are they? WIN ElS will

be awarded to the sender of the first correct answer opened on Wednesday 3 March, The Editors decision is final. Please send entries to Enigma 1580, New Scientist, Lacon House, 84 Theobald's Road, London WClX 8NS, orto (please include your postal address), Answer to 1574 Doubly square date: The two dates are 12 April 2009 and 4 December 2009 The win ner Geoff Stone of North Bayswater, Victoria, Austra l ia

24 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

Buyer power

must strongly disagree with researcher jennifer jacquet, who seems to dismiss the role of consumer-awareness programmes (9 january, p 11). It is true that fOCUSing only on consumers won't drive change in the way fish are caught and farmed. But grass-roots consumer demand underlies the success we and others in the sustainable seafood movement are having with major buyers, whose seafood purchasing decisions are changing the way fish are caught and farmed worldwide. Seafood Watch is best known for its consumer pocket-guides and iPhone application, but we also work with major buyers. We have partnerships with both Compass Group and ARMARK, North America's two largest food service com panies, which are now buying millions of kilograms of sustainable seafood in collaboration with Seafood Watch. Others in the broader sustainable seafood movement are forming similar alliances with major retailers. In large measure, consumer demand inspired by programmes like Seafood Watch is what is driving this change. Consumer seafood-awareness programmes aren't the be-all and end-all, but they are a critical part of a campaign that must succeed if we want a future with healthy oceans. Your article also incorrectly stated that the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch programme rates Atlantic halibut as a sustainable species. In fact, our online Seafood Watch recommendations clearly identify Atlantic halibut as a Red List species to avoid. Monterey, Californ ia, US

From Edward Cassano, Monterey Bay Aquarium Monterey Bay Aquarium and its Seafood Watch programme agree with the call in New Scientist's editorial for " sound science" to be the basis for determining what is and what isn't a sustainable fishery (9 january, P 5). Seafood Watch has established itself among consumers and major seafood buyers as a reliable source for identifying sustainable wild足 caught and farmed seafood. Future-proofing pies Since 1999, we have based all our seafood recommendations on the From Jack Cribb best available science, and vetted Like Bryn Glover, I am concerned about how to preserve digital them with independent experts. family photos for 50 years or so We are having a real impact on (9 january, p 26). Not only do you the major seafood buyers and

Fo r more letters and to join the debate, visit

have to worry about the storage medium, but you also have to worry about the software and hardware needed to view them. While jpeg seems to be a widely accepted format, who is to say that in 50 years' time the jpeg image captured today will still be viewable? Printed photos avoid these potential problems. In lieu of prints, my solution is to ask my son to look after the transferring of the files to new storage media as and when the technology changes. Waverton, New South Wales, Australia

salt intake and improve the health of its residents (16 January, p 4). The report failed to mention the acknowledgement that New York City gave to the UK's salt-reduction programme in the creation of its own. Since 2004, the UK Food Standards Agency has been working closely with industry to encourage reductions in salt levels across a wide range offoods by setting voluntary salt targets. This work has run alongside several high-impact consumer­ awareness campaigns and has been very successful in reducing salt intake from 9.5 grams per person per day to 8.6 grams. As referenced by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, our work in the UK served as a model for the city's salt-reduction initiative. London, UK

Find your level

From John Borer Mark Buchanan discusses the oft-experienced phenomenon From Matthew Stevens of managerial incompetence, Bryn Glover is worried about but fails to suggest a solution preserving his digital photos for posterity. For family photogra phs, (19 December 2009, p 68). I have one - it is based on the I use CDs with a pure-gold layer, idea that promotion should which are guaranteed for 100 years and are in fact mandated by be seen as an opportunity to some hospitals for long-term data demonstrate competence in a storage. Being effectively inert, different position. If someone is promoted to a position in which the gold does not corrode like they subsequently demonstrate the aluminium in cheaper CDs. incompetence, then that person Thornleigh, New South Wales, Australia is demoted to their previous position without loss of their The editor writes: promotion-level salary. The • You can read further discussion of modern data storage options on page 36 ofthis issue.

Salt targets From Clair Baynton, UK Food Standards Agency As New Scientist reports, New York City has recently launched its "National Salt Reduction Initiative" in a bid to reduce the

promotion, even if revoked later, would nevertheless raise the salary of the employee, recognising his or her full competence in their original role. Itwould soon become clear that if a person had not been promoted and later demoted, they had not yet reached their optimal position. If, on the other hand, one had not been promoted at all within a reasonable time then the inference would be that the person may not even be competent in their present position. The scheme would provide more scope for promotion in the first place, as upper management need not fear long-term company damage should the promotee prove incompetent in the new position. Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire, UK

Bear versus croc From Russell Walton I find it odd that the polar bear is often claimed to be the world's largest land predator, as it was in your article on large marine reptiles (31 October 2009, p 32). Though not normally classed as land animals, saltwater crocodiles spend much of their time in fresh or brackish water, or lazing on river banks -behaviour similar to that of the polar bear. At around 1000 kilograms, the largest saltwater crocodiles weigh more than most polar bears. Warragul, Victoria, Australia

and the requirement of the UK's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the insurers for no "low-sugar events". I have only had one uncontrolled low­ sugar event while driving, but this set off alarm bells at the DVLA and insurers for a few years. Unfortunately, to maintain zero chances of a low-sugar event occurring, diabetics either have to be perfect patients or edge our glucose levels higher to be on the safe side for the duration of each stint behind the wheel. The latter is far easier to do but carries with it the long-term probability of organ damage, particularly to the eyes: a kind of catch-22 situation, as eyesight problems often cause diabetics to lose their driving licences in later years. Most diabetics receive numerous medicals and eye tests each year, unlike the average motorist. Combine that with the fear that an incident might scupper future driving, and we may well be more careful and safer drivers overall. Oxford, UK

For the record • Graham (olditz works as a n

e pidemiologist at Washi n gton University i n 5t Louis, not the University of Washington as we said i n our report on the health impacts of living in poor neighbourhoods (16 January, p 6). • We lamented that some skiers fail to pull a "chord"to inflate their avalanche airbag systems, a circumstance that could be explained

Rock 'n' a hard sweet From Mike Burberry You report findings that diabetics who stringently control their blood-sugar levels are more likely to crash their cars than people with poorly controlled diabetes (12 December 2009, p 7). In 30 years of driving with type 1 diabetes, I have trodden the fine line between the low-sugar recommendations of doctors

by their being tone-deaf. we suppose (16 January, p IS). Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Edi tor, New Scientist,

84 Theobald's Road, London WClX 8NS Fax: +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 Email: Include you r full posta I add ress a nd telephone number. anda reference (issue. page number. title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist maga zin e. in any other format.

3 0 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 25

OPINI O N I NTERVI EW Photography: ArtStreiber

The maverick of Mojave Burt Rutan is o n e of the U S's l ea d i n g a e rona utica l e n g i n eers, n oted fo r his i n n ovative d esig ns a n d l i g ht e n e rgy-efficient a i r a n d spacecraft i n cl u d i n g Vi rg i n Ga lactic's S pace S h i p Two, I n a ra re i nte rvi ew, h e ta l ks to David Cohen a b o ut his work, consp i racy theo ries and the exp l osi o n that clai med the l ives of t hree e n g i n e e rs

"We call it Mojavewood - have you seen the movie?" asks Burt Rutan sardonically as we drive away from a glitzy ceremony and towards the legendary aircraft designer's office, tucked away in a hangar at Mojave airport, California. Suddenly he bursts into song "Oh Mojaaavewood, tada tada tada Mojaaaveewooood ... " We've just escaped a throng of several hundred journalists and VIPs, including the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Branson, his children and their high-society friends. They were gathered on a runway under two makeshift tents for the unveiling of the not-quite-finished spacecraft that Rutan is building for Branson. When completed, SpaceShipTwo (SS2), this evening rechristened Virgin Space Ship (VSS) Enterprise, will carry six passengers and two crew to an altitude of over 100 kilometres to experience 5 minutes of weightlessness and a view of Earth only a handful of people have seen with their own eyes. Despite being a bit of a media recluse 足 had he got his way, today's event wouldn't have happened at all - Rutan is a megastar in aerospace circles. Over the last 40 years he has overseen the design and construction of more than 40 novel aircraft, including the record-breaking and ultra-efficient Voyager, which in 1986 flew non-stop around the world on a single tank of fuel. In October 2004, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, he secured a place in the history books when one of his aircraft, the waif-like White Knight, carried another of his designs, a rocket plane called SpaceShipOne (SSl), up to 50,000 feet. From there, SSl was 26 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

launched to the edge of space, winning Rutan the X Prize, an international contest to build the first privately funded crewed spacecraft to fly to an altitude of at least 100 kilometres and return safely to Earth twice within two weeks. Rutan is so focused on his work that perhaps it's no surprise he doesn't have much time for the Branson glitz, complete with an ice scul pture of an astronaut. "These folk come, they party and tomorrow they'll all be gone, and then we can go back to work." He reflects for a minute, then adds with a hint of bemusement, " Roll-outs are different with every customer, but I don't thinkwe've ever had one with an ice carving from Iceland." Born Elbert L. Rutan in 1943 and raised in Dinuba, California, he began building model aircraft as a child. He graduated from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1965 and landed a job as a flight test engineer at the US military's E dwards Air Force Base, not far from Mojave. "It was unbelievable training for a youngster," he says. Rutan later set up an aircraft design company and in 1982 went on to found Scaled Composites to enable him to realise his own creations, including SS2. Now, at 66, Rutan still looks in good shape, with his trademark sideburns like tiny folded PROALE

Burt Rutan is an aeronautical engi neer and the fou nde r of leading aircraft des ign firm Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, California, He won the Ansari X Prize, designed Virgin Galactic's spacecraft and his Voyager plane was the first to fly around the world non-stop without refuelling

For more intelViews and to add your comments, visit

SpaceShipOne won Burt Rutan the X Prize as the first reusable, privately built, crewed spacecraft

wings. He has no plans to retire, although these days he's taking it a bit easy after a rare heart condition took him out of action for a while a couple of years ago. It also ended his flying days - Rutan has notched up 4000 hours. "To my surprise, I don't miss flying. I had this warm feeling. I thought, T m not going to die in a general aviation incident'," he says. I whip out my list of questions, but before I get to the first, Rutan blindsides me. "Which magazine are you from again?" I tell him. "OK, well, I won't talk to Scientific American," he says, "They improperly covered man-made global warming. They drink Kool-Aid instead of doing research. They parrot stuff from the IPee and Al Gore." I'm taken aback but curiosity gets the better of me so I ask him what he means. For the next 30 minutes he launches into an impassioned diatribe. He believes claims of catastrophic global warming are nothing but scare-mongering and are a product of "the greatest scientific fraud ever". At first I think this is some sort of joke but he's totally serious and at times gets quite angry. And yet, if you didn't know his views, you'd think Rutan was an arch environmentalist. In 1989 his house featured in Popular Science magazine, billed as the ultimate energy­ efficient dwelling, and for years he drove an electric car. "People thought I was a liberal and a tree-hugger, but I'm not. It's not because I have any concern about saving the planet, or peak oil. It's about neat technology:' Rutan has a penchant for swimming against the tide. Everyfew years he gets hooked by some sort of mystery and pretty quickly it completely absorbs his spare time. First it was how the pyramids were built, then there was the assassination oflFK. Hunting for the "real" motive for the murder took Rutan to a " darkened library" in Washington De where, just like in a scene from a John Grisham novel, documents he looked up one day mysteriously went missing the next. His appetite for mystery and controversy has served him well in his aerospace work. His approach to research sums up his attitude: take an idea and tell it to a bunch of experts in the field. "Ifhalfofthem believe it's impossible, and half think it's really hard but worth doing, then it's a research project." That's how the feathering mechanism that softens the re-entry of 551 and 552 came about. "I had a lot of critics, very experienced aerodynamicists, telling me this thing will spin like a top and you won't be able to recover

it. It's a crazy idea. But I knew that it would work." Rutan hinged the wings of the craft so that for the first part of the journey back through Earth's atmosphere they fold by almost 90 degrees and the craft falls like a shuttlecock, with minimum acceleration. Only once it is deep in the atmosphere do the wings straighten out again, allowing a glided landing, rather than a parachute splashdown like the Apollo capsules. Rutan's career has not all been plain sailing, though. In July 2007 came a terrible reminder that building rockets can be a deadly business. An explosion during a test to examine the flow of nitrous oxide in a rocket motor killed three workers. An independent investigation did not determine a cause but it was likely caused by the nitrous oxide somehow escaping the system. "We have several

