The AI bubble could be about to burst
THE STONED AGE
Civilization was born in a haze of smoke
EVERYDAY CHEMO Cancer drugs in your bathroom cabinet?
WEEKLY July 16 -22, 2016
INSTANT EXPERT EVOLUTION Part one of our new series
DOES REALITY EXIST WITHOUT US? Solving the greatest quantum mystery of all
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DOES ANYTHING EAT JELLYFISH? Fighting off the slime invaders
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UPFRONT Unseen deep-sea creatures. Pokémon Go craze. Theresa May’s science track record. Algal bloom. Extra second at the end of 2016 8 THIS WEEK First dope dealers. Universe reborn with a bounce. Hearing with light. Mystery of the 101-year-old pianist. Time travelling waves 14 IN BRIEF Corals caught kissing. Buckling galaxies. Night-time serenades lure bird cheaters. Cause of heavy periods. Antibiotic resistance found in ancient mummies
The strongest evidence yet for what sleep does to the brain
On the cover
16 Robo flop Is the AI bubble bursting? 9 The stoned age Civilisation born in a haze of smoke 40 Everyday chemo Cabinet cancer drugs 35 Instant expert: Evolution 26 Does anything eat jellyfish? Fighting slime invaders
Does reality exist without us? Solving the greatest quantum mystery of all
Cover image Francesco Bongiorni
Analysis 16 AI winter For all the hype around artificial intelligence, we don’t yet know its potential 18 COMMENT Saturated fat isn’t back after all. Trump’s popularity is rooted in public anxiety 19 INSIGHT Algorithms must explain themselves
Technology 20 Misinformation messing with our politics. Cyborg stingray powered by light. Google’s latest health-data deal
24 The exotic animals that bankrolled Wallace
Features 26 Jellymageddon Fighting off the slime invaders 30 Does reality exist without us? (see above left) 35 Instant expert: Evolution (see left) 40 PEOPLE Pan Pantziarka on the potential of everyday drugs against cancer
Instant expert: Evolution Part one of our new series on essential ideas in science
Optimism over cancer treatments should always be cautious. May’s force be with her
Coming next week… We want our internet back
The fight to regain control of the web
Is there a right age to have a baby?
44 Divided we stand or fall The gap between rich and poor causes a world of problems 46 Busy bees A sculpture with a hive mind
Regulars 52 LETTERS Bread, circuses and lots of sport 56 FEEDBACK Magnet mailing madness 57 THE LAST WORD Twisted tips
Fertility myths busted
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 3
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New life in old drugs? Cancer initiative brings hope, but also the danger of hype FOR people with cancer, even a glimmer of hope can feel like a beacon in the wilderness. Almost a decade ago, New Scientist broke a story about dichloroacetate (DCA), a simple chemical used to treat rare metabolic disorders that was also showing remarkable cancerkilling properties. We were inundated with requests for more information – including how to enrol in clinical trials or buy the drug online. DCA was worth investigating as a cancer treatment, but has yet to live up to its promise. The US Food and Drug Administration eventually had to step in and shut down websites selling it illegally. This week we run a similar story
about repurposing everyday drugs as cancer treatments. Many common-or-garden medications – from painkillers to beta blockers – have shown promise as antitumour agents. A project to systematically investigate their potential as cancer therapies is now under way (see page 40). The aims are laudable, but there is also the risk of a DCA-style rush to buy the drugs in question. That is understandable, but not something the project’s leaders advocate. Devising a treatment regime against cancer is a specialist skill, and none of the drugs being investigated have yet passed clinical trials proving their effectiveness against cancer. The fact that such trials are in
May’s force be with her AFTER a brief, farcical contest for the keys to 10 Downing Street, we learn that Theresa May is to be the UK’s new prime minister. She got the job by default, most of her would-be rivals seemingly scared off by the challenge of pleasing those who voted to leave the European Union, while securing limits on free movement of EU citizens into the UK and retaining access to the single market.
May is made of sterner stuff. As home secretary, she ignored her own advisers to push through a drug law that bans almost anything that could alter mental states. That is meaningless, since it could include everything from nutmeg to flowers, but not alkyl nitrites, aka poppers. Alcohol and nicotine are, of course, exempt. And as she was making her bid for PM, her Investigatory Powers
the pipeline will be small comfort to people who don’t have the luxury of waiting: clinical trials take a long time. Another huge obstacle is that the drugs are no longer under patent and so wouldn’t turn a profit even if they work. The normal market incentives don’t apply. Again, the DCA story is instructive. Its clinical trials were funded by public donations. That is one avenue that the drugrepurposing project is pursuing. Another is to change the system to make the drugs easier to get on to the market, and to supply people with information to take to their doctors. For those in search of a glimmer of hope, that is at least something. ■
bill was receiving its final reading in the House of Commons. It now seems likely to pass, despite being both unprecedentedly intrusive and calling, nonsensically, for online encryption that is secure yet also breakable on demand. Such previous form, along with May’s sketchy voting record on the environment and public health, is worrying. But let’s look on the bright side: a proven ability to turn the impossible into law may prove just the trick when it comes to the Brexit trilemma. ■ 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 5
What will May bring? THE UK has a new woman at the top. As New Scientist went to press, Theresa May was due to become prime minister after claiming victory in the Conservative leadership election. So what will a May premiership mean for science and technology issues in the country? The prime minister-in-waiting’s voting record reveals her likely stance on the important issues. It might not be great news for the environment. Despite the UK being way off course on its target of an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, May has generally voted against measures to fight climate change, as well as against environmental regulation for UK fracking. She was also in favour of the UK’s recent failed attempt to combat
the spread of bovine tuberculosis by culling badgers. On other key topics, May voted against a ban on smoking in public places, which has been shown to improve public health, and against plans to legalise assisted dying. Home secretary for six years, May is currently attempting to get the Investigatory Powers Bill through parliament. The bill is an update to the UK’s surveillance laws and has been criticised for introducing new powers, such as retaining internet users’ 12-month browsing histories. The bill also appears to ask online service providers to reveal encrypted messages for which they don’t have the key – a mathematical impossibility. With May as prime minister, it seems likely the bill will pass unhindered.
to declare a federal emergency. Blooms arise when nutrients like phosphorus, a common fertiliser ingredient, end up in water. “Scientists have been saying for decades, ‘we’ve got to clean up this water, and if you don’t these kinds of things can happen’,” says Dale Gawlik at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He says the region needs to build more wetlands that can filter out pollutants, and should reconnect Lake Okeechobee with the Everglades to hold excess water in rainy years, as it did historically.
–Questionable science record–
Leap second ahead
second. Since 1972, a total of 26 seconds have been added. There have been calls for leap seconds to abolished as they can play havoc with computer systems. If this happens, time will drift away from the position of the sun in the sky. By the year 2100, we will be 2 to 3 minutes out of sync with the sun, and by 2700, about 30 minutes out. Timekeepers were due to decide the future of leap seconds in November last year, but have postponed this until 2023. To be fair, they literally have all the time in the world.