"lf half the engineers think it's impossible and half think it's hard, it's worth doing" hypotheses and we redesigned the rocket motor to make sure none ofthose possibilities could happen again. I can't say any more about it," Rutan says. I ask him if the accident changed his mind about the programme. "Well we lost a lot of sleep at night because of it." If there had been a risk he couldn't ameliorate, Rutan says, then he would have considered stopping development, but that was not the case. "I think there's considerably less risk on the rocket motor system now. We were taking a big risk on SS1 but we didn't know it. It could have happened then. The safety elements on the rocket motor of 552 are now much more significant than they were on 551, partially because of the accident." We're abruptly interrupted by a phone call. Gale-force winds have blown Branson's tents into the desert and all the guests have been evacuated to a nearby hotel. When we join them, Rutan holds forth at Branson for a few minutes over the wisdom of letting the party go ahead in such bad weather. For a large part of the next hour we return to his views on global warming until it's time for me to head back to my hotel. Over the next few days Rutan sends me numerous emails supporting his argument about a climate change conspiracy. I am far from convinced, but find myself thinking there's something beguiling about such passionate persistence - perhaps this is exactly what makes him such a maverick genius. â&#x20AC;˘ 30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 27

W ith its close proxim ity to Mars and stu n n ing vistas, it is easy to pictu re the Red Planet's biggest moon as our next outpost in space, says Stuart Clark

28 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010



HOBOS is a name you are going to hear a lot in the coming years. It may be little more than an asteroid - just two-billionths of the mass of our planet, with no atmosphere and hardly any gravity -yet the largest of Mars's two moons is poised to become our next outpost in space, our second home. Although our own moon is enticingly close, its gravity means that relatively large rockets are needed to get astronauts to and from the surface. The same goes for Mars, making it expensive to launch missions there too ­ perhaps even prohibitively expensive if President Obama's review of NASA's human space exploration policy is to be believed. Last October, a committee of independent experts chaired by industrialist NormanAugustine concluded that NASA faced a shortfall of around $3 billion a year if it still intends to send astronauts back to the moon - let alone Mars - by 2020. But that doesn't mean that humans have nowhere to go. One option the Augustine report suggested would take NASA crews to nearby asteroids and to the moons of Mars. "The bulk of the cost of a Mars mission is getting people to the surface and back again," says Pascal Lee, chairman ofthe Mars Institute in Moffett Field, California. "If you wait for everything to be ready , it will be decades. Phobos offers us a way to get to the very doorstep of Mars." Because Phobos is so small, the gravitational field it generates is weak, so much so that once The monolith (centre) is a must-see attraction for any visitor to Phobos

Is Phobos a chip off the old Martian block, or a captured asteroi

you have established yourself in Martian orbit, 1 and 2 in the 1970s. Sunlight reflecting from landing and take-offfrom Phobos needs only the surface showed that Phobos was dark, the smallest of impulses. That means it is absorbing more than 90 per cent of the cheaper and easier to send spacecraft to incoming sunlight and resembling the distant Phobos than to send them to the meteorites known as carbonaceous surface of our own moon. chondrites. These ancient celestial objects are From Phobos we could easily explore the thought to originate in the furthest parts of surface of Mars using telescopes or remote­ the asteroid belt, twice as far from the sun as controlled rovers before making the final Mars itself. The most recent measurements of descent to the planet's surface when funding Phobos revealed a closer resemblance to even allows (see "The Martian night shift", p 30). older asteroids found only in the outer solar But there is more to Phobos than just a system beyond the main belt. The same is true for Deimos. convenient stopping-off point - much more. Phobos itself is a giant celestial mystery. "We know what all the solar system bodies that we Space odd ity have explored are, except for Phobos," says So captured asteroids they are, then? Not Lee. "We really do not know how it formed." Phobos was discovered, along with Mars's quite. The orbits these moons follow are not smaller moon Deimos, in 1877 by American what you would expect for captured bodies. astronomer Asa ph Hall at the US Naval Instead of orbiting in randomly inclined Observatory in Washington DC. For most orbits, as would happen if they were seized at different times, both Phobos and Deimos of their subsequent history, the moons' diminutive size has relegated them to mere follow paths that lie close to the equatorial plane of Mars. What is going on? footnotes in the astronomical textbooks. Phobos is an irregularly shaped rock just less Equatorial orbits imply that the moons than 28 kilometres across, while Deimos is formed in situ from the same coalescing cloud even smaller (see diagram, p 31). So they were that became Mars. But if this is the case, then dismissed as being small space rocks that the moons' composition makes no sense; wandered too close to Mars and were unlucky Phobos and Deimos should resemble Martian enough to be captured by its gravity. rock, not carbonaceous chondrites. In a bid to understand the composition and thereby the This view was bolstered by the first measurements of Phobos's composition, origin of Phobos, the European spacecraft taken by the spacecraft Mariner 9 and Vikings Mars Express has made a daring sequence of fly-bys, swooping to within 460 kilometres of the moon in 2006 and 270 kilometres in 2008. That close, Phobos's minuscule gravity altered the spacecraft's velocity by just a few millimetres per second. Nevertheless, mission controllers on Earth succeeded in identifying its effect on the radio tracking signal- a variation of just one part in a trillion on the carrier signal. "It was an incredible achievement on the part of everyone involved," says Martin Patzold at the University of Cologne in Germany and the leader of the Mars Express Radio Science experiment. It allowed Phobos's mass to be measured 100 times more accurately than before, and also raised the possibility that the moon could become a proxy spacecraft for exploring Mars's internal structure (see "Probing Mars", p 31). During the fly-bys, Mars Express's � High Resolution and Stereoscopic Camera � mapped the surface of Phobos, which led to � the most precise 3D model of the moon so far � constructed and a measure of its volume. � Although it is much less certain than the � mass, knowing the volume allows an > �

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 29

TH E MARTIAN N IGHT SHIFT Scott Maxwell works the Martian night shift. He is based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and is one of the drivers of the two venerable Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Being

signals is never shorter than 8 minutes. "By the time you see the cliff coming, you would have driven over it;' says Maxwell. So everything is planned out and programmed with safety margins built in. For example, if

protecting the planet from human biological contamination until a thorough search for life had taken place. They could then go on

solar powered, the rovers shut down every timethe sun sets on Mars, which has a "day"

the rover tilts more than expected or begins slipping in the fine dust, it shuts itself down

to scout the best places for the eventual crewed landing.

of 24.6 hours. The last thing the rovers do before going to sleep is send back pictures of where they are, so that Maxwell and colleagues can figure out what to tell them to do the next day. When they do move, their

and the operators reassess the next day. Such a laborious process would be u nnecessary if the rovers were operated

As for whether Maxwell would wantto do his job from Phobos ratherthan Earth, the shout of "yes" is so emphatic that it causes his cell phone to cut outtor a moment. "Would I go - are you kidding?"

cautious daily creep is measured in metres. Driving the rovers interactively from Earth is impossible. Even at Mars's closest approach, the round trip travel time for

by astronauts living on Phobos. Because of its close proximity to Mars, the command signals would take just hundredths of a second to reach the rovers. "It would be more like the navy controlling robotic submarines; it would be a much more

average density to be calculated using the ultra-precise mass figure. What emerges is the most interesting paradox of all. "The mean density is unexpectedly low. It must be a porous body," says patzold. So rather than being a single chunk of solid rock, there are probably vast caverns inside the moon, which could shelter future visitors from the ravages of space radiation.

Phobos landing Without actual samples from the moon, though, its composition remains largely unknown. If it is a captured asteroid, the material it is made from will be less dense than ordinary rock, making the hollow fraction likely to be around 15 per cent. If the moon is made of the equivalent of Martian rocks, however, then the Phobos's void must be much higher: upt0 45 per cent. This in itself is a headache for planetary scientists. If Phobos turns out to be made of Martian rock, the size ofthe voids means that the moon is unlikely to have formed from tiny dust grains building up in orbit as Mars formed beneath it, as this would lead to a solid body. Instead, Patzold and Pascal Rosenblatt of the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels favour a sequence of events in which a giant impact on Mars threw large chunks of debris into orbit. These then settled against one another at haphazard angles to form the conglomeration we now call Phobos. To test this suggestion, Mars Express will be revisiting the moon in March for its closest fly-by yet. The spacecraft will close to within a mere 60 kilometres ofthe barren surface, supplying the team with the first inklings of Phobos's gravity field. "The gravity field is related to the internal distribution of mass," says Rosenblatt. So, when Mars Express is over a void it will not be pulled as hard as when it is over solid rock. 30 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

efficient way of operating," says Maxwell. Legions of rovers could scour the surface,

he continues when the line comes back. "It would be amazing. And you know what, if NASA wanted to send me to Mars, they wouldn't even have to bring me back."

They will also be using the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding (MARSlS) instrument to probe inside Phobos. During previous fly-bys, the MARSlS team learned how to bounce their radar off the moon. Now they plan to use ground-penetrating radar to peer inside. "We hope to see subsurface structure in March but there are a lot of factors in play," says Andrea Cicchetti of the Italian Institute of Physics of Interplanetary Space in Rome who is part of the MARSIS team. The team is especially keen to nail down the composition of the moon whose spectrum suggests it is a captured asteroid. Rosenblatt thinks there is a get-out clause, however. "The surface spectrum could be the result of billions of years of space weathering," he says. Without an atmos phere to protect them, the Martian rocks that coalesced to form Phobos could

Ma rs Express has been orbiting the Red Planet since December 2003

have been altered superficially by the charged particles they have been soaking up from the s un for billions of years, disguising their true identity and fooling the spectrometers. The solution? Land on Phobos and bring samples back for us to study here on Earth. This is exactly what Russia plans to do in late 2011 with the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil in Russian) mission. "We cannot understand the origin of Phobos without knowing what the moon is made from, and Phobos-Grunt will tell us that," says Rosenblatt. Phobos-Grunt may even provide planetary scientists with crucial information about Mars itself. During the last four billion years, meteorite impacts with Mars will have blown debris into orbit. Phobos must have ploughed through these debris streams, some of which contained large chunks, as demonstrated by the moon's g-kilometre-wide crater, Stickney. Most of the impacts would have been much smaller, the probable explanation for the grooves that line the surface of phobos. Recent mapping by Mars Express has shown that the grooves originate from the leading apex of Phobos, the point that always faces in the direction of the moon's motion and so is the natural bullseye for incoming debris. The exciting fact is that nature has been collecting samples of Mars for billions of years and storing them on Phobos - one ofthe easiest places in the entire solar system for us to reach. All we have to do is go and get them. "Phobos is the Library of Alexandria for Mars," says Lee. "Samples from early Mars may be much better preserved on Phobos than on Mars itself' They may even contain the chemical signature of Martian life, though Lee puts a heavy emphasis on the " may" in that statement. And Phobos-Grunt could just be the first in a line of increasingly ambitious missions to Mars's largest moon. "Mars should remain the ultimate destination for manned

B o u n d fo r P h o bos Many missions heading to Mars have studied Phobos from afar, Phobos-Gruntcould be the firstto land on the largest Martian moon

Mars 5 1973 Viking orbiters 1 and 2 1975

Mariner 9 1971


Mariner7 1969

DIMENSIONS: 3476 km dia meter GRAVITY: 1.62 ms" ESCAPE V ELOCITY: 2380 ms·1 DISTANCE FROM EARTH: 384,000 km

Imaging and spectrometry

Viking landers 1 and 2 1975

exploration," says former astronaut Leroy Chiao and member of the Augustine committee, "But if we [the committee1 had asked outright for the money reqUired to land on Mars, we would have lost credibility," To bridge the gap, Lee envisages Phobos as an ideal stopover while techniques and equipment are developed by NASA to allow us to land on Mars. He has already studied the feaSibility of a hypothetical Canadian mission to Phobos. So successfully did he make his case that Lee is now involved in a similar study for NASA.

Home from home

Phobos 2 1988 Infrared im a g i n g

ever before, Now they are realising that there could be an enormous fringe benefit: Phobos

Once the technique is perfected, it will tell us ifthe core of Mars is molten and help us monitor the planet's seasons. Up to 30 per cent of the Martian atmosphere is locked into the polar icecaps during winter but returns during the summer, which affects Phobos's orbit. Tracking the seasons wil l help us

itself could become a proxy space probe, By watching the q uirks in its orbit. we can i nfer the distribution of mass inside Mars.

u nderstand the past climate of Mars and give important clues about the nature of its watery history. It could also tell us about

For example, when Phobos passes over the titanic Tharsis bulge on Mars it dips a little

p resent weather patterns and point to regions future landers should steer clear

lower because it is being pulled downwards by the mountainous mass beneath. Existing Martian spacecraft are not so well positioned to do this work because they orbit overthe planet's poles. Revealing the internal

of to avoid ferocious dust storms. But there is still a lot of work to be done. "It is possible to do these things but very challenging:' says Pascal Rosenblatt of the Royal Observatory of Belgium i n Brussels.

He points out that just getting to Phobos would allow astronauts to practise key techniques for reaching Martian orbit, such as aerobraking, in which a spacecraft loses speed by surfing the planet's atmosphere, What's more, the moon could host a warehouse of rocket parts and other equipment, built up over time by passing robotic exploration missions. When astronauts arrive, any worn-out or malfunctioning equipment could quickly be replaced. If the NASA mission goes ahead, it would target an amazing structure on Phobos known as the monolith. This solid slab of rock sticks upwards from the surface and extends go metres into space. "It's the Empire State building ofPhobos," jokes Lee, The spacecraft would land close to the monolith, so that it could study the exposed rock, then hop to another part of the moon and collect some more samples. It would then take off and fly to Deimos, to collect samples from the smaller moon, Finally, it would return to Earth. "It would be an exciting mission," says Lee, "We could fly within five years of getting a budget." It is now in the hands of the White House, as they consider the Augustine Report. Not even Chiao has an inside track on the likely outcome of those deliberations. "Like everybody else, I'm just waiting for the administration to make up its mind about how it wants to respond," he says. Landing on Phobos is a way of getting close to Mars, But surely it would feel like driving all the way to your destination and then not daring to knock on the door? Not according to Lee, "There are plenty of people who would go, including me," he says. "The view of Mars alone would be staggering." Chiao, however, says he would find it tough being on a Phobos-only trip, "It's hard for me to imagine going all that way and not getting to the surface of Mars," he says. "But ifit were a choice of that or nothing, I'd take Phobos any day!" •

distribution of Mars's mass is best achieved from the equatorial orbit Phobos follows.

Our measurements of Phobos's orbit need to be five or 10 times more accurate yet, he says.

Stuart Clark is the author of Oeep Space and Galaxy

and spectro metry

Mars Pat hfi nder


Mars Global Surveyor 1996 Mars Express 2003


First high resolution map of Phobos, Subsurface measurem ents, Mineralogical mapping

DIMENSIONS: 2 6 , 8 x 2 2 . 4 x 1 8 . 4 km G RAVITY: 0,002 - 0,008 ms" ESCAPE VE LO CITY: 11,3 ms·1 DISTANCE FROM MARS: 9380 km

Mars Exploration Rovers 2003 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter 2005 Phobos-Grunt 2011 First lander and samp l e return mission

PROBING MARS The Mars Express spacecraft has repeatedly taken pictures of Phobos from all d istances so that researchers can better understan d its orbit Their plan was to measure the mass of Mars's largest moon more accurately than

(Quercus), His blog is 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 31

I nvaders have been infi ltrati n g our genome for m i l l ions of years. You're less human than you th ink, says Fra n k Rya n


• •

• HEN, in 2001, the human genome was sequenced for the first time, we W were confronted by several surprises.

origins of the human genome - a story more fantastic than anything we previously

One was the sheer lack of genes: where we

imagined, with viruses playing a bigger part

had anticipated perhaps 100,000 there were

than you might care to believe.

actually as few as 20,000. A bigger surprise


15 years ago, when I was Virus X, I came to the

came from analysis of the genetic sequences,

researching my book

which revealed that these genes made up

conclusion there was more to viruses than

a mere 1.5 per cent of the genome. This is

meets the eye. Viruses are often associated

dwarfed by DNA deriving from viruses, which

with plagues - epidemics accompanied by

amounts to roughly 9 per cent.

great mortality, such as smallpox, flu and

On top of that, huge chunks of the genome

AIDS. I proposed that plague viruses also

are made up of mysterious virus-like entities

interact with their hosts in a more subtle way,

called retrotransposons, pieces of selfish DNA

through symbiosis, with important

that appear to serve no function other than

implications for the evolution of their hosts.

to make copies of themselves. These account

Today we have growing evidence that this is

for no less than 34 per cent of our genome.

true (New Scientist, 30 August 2008, P 38 ) , and

All in all, the virus-like components of the human genome amount to almost half of our DNA. This would once have been

overwhelming evidence that viruses have significantly changed human evolution. Symbiosis was defined by botanist Anton

dismissed as mere "junk DNA", but we now

de Bary in 1878 as the living together of

know that some of it plays a critical role in our

dissimilar organisms. The partners are known

biology. As to the origins and function of the

as symbionts and the sum ofthe partnership

rest, we simply do not know.

as the holobiont. Types of symbiotic

The human genome therefore presents

relationships include parasitism, where one

us with a paradox. How does this viral

partner benefits at the expense of the other,

DNA come to be there? What role has it

commensalism, where one partner profits

played in our evolution, and what is it doing

without harming the other, and mutualism,

to our physiology? To answer these

in which both partners benefit.

32 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

questions we need to deconstruct the •

• •



Symbiotic relationships have evolutionary implications for the holobiont. Although selection still operates on the symbionts at an individual level since they reproduce independently, it also operates at partnership level. This is most clearly seen in the pollination mutualisms involving hummingbirds and flowers, where the structure of flower and bill have co-evolved to accommodate each other and make a perfect fit. When symbiosis results in such evolutionary change it is known as symbiogenesis.

Vi ruses as partners

• t

Symbiosis works at many different levels of biological organisation. At one end of the spectrum is the simple exchange of metabolites. Mycorrhizal partnerships between plant roots and fungi, which supply the plant with minerals and the fungus with sugars, are a good example. At the other end are behavioural symbioses typified by cleaning stations where marine predators line up to have their mouths cleared of parasites and debris by fish and shrimps. Symbiosis can also operate at the genetic level, with partners sharing genes. A good example is the solar-powered sea slugElysia chlorotica, which extracts chloroplasts from the alga it eats and transfers them to cells in its gut where they supply the slug with nutrients. The slug's genome also contains genes transferred from the alga, without which the chloroplasts could not function. The slug genome can therefore be seen as a holobiont of slug genes and algal genes. This concept of genetic symbiosis is crucial to answering our question about the origin of the human genome, because it also applies to viruses and their hosts. Viruses are obligate parasites. They can only reproduce within the cells of their host, so their life cycle involves forming an intimate partnership. Thus, according to de Bary's definition, virus-host interactions are symbiotic. For many viruses, such as influenza, this relationship is parasitic and temporary. >

IIGenetic sym biosis is crucia l to u nd e rsta n d i n g t h e o ri g i n of t h e h u man g e n o m e, because it a l so a p p l i es to vi ruses"

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 33

But some cause persistent infections, with the virus never leaving the host. Such a long足 term association changes the nature of the symbiosis, making the evolution of mutualism likely. This process often follows a recognisable progression I have termed "aggressive symbiosis". An example of aggressive symbiosis is the myxomatosis epidemic in rabbits in Australia in the 1950S. The European rabbit was introduced into Australia in 1859 as a source of food. Lacking natural predators, the population exploded, leading to widespread destruction of agricultural grassland. In 1950, rabbits infected with myxoma virus were deliberately released into the wild. Within three months, 99.8 per cent of the rabbits of south-east Australia were dead. Although the myxomatosis epidemic was not planned as an evolutionary experiment, it had evolutionary consequences. The myxoma virus's natural host is the Brazilian rabbit, in which it is a persistant partner causing no more than minor skin blemishes. The same is now true of rabbits in Australia. Over the course ofthe epidemic the virus selected for rabbits with a minority genetic variant capable of surviving infection. Plague culling was followed by co-evolution, and today rabbit and virus coexist in a largely non足 pathogenic mutualism. Now imagine a plague virus attacking an early human population in Africa. The epidemic would have followed a similar trajectory, with plague culling followed by a period in which survivors and virus co足 evolved. There is evidence that this ha ppened repeatedly during our evolution, though when, and through what infectious agents,

pressure on HIV-1, while HLA-B gene frequencies in the population are likely to be influenced by HIV (Nature, vol 432, p 769). This is symbiogenesis in action. How does that move us closer to understanding the composition of the human genome? HIV-1 is a retrovirus, a class of RNA virus that converts its RNA genome into DNA before implanting it into host chromosomes. This process, known as endogenisation, converts an infectious virus into a non-infectious endogenous retrovirus (ERV). In humans, ERVs are called HERVs.

discoveries are anticipated, perhaps explaining the origin of some of that mysterious half of the genome. The ability of viruses to unite, genome-to足 genome, with their hosts has clear evolutionary significance. For the host, it means new material for evolution. If a virus happens to introduce a useful gene, natural selection will act on it and, like a beneficial new mutation, it may spread through the population. Could a viral gene really be useful to a mammal? Don't bet against it. Retroviruses have undergone a long co-evolutionary relationship with their hosts, during which they have evolved the ability to manipulate Germline invaders host defences for their own ends. So we might E ndogenisation allows retroviruses to take expect the genes of viruses infecting humans genetic symbiosis to a new level. Usually it is to be compatible with human biology. an extension of the normal infectious process, This is also true of their regulatory DNA. whena retrovirus infects a blood cell, such as a A virus integrating itselfinto the germ lymphocyte. But if the virus happens to get line brings not just its own genes, but also regulatory regions that control those genes. incorporated in a chromosome in the host's Viral genomes are bookended by regions germ line (sperm or egg), it can become part of the genome of future generations. known as long terminal repeats (LTRs), which Such germ-line endogenisation has contain an array of sequences capable of happened repeatedly in our own lineage controlling not just viral genes but host it is the source of all that viral DNA in our ones as well. Many LTRs contain attachment sites for host hormones, for example, genome. The human genome contains thousands of HERVs from between 30 and 50 which probably evolved to allow the virus different families, believed to be the legacy of to manipulate host defences. epidemics throughout our evolutionary Retroviruses will often endogenise history. We might pause to considerthat we are repeatedly throughout the host genome, the descendents of the survivors of a harrowing, leading to a gradual accumulation of anything ifbrutally creative, series of viral epidemics. up to 1000 ERVs. Each integration offers the E ndogenisation is happening right now potential of symbiogenetic evolution. in a retroviral epidemic that is spreading Once an ERV is established in the genome, among koalas in Australia. The retrovirus, natural selection will act on it, weeding out KoRv, appeared about 100 years ago and has viral genes or regulatory sequences that already spread through 75 per cent ofthe impair survival of the host, ignoring those that have no effect, and positively selecting the rare ones that enhance survival. /lI n 1950, rab bits infected with myxo ma v i ru s were Most ERV integrations will be negative or have no effect. The human genome is littered rel eased i nto th e w i l d , W i th i n thre e months 99,8 p e r with the decayed remnants of such cent of rab b its i n south-east Au stra l ia were dead/l integrations, often reduced to fragments, or even solitary LTRs. This may explain the origin is unknown (Proceedings ofthe National koala's range, culling animals on a large of retrotransposons. These come in two types: Academy ofSciences, vol 99, p 11748). scale and simultaneously invading the germ long and short interspersed repetitive elements (LINEs and SINEs), and it now Even today viral diseases are changing line of the survivors. the course of human evolution. Although the Retroviruses don't have a monopoly on appears likely that they are heavily degraded plague culling effect is mitigated by medical fragments of ancient viruses. endogenisation. Earlier this month intervention in the AIDS pandemic, we researchers reported finding genes from As for positive selection, this can be readily a bornavirus in the genomes of several nevertheless observe selection pressure on confirmed by looking forviral genes or humans and virus alike. For example, the mammals, including humans, the first time regulatory sequences that have been conserved human geneHLA-B plays an important role in a virus not in the retrovirus class has been and become an integral part ofthe human the response to HIV-1 infection, and different identified in an animal genome. The virus genome. We now know of many such sequences. variants are strongly associated with the rate appears to have entered the germ line of a The firstto be discovered is the remnant ofa mammalian ancestor around 40 million years retrovirus that invaded the primate genome of AIDS progression. It is therefore likely that ago (Nature, vol 463, p 84). Many more such a little less than 40 million years ago and gave differentHLA-B alleles impose selection 34 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

• •

the action of LINE retrotransposons by administration of the drug nevirapine causes an irreversible arrest in development in mouse embryos, suggesting that LINEs are somehow critical to early development in mammals (Systems Biology in Reproductive Medicine, vol 54, p 11). It also appears that HERVs play important roles in normal cellular physiology. Analysis of gene expression in the brain suggests that many different families of HERV participate in normal brain function. Syncytin-l and syncytin-2, for example, are extensively expressed in the adult brain, though their Virus genes functions there have yet to be explored. Other research groups have found that There are many more examples. Another gene producing a protein vital to the construction of 25 per cent of human regulatory sequences the placenta, syncytin-2, is also derived from a contain viral elements, prompting virus, and at least six other viral genes contribute suggestions that HERVs make a major to normal placental function, although their contribution to gene regulation (Trends in precise roles are poorly understood. Genetics, vol 1g, p 68). In support of that, HERV LTRs have been shown to be involved There is also tentative evidence that HERVs play a significant role in embryonic in the transcription of important proteins. development. The developing human embryo For example, the beta-globin gene, which expresses genes and control sequences from codes for one of the protein components two classes of HERV in large amounts, though of haemoglobin, is partly under the control of an LTR derived from a retrovirus. their functions are not known (Virology, The answer to our paradox is now clear: the vol 2g7, p 220). What is more, disrupting

rise to what is known as the W family ofERVs. The human genome has roughly 650 such integrations. One of these, on chromosome 7, contains a gene called syncytin-l, which codes for a protein originally used in the virus's envelope but now critical to the functioning of the human placenta. Expression of syncytin-l is controlled by two LTRs, one derived from the original virus and another from a different retrovirus called MaLR. Thus we have a quintessential viral genetic unit fulfilling a vitally important role in human biology.