CAN’T get enough of 2016? You’re in luck. Time lords at the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) have announced that an extra second will be added to the end of
this year. Clocks will read 23:59:60 on 31 December. Such leap seconds are occasionally needed to ensure that Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the official measure of time, stays in sync with changes in Earth’s rotation. UTC is defined using atomic clocks, which maintain a precise tick thanks to the consistent frequency of microwaves released by certain atoms. A day should be 86,400 atomic seconds, but Earth’s rotation isn’t quite this constant. The IERS monitors its changes, and if Earth’s spin is more than 0.9 seconds fast or slow, announces the need for a leap 6 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
“If time is not adjusted, we will be 2 to 3 minutes out of sync with the position of the sun by 2700”
SMALL cells make a big scene. A state of emergency has been declared in southern Florida after a toxic algal bloom fouled the region’s waterways. NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite has captured the bright green stripes of a huge algal bloom in Lake Okeechobee, spread over 85 square kilometres. In the past two weeks, Florida governor Rick Scott declared an emergency in four counties where waterways were contaminated, and asked President Barack Obama
Pokémon’s return IT’S the 1990s all over again. Pokémon fever is sweeping the globe thanks to an augmentedreality version of the monstercollecting game, which sees players hunt through real-world locations for digital critters. To play Pokémon Go, you walk around the streets, following a Google Maps-like interface, until signs of a nearby Pokémon appear on screen. When you hold up your –It’s super effective– smartphone camera, the
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Pokémon is overlaid on the realworld image, and you can swipe to capture it. Already police have received reports of robbers targeting Pokéstops, where players gather to get free items, and one player discovered a dead body while monster-hunting near a river. Pokémon Go launched on iPhone and Android last week in New Zealand, Australia and the US. The game is made by Niantic, a former Google subsidiary, and is based on a similar game called Ingress that sees players competing to hold territory by visiting it in the physical world.
IT’S good news for the UK’s antifracking lobby. A long-awaited report from the Climate Change Committee, an independent body, says that fracking will bust the nation’s carbon budget, if three strict conditions are not met. These are tight regulation and oversight of wells, and reduction of both the UK’s overall gas consumption, and its greenhouse gas emissions in line with interim targets. Such conditions are going to be difficult to meet in practice, which means that the
HIV cure is far off
government cannot allow fracking on a large scale if the country is to meet its ultimate target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. For example, tight monitoring will increase the costs of fracking, says geologist Richard Davies at Newcastle University in the UK. And the second condition means that if more gas is produced by fracking, less can be imported, unless the carbon produced is captured and stored. Massive investment would be required for capture and storage, and the UK has just cancelled a major project because of the cost.
Deep-sea life is just stunning
NOAA OFFICE OF OCEAN EXPLORATION AND RESEARCH
WE STILL have a way to go in the MYSTERIOUS new life forms have stunned scientists during a series quest to cure HIV – so far that of dives into the Mariana trench researchers have admitted this – Earth’s deepest abyss. “It’s just so goal may even be unattainable. exciting,” says Shirley Pomponi at In 2012, the International AIDS the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Society launched a programme Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida. called Towards an HIV Cure, “We’re finding new things every day.” but a series of setbacks have The National Oceanic and dampened optimism. “A cure is Atmospheric Administration’s a long way off, and I don’t know Okeanos research ship has been if it will ever be achieved,” says cruising above the 11-kilometre-deep Sharon Lewin at the University trench since April. Scientists have of Melbourne, Australia. used sonar and a remotely operated So far, attempts to flush out vehicle to peer down 6 kilometres. dormant virus have failed, while “Every time we make a dive, we people who appeared to be cured see something new. It’s mindby receiving medication soon boggling,” says Patricia Fryer at the after infection have all since University of Hawaii. She says the relapsed. amount of fresh information being The International AIDS Society has now released a road map that outlines more realistic plans (Nature Medicine, DOI: 10.1038/ nm.4108). Before there can be hope of a cure, researchers need to tackle knowledge gaps, including where the virus hides. But while a cure remains a long way off, Lewin says there are better prospects for achieving extended periods of remission. Early experiments suggest we could develop treatments that keep the virus below detectable levels for long periods without the need for the usual regime of –Sea stars snapped on dead coral – antiretroviral drugs.
gathered is astounding, and many discoveries have stumped experts. “They’re seeing fish which seem to be a cross between an eel and a lizard fish,” says Fryer. “When they zoom in to look more closely they’re like ‘nope, that’s not like any of the ones we know’.” The Mariana trench lies to the east of the Philippines and, like much of the deep sea, it is understudied. “We know less about the 70 per cent of our planet covered by water than we do about Mars, Venus, the moon – even Jupiter,” says Fryer. The expedition finished on 10 July, but Okeanos will be out again on 17 July to study deep-sea habitats and seamounts in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Red hair mutations Gene variants that link red hair and pale skin with a rise in the number of mutations seen in skin cancer have been identified for the first time. The extra mutations associated with having such variants are equivalent to an extra 21 years of sun exposure (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12064).
Human see, monkey do Ancient stone tools uncovered in Brazil appear to be nutcrackers used by Capuchin monkeys as early as the 13th century – more than 200 years before Columbus arrived in the Americas. The first human settlers there may have copied the monkeys to eat cashew nuts (Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.046).
Opioid crisis The US is one step closer to curbing its painkiller addiction woes. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that will support opioid addiction prevention and treatment programmes. The Senate is expected to vote on it soon, and if it passes it will then need final approval from President Obama.
A cry for kelp Rising sea temperatures have already wiped out 100 kilometres of kelp forest along the south coast of Western Australia – and this unprecedented loss looks set to get worse. As seas keep warming, kelp forests will retreat further south, threatening marine life that relies on them (Science, doi.org/bmcx).
Multivitamins not vital Most pregnant women in the UK do not need multivitamin supplements, a review of nutritional evidence suggests. The researchers say that while it is important to take folic acid and vitamin D and to eat a wellbalanced diet, expensive multivitamins designed for mumsto-be are not worth the money (Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, DOI: 10.1136/dtb.2016.7.0414).
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 7
Solving the mystery of sleep
Evidence suggests we evolved sleep to make space in our brains for new memories Clare Wilson
the brain can be whittled down overnight, making room for fresh memories to form the next day. “Sleep is the price we pay for learning,” says Giulio Tononi at the University of WisconsinMadison, who developed the idea. Now we have the most direct evidence yet that he is right. Tononi’s team measured the size of these connections, or synapses, in the brains of 12 mice. The synapses in samples taken at the end of a period of sleep were
IT is one of life’s great enigmas: why do we sleep? Now we have the best evidence yet for the function of sleep – that it lets housekeeping processes take place to stop our brains becoming overloaded with new memories. As far as we know, every animal sleeps (see “Why Snooze?”, below), but the reason for their slumber has remained elusive. When lab rats are deprived of sleep, they die within a month, and when people go for a few days without sleeping, “By pruning down connections between they start to hallucinate and may brain cells, sleep is the have epileptic seizures. price we pay for learning” One idea is that sleep helps us consolidate new memories, as people do better in tests if they get 18 per cent smaller than those a chance to sleep after learning. in samples taken before sleep, We know that, while awake, fresh showing that the connections memories are recorded by between neurons weaken reinforcing connections between during slumber. brain cells, but the memory Tononi announced these processes that take place while findings at the Federation of we sleep have been unclear. European Neuroscience Societies Support is growing for a meeting in Copenhagen, theory that sleep evolved so that Denmark, last week. “The connections between neurons in data was very solid and well
documented,” says Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester, New York, who attended the conference. “It’s an extremely elegant idea,” says Vladyslav Vyazovskiy at the University of Oxford. If the housekeeping theory is right, it would explain why, when we miss a night’s sleep, we find it harder the next day to
WHY SNOOZE? From worms to blue whales, all 230 animal species studied so far catch some shut-eye. Even dolphins and some birds, which we thought did not sleep as they are constantly on the move, are now known to send one half of their brain to sleep at a time. If our bodies just needed physical rest, we could do this without falling unconscious. “Why would we spend several hours a day at the mercy of
8 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
predators without doing some useful function?” asks Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most theories, including Tononi’s (see main story), involve some kind of brain housekeeping or repair, but until recently no compelling candidates had emerged for what changes inside the brain during sleep. But recently a “drainage system” was discovered, similar to the lymph vessels that drain waste products
from tissues in the rest of the body. This ramps up when we sleep, suggesting that waste products are being cleared away while we slumber. Alternative theories suggest the purpose of sleep is to conserve energy or keep animals out of harm’s way while food is unavailable. And of course it is possible that sleep could be performing several functions at once, or may even have different purposes in different animals.