human genome has evolved as a holobiontic union of vertebrate and virus. It is hardly surprising that researchers who have made these discoveries are now calling for a full-scale project to assess the contribution of viruses to our biology (BMC Genom ics, vol g, p 354). It is also probable that this "virolution" is continuing today. HIV belongs to a group of retroviruses called the lentiviruses. Until recently virologists thought that lentiviruses did not endogenise, but now we know that they have entered the germ lines of rabbits and the grey mouse lemur. That suggests that HIV-1 might have the potential to enter the human germ line (Proceedings of the NationalAcademy ofSciences, vol 104, p 6261 and vol 105, p 20362), perhaps taking our evolution in new and unexpected directions. It's a plague to us - but it could be vital to the biology our descendants . • Frank Ryan is a writer, medical doctor and biologist based in Sheffield, U K. His book Viro/ution is published by HarperColl i ns. He is the authorof a series of five review articles on the impact of viral symbiosis on medical genetics, published in the

Journa/ of the Roya/ Society of Medicine (va 1 102, p 272, p 324, p 415, p 474 and p 530) 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 35

36 / NewScientist / 30 January 2010

We are storing our knowledge i n ever more fra g i l e and ephemera l forms. If anyth i n g goes wrong, we cou ld lose much of i t warn Tom S imonite and M ichael Le Page

f Now we k now It ... ·






N MONTH XI, 15th day, Venus in the west disappeared, 3 days in the liky it stayed away. In monthXI, 18th day, Venus in the east became visible." What's remark<>J:�!c: "tum these oDservations of Venus is that they were made about 3500 years ago, by Babylonian astrologers. We know about them because a clay tablet bearing a record of these ancient observations, called the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, was made 1000 years later and has survived largely intact. Today, it can be viewed at the British Museum in London. We, of course, have knowledge undreamt of by the Babylonians. We don't just peek at

Venus from afar, we have sent spacecraft there. Our astronomers now observe planets round alien suns and peer across vast chasms of space and time, back to the beginning of the universe itself. Our industrialists are transforming sand and oil into ever smaller and more intricate machines, a form of alchemy more wondrous than anything any alchemist ever dreamed of. Our biologists are tinkering with the very recipes for life itself, gaining powers once attributed to gods. Yet even as we are acquiring ever more extraordinary knowledge, we are storing it in ever more fragile and ephemeral forms. If our civilisation runs into trouble, like all others before it, how much would survive? Of course, in the event ofa disaster big enough to wipe out all humans, such as a colossal asteroid strike, it would not really matter. Even if another intelligent species evolved on Earth, almost all traces of humanity would have vanished long before. Let's suppose, however, that something less cataclysmic occurs, that many buildings remain intact and enough people survive to rebuild civilisation after a few decades or centuries. Suppose, for instance, that the global financial system collapses, or a new virus kills most ofthe world's population, or a solar storm destroys the power grid in North America. Or suppose there is a slow decline as soaring energy costs and worsening environmental disasters take their toll. The increasing complexity and interdependency of society is making civilisation ever more vulnerable to such events (New Scientist, 5 April 2008, p 28 and p 32). Whatever the cause, if the power was cut off to the banks of computers that now store

much of humanity's knowledge, and people stopped looking after them and the buildings housing them, and factories ceased to churn out new chi ps and drives, how long would all our knowledge survive? How much would the survivors of such a disaster be able to retrieve decades or centuries hence? Even in the absence of any catastrophe, the loss of knowledge is already a problem. We are generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media. Much of what it is being lost is hardly essential - future generations will probably manage fine without all the family photos and videos you lost when your hard drive died ­ but some is. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that the US had "forgotten" how to make a secret ingredient of some nuclear warheads, dubbed Fogbank. Adequate records had not been kept and all the key personnel had retired or left the agency responSible. The fiasco ended up adding $69 million to the cost of a warhead refurbishment programme. In the event of the power going off for an extended period, humanity's legacy will depend largely on the hard drive, the technology that functions as our society's working memory. Everything from the latest genome scans to government and bank records to our personal information reside on hard drives, most ofthem found inside rooms full of servers known as data centres. Hard drives were never intended for long­ term storage, so they have not been subjected to the kind of tests used to estimate the lifetimes offormats like CDs. No one can be sure how long they will last. Kevin Murrell, a trustee of the UK's national museum of computing, recently switched on a > 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 37

- 1

- fincreasingly commonplace are even less 456 megabyte hard drive that had been powered down since the early 1980s. "We had resilient than hard drives. How long they will no problems getting the data off at all," he says. preserve dad is not clear, as no independent tests have been performed, but one maker Modern drives might not fare so well, warns users not to trust them for more than though. The storage density on hard drives 10 years. And while some new memory is now over 200 gigabits per square inch and still climbing fast. While to day's drives have technologies might be inherently more stable than flash, the focus is on boosting speed and sophisticated systems for compensating for the failure of small sectors, in general the capacity rather than stability. Of course, the conditions in which media more bits of data you cram into a material, the are stored can be far more important than more you lose if part of it becomes degraded or damaged. What's more, a decay process that their inherent stability: drives that stay dry and cool will last much longer than those would leave a large-scale bit of data readable exposed to heat and damp. Few data centres are designed to maintain such conditions for "A centu ry or so after the long if the power goes off, though. A lot are power goes off, l ittl e "fi l l located in ordinary buildings, some in areas vulnerable to earthquakes or flooding. And if rema i n of the di gital age civilisation dlid collapse, who knows what uses except what's on paper" the resource-starved survivors might find for old hard drivbs? The physical survival of stored data, however, is jUlst the start of the problem of could destroy some smaller-scale bits. "The jury is still out on modern discs. We won't retrieving it, as space enthusiasts Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing have discovered. know for another 20 years," says Murrell. Most important data is backed up ob They have been leading a project, based at formats such as magnetic tape or optical discs. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Unfortunately, many of those formats cannot California, to retrieve high-resolution images be trusted to last even five years, says Joe Iraci, from old magnetic tapes. The tapes contain raw data sent back from the five Lunar Orbiter who studies the reliability of digital media at the Canadian Conservation Institute in missions in the 1960s. At the time, only low-resolution images could be retrieved. Ottawa, Ontario. Iraci's "accelerated ageing" tests, which The tapes were wrapped in plastic, placed in magnetically impervious metal canisters and typically involve exposing media to high remain in pristine condition. "It is a miracle heat and humidity, show that the most stable optical discs are recordable CDs with a from my experience with similar commercial tapes of a similar age," says Wingo. reflective layer of gold and a phthalocyanine dye layer. "!fyou go with that disc and record it But to get the raw data off the tapes, the well, I think it could very well last fOr loO years," team first had to restore old tape drives saved by a former NASA employee. That was the he says. " If you go with something else you could be looking at a 5 to 10 year window." biggest challenge, says Cowing. "There was a lizard living inside one of them." Once they The flash-memory drives that are

Our civilisation's

growing,complexity is making it ever m ore vul nerable

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38 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

40 Years







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began to retrieve the raw data, converting it into a usable form was only possible after a three-month search uncovered a document with the "demodulation" equations. If today it takes a bunch of enthusiasts with plenty of funding many months to retrieve the data from a few well-preserved magnetic tapes, imagine the difficulties facing those post-catastrophe. Even with a plentiful supply of working computers to read hard drives, recovering data would not be easy. Much data nowadays is encrypted or readable only using specialised software. And in a data centre left untouched for 20 or 30 years, some drives would need disassembling to retrieve their data, says Robert Winter, a senior engineer with Kroll Ontrack Data Recovery in Epsom, Surrey, UK, which in 2003 rescued the data on a hard drive from the space shuttle Columbia. Indeed, rescuing data if things go wrong can be tricky, even in today's fully powered world.

STO R E IT F O R M I LL E N N I A The current strategy for preserving important data is to store several copies in different places, sometimes in different digital formats. This can protect

Part of the trouble is that there is no market i n eternity. Proposals to make a paper format that could store digital data for centuries using symbols

02008, holds descriptions and texts of 1000 languages. The nickel discs are etched with text that starts at a normal size and rapidly shrinks to

against localised disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes,

akin to bar codes have faltered due to a lack of commercial

microscopic. At a size readable at 1000 times magnification, each

but it will notwork i n the long run. 'There really is no digital standard that could be counted

interest and the challenge of packing the data densely enough to be useful.

disc can hold 30,000 pages of text or images. The institute is considering creating a d igital

on in the very long term, in the scenario that we drop the ball,"

Perhaps the only data format that comes close to rivalling

version using a form of bar code. If we did have a way to store

says Alexander Rose, head of The Long Now Foundation, a California-based organisation

paper for stability and digital media for data d ensity is the Rosetta Disk. The first d isc, made in what its creators call

digital data long-term, the next question would be what to preserve, and h ow to keep it

dedicated to long¡term thinking.

safe but easily discoverable.

help ofa retired engineer who had worked on similar systems. Without expert help like this, retrieving data from the tapes would have taken a lot longer, Cowing says. A century or so after a major catastrophe, little of the digital age will remain beyond what's written on paper. "Even the worst kind of paper can last more than 100 years," says Season Tse, who works on paper conservation at the Canadian Conservation Institute. The oldest surviving "book" printed on paper dates from AD 868, he says. It was found in a cave in north-west China in 1907. Providing books are not used as a handy fuel, or as toilet paper, they will persist for several hundred years, brittle and discoloured Top of the pops but still legible. Again, though, the most What's more, what is likely to survive the popular tomes are the most likely to survive. longest from today's digital age is not Imagine risking your life exploring dangerous ruins looking for ancient wisdom only to find necessary the most important. The more a long-hidden stash of Playboy magazines. copies - backups - there are of any piece of It is not just what survives but the choices of data, the greater the chances of its survival, Last year, for instance, after some servers discovery and retrieval. Some data is much those who come after that ultimately decide a civilisation's legacy, however. And those doing malfunctioned, it took Microsoft many weeks copied because it is so useful, like operating the choosing are more likely to pick the useful to recover most of the personal data of users systems, but mostly it is down to popularity. That means digital versions of popular than the trivial. A culture of rational, empirical of Sidekick cellphones. enquiry that developed in one tiny pocket of music and even some movies might survive Post-catastrophe, the lack of resources ­ of people, expertise, equipment - might be the ancient Greek empire in the 6th century many decades: Abba might just top the pop a far bigger obstacle than the physical loss BC has survived ever since, says classicist Paul charts again in the 22nd century. However, of data. And resources are likely to be scarce. there are far fewer copies of the textbooks Cartledge ofthe University of Cambridge, despite not being at all representative of the and manuals and blueprints containing the Restarting an industrial civilisation might be period's mainstream culture. kind of distillation of specialised knowledge a lot harder the second time round, because that might matter most to those trying to we have used up mostofthe easily available As long as the modern descendant of this culture of enquiry survives, most of our rebuild civilisation, such as how to smelt resources, from oil to high-grade ores. iron or make antibiotics. Would the loss of most of the data stored scientific knowledge and technology could be Perhaps the most crucial loss will occur rediscovered and reinvented sooner or later. on hard drives really matter? After all, much of If it does not survive, the longest-lasting what we have inherited from past civilisations after half a century or so, as any surviving legacy of our age could be all-time best-sellers engineers, scientists and doctors start to is of little practical use: the Venus Tablet of succumb to old age. Their skills and know-how like Quotationsfrom Chairman Mao, Scouting Ammisaduqa, for instance, consists largely of astrological mumbo jumbo. Similarly, an would make a huge difference when it comes for Boys and The Lord of the Rings. â&#x20AC;˘ to finding important information and getting awful lot of what fills up the world's servers, Tom S i m o n ite is a technology news editor, and key machinery working again. The NASA tape from online shops to the latest celeb videos, Michael Le Page a features editor, at New Scientist seems dispensable too. drives, for instance, were restored with the Even the value of much scientific data is questionable. What use would it be knowing the genome sequence of humans and other organisms, for instance, without the technology and expertise needed to exploit this knowledge? With some scientific experiments now generating petabytes of data, preserving it all is already becoming a major challenge. The vast quantity of material will be a problem for anyone trying to recover whatever they regard as important: while it is relatively easy to find a book you are after in a library, there is usually no way to be sure what's on a hard drive without revving it up.

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 39

Why d o some jokes leave us rol l i n g i n the a i sles, wh ile others have us rol l ing our eyes? Da niel Elkan looks for h i s sense of hu mour

40 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010



polar bears are perched on a block offloating ice. One says to the other: "Do you know, I keep thinking it's Thursday. . . " To some, this kind of surreal humour is side-splitting. Others are baffled by it and can't even raise a smile. Yet despite the importance of humour to human psychology, it is only the advances in brain imaging during the past decade that have enabled neuroscientists to pin down how the brain reacts when a joke tickles us. Armed with this knowledge, they are now solving the puzzle of why some jokes are funny to some people but leave others cold.

So what is a joke, exactly? Most theories agree that one condition is essential: there must be some kind of incongruity between two elements within the joke, which can be resolved in a playful or unexpected way. Take the following exchange from the classic British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, when an anxious "Del Boy" Trotter visits his doctor for a heart check-up. "Do you smoke, Mr Trotter?" asks the doctor. "Not right now, thank you doctor," he responds. The joke's incongruity, of course, lies in the unlikely offer of a cigarette by a doctor to a patient concerned about his heart. It is only

once we understand the mismatch that we get the joke. "Humour seems to be a product of humans' ability to make rapid, intuitive judgements" about a situation, followed by "slower, deliberative assessments" which resolve incongruities, says Karli Watson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But which parts of the brain carry out these processes? To find out, Joseph Moran, then at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, used functional MRI to scan the brains of volunteers while they watched popularTV sitcoms. The experiments revealed a distinct pattern of neural activity that occurs in response to a funny joke, with the left posterior temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus seeing the most activity. These regions are normally linked to language comprehension and the ability to adjust the focus of our attention, which would seem to correspond to the process of incongruity-resolution at the heart ofagood joke (Neurolmage, VOI Zl, p lOSS). Further research, conducted by Dean Mobbs, then at Stanford University in California, uncovered a second spike of activity in the brain's limbic system - associated with dopamine release and reward processing足 which may explain the pleasure felt once you "get" the joke (Neuron, vol 40, p 1041). Examining one particular part of the limbic system - the ventral striatum - was especially revealing, as its level of activity corresponded with the perceived funniness ofa joke. "It's the same region that is involved in many different

"Humour is a far more complex process than pri m eval pleasures l i ke sex or food"

Humour i s a u n iversal

human characteristic. It may even define u s

types of reward, from drugs, to sex and our favourite music," says Mobbs, now at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. "Humour thus taps into basic rewards systems that are important to our survival." Yet humour is a far more complex process than primeval pleasures like sex or food. In addition to the two core processes of getting the joke and feeling good about it, jokes also activate regions of the frontal and cingulate cortex, which are linked with association formation, learning and decision-making (Cerebral Cortex, vol l?, P314). The team also found heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex - regions that are only present in humans and, in a less developed form, great apes. Indeed, the fact that these regions are involved suggests that humour is an advanced ability which may have only evolved in early humans, says Watson, who conducted the research. > 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 41

H u m o u r i n yo u r head

These are the regions ofthe brain involved i n our appreciation of jokes, and even the areas associated with specific types of humour

Primary regions • Left posterior temporal gyrus

Left i nferior frontal gyrus • Temporoparietal junction These regions are fundamental in grasping the relationship between the incongruous elements atthe heart of ajoke


• The ventral striatum

extrastriate cortex

Associated with the pleasurable feeling we get once we appreciate ajoke. The greater the activity observed, the funnier the joke is perceived to be

NONSENSE H UMOUR prefrontal cortex

SOCIAL HUMOUR frontoinsular cortex



hi ppocampus

anterior cingulate cortex

What your sense of humour says about you Most types of humour, including jokes

scripts and integrating this

it's through art, travel, music or

and cartoons, rely on some kind of incongruity between two elements

information seems to be a more complex process than simply laughing

an unconventional living style. When processing any type of funny

that needs a second's thought before it can be understood. The extent to which this mismatch can be resolved

about nonsense." she says. The degree to which Samson's volunteers "got" the joke was reflected

cartoon. experience seekers showed greater activity in the TPJ, hippocampus and prefrontal areas of

differs between jokes, however. Some have a clean punchline that

in one small region of the brain called the temporoparietal j unction (TPj),

the brain than their fellow subjects. which might reflect their adventurous

ties up all the loose ends. while in "nonsense" h umour the incongruity can only be partially resolved, leaving

with the most activity occurring when the resolvable cartoonswere viewed but no activity for the unfunny control

mindset. says Samson. "The hippocampus is an area known to p rocess novel stimuli."

a gap in the person's u ndersta nding. The cartoons to the right should give some idea of the difference between the two styles of joke. For years, nonsensejokes

she says. "It could be that humorous stimuli give experience seekers an opportunity for mental exploration of novelty. and this 'lights up' the hippocampus."

have been considered to be more sophisticated and philosophical than classic. resolvable humour (known technically as "incongruity-resolution humour") - consider the reputation

images (Neuropsychologia. vol 47. p 1023). The surreal cartoons fell somewhere in between. "Although the attempt to resolve the incongruity is present with nonsense humour. this effort does not lead to a complete resolution of the incongruity and therefore to less activation of the TPJ." says Samson. What's more, if someone failed to

of Monty Python's Flying Circus compared with that of Friends, for

get the joke. the rostral cingulate zone of the brain became more

(NeUropsychologia. vol 45. p 2874).

example. "It was previously thought that nonsense h umour was more complex in terms of thought process,"

active - a region thought to pick u p on errors in the way we behave and monitor conflicts.

when the experience seekers viewed the surreal cartoons. Importantly. unlike the other subjects. their brains


responded most strongly to the nonsense h umour ratherthan the

Indeed. a previous study at the U niversity of Kentucky in Lexington found that experience seekers have greater hippocampal vol ume. which would seem to fit with this result The d ifference was most marked

says psychologist Andrea Samson at the University of Fribourg. Switzerland. Samson's recent work suggests otherwise. When comparing MRI scans of people as they viewed both straight and nonsense humour. she found that straight humour evoked

Not everyone reacted more strongly to resolvable h umour, however; those with one particular personality type found the surreal cartoons more rewarding. These people, dubbed

significantly more brain activity than a surreal joke in most volunteers.

"experience seekers". are defined by a desire to pursue novel sensations,

incongruity-resolution humour. Samson reckons that the nonsense h umour may allow the experience seeker's inquisitive brains even more opportunity for exploration than the resolvable humour, which could explain

"Making sense out of opposed

stimulation and experiences. whether

their preference.

42 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

"Nor ItQrgl�·. ClUJrl�e - ndrrow boars. "

Resolvable cartoons (top) and "nonsense" ones ( bottom) appeal to people with different personality types

No two brains are the same, however, and how these differences are reflected in our sense of humour is the subject of much research. Men and women, for example, seem to process jokes slightly differently. Although both sexes laugh at roughly the same number of jokes, women show greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex than men (Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences, vol 102, p 16496). "This suggests a greater degree of executive processing and language-based decoding," says Mobbs. As a result, women take significantly longer

The mechanics of ajoke

"Women take sign ificantly longer than men to decide whether or not they find someth ing funny than men to decide whether they find something funny, though that doesn't seem to spoil their enjoyment ofthe joke. Indeed, women show a greater response in the limbic system than men, suggesting they feel a greater sense of reward. Perhaps unsurprisingly, personality also appears to play a key role in humour. Mobbs has shown that people who are classed as extrovert and emotionally stable have increased activity in reward areas of the brain during exposure to funny stimuli. Neurotic The cartoon below people, in contrast, have less ofa reward represents a visual pun, while below-right is a response compared with the average person "theory-of- mind" joke (Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences, vol 102, p 16502). "This suggests that personality style may be important in how we process humour," Mobbs says.

Twisted logic Whether our neural circuitry can explain specific preferences for certain types of humour remains an open question. To investigate, Andrea Samson at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland used MRI to scan volunteers' brains while they looked at 90 different non-verbal cartoons reflecting various styles of humour. As a control, the volunteers also viewed pictures that could not be interpreted in any meaningful or funny way. Surprising results emerged from that experiment. Although you might expect the subject matter- music or politics, for example - to determine joke preference, Samson found that it is the way a joke is solved that is most important. "The logic by which the incongruity is resolved matters most, in terms of what kind of person a joke appeals to," she says (see "What your sense of humour says about you", left). There is a serious note to this work. The researchers hope that pinning down the brain processes involved in understanding jokes

Most jokes can be divided into certai n "logical mechanisms" that determine

impaired ability to empathise with other people. Some previous studies

which cognitive process your mind goes through before it understan ds the h umour.

had found that people with autism have trouble understanding jokes, b ut since these studies hadn't

Many cartoons, for example, rely on our u nderstanding of other people,

considered different styles of humour, it wasn't clear whether they were

playing on the fact that one character doesn't understand what the other is thi nking. To get the joke you need a

unable to understand all kinds of humour, or whether itwas simply theory-ot-mind style jokes that

"theory of mind", allowing you to understand the d ifferent state of

had them stumped. Samson decided to investigate.

mind of each character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, brain scans have shown that a reas involved in social cognition are activated when viewing this kind of cartoon.

She found that while volunteers with Asperger's syndrome had difficulty understanding and appreciating theory-of-mind-based cartoons, they enjoyed visual puns, which do not rely

The degree to which we empathise with others has a profound impact on our appreciation at this kind at joke.

on empathy, to the same extent as a control group. "Visual puns are much more abstract than theory-at-mind

Andrea Samson at the U niversity of Fribourg, Switzerland, showed this

cartoons;' says Samson. "To understand the joke, you have to

when she compared the responses at people with two different personality

realise that one visual element reters simultaneously to two meanings."

types. It turned out that "empathisers", who identify emotions and thoughts in others and respond appropriately,

Some researchers had suspected that an element of empathy is needed for all kinds of humour - notjust

found the theory-at-mind jokes much funnier than "systemisers", who

theory-ot-mindjokes. But the tact that people with Asperger's syndrome

preterto thinkaboutthings in logical, abstract terms. At the far end of this scale are

get these visual puns shows that they don't lack an overall sense of humour, says Samson, just that they are poorly

people with autism, who have an

equipped to "get" a certain type ot joke.

o a

- Q I I

m '


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\ '

Cats make lousy lab pets.

could shed light on a number of medical conditions. Mobbs, for example, hopes that studying humour will provide insights into depression. "It is believed that the reward system is disrupted in depression and it would be interesting to see if this deficit extends to more complex social processes such as humour," he says. Samson, meanwhile, hopes it could contribute to our understanding of autism. Previous research has suggested that people with autism have difficulty understanding comedy, but her work shows that they can understand and appreciate

certain types of jokes as well as anyone (see "The mechanics ofa joke", above). This could change the way we interact with autistic children, she says. More than anything, the recent research confirms the fact that humour, an oft-neglected trait when considering our cognitive skills, requires a tremendous amount of brain power. "Getting a joke would seem - on the surface­ to be a very trivial, intuitive process. But brain imaging is showing us that there is more going on than we might think," says Samson. â&#x20AC;˘ Daniel Elkan is a freelance journalist based in London 30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 43


compelling technologies emerge only for us to discover that their Piracy: The intellectual property wars poor, early-stage design has some fram Gutenberg to Gates by Ad ri a n unattractive side effects. For johns, University of Chicago Press, $35 example, technologies like Google's search-term-sensitive Reviewed by Tom Simonite Adwords system treats people as little more than a distributed YOU might think that prior to the array of dumb revenue-generating Piracy 20th century, machines, matching people to � -" ads in the same soulless way "piracy" only referred to nautical that Midi music software only shenanigans. But picks out stark notes, with no A,M" J" .' English stationers harmonic nuance. This is good knockabout in the 17th century stuff, and Lanier clearly enjoys labelled colleagues who printed unauthorised versions of other rethinking received tech wisdom: people's work "land-pirats". his book is a refreshing change Adrian Johns's weighty history from Silicon Valley's usual hype. fills the years since with quotable anecdotes and lively portraits of Unifying biology wily information thieves who copied everything from telephone Here be Dragons: How the study network codes to an entire of animal and plant distributions electronics company. Along the revolutionised our view oflife on way he assembles a good body of Earth by D e nn i s McCarthy, Oxford evidence to support the idea that University Press, $29.95/£15.99 the urge to "borrow" information Reviewed by Adrian Barn ett is a core part of human nature, THIS book's even ifthe means of doing so have changed over the years. aim is to put Now, Johns sees Google's move biogeography the study of the to digitise the world's books and distribution of the growing open access movement in science publishing biodiversity over time - centre stage as hints that we are on the brink of an intellectual-property as a unifying revolution. Plus <;:a change. princi pie of modern biology, establishing it as both a key disci pline that led to modern Don't buy the hype evolutionary theory and as an elucidator of evolution's You Are Not a Gadget: A manifesto processes. It succeeds nobly. by jaron La n ier, Knopf, $24.95 Along the way, Dennis Reviewed by Pau l Marks McCarthy reveals fascinating JARON LANIER, facts, including the location of an octopus-loving the ancient map that says "Here _U-L "I"r.QT Silicon Valley be Dragons". There are a few software engineer historical wobbles, but the science ;:==--� is firm and buttressed with a �-.:.= who pioneered i!=" 'virtual reality pleasant combination of painstaking detail and infectious technology, has a '--_ -_ _ -----' few bones to pick. enthusiasm. Even McCarthy's lack The technology industry, he says, of references and his slightly treats people like machines to strident anti-creationist tone be processed for profit. In this cannot detract from the fresh sparky, thought-provoking rant approach he brings to an aspect on How Things Should Be, Lanier of evolutionary theory that has complains that, too often, long been neglected.