concentrate and learn new information – we may have less capacity to encode new experiences. Tononi’s finding also suggests that, as well as sleeping well after learning something new, we should also try to sleep well the night before. The idea could also explain why, if our sleep is interrupted, we feel less refreshed the next day. There is some indirect evidence that deep, slow-wave sleep is best for shrinking down synapses, and it takes time for our brains to reach this level of unconsciousness. Because memories are stored by new synapses, and sleep seems to consolidate new memories, the idea that sleep weakens, rather than strengthens, brain connections might seem counterintuitive. But there is previous evidence to support the housekeeping theory. For instance, EEG
In this section ■ Universe reborn with a bounce, page 10 ■ Is AI’s bubble about to burst? page 16 ■ Misinformation is messing with our politics, page 20
Thanks to weed, ‘stoned age’ followed the ice age IT MUST have been something in the air. Some 11,000 years ago, humans in Europe and Asia began using a new plant – cannabis. An archaeological study suggests that different groups of people across Eurasia began using the plant independently at the end of the last ice age – perhaps for its psychoactive properties, as a source of food or medicine, or even to make textiles from its fibres. “The cannabis plant seems to have been distributed widely from as early as 10,000 years ago, or even earlier,” says Tengwen Long at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, whose team conducted the study (Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, doi.org/bk9h). But the first dope dealers did not arrive for another 6000 years, says the team. At the dawn of the Bronze Age, the Yamnaya – nomadic pastoralists on the Eurasian steppe – mastered horse riding. This allowed them to cover vast distances and begin forging transcontinental trade networks following the same routes that would become the famous Silk Road several millennia later. This earlier “Bronze Road” enabled all sorts of commodities to be transported between east and west, potentially including cannabis. “It’s a
recordings show that our brains are less electrically responsive at the start of the day – after we have slept well – than at the end, suggesting that the connections may be weaker. And at the start of their wakeful periods, rats have lower levels of a molecule called the AMPA receptor, which is involved in the functioning of synapses. The latest finding, that synapses get smaller during sleep, is the most direct evidence yet that the housekeeping theory is right, says Vyazovskiy. “Structural evidence is very important,” he says. “That’s much less affected by other confounding factors.” Gathering this data was a Herculean task, says Tononi. The team collected tiny chunks of brain tissue from 12 mice that had either been awake or asleep, sliced it into ultra-thin sections and used these to create 3D models of the brain tissue to identify the
synapses. As there were nearly 7000 synapses, it took seven researchers four years. The team did not know which mouse was which until last month, says Tononi, when they broke the identification code, and found that their theory stood up. “People had been working for years to count these things,” says Tononi. “You start having stress about whether it’s really possible for all these synapses to start getting fatter and then thin again.” Their research also hints at how we may build lasting memories over time, despite this thinning. The team discovered that some synapses seem to be protected – the biggest fifth stayed the same size. It’s as if the brain is preserving its most important memories, says Tononi. “You keep what matters.” ■
–Making room for tomorrow
hypothesis that requires more evidence to test,” says Long. It might also explain the spread of wheat to east Asia 5000 years ago, he says. “The expansion of cannabis use as a drug does seem to be linked to movements out of the steppe,” says David Anthony at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. The plant’s mind-bending properties might have been a factor
“Cannabis may have been a cash crop before cash, possibly thanks to its mind-bending qualities” in this spread. This may have given the plant a high value, which would have made it an ideal exchangeable good at the time, says Long. It was a “cash crop before cash”. A previous study has suggested that burned cannabis seeds found at archaeological sites hint that the Yamnaya smoked the plant themselves, though we can’t be sure. Barney Warf at the University of Kansas in Lawrence says that we know from early Greek historians that the Scythians, post-Bronze Age nomadic pastoralists of the steppe who came after the Yamnaya, smoked weed. Colin Barras ■
–Dude, where’s my horse?– 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 9
NASA, ESA, SSC, CXC, AND STSCI
Our universe could survive its own end Lisa Grossman
THE universe could bounce through its own demise and emerge unscathed. A new “big bounce” model shows how this might happen, with just the cosmic ingredients we know about now. We think the universe began with a singularity, when all matter and energy was compressed into a single point. The trouble is that the laws of physics break down at a singularity, so it’s impossible to predict what happens there.
Optogenetic cure for deafness LIGHT could help restore hearing. Improved cochlear implants may one day rely on a combination of miniature LEDs and gene therapy. Standard cochlear implants use an electrode inside the cochlea – the ear’s tiny spiral cavity – to stimulate auditory nerves. But they give users distorted hearing, making people sound like daleks. That’s because they 10 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
According to the dominant theory, the universe ballooned in size in the first sliver of a second after the big bang in a period called inflation, but there are alternative ideas. One major contender is the “big bounce” model, in which our universe rose from the ashes of an earlier cosmos that ended in a “big crunch”. But those models have also struggled to explain the singularity. “The bouncing models until this point had to add extra ingredients or assumptions in
only distinguish between around a dozen frequencies or “channels”, whereas people who aren’t deaf can discriminate between about 2000. “There are plenty of people who are not happy with existing cochlear implants,” says Martin Sumser at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. It’s hard to build implants with more channels because each one needs to stimulate nerves at a different point along the cochlea. Squeeze more channels closer together and they become indistinct, since tissue conducts electrical signals.
completely smooth and the same in all directions – not exactly realistic, but it allowed them to write down the equations for this universe and solve them exactly. The solution predicts a cosmos that bounces through the singularity in a process similar to quantum tunnelling, which allows electrons to pass through walls or other barriers (Physical Review Letters, doi.org/bk9n). “It’s completely unambiguous: it goes through the crunch and out in a bang,” Turok says. “This is potentially pretty –Perfect recovery?– exciting,” says Robert Caldwell at Dartmouth College in Hanover, order to make sense of how the New Hampshire. “They have universe got through or avoided figured out a way to evolve the singularity,” says Neil Turok through a bounce without at the Perimeter Institute in introducing any funny matter.” Waterloo, Canada. The idea is interesting, says In a new paper, Turok and Martin Bojowald of Pennsylvania Steffen Gielen at Imperial College State University, but it might be London take a different approach. tricky to prove that the smooth “The spirit of our work is to focus universe reflects the one we on simplicity,” Turok says. “We’re actually live in. The next step is not adding bells and whistles to to drop some of those modelling the physics we already know.” assumptions and try to make a The pair focused on a principle universe that gives rise to largefrom particle physics: the idea scale structures – galaxies, stars, that, at very high energies, matter planets and ultimately us. behaves like light. In particular, “Now that we have a sensible it becomes scale-invariant – the description of big bang equations that describe its singularity, we will be able to behaviour are the same regardless extend it to describe the origins of the energy of the light, or the of the fluctuations and the size of universe that contains it. principle features of the Turok and Gielen applied that universe,” Turok says. “I think principle to a universe that is this was a critical logjam.” ■ But light doesn’t spread through tissue, says Tobias Moser at the University Medical Center Göttingen in Germany. “You can focus light more conveniently than current.” Moser and his team plan to develop much more sophisticated implants that exploit optogenetics – gene therapy that makes nerves sensitive to light. This should make it possible to build implants with 100 channels,
“Plenty of people are not happy with existing implants, which make others sound like daleks”
using micro-LEDs as the light source. A 10-channel version of this implant has allowed the team to restore hearing to deaf rats, Moser said last week at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. A similar optogenetic approach is already being trialled in humans as a treatment for blindness. But Moser says it will be some years before his team can test their implants in people. “First we have to demonstrate they are safe and reliable,” he said. They also need a way to make the LEDs last longer. Clare Wilson ■
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Mystery of pianist with dementia International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco, California. ME was born in Tennessee in 1914, and learned to play the piano and violin as a child. She earned two degrees in music education and spent a stint as a violinist in a women’s orchestra, but largely set music aside when she moved with
AT FIRST glance, she was elderly and delicate – a woman in her 90s with a deteriorating memory. But then she sat down at the piano. “Everybody in the room was totally startled,” says Eleanor Selfridge-Field, who researches music at Stanford University. “She looked so frail. Once she sat down at the piano, she just wasn’t frail at all. She was full of verve.” Selfridge-Field met this woman, referred to as ME to protect her privacy, at a Christmas party around eight years ago. ME, who is now aged 101, has vascular dementia; she rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades. But she can play nearly 400 songs by ear – a trick that depends on tapping into a memory of previously stored musical imprints – and continues to learn new songs just by listening to them. ME’s musical talent, despite her cognitive impairments, inspired Selfridge-Field to spend six years observing her. She presented her observations this week at the
Dropped tubs can make waves go back in time NUDGE your bathtub just right and you might end up reversing time. But don’t worry – you won’t end up wet, naked and without a towel in the Cretaceous period. Emmanuel Fort at the Langevin Institute in Paris, France, and his colleagues have developed what they call a “time mirror”, which rewinds water waves into their past. Humans and rubber duckies are unaffected. 12 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
Imagine dropping a stone in the tub and watching waves ripple out from a central point. It should also be possible for a circular ripple to shrink back to a point, as if a movie of the dropped stone was played backwards. But it is vanishingly unlikely that an outside-in ripple would form spontaneously. Fort and others had shown that by kitting out the edge of the tub with sensors and wave generators, it is possible to effectively record the waves and play them back in reverse. The technique works with water, sound and even microwaves, and is used to sharpen up ultrasound medical scans.
“What’s going on in her mind is the big unanswered question.” ME claims not to know how to read music, although it’s likely she did learn to do so, given her musical education. Instead, she says she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. There have been others who, despite age and cognitive problems, displayed a strong grasp of music. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks recounts the case of a man with severe dementia who still knew the baritone part of many songs from his a cappella singing group. “When it comes to music in general, we don’t have a great sense of where it exists in the brain,” says Zachary Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But evidence suggests that music is more diffusely located in the brain than language networks. “That might be a reason why it’s able to sustain itself for such a long period in folks that develop dementia,” says Miller. Brain scans could shed some light on the damaged regions of ME’s brain, and perhaps why she still retains her musical skill, but her doctor thinks this procedure would be too stressful for her. “ME is a wonderful example of somebody who was gifted earlier in life and has maintained those –A memory for music– gifts,” says Miller. ■
her family to Florida in 1946. After experiencing a stroke-like attack in her 80s, ME struggles to remember recent events and encounters. Her memory focuses on specific periods, and she is often unsure of her surroundings. But this doesn’t seem to hold back her piano-playing. ME performs regularly at assistedliving facilities around California, playing songs from many genres, including ragtime, show tunes and gospel. “Her sense of memory and the richness of her harmonic arrangements is really impressive,” says Selfridge-Field.
Now Fort’s team has discovered that simply dropping the tub can send the waves scurrying in reverse, with no need for complex sensors (Nature Physics, DOI: 10.1038/nphys3810). That’s because the velocity of water waves depends on g, the acceleration due to gravity. “If you do a sudden jolt, you change the effective gravity, and the velocity of the wave changes,” says Fort. The upshot is that once normal gravity is restored, it starts to
“To show that the waves converge as if time were rewinding, the team made ripples shaped like France”
travel both outwards and inwards. To show that the inward-travelling waves converge on their starting point, just as if time were rewinding, the team arranged wave emitters in the shape of France, the Eiffel Tower and a smiley face. In each case, the complex ripple shapes produced shrank back to recreate their original shape. The experiments aren’t truly reversing time, because the waves continue to travel out again once they have converged, points out Fort. “A real time-reversal would have a sink that absorbs all the waves,” he says. Jacob Aron ■
EXPLORE THE QUANTUM WORLD
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IN BRIEF Spying a young star’s snow line
Ancient mummies no strangers to superbugs DRUG resistance is nothing new, it seems. Long before the advent of modern antibiotics, Incans already had gut microbes that could have resisted most of them. “When you think about it, almost all these antibiotics are naturally produced, so it makes sense,” Tasha Santiago-Rodriguez of California Polytechnic State University in San Louis Opisbo, told the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston last month. Her team studied DNA within the guts of three Incan mummies dating back to between the 10th and 14th
centuries, and six mummified people from Italy, from between the 15th and 18th centuries. They found an array of genes with the potential to confer resistance to almost all modern antibiotics, including penicillin, vancomycin and tetracycline. The finding shows that these genes were relatively widespread hundreds of years before Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. “It’s ridiculous to think evolution of antibiotic resistance began when penicillin was discovered,” team member Raul Cano, also at California Polytechnic State University, told the meeting. “It’s been going on for two billion years.” It is our overuse of antibiotics in both people and livestock that caused superbug resistance to subsequently explode worldwide, said Cano.
How the brain maps special places WHERE’S your favourite spot? A specific part of the brain seems to map the locations of places that have special meaning. Nathan Danielson at Columbia University in New York and his team recorded brain activity in the CA1 region of the hippocampus in mice – an area containing “place cell” neurons that help us map our surroundings. The team put mice on 14 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
treadmills that rotated between different surfaces, such as silky ribbons or silver-glitter masking tape. As they walked, the mice could try to trigger a drink of water from a sensor – but it didn’t always work. The team found that when the sensor worked at random, the mice formed generalised maps of their experience, and stored them in a superficial layer of CA1.