Information, ho!

Looki ng for God Both atheists a n d believers sea rch for m ea n i n g i n this p h i l os o p h i ca l n ovel with so u l

At first Cass is an annoyingly hapless character, until we realise of God by Rebecca Goldstei n, that his haplessness is that of Pantheon, $27.95 humanity in the face of the Reviewed by Amanda Gefter "tremendousness of our ANYONE who improbable existence". For while Goldstein's recipe at times seems has read Rebecca Goldstein's novels two parts philosophy and only knows her one part storytelling, the novel is remarkable knack ultimately one about what Cass's for combining mentor calls psychopoiesis, or abstract "soul-making". philosophical From Cass's girlfriend, Lucinda, who has to choose between her ideas with the all-too-concrete dramas of everyday life. In36 own career and living in Cass's Arguments she has done it again. shadow, to Azarya, the mathematical prodigy who has The story begins with Cass Seltzer, a psychologist of religion, to choose between life as a Hasidic leader and the pursuit of genius, being thrust into the spotlight Goldstein's characters struggle after the publication of his book The Varieties ofRelig ious Illusion. to define themselves and carve out meaning in a seemingly Considered an antidote to the Dawkins's of the world, Cass meaningless universe. Goldstein is, as always, a is the " atheist with a soul". His lovely and thoughtful writer. understanding of religious Her respect and understanding experience is a nuanced one, for her characters might well earn honed from years ofliving as an exiled Hasidic Jew and from studies her the epithet "philosophical novelist with a soul". under a religious philosopher. 36 Arguments for the Existence

44 1 NewScientist 1 30 january 2010

' {TNlf'·l'T

For more reviews and to add your comments, visit·art

a third approach: let ageing happen, but simply replace the worn-out parts with bioengineered substitutes, much like vintage car buffs who keep A ro ugh g u i d e to l iv i ng longer, fro m horm o n e their vehicles running for decades by repairing the broken bits. th e ra p i es to vo l u nta ry starvatio n As he sorts through all this, Critser seems drawn to the book dealt with the modern eccentrics and fruit-loops that Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End epidemic of obesity, takes readers inhabit the fringes of the field. Aging by Greg Critser, Harmony, $26 on an entertaining romp through Unfortunately, this often Reviewed by Bob Hol mes some of the leading ideas on leads him to neglect the less flamboyant scientists in the EVER since Spanish how to extend our lifespan, explorer Ponce introducing us to a wide range mainstream. For example, one of oddball characters en route. potential treatment for ageing 1£ 1' 1<: 11 I n de Leon went hunting for the One of the most reliable ways involves preventing the gradual oL l Fountain of Youth, to get mice to live longer, for erosion of telomeres, the caps at the visionaries the ends of each chromosome. example, is to chronically who have sought underfeed them - so Critser There has been plenty of t.1f, F f. f H IT"' � L_ to avoid growing visits a meeting of the Caloric good work done on the role old have been noted more for Restriction Society. In the telomeres play in ageing - with their enthusiasm - some would expectation of living longer, inconclusive res ults - but say for their gullibility - than for this dedicated group of people Critser largely ignores this in solid science. No longer, though: voluntarily starve themselves favour of a former farm­ the past few years have seen an implement salesman hawking sometimes eating meals gram explosion of sober research on by gram from a pharmacist's an unproven plant extract alleged the biology of ageing, and we now weighing scale, or meditating over to preserve telomeres. know that it is indeed possible a breakfast offive blueberries and I was left with the sense that to greatly extend the lifespans three potato chips. Critser himself isn't sure what to of every sort of organism from believe and what to scoff at, so he Others claim that the secret to tosses us all the possibilities to let yeast to mice. The time is keeping ageing at bay is to us make up our own minds. That certainly ripe to ask what this maintain youthful levels of hormones such as testosterone certainly makes for an emerging science means for our own chances ofliving, say, and growth hormone, and Critser entertaining read, but New 150 years. talks to some of the most vocal Scientist readers are likely to feel doctors touting these hormonal that when it comes to the meat of This is the terrain Greg Critser sets out to explore. Critser, an therapies, as well as some of the the science, Critser's book is rather sceptics. Then we're off to look at American journalist whose last meagre fare.

El ixi rs of youth

_ _ _

That's just one of many incidents in this gripping book that show how the authorities often find themselves out of their depth when criminals get to grips with doing "business" internet-style. Lyon eventually went undercover on his own to pursue criminals who were extorting money from the then-fledgling internet economy and helped bring some to justice. But there are more villains than heroes in this real-life thriller, which suggests the internet may have to be redesigned to prevent it being made unusable by hackers, mobsters and even governments using it for nefarious ends.

Memoir of a m ind The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt Sceptre, £12.99 (and by Henry Holt N Co in the US in March, $23)

Reviewed by Celeste Biever

NOVELIST Siri Hustvedt was giving a talk in '".�:�' .''' honour ofher late : on father when the "speechless alien" first attacked. "My L....... arms flapped. My knees knocked . . . It appeared as if some unknown force had suddenly taken over my body," sh e writes. The seizures have struck many times since, inspiring Hustvedt to try to understand the mind. True cybercrimes Her eloquent account flits between philosophy, science and Fatal System Error by Joseph Menn, anecdotes from the writing classes Perseus $25.95, £15.99 she runs for psychiatric patients, as well as her own experiences of SELF-TAUGHT those seizures, migraines, voices hacker Barrett in her head and a heightened perceptual awareness. Lyon was thrilled Hustvedt explores many grey when a secret service agent areas - between mind, brain and joined him to help body, sleep and wakefulness, defend a Vegas consciousness and reality, truth bookmaker against and confabulation. In the process cyberattacks by Kazakhstani she shows how hard it is to study hackers in 2002. Lyon hoped to the mind objectively. How apt, learn a thing or two from a pro, then, that her account is stitched but instead the agent dusted a together by a delightfully computer for fingerprints. subjective novelist's pen. • "


. I


TO. "

_ _ _

30 January 2010 1 NewScientist 1 45


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46 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

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BIOLOGY Post- doctoral Research Fellow - Harvard Medical School, Boston - Academia

I nstitute

AB - Alberta

include pre-formulation, formulation

M E - Maine

Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship

characterization, stability studies,

Qualified candidates should have

in Genetic/Molecular Epidemiology

drug p roduct development, and

strong postdoctoral training

and Gene-Environment Interactions

manufacturing support,

and track-records, plus exciting

This position is ideal for a recent

new lines of investigation

graduated PhD who wishes to do a

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200691134

Bri gham and Women's Hospital &

in mind, Positions include

Post Doctoral focusing on research

Harvard Medical School

competitive start-up packages,

studies surrounding molecular

MA - Massachusetts

and opportunities for faculty

epidemiology and cancer risk under

The applicant will receive training in

appointments at the University of

the supervision of Dr, Marty Slattery,

enzyme biochemistry, cell biology,

Maine and Tufts University Medical

and murine models of lung disease,


State of the art techniques and

For more information visit job 10: 200689508

For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200691123

equipment for molecular biology, cellular imaging murine model ,

Postdoctoral Position to Study Mouse Genetic Models of Cerebrovascular Disease University of California, San Francisco (USCF) CA - California

M edical College of Georg ia

Assistant Professor of OncologylVirology, University of WisconsinMadison

GA - Georgia

Medical Col lege of Wisconsin

study a novel mouse genetic model

The qualified candidate must

WI - Wisconsin

of cerebrovascular disease at the

possess a PhD, in Biology, Biological

The McArdle Laboratory for Cancer

UCSF School of Medicine in San

Business Development Managers x 3 - Clinical Pharma

Sciences, Life Sciences or other

Research / Depa rtment of Oncology


related field; a proven i nterest in

and the Institute of Molecular

cancer research; excellent English

Virology are seeking outstanding

Evolution Life Sciences

skills (both written and verbal); and

candidates for a joint tenure-track,

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200691143


current U,S, work authorization,

assistant professor position in the

Our client is a listed company with

For more information visit NewScientistjobs,com job 10: 200689513

area of cancervirology,

systems will be available to the applicant.

For more information visit job 10: 200689077

a proprietary discovery technology platform used in the creation of

Post Doctoral Fellow

novel small compounds that differs

For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200690647

sharply from the prevailing synthetic

Postdoctoral Position to Study Mouse Genetic Models of Cerebrovascular Disease A postdoctoral position is available to

Postdoctoral Position to Study Mouse Genetic Models of Retinal Degeneration University of California, San

chemistry and protein engineering


approaches in the pharmaceutical

Alberta Cancer Board

Francisco (USCF)

Scientist I

CA - California

industry today.

AB - Alberta

Medimmune US

We are using genetic and cell

For more information visit job 10: 200688537

Cu rrent studies focus on the

CA - California

biological approaches (modifier

role of physical activity in cancer

Primary responsibility is the care,

screens, conditional mutations and

prevention, rehabilitation and

maintenance, and operation of

mutant allelic series) to characterize

a BO LSRI I flow cytometer, This

the pathology and determine the

exogenous hormones in the

responsibility encompasses the

primary disease mechanism(s),

etiology of reproductive cancers;

development of multicolor (up

knowledge, attitudes, and

to 9 color) cytometric assays,

ImCione Systems

practices of the public and health

surface staining, intracellular

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200691142

NY - New York

professionals regarding cancer

staining, and flow-based functional

Our deep expertise in molecular

screening procedures; nutritional.

assays (proliferation lytic activity,

biology, oncology, genomics and

and molecular epidemiology and

degranulation, signalling),

antibody engineering has helped

statistical methods for studies

For more information visit N job 10: 200691135

survival; endogenous and

Senior Scientist #115481 New York, NY

us establish a robust pipeline of

involving genetic data,

products that are in various stages

For more information visit job 10: 200691131

of clinical development and span virtually all major solid tumor types,

For more information visit job 10: 200689509

Faculty Position in Stem and Progenitor Cell Biology

Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship in Geneticl Molecular Epidemiology and Gene-Environment Interactions

Maine Medical Center Research

Alberta Cancer Board

48 1 NewScientist 1 3 0 January 2010


Research Associate (Assistant Professor) U niversity of Ch i cag o

I L - I llinois

The primary activity of this position is completing scientific research in

Scientist II/Senior Scientist

conjunction with a faculty member

Medimmune US

and research team, Qualifications:

CA - Cal ifornia

Applicants are req uired to possess

The candidate will conceptualize,

a PhD, in Microbiology or Molecular

plan, and provide laboratory

Virology, plus fouryears of

leadership for biologic vaccine

postdoctoral training experience,

formulation and drug product

as well as an excellent publication

development. Major responsibilities



For more information visit job 1 0: 200691133

Post-doctoral Position Available Immediately

MO - M i ssouri There is an immediate opening within the Regulatory Environmental Assessment Team for a mid to senior-level agronomist

Dana·Farber Cancer Institute, Department of Cancer Immunology & AIDS, is


seeking a post·doctoral fellow with expertise in mo lecul a r virology to join a

d ynami c team involved in st udyi n g lentiviral pathogenesis and host immunity

Canada Research Chair- Tier 2 (NSERC)

/ crop scientist. The successful

Un iversity of Man itoba

greenhouse and field agronomic

tra in ing


and plant assessment studies

virology is required; a strong background i n gene expression ana l ys is is a plu s

The University of Manitoba is

necessary to support worldwide

The successful candidate will have a joint appointment at Harvard Medical School and the Dana·Farber Cancer Institute. I nterested candidates should

candidate will conduct laboratory,

seeking applications or nominations

registration, commercialization

for a Canada Research Chair

and monitoring of agricultural

established by the Government


of Canada to ena ble Canadia n

For more information visit job 10: 200693036

Universities to fosterworld-class research excellence

For more information visit job 1 0: 200691150

Postdoctoral Opportunity at University of Montana Missoula Un iversity of Montana MT - Montana At least two postdoctoral positions funded by the University of Montana's NIH-funded Center for Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Environmental Health Sciences and individual NIH grants are available as part of our training program at CEHS in various fields of investigation including

in primate models. The project involves construction of mutant proviruses

and the analysis of th eir bio l ogy and evolution in primates. The position offers

in p rim ate lentivirology and immunology. Ph.D. in molecular b iol ogy!

se nd their CV and the names of three references by e-mail to: Dr. Ruth Ruprecht, Dana·Farber Cancer Institute

44 Binney Street, Boston, MA 02115 e·mail: ru precht lab _

Applicants must be residing within the U.S. or eligible to work in the U.S. within go days

literature methods, including

Biostatistician (OOORM)

site-specific conjugations and


Bioinformatics Scientist (OOOSQ)

antibody PEGylation. ln addition,

NC - North Caro l i na

the successful applicant will be

Monsanto is seeking highly a


responsibleforthe development

motivated individual to develop

MO - M i ssouri Monsanto is seeking a highly motivated individual who is excited about applying computational tools to large scale biological data for finding gene leads. This position involves i ntensive data mining and genetic network modeling for gene function prediction.

and application of conjugate

innovative predictive models that

For more information visit job 10: 200692929


purification methodology

use multiple data sources to predict

particularly SEC HIC and ion

gene performance. The statistician

exchange chromatography for the

will contribute to the planning and

ADCs prepared.

analysis of crop studies, including

For more information visit job 1 0: 200693509

non-traditional field studies.