But if the sensor worked only when mice were on a particular surface, they developed a map that was stored in the deeper layer (Neuron, doi.org/bk5d). The team thinks this shows that we use the upper CA1 layer to form a baseline map, while the lower layer records meaning.“It’s like navigating to your favourite restaurant. You need to know the general area, but the location of the restaurant is of special significance,” says Danielson.
SOMETIMES you catch a lucky star. The flare-up of a star near the Orion Nebula has revealed for the first time the icy boundary between small rocky worlds and their giant neighbours in a planet-making disc. New planets form out of a disc that spins like a pizza around a baby star. Close to the star, the discs are so hot that only rock and iron condense, which explains why Earth and its neighbours are small and rocky. But beyond the so-called “snow line”, water freezes and joins rock and iron to build the cores of giant planets. Lucas Cieza of Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, and colleagues observed a disc that was the right temperature for a snow line around the young star V883 Orionis (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature18612). The star had recently erupted, pushing the snow line back to where it was easier to detect.
Night songs woo cheating sparrows FOR most birds the night brings a well-deserved rest. But for some, it is time for more risqué activities. A small number of bird species that are active by day occasionally sing at night. Antonio CelisMurillo at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign and his colleagues studied one such species, the field sparrow, which is common across eastern North America. They found that the males sing to attract the partners of other males, and that these females are all too willing to wake up for a night-time rendezvous (Animal Behaviour, doi.org/bk6h). “It seems like some birds have a busy nightlife and waste no time in trying to find additional females willing to cheat on their partners,” says Celis-Murillo.
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A COMPOUND produced by the body after drinking pomegranate juice appears to repair muscle in elderly mice – a finding that may lead to supplements that help protect muscles as we age. Urolithin A is also made when we consume strawberries or walnuts. Johan Auwerx at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and his team wanted to find out if these foods are as beneficial for our health as some have suggested, so they decided to give UA to mice and worms. They found that Caenorhabditis elegans worms given UA lived an average of 45 per cent longer, while elderly mice could run 42 per cent further (Nature Medicine, DOI: 10.1038/nm.4132). UA seems to improve the quality of muscle cells by getting them to ditch damaged mitochondria – their energy-generating powerhouses – and replace them with healthy ones. Loss of muscle strength appears to be an important factor in ageing. “The goal is to see if this could be a potential therapy for frail elderly people,” says Auwerx, who is now testing UA in a clinical trial. The odds are that this might work for other mammals too, says Nate Szewczyk at the University of Nottingham, UK. “The promise for this having an effect in humans is very real.”
Missing protein may cause heavy periods ONE third of women experience heavy menstrual bleeding – losing more than 80 millilitres of blood during a period – at least once in their lives. Individual anatomical differences like fibroids are often blamed, but low levels of a protein may be a culprit too. “Heavy menstrual bleeding is one of the most common reasons for referral to a gynaecologist,” says Jackie Maybin at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “It can have a big impact on a person’s quality of life.” Her team studied HIF1,
a protein known to have a role in repairing the gut. Over a month they sampled cells from the uteruses of eight women – four of whom experienced heavy bleeding. They found that HIF1 appears in the uterus during a woman’s period, but women with heavy bleeding have much lower levels of the protein. When they examined mice that had been engineered to lack this protein, and induced periods in them using hormones, they found that their uteruses recovered less quickly than
those of mice that still had HIF1. This suggests that HIF1 is important for repairing the uterus lining and halting menstrual blood loss. Maybin presented her findings at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Helsinki, Finland, earlier this month. She hopes boosting HIF1 levels may one day help women who experience heavy menstrual bleeding. This may be a preferable alternative to the hormonal treatments that are often used. ANDREW MULLEN
Pomegranate for muscle repair?
Galactic bulges formed by buckling BEND your brain around this: the entire galaxy might have buckled under its own weight. Many disc galaxies, including our Milky Way, have a central bulge that resembles a box or an unshelled peanut. This bulge may form when the circular orbits of stars become elongated, tilting out of the disc’s plane. The combined effect makes the onceflat galaxy look like it has buckled under enormous pressure. But we had never seen this buckling occur, so the theory is difficult to prove. Now, Peter Erwin of the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues think they’ve spotted a couple of galaxies mid-buckle. “It’s probably what the Milky Way looked like billions of years ago,” Erwin says. The pair simulated the buckling process and saw that galaxies in mid-buckle formed a strange asymmetrical shape that looked a bit like a wide-brimmed fedora tilted at a 45-degree angle. Looking out into the real universe, they found two galaxies, NGC 4569 and NGC 3227, with a similar shape (arxiv.org/abs/ 1607.01290).
Canoodling corals caught on camera IT STARTED with a kiss. An underwater microscope has captured the soap opera of life on the sea floor in unprecedented detail – and revealed some surprisingly amorous behaviour from baby corals. Andrew Mullen from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, and his colleagues spotted coral polyps kissing in time-lapse footage they recorded at the bottom of the Gulf of Eilat in Israel using the underwater device. The corals seem to embrace at regular intervals after they have captured plankton, so the team
suspects that they are exchanging materials (Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms12093). “We were definitely surprised by this interesting behaviour,” says Mullen. The microscope is the first of its kind that can be set up on the sea floor and autonomously film millimetre-scale phenomena at high resolution. Capable of filming for 8 hours at a time, the device has also captured the footage of turf wars between corals as well as documenting algal invasions of bleached reefs.
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 15
ANALYSIS MACHINE LEARNING
Will AI’s bubble pop? The hype around artificial intelligence is building – but we don’t yet know if it will fulfil its potential, says Sally Adee IN FROM three to eight years, First, a research monoculture talked about their work in hushed we will have a machine with the focused on a technique called tones and deliberately eschewed general intelligence of an average rule-based learning, which tried to the phrase artificial intelligence. human being. I mean a machine emulate basic human reasoning. It would be another two decades that will be able to read This showed great promise in the before the field recovered. Shakespeare, grease a car, play lab, hence the breathless The rehabilitation began in office politics, tell a joke, have a predictions of Minsky and others. 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue AI fight. At that point the machine As these prognostications piled defeated the reigning chess will begin to educate itself with up, the UK Science Research champion. In 2005, an fantastic speed. In a few months autonomous car drove itself for “After the first AI winter, it will be at genius level, and a 131 miles. In 2011, IBM’s Watson money dried up and you few months after that, its powers defeated two human opponents couldn’t say ‘artificial will be incalculable. on the game show Jeopardy! By intelligence’ out loud” Such rumours of superhuman 2012, it was clear that AI was back, artificial intelligence have been and its saviour was deep learning. doing the rounds lately, but this Council commissioned a report to This technique is based on prediction doesn’t come from evaluate the claims. The result was collections of algorithms that AI oracles du jour Nick Bostrom damning. The Lighthill report of make sense of the world by or Elon Musk (New Scientist, 1973 revealed that for all the filtering information through a 25 June, p 18). It was made in 1970 potential that rule-based learning hierarchy called a neural network. by the man widely considered to showed in lab problems, these This is not too dissimilar to how be the “father of artificial were all it could handle. In reality, our brains make sense of things. intelligence” – Marvin Minsky. it was undone by complexity. Imagine you are looking at a cat. But eight years later, the Governments stopped funding Sensory information gets filtered cutting-edge was still only the university AI research. Graduate through several layers of Speak & Spell, an educational toy students sought greener pastures specialised neurons. The first that used rudimentary computer in disciplines that garnered more layer scours for edges, say. If it logic. When the chasm between respect. The remaining scientists finds enough of these, it passes Minsky’s promise and reality sank in, the disappointment destroyed THE SEMANTICS OF MACHINE INTELLIGENCE AI research for decades – a Why do we believe machines are example. Machine learning is situation so dire it has since been on the verge of understanding the similar – it doesn’t mean learning in dubbed the “AI winter”. world around them? A lot of it the traditional sense. And while there Today there are whispers that comes down to the metaphors we are some parallels between the two, something similar might be on use. There’s machine learning. neural networks are not neurons. its way, fuelled by the excitement Deep learning. Neural networks. It’s not just semantics. Tell people surrounding deep learning, the Cognitive computing. a machine is thinking, and they will technique that enabled an AI to “Cognition means thinking. Your assume it is thinking the way they beat the world champion at the machine is not thinking,” says Roger do – and can distinguish, for example, board game Go earlier this year. Schank at Northwestern University a white van from a bright sky, as a “I can feel the cold breeze on the in Illinois. “When people say AI, they self-driving car failed to do in May. back of my neck,” says Roger don’t mean AI. What they mean is a This mismatch can have serious – or Schank, professor emeritus at lot of brute force computation.” in the case of the car, fatal – results. Northwestern University in Patrick Winston at the Massachusetts If it happens enough, it could pop the Evanston, Illinois. But are these Institute of Technology describes AI bubble (see main article). the grumblings of veterans who such terms as “suitcase words”: “The beginning and the end of the missed out on the true AI definitions so general that any problem is the term AI,” says Schank. revolution? Or harbingers of meaning can be packed into them. “Can we just call it ‘cool things we do something real? Artificial intelligence is the prime with computers’?” The original AI winter was brought about by two factors. 16 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
that on to a higher-level layer of neurons, which consolidates data from several such lower-order layers. Integrating all this allows our brain to decide whether to categorise what we’re looking as “cat” or “not cat”. Neural networks had been in the research community for decades, but it wasn’t until improvements in processing speeds enabled them to be stacked on top of one another that things got interesting. Once they had this more sophisticated structure, researchers could train them on thousands of images, so that eventually they would be able to recognise unfamiliar objects in never-before-seen pictures.
A new dawn This was achieved in 2012 to much fanfare. A neural network was able to recognise cat faces in video streams – despite never being trained on cats. People began to talk about how deep learning, given enough processing power, would lead to a machine able to develop concepts, and thus an understanding of the world. Two years later, Google bought DeepMind, the firm that went on to win at Go, for $500 million. These early successes have sparked an AI gold rush – based on some bold claims. One start-up promises to turn cancer into a manageable long-term disease rather than an outright killer, another wants to reverse ageing, while another has ambitions to predict future terrorists by their facial features. What unites them is the idea that, given the right combination of algorithms, some solution to these so far intractable problems will pop out.
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Clockwise from top left: Speak & Spell; the Deep Blue chess match; neural networks can predict when a cat is a cat; AlphaGo plays Go champion Lee Sedol
“The black magic seduction of neural networks has always been that by some occult way, they will learn from data so they can understand things they have never seen before,” says Mark Bishop at Goldsmiths University of London. Their complexity (157 layers in one case) helps people suspend disbelief and imagine that the algorithms will converge to form some kind of emergent intelligence. But it’s still just a machine built on rule-based mathematical systems, says Schank. In 2014, a paper that could be seen as the successor to the Lighthill report punctured holes in the belief that neural networks do anything even remotely akin to actual learning. Instead, they recognise
patterns, finding relationships in of Technology, who adds that data sets that are so complex that the AI and computer science no human can see them. This students around him are flocking matters because it disproves to deep learning. the idea that they could develop It’s not just the old guard that’s an understanding of the world. worried. Dyspeptic rumblings are A neural network can say a cat coming from the vanguard of is a cat, but it has no concept machine learning applications, of what a cat is. It cannot “The seduction of neural differentiate between a real networks is that by some cat or a picture of one. occult way they will gain The paper isn’t the only thing giving people deja vu. Schank and understanding from data” others see money pouring into including Crowdflower, a data deep learning and the funnelling cleaning company, which of academic talent. wonders if AI is suffering from “When the field focuses too “hyper-hype”. heavily on short-term progress But this fear that the AI bubble by only exploring the strength is about to pop – again – is not of a single technique, this can the mainstream view. lead to a long-term dead end,” “I don’t think it’s clear that says Kenneth Friedman, a student there is a bubble,” says Miles at the Massachusetts Institute
Brundage at the Future of Humanity Institute’s new Strategic AI Research Center in Oxford. Even if there is, he thinks the field is still safe for the moment. “I don’t think we’re likely to see it run out of steam anytime soon. There’s so much low-hanging fruit, and excitement and new talent in the field,” he says. Even the Cassandras insist they don’t want to undersell it. “I’m impressed by what people have achieved,” says Bishop. “I never thought I’d ever see them crack Go. And face recognition is at nearly 100 per cent.” But these applications are not what has everyone so excited. Instead, it’s the lure of curing cancer and ending ageing. Even if AI can meet these expectations, there are still obstacles. “What people don’t acknowledge is how inefficient deep learning is,” says Neil Lawrence at the University of Sheffield, UK. Or how difficult it is to get enough data to meet the claims some of the firms are making, especially in medicine, where privacy concerns prove a huge roadblock to obtaining sufficient amounts of big data. Will this shortfall herald a proper winter? It’s hard to say: “People have been disillusioned by AI in the past without a proper winter setting in,” says Bishop. It will likely depend on how much disappointment people, and funding bodies, are able to tolerate. To most in the field, though, right now won’t seem like the time to be worrying about an AI winter. In fact, AI’s main problem currently seems to be that investors can’t print money fast enough for the gold rush. But don’t say you haven’t been warned. ■ 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 17
Steak out New evidence deals a major blow to the chorus of claims that saturated fat poses no risk to health, says Ian Johnson CONFUSION reigns. Is a diet rich in saturated fat a health risk or not? One of the oldest and most familiar dogmas of nutrition is that too much of this fat from meat, dairy and other animal sources can be harmful. Given the strong, decades-old consensus on this, it has been unsettling to see this advice recently challenged repeatedly by a loose confederation of doctors, nutritionists and popular writers. They say that saturated fat has no adverse effect on health, and that overconsumption of carbohydrates and highly processed plant oils is instead fuelling an increase in obesity and metabolic disease. Much of this is based on recently published, highquality systematic reviews of past epidemiological studies. These reviews found no statistically significant relationship between saturated fat intake and heart