Post Doctoral Research Associate Un iversity of Virginia

VA - Virginia

For more information visit Job 10: 200692941

Research Associate, Signal Transduction and Cell Biology of Tumor Metastasis

immunotoxicology, respiratory

Toxicologist (0015W)

Research Associate, Cancer

U niversity of Virginia

diseases, neurotoxicology and


Bioinformatics and Computational

VA - V i rg i nia

environmental epidemiology.

MO M i ssouri Monsanto Company, a global leader in agricultural biotechnology and crop protection chemicals, is seeking a toxicologistto join its Regulatory Product Safety Center

Biology of Drug Response

Postdoctoral position as a research

Biomarkers University of Virginia

associate is available immediately

Postdoctoral position as a resea rch

to study the role of GTPases and

associate is available immediately to

related proteins in cell migration

work i n the discovery and validation

and metastasis. We have identified

of drug response biomarkers in

the Ral GTPase family of proteins

Research Psychologist (205048)

Toxicology Team. This team is


as promoters and RhoGDI family as

responsible for providing global

Henry M Ja ckson Foundation

toxicology and risk assessment

bladder and prostate cancers.

FL Florida

support for crop protection

For more information visit job 1 0: 200695236

Wi II execute the data collection phase of clinical drug trials and

chemicals and assessing the human

For more information visit job 1 0: 200691141


safety of new food

novel suppressors of metastasis in

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200695238

analyze subject data post-trial.

crops developed through

Post Doctoral Fellow

The contractor shall complete all

biotechnology or conventional

Tufts Medica l Center

FDA required reports for clinical


MA - Massachusetts

drug trials. Develops and executes

For more information visit Job 10: 200692722

Tufts Medical Center is a world-class

Plant Physiology Scientist (00095)

academic medical center offering


outstanding patient care to both

protocols for hypoxia testing and collect and analyze subject data

Senior Scientist I Principal Scientist - ADC Development

the most advanced medical science

Pfizer US

with ongoing, innovative

MO - M issouri Monsanto is seeking a PhD level researcherto join our Herbicide Tolerance team in the Biotechnology organization. The successful candidate will have

adults and children, teaching

from these protocols.

For more information visit N job 1 0: 200693470

generations of future physicians and breaking new ground

NY - New York


a strong background in plant

Agronomist/Crop Biologist (0001<7)

Specifically, conjugations to

minimum of 5 years of relevant


lysine will be carried out using

For more information visit job 1 0: 200695243

antibodies through cysteine or

physiology/biochemistry with a laboratory experience.

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 49

For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200693072

GLPs, Safety and Novartis safety

discovery. This will be a collaborative

regulations, may perform

effort between Novartis and Prof.

activities such as: necropsy, handling

Doyle's Lab at MIT.

and weighing laboratory animals,

For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comJob 10: 200698192

organ weighing,

In vitro Target IDNal Scientist

trimming, tissue-processing,

Pfizer US

prepare tissues for frozen

CA - Californ i a

sectioning, cryostat sectioning,

Identify and validate new targets

microtomy, routine & special

paraffin/epoxy resin-embedding,

CHEMISTRY Scientist, Process Development Cell Culture­ ImCione Systems #21535 ImClone Systems Nj - New Jersey

Research Associate ­ Cincinnati, OH - Academic

biology, oncology, genomics and antibody engineering has helped

Our deep expertise in molecular

and biomarkers in cancer using a

staining techniques, cover slipping,

Un iversity of Cincinnati

variety of approaches. This

and QC activities.

Department of Cancer and Cel l

us establish a robust pipeline of

position will emphasize a

For more information visit job 10: 200698167


products that are in various

OH - Ohio

stages of clinical development and

The position is in the department

span virtually all major solid tumor

combined with a variety of

of Cancer and Cell Biology at the


methods to modulate target level

University of Cincinnati College

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200689510

functional approach using advanced cell-based models and assays

or activity

For more i nformation visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200695268

Post-doctoral Position Da na -Farber Cancer Institute

Computational Biologist (Ph.D)

of Medicine, located in the Vontz

Novartis Institutes for

successful candidate is expected

BioMedical Research (US)

to be highly motivated and have

MA - Massachusetts

expertise in routine mouse

Center for Molecular Studies. The


As a member of the Quantitative

maintenance includingtailing,

Biology research team in the

weaning. ear tagging. genotyping

Director Clinical Research­ Onglyza

MA - Massachusetts

Department of Developmental and

by PCR. as well as mouse surgery


Molecular Pathways, you will be

and different injecting methods.

DE - Delaware

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute,

working in a dynamic, agile 'dry-lab'

Department of Cancer Immunology

research environment committed to

involved in the design, conduct,

& AIDS, is seeking a post-doctoral

the discovery of novel drug targets.

For more information visit job 10: 200698563

fellow with expertise in molecular

For more information visit job 10: 200698171

virology to join a dynamic team involved in studying lentiviral

Clinical Research physicians are monitoring, data interpretation and reporting of clinical trials. These individuals must ensure that all

Postdoctoral Fellow

clinical studies operate to the

pathogenesis and host immunity in

Un iversity of Pittsburgh

highest ethical and safety

primate models.

PA - Pennsylvania

standards and in compliance

Molecular Pathologist

A postdoctoral position is available

with GCP and regulatory

Novartis Institutes for

immediately to study ubiquitin­


BioMedical Research (US)

proteolytic system in mice and its

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200680404

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200698574

MA - Massachusetts

role in various physiological and

Help establishing and

pathological processes, including

Scholar in Information Technology and Governance

supervise molecular pathology

cardiovascular homeostasis,

laboratory activities in

chromatin remodeling, chromosome

Harvard U niversity Kennedy

Molecular histopathology

stability, development and signaling

School Of Government

group in Cambridge, MA such


For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200697508

MA - Massachusetts

as; o Immunohistochemistry/

The position is broadly defined to

fluorescence (IHc/IF), in-situ

include scholars and practitioners

hybridisation (ISH) 0 Telepathologyl

in the U.s. and abroad whose

virtual microscopy/quantitative

intellectual activities relate to the

methods in collaboration with other

intersections of technology and

histopathology laboratories within

governance. The search is open to


individuals from varying disciplines,

For more information visit job 10: 200698180

including law. political science, other social sciences, and information

Sr Scientist Product Formulation AstraZeneca

DE - Delaware AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP is seeking a Senior Scientist for its offices in Wilmington, DE to be

Position in cellularl molecular neurophysiology Washington U n iversity School of

responsible for providing expert medical scientific support to project teams in the development

Medici ne, St. Lou is

and understanding of drug

MO - M isso u r i

manufacturing processes.


An NIH-funded position in cellular/

with a particular emphasis on

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200698565

molecular neurophysiology is

solid drug dosage

Postdoctoral Fellow

presently available to study (in


Novartis Institutes for

collaboration with David Ornitz. M.D.,

BioMedical Research (US)

Ph.D.) the role of the intracellular fibroblast growth factor 14, FGF14,

Associate Scientist

MA - Massachusetts This new microfluidic-based

For more i nformation visit job 10: 200680405

Novartis Institutes for

technology will be appl ied to high­

excitabi I ity.

throughput screening for nucleic

For more information visit NewScientistjobs.comjob 10: 200698564

BioMedical Research (US)

NJ - New Jersey

acids, proteins and whole cells, all

In conformance with all SOPs

of which play a vital role in drug

50 I NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

in the regulation of neuronal

Gene Discovery Research Scientist (DD1Dl) Monsanto

motivated individual to become part

Associate Director of Research Management, Program Office

of the Biotechnology organization.

N ovartis I nstitutes for

The Research Scientist will

BioMedical Research (US)

design, execute, and analyze data

MA - Massachusetts

for scientific research

The Associate Director of Research

that is conducted within their

Management Program Office will


be responsible for development

For more information visit job 1 0: 200693098

and project managementtraining

Un ited States Monsanto is seeking highly a

and implementation of project team within NIBR, targeted project management of


discovery projects, and will

Research Scientist (OOOJR)

management competency


framework to be

MO - M isso uri

used by the organization,

The successful candidate will be

For more information visit job 10: 200698166

responsible for supporting the TCR group, one of the groups within the

assist in building a project

molecularteam which performs adventitious presence and purity analysis for multiple crops ensuring the quality and identity of materials used in all Regulatory studies,

For more information visit job 1 0: 200693026

SALES Pharmaceutical Sales Specialist MCl 足 Bloomington; IN AstraZeneca IN - Ind i a n a Function independently with a high degree of sales proficiency.


Develop superior product and disease state knowledge and

Automation Engineer (000J2)

effectively educate and engage


about clinical evidence, approved

healthcare professionals in dialogue

CA - Cal ifo rni a

indications, and product efficacy/

As an Automation Engineer, you

safety profiles to support on-label

will help propose, design, integrate,

prescribing for appropriate

configure, commission, and


maintain hardware and software

For more information visit job 10: 200697429

components of engineered solutions related to high throughout lab and field automation systems.

For more information visit job 1 0: 200692997

Pharmaceuticals Sales Specialist - Medical Care 足 Downtown Buffalo NY AstraZeneca


NY - New York Function independently with a

Statistical Associate

high degree of sales proficiency.

Al be rta Cancer Board

Develop superior product and

AB - Alberta

disease state knowledge and

Our team of Research Scientists

effectively educate and engage

is engaged in cutting-edge

healthcare professionals in dialogue

population-based cancer research

about clinical evidence, approved

including etiology, molecular

indications, and product efficacy/

epidemiology, cancer screening,

safety profiles to support on-label

health services and

prescribing for appropriate



For more information visit job 1 0: 200691129

For more information visit job 10: 200697414

TEM PLE U NIVERS ITY SCHOOL OF MEDICI NE . . . offers opportunities for faculty i n the following c l i nical specialties: Anesthesiology: general , DB, and regional expertise; Cardiology: genera l , echocardiography, heart fai l u re, electrophysiology/arrhythmia management, i nterventional/invasive, structural interventio n , cardiac imaging; Emergency Medicine: academic and c l i nica l ; Family and Community Medicine; Internal Medicine and its subspec ialties, incl ding Cardiology, Endocrinology, He patology, He matology, and Rheu matology; also a board-certified/ e l igibl e Oncologist or H e atologist interested in Bone M arrow Transplant Program ; Neurology a n d its subspecialties o f stroke/critical care, epilepsy, a n d neuromuscular d isorders; Neurosurgery, includi ng a variety of cerebral, spinal , and peripheral nerve d isorders, as we l l as brain and spinal tu mors; Obstetrics/Gynecology: general and maternal fetal medicine, gynecologic oncology; Ophthalmology: genera l , ret ina, and gla ucoma specialties; pediatrics; and pl ast ics, cornea, optometry, and optical sales/service; Orthopedic Surgery: joint replacement/reconst u ction, trauma, spine, hand, general , foot, and ankle, and sports edici ne; Otolaryngology: general, head and neck surgery, neurotol ogy; Pathology: anatomic (surgica l , cytology, autopsy, and hematopathology), c l i n ical ( icrobiology, virology, i m m u nology, transfusion medicine, c l i n ical chemistry, molecular pathology; HLA tissue typing) ; Pediatrics: general ; Physical Medicine and Rehabi litation: muscu loskeletal medicine a n d interventional physiatry; Psychiatry: ad ult in patient and outpatient evaluation and tr a ment , c h i ld and ado escent outpatient evaluation and treatment, crisis i ntervention services, and conSUltation and liaison services; Radiology: general and women's i magin ; Surgery: vascul ar/endovascu lar, genera l , card iothoracic surgery, breast surgery, plastic surgery, oncology, trauma a nd critical care, co on/ e ta l , hepabil iary, bariatrics, transplant; Section Chief, Vascular S rgery ; Urology: urologic oncology, kid ney, prostate and bladder cancer, sexual dysfu nction of men and women, reconstructive urology, stone d isease, erectile dysfunction, stress urinary incontinence, i nferti l ity, neurologic problems of the GU tract, BPH, chronic pelvic pai n , i nterstitial cystitis, infections; Shriners Hospitals Pediatric Research Center (Center for Neural Repair and Rehabilitation ) : spinal cord in ry, ne ro s ula i n ury, cerebral palsy, and brain i njury.











u mu c



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The School of Medicine consists of 7 basic science and 18 c l inical depa ments , and a variety of mult d isci pl i nary research programs and i nstitutes. There are approximately 738 medical students, 1 2 5 grad uate students, 450 ful l-time fac u l y members and 1 200 ad ju nct faculty members. It is affi liated with Temple Un iversity Health System.