disease in Western populations. The complexity of diets has long challenged attempts to accurately probe their metabolic effects. For energy intake to stay the same when someone reduces one dietary component, consumption of others must rise. These shifts are probably vital to understanding health, but they have rarely been modelled. A new epidemiological study does just that, and should give fans of saturated fat cause to think again. It examined the effects of dietary fat intake on mortality and its causes in more than 126,000 people in the US, tracking them since the 1980s using wellvalidated and constantly updated dietary questionnaires. The results took account of other aspects of lifestyle and health, and logged details of over 33,000 deaths. Harnessing the statistical power that such large numbers
Trumping reason Donald Trump is bending reality to get into the American psyche, warns James Hoggan TOXIC rhetoric is on the rise, with anti-establishment, anti-migrant, circle-the-wagons anger and insults escalating. Expect more of it from presumptive US presidential nominee Donald Trump at next week’s Republican party convention. How is it possible that a selfabsorbed, egotistical billionaire 18 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
says such figures ruthlessly prey on public fears to reconstruct reality to pander to them. Many people feel beleaguered, notes psychologist Bryant Welch. Trying to keep pace with change places ever greater demands on the brain, and this combines with worries about immigration policy, the economy, unemployment, terrorism, climate change and security. Anxiety makes the crowd turn to a powerful commander. The danger is that the more this
who criticises Muslims, Mexicans and women could win more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history? One would hope that evidence and reasoned debate would rule. “People are mainlining the But reality doesn’t matter to the Trump drug, a cocktail of likes of Trump, who sees himself as more powerful than mere facts. absolute certainty, strong opinion and talk of control” Yale philosopher Jason Stanley
happens, the weaker and less capable people become. Welch compares it to a heroin addict craving larger and larger doses to get the same high. People are mainlining the Trump drug, a cocktail of absolute certainty, strong opinion and talk of control. Trump says his opponents are not just wrong, but idiots. When he demonises others, it can trigger a primal response, both calming fears and awakening tribal instincts. Unhampered by facts and expert evidence, he promises: don’t worry about climate change, it’s not happening; don’t worry about terrorism, we can stop it
provide, researchers could model the effects of replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats or carbohydrates (JAMA Internal Medicine, DOI: 10.1001/ jamainternmed.2016.2417). The biggest benefit came from using poly- and monounsaturated fats as substitutes. When polyunsaturates replaced saturated fat equivalent to 5 per cent of total calorie intake, the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and other causes fell 27 per cent. In contrast, there seemed to be little benefit in using carbohydrates as substitutes, perhaps because it seems likely that in the US, a lot of the carbs would probably have been sugar. These results fit conventional advice and support the idea of a healthy Mediterranean-style diet rich in polyunsaturated fats from plant foods and fish and monounsaturates from olive oil. Advice to cut intake of meat and dairy products and fill the gap with plant-based ones – including complex carbohydrates, vegetable oils and products made from them – has become a hallmark of guidance in the developed world. For now it stands. The notion that “butter is back” is melting away. Ian Johnson is emeritus fellow at the UK’s Institute of Food Research
with force; don’t worry about jobs, we can build a wall to protect yours; don’t fret about the economy, we can just rip up freetrade deals. People turn to such versions of reality because it’s mentally more comfortable than dealing with uncertainty and anxiety. Trump is not trying to persuade but manipulating fear. After next week’s fireworks, the big question will be: will fear, insults and hate win the White House? James Hoggan is author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up (New Society)
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–Who, or what, sent them?–
Interrogating thealgorithms Aviva Rutkin
The GDPR is a significant step forward compared with existing laws, says Bryce Goodman at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. It creates new rules about how data is used and explicitly states how they affect any company working with data belonging to European citizens, whether or not that company is based in Europe. (We’re looking at you, Google.)
HAVE you been turned down by a computer? Perhaps your online credit application was refused. Maybe you were denied a job, or even parole. Soon, you may have the right to ask the inscrutable algorithms involved to explain themselves. In April this year, the European parliament approved the General Data “An arbitrary decision made Protection Regulation (GDPR), a new by a designer in Silicon set of rules governing personal data. Valley dictates the policies Due to go into effect in 2018, it we live our lives by” introduces a “right to explanation”: the opportunity for European Union citizens to question the logic of an It also has teeth. Organisations in algorithmic decision – and contest breach of the GDPR can expect fines the results. of up to 4 per cent of their yearly We should cheer this development. turnover or €20 million – whichever The world is increasingly run by is greater. algorithms that calculate credit scores, The GDPR also specifically calls for read medical scans, drive our cars companies to prevent discrimination and tell our police forces where to based on personal characteristics such patrol. But algorithms can behave in as race, religious beliefs or health data. mysterious ways, sometimes even This matters because experiments surprising the programmers who already show that online ad services created them. It’s crucial that ordinary preferentially show details of higherpeople whose lives they affect paying jobs to male users; criminal have the ability to examine and justice algorithms suggest harsher challenge decisions. sentences for African Americans.
Technology didn’t create institutionalised discrimination. But, filtered through algorithms, familiar biases can be hidden behind the guise of mathematical impartiality. Concerns about algorithmic prejudice resonated at a White House symposium on artificial intelligence held in New York City last week. “We live in a technocracy,” Latanya Sweeney of Harvard University told the meeting. “An arbitrary decision made by a designer in Silicon Valley dictates the policies we live our lives by.” Protection requires independent oversight. Welcome as it is, the GDPR won’t be easy to enforce. In a draft paper published last month, Goodman and colleague Seth Flaxman identified some of the obstacles to making a right to explanation work. For example, machine learning algorithms spit out results by giving more weight to certain factors and making calculations that even programmers struggle to articulate. Who will explain their opaque workings to those who aren’t technically literate? But it’s important to try. “History teaches us that human decisions can all too easily be biased, whether consciously or unconsciously,” said Ed Felten, deputy chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “As we build automated systems, we have a responsibility to do better.” ■ 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 19
Trick or tweet? Or both? Misinformation on social media could be undermining our political systems. Is this something we can fix, asks Chris Baraniuk
“People use social media to share stories that reinforce their world view rather than challenge it” claims and counterclaims by all candidates or their supporters have been spreading at a blistering pace online, says Binkowski. “People seize on these ideas.” Next week, the Republican party is expected to formally pick Trump as its candidate for president. In the race to the White House, fact checkers like Binkowksi are our last defence against online misinformation. What are we up against? Trump himself has given fact checkers plenty to do over the past eight months, making “an inordinate number” of false claims, according to Eugene Kiely at FactCheck.org. Another website, PolitiFact.com, looked into 158 claims made by Trump since the start of his campaign and found that four out of five were at best “mostly false”. Fact checkers correct stories doing the rounds both on social media and in the mainstream press. In the hunt for the truth, they spend their days poring over interview transcripts, scouring video footage and checking 20 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
references. It can be a thankless job. Rarely are Binkowski’s attempts to present the facts received sympathetically. For example, she recently posted an article debunking claims that a crowd started shouting “English only!” at an event addressed by the Hispanic civil rights veteran Dolores Huerta. “We got hundreds of emails calling us unprofessional, saying we were biased, saying we were anti-Latina,” says Binkowski. With roughly six in 10 US adults getting their news primarily from social media, according to a recent Pew Research survey, the issue of accuracy might seem to be ever more important. “One of the things that give social media potency to impact political views is the immediacy of it,” says Julia Shaw, a psychologist at London South Bank University. Then there is the issue of blending fact with opinion. “You might even get an opinion before the information,” says Shaw, which can colour people’s judgement. Walter Quattrociocchi, a computational social scientist
at the IMT School for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, is one of a growing number of researchers concerned about this trend. He and his team have spent the last few years trawling through data from sites like Facebook. In particular, Quattrociocchi has explored how social networks can give rise to echo chambers – spaces in which groups of individuals share stories that reinforce their world view, and rarely get to see anything that challenges their beliefs.