To submit curric u l u m vitae or to request further i nformation about a faculty position, please contact the Chairperson, Department of (Specialty), Temple University School of Medicine, 3401 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19 140, Further i nformation about Temple University SchOOl of Medicine is available at

[iffiiJ School of Medicine I!I TEMPLE UNIVERSITY"' Temple Un iversity is an affirmative action/eq u a l opportu nity employer and strongly encourages appl ications from women and minorities.

TEMPLE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE offers opportunities for faculty in the fol/owing basic science disciplines: Bone/carti lage biology Cancer biology Cardiovascular biology Deve lopmenta l biology Drug abuse and addiction Drug combination studies Gene therapy Growth regulation I m munobiology Molecular biology Molecular m i c robiology and pathogenesis Molecular pharmacology Musculoskeletal biology

Neural p lasticity and repair Neuroendocrinology Neuroimm unology Neurovirology Neu ro-oncology Neurodegeneration Neuropharmacology Platelet b i ology Signal transduction Stem cell biology Structural biology Thrombosis and hemostasis Vascular biology Viral oncology

Positions may be ava i l a ble in any of several basic science departments a n d/or research programs and i nstitutes. The School of M e d i c i n e con s i sts of 7 basic sc i e nce and 1 8 cl i n i cal departments, a n d a variety o f multidisc i pl i nary research progra m s and institutes. There are a p p roximate l y 7 3 8 medical students, 1 2 5 graduate students, 450 ful l-ti me facu l ty mem bers a n d , 1 200 adj u n ct faculty mem bers. It is affi l i ated with Tem p l e U n i versity Health Syste m , a major healthcare provider i n t h e Delaware Va l l ey. To s u b m it curric u l u m vitae or to req uest further i n formation about a facu Ity position, p l ease contact the Senior Associate Dean for Facu lty Affa i rs, Temple U niversity School of Medicine, 3500 North Broad Street, Room l l l 1 K, Ph i lade l ph ia, PA 1 9 140. Further i nformation about Temple U n iversity School of M e d i c i n e is ava i l a b l e at http://www. medschooi

liiiiil School of Medicine U TEMPLE UNIVERSITY速

Tem p l e U n iversity is an affirmative action/equal opportun ity employer and strongly encourages appl ications from women and m i norities.

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 51

Discover trade secrets a n d top tips of how to have a successful career with i n the science com m u n ity.

Playing m i n d games We ' l l be show i ng you how to breeze through an i nterview, w i n an argument, and cope with stress, a l l th is a n d more to hel p you get ahead i n the workplace. Use these psychological i nsights to your adva ntage.

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The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) seeks a Grants Manager to support the development and coordination of

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Wolff Harris Choir in Physiology Departmenl of Physiology Olago School of Medical Sciences Division of Health Sciences University of DIogo

A S I A N U N I V E R S I TY FOR WOM E N Asia n University for Women seeks Vice Chance l lor & CEO The Asian

Un iversity for Women, a start-up i n itiative in Chittagong,

Bangladesh with the mission of preparing women of high ability and potential to meet society's challenges and effect positive change locally and throughout the world, is renewing its search for a Vice Chancellor. It seeks an outsta nding leader with proven entrepreneurial and organizational skills in academia, business, governme nt, or non-governmental organizations to lead the University as its Vice Chancellor and CEO. The incumbent will lead a growing and soph isticated international team to create vibrant and healthy

academic and residential programs for students, oversee a sign ificant facilities development program, design and implement systems and processes for sta ble governance and operations of the U niversity, and lead a n on-going global fundra ising effort. The position calls for a passionate and socially empathic leader who has exem plary organizational and com m u nication skills and


deep understanding of the needs of an academic commun ity and intellectual commitment to free inqui ry.

Experience in building a start-up initiative into

maturity would be greatly valued. A fa miliarity with developing Asia and an understa nding of the u n ique challenges of establishing a tertiary academic institution i n such a setting will bolster the incumbent's effective n ess . The Vice Chancellor will have a sa lary of US may be tax-exempted in Bangladesh.

$150,000 to $180,000

In a d d ition,


free housing and a

comprehensive package of benefits are offered. Please direct nominations/appl ications for this position to Mr. David Pattillo, VC Search Coordinator at:

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information on the U n iversity is ava ilable at: or by email req uest.

30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 53

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Looki ng to h i re Post Docs for you r lab? P l ace you r message i n the N ew S c i entist Post Doc R ecru itment N ews Feat u re i n the February 13 i ss u e .


Th is past fa l l we were l ooki ng to fi l l a Postd octora l Pos i t i o n i n Ca rd i ovasc u l ar Genet i cs . H avi ng posted it on N ewS c i e nt istJ o bs . com we rece i ved m a ny more a p p l i cat i o n s t h a n expected . I a m p l eased to say the searc h h as gon e very we l l . M atthew Cu rren , N ew York U n iversity School of M ed i c i ne


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30 January 2010 I NewScientist 1 55

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o HOW smart are the US military's smart bombs? Can they, for example, count? The question is prompted by the observation back in August 2008 on a blog called "Moon of Alabama" that "around the Hindu Kush, 30 is a magic number". The writer found it surprising how many reports of people - whether Taliban or civilians - being killed in Afghanistan put the death toll at 30. So what's going on? Are the missiles and drones counting, then ceasing fire? Marc Abrahams alerts us to a theory about the magic 30 proposed by Megan Carpentier of Air America. Carpentier documents multiple bloggers' attempts at an explanation at biUy/magic30. Her favourite comes from one Marc Gariasco, described as "the Pentagon's chief of high-value targeting at the start of the war". He is quoted on salon.

com as saying that ifan attack was anticipated to kill more than 30 civilians " the air strike had to go to [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld or [President George W.] Bush personally to sign off". So the estimates - always a little difficult to make exact when the explosion has been energetic ­ might be predetermined? Perish the thought.

UNTIDYING Feedback's desk, we find an empty packet that once contained six Cadbury's Mini Rolls. Idly reading the small pri nt we discover that each contained - and we now contai n 3.1 grams of saturated fat (so the six Mini Rolls would add up to an entire day's allowance) a n d packed in 120 calories. Beneath this information appears the legend "To be enjoyed as part of a hea lthy, active lifestyle." What a wonderful phrase! We have visions of a panel of lawyers,

A col leag ue i n Ca nada received a mai lshot from uti lity com pa ny Di rect Energy an nou n ci n g : "Specia l Offer! Free mainten a n ce - only $13,99 a month" 56 1 NewScientist 1 30 January 2010

regulatory consultants and marketing people being responsible forthis gem.

Ruth Wilson of Canberra, Australia, tells us that her young son plays

What other exhortations might such a panel have considered and then

chess online at The site gives a list of all its online

discarded? "Not, i n fact, particularly nutritious" would probably have hit the waste basket fairly early. "Get off your fat b utt, lard-bottom" soon afterwards. Might "So don't sue

players, with a flag to indicate their nationality or location. "We started noticing," Ruth tells us, "a surprising number of players [located] at one spot, in what we

us if you need bigger trousers" ever have been in contention?

call the Gulf of Guinea. Funny place for a cruise ship full of chess players, we thought, especially as it stayed in the one spot week after week. "At one stage my husband

WE FAILED to get to the London Cartoon Museum before Rowland Emett's exhibition of his "Engines of Enchantment" closed at the end of 2009 - so we are grateful to Ken Manley for providing us with E mett's description of his Astroterramere: "a machine equally at home on land, sea or in the air". "The machine," he tells us, "is steam-propelled when sea-borne, petrol-driven on land and has a jet propulsion unit based on almost unknown principles, embracing a centrifugal anti-static energiser, in which rotary condensers, passing between electromagnets, charge pith-balls with alternative negative and positive currents, so that they become confused and run violently up and down the static rods, thus building up a potentially powerful potential in the semi-atomic fully-siphonic closed circuit of especially lightened heavy water." We are delighted by this example of carefully crafted gobbledgook. If it wasn't for the absence of the word " quantum", it would provide a perfect template for the kind of quack-babble we often feature in this column.

TWO weeks ago we learned that jumbo jets once had a tendency to head towards the Atlantic Ocean south of Ghana - specifically, to 0° north by 0° east, otherwise known as zero zero - if their direction wasn't checked and corrected (16 January).

suggested that it could be an oil rig, but there seemed to be fartoo many players there for that. Then one day my son was over there on the online map, despite being right here in Canberra. It took your item about Dublin Ferry Port being located at zero zero (22 August 2009) for us to realise the significance of the spot. Many thanks for that."

FINALLY, it looks as if NASA has chosen its spacecraft to take the next generation of explorers to the moon, notes Geraint Day. On page 13 of the press kit "Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO):

Leading NASA's Way Back to the Moon", the agency tells us: "At the closest distance, it would take 135 days to drive by car at 70 mph to the moon."

You can send stories to Feedback by email at

Now we hearthat this interesting location appears to be full of people

Please include your home address, Th is week's a nd past Feed backs can

playing chess.

be seen on our website,

Last words past a nd present, plus q uestio ns, at


MythBusters challenge

www.last-wo rd .com

produce bright yellow sparks, just like the ones seen from fireworks filled with iron filings. New Scientist has teamed u p with The iron-steam reaction was Discovery Channel's MythBusters to also used by Antoine Lavoisier attempt to solve a mystery, Thermite in 1784 as a proof that water was and ice can make an explosive composed of hydrogen and combination, so don't try this oxygen. In his experiment, he experiment at home - watch it safely used a red-hot gun barrel. on the web at www.mythbusters­ John Rowland thermite, We want Derby, UK to find out why the explosion happens. Thermite is a mainstay of pyrotechnics, comprising a mixture of metal and metal oxide powders that burns at extremely h i gh temperatures in a tightly focused area. Thermite is not, by itself. explosive. but if you ignite a bucket of thermite o n top of blocks of ice, there is an enormous bang once it has burnt through the b ucket. MythBusters presenters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are s eeki ng a convincing scientific explanation of this violent reaction. Will The Last Word readers solve the mystery? • The most common type of thermite reaction, which uses aluminium powder and ferric oxide, produces molten iron at 2900 'C, twice the melting point of the pure element. This means that the iron will not solidify quickly even when in contact with ice. Hot iron reacts with steam to produce hydrogen and iron oxide. Molten iron will ignite this hydrogen, so a puddle of iron hovering on a blanket of steam above an ice block will be blasted into droplets by a hydrogen explosion. The resulting iron aerosol will ignite in air to

by explosive recombination. Second, steam being trapped within the solidifying metal, generating high press ure and ultimately an explosion. On balance we favoured the latter. Our experience suggested that about 2 litres ofa 2-to-l mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is required to produce a substantial explosion. Using our first theory, this would not only require up to a couple of • For more than 20 years, grams of water to dissociate and I performed a series of recombine, but also for the explosive recombination to be demonstration lectures based on fast reactions alongside the delayed until such an amount had late Michael Burnett, my colleague dissociated and accumulated. So at Queen's University Belfast. We we thought it more likely that a similar amount of water could be carried out dozens of thermite trapped inside the metal lattice, reactions, and were aware of reports of explosions. Thankfully which would provide the pressure required for a large explosion. we never experienced one, but then our procedure was different Brian Walker to that used by the MythBusters Belfast, UK team and others suffering an explosion. We placed the thermite MythBusters' Jamie Hyneman writes: mixture in an earthenware pot • The res ponses are impressive suspended over a large bucket of but I am left with some questions . ice. The ice in this case was used What about the quantities purely to contain and cool the involved? The explOSion we saw resulting reaction residue and in the experiment was not, in my opinion, the result of the "About 2 1 itres of a 2-to-l conflagration of a few litres m ixture of hydrogen and oxygen is required for of gases or aerosolised metals, an explosion" which my guess is all the thermite had time to create in that instant not to induce an explosion. while splashing around on the Our good fortune didn't stop us ice's surface. There was enough speculating on the cause of such blast energy to break offlarge explosions. We considered two chunks of ice and hurl them a great distance, and the visible possible explanations. First, theMythBusters one of the diameter of the explosion was about 15 metres. dissociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen, followed Was this a result of these things

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happening in a fairly small volume and creating a small explosion which aerosolised the unburned thermite which in turn exploded on a larger scale? Or perhaps it was just steam that aerosolised the powders and did the same? One test would be straightforward to do: aerosolise some thermite in the presence of a source of ignition and see if the result is similar. My sense is that it may be, as we have seen vigorous explosions from many aerosolised powd ers. I will make a point of doing this in the near future and will let New Scientist readers know the results.

This week's question DON'T FRET

When playing a conventional "right-handed" stringed instrument such as a guitar or violin, the player uses their right hand to pluck the strings or hold the bow, and uses the left hand to stop the strings on the fret or fingerboard. Of these two types of action, the left hand appears to be doing much more complicated and extended fine-motor movements than the right hand. So why is this the preferred configuration of the instrument for right-handers? Left-handed instruments are available as mirror-image versions - Paul McCartney has guitars like this ­ which suggests some left-handers also prefer the same relative allocation of hand activities. Tony Baker Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

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