Algorithms not guilty This phenomenon is often blamed on the algorithms used by social media sites to filter our newsfeeds. But Quattrociocchi’s most recent study suggests it’s partly down to our own behaviour. His team compared identical videos posted on Facebook and YouTube, and found that they led to the formation of echo chambers on both sites, meaning that the algorithm used for content promotion was not a factor. “It’s the narrative that is
BIASED BOTS It isn’t just other people’s claims on social media that we should be wary of. Misinformation is increasingly circulating via social media accounts run by bots. Political bots were particularly active prior to the UK’s European Union referendum, for example. A recent analysis by staff at the investigative website sadbottrue. com found that Trump has retweeted bots 150 times. They also claim that a recent Hillary Clinton tweet, in which she invited Trump to delete his
Twitter account, was quickly retweeted by many bots. Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, thinks that political bots could influence the outcome of elections – and that this has been going on for several years. “We suspect bots were involved in spreading some form of misinformation or in some cases very explicit smear campaigns during the 2012 [presidential] election – on both sides,” he says.
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IF IT’S your job to check the kinds of things people say online, you’ll know it is hard work at the best of times. But doing it in the run-up to the US presidential election is exhausting. “It’s been ridiculous,” says journalist Brooke Binkowski at the myth-busting website snopes.com. Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination last year,
attracting the users, not the content,” says Quattrociocchi. “The narrative is identified by the group and the group frames the narrative.” In his book Lies Incorporated: The world of post-truth politics, US radio host Ari Rabin-Havt talks of an industry of misinformation, although he agrees that we bring much of it on ourselves. “When people are given a choice, they’re going to choose what’s comforting and easy for them,” he says. “They’re going to avoid information that challenges them and therefore get stuck in echo chambers.” And since people only hear what they to want to hear, it isn’t straightforward to counter falsehoods spreading online. Shaw says that politicians exploit our willingness to remember something that appeals to us,
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Cyborg ray made of rat cells is driven by light
“There’s something about this perfect storm of identity politics plus the internet,” she says. “What the post-truth era allows is for politicians to get away with it with no consequence,” says Rabin-Havt. It’s all just part of politics – but the the web speeds everything up. Even if the truth is more of a hard sell than ever, Binkowski says it’s worth it if snopes.com’s efforts to set the record straight reach just 1 per cent of people. Kiely at FactCheck hasn’t lost hope either. “We’re seeing huge spikes in our traffic,” he says. ■
only just beginning to learn how to use living cells as a material, which is a challenge because they need specific conditions to stay alive. Previously, Parker was part of a team that made a cyborg jellyfish, also using heart tissue – but it was much less complex. However, Parker’s ultimate goal is not to build living robots. Rather, these creations are a way for him to better understand the workings of muscular pumps and heart disease. “My real interest is in building a heart,” says Parker. He has also been involved
“The artificial stingray is a living machine – we are starting to learn how to use cells as a material” in building mini-organs, which could ultimately be wired up to create a “human on a chip”. Hanno Meyer from Bielefeld University in Germany, who also makes bio-inspired robots, thinks the cyborg ray is a good example of how to create a simple model of a life form that can interact with its environment. “The combination of artificial and living parts provides insight into creating a durable bio-hybrid system, which could be relevant when creating new brain-machine interfaces,” he says. Sandrine Ceurstemont ■ KARAGHEN HUDSON AND MICHAEL ROSNACH
regardless of whether it will eventually prove unfounded (see also “Trumping reason”, page 18). “Trump, for example, consistently says things that are demonstrably untrue and then takes them back,” she says. “He is getting people to believe things and relying on them to forget that he, or someone else, may correct it later on,” says Shaw. What’s more, any sharing of the results of fact-checking typically lags the misinformation by 10 to 20 hours, according to a recent study by Chengcheng Shao at the National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, China, and colleagues. Still, there are those who challenge the idea that online media has dramatically sidelined truth from politics. After all, the popularity of conspiracy theories is nothing new.
THEY’VE created a monster! Or at least a coin-sized cyborg stingray made from rat heart cells that can be controlled underwater using light. Designed by Kevin Kit Parker from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and his team, the 16-millimetre-long soft robot has a gold skeleton overlaid with a flexible polymer. Its muscles are made up of about 200,000 rat heart cells laid down in layers. “My building material is alive,” says Parker. To get the tiny robot to move, the team tweaked the rat-cell genes to make them light-sensitive. When exposed to light, the cells contract and the layers act as a kind of pump, pushing down on the skeleton so that the tiny robot can mimic the movements of a real stingray. “We kind of cheated compared to what nature does but it works,” says Parker. Shining specific frequencies on the robot causes a wave of contractions to spread down its body, making it undulate, and different –What will you trumpet today?– frequencies make it move at different speeds. Shining light on one side of its “Many of the same things were body just before the other allows it to turn. Controlled by light in this way, happening before Facebook,” the robot successfully swam through says David Lazer, a computer and political scientist at Northeastern an obstacle course. The artificial stingray is a living University in Boston. “I have not machine, but Parker says that more seen a compelling answer to complex robots made from living whether this has really changed.” tissue are still a long way off. We are Binkowski thinks otherwise.
–Little ray of light– 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 21
ONE PER CENT
Look into my eyes Google’s new NHS deal could benefit both sides, says Hal Hodson
22 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
will let DeepMind’s neural the idea in 2015. “About 10 per networks learn to recognise cent of high-street opticians have subtle signs of degenerating eye OCT – it’s likely that big national conditions that even trained chains will adopt it.” clinicians have trouble spotting. DeepMind’s partnership with This could make it possible Moorfields gives us an early look for a machine learning system to at how the marketplace for detect the onset of disease before machine learning could work. a human doctor could. The earlier DeepMind will not get paid for the better, says Gadi Wollstein, an any of the work it does. However, eye doctor at the University of it does get to test out algorithms Pittsburgh. “Patients are losing on real data and keep the neural tissue and the loss is irreversible,” networks it trains using that data. he says. “The longer we’re waiting, “If you’re going to use the worse the outcome.” publicly funded data, Any automated diagnosis you need a very, very software DeepMind comes up clear public benefit” with could also make its way to high-street opticians, who are increasingly using OCT, says The valuable knowledge Pearse Keane, the Moorfields about eye disease contained ophthalmologist who in Moorfield’s anonymous approached DeepMind with data set will become the property of DeepMind, built into its artificial intelligence systems. In effect, training its machine learning systems on real-world health data is DeepMind’s payment for advancing diagnostic AI. For Wollstein, who worked at Moorfields in the 1990s, the exchange is worth it. DeepMind may get free access to valuable patient data – but the alternative is to keep potential insight locked up and inaccessible to human analysis. At the end of the day, says Wollstein, DeepMind’s research might result in a great boost to the NHS, at zero financial cost to the taxpayer. But some still have reservations about Google’s use of NHS data. “You could do machine learning on this data without DeepMind,” says Javier Ruiz of the Open Rights Group. “You have to ask whether this is the right quid pro quo. If you say you’re going to use publicly funded data, you need a –An eye for an AI– very, very clear public benefit.” ■
Watch TV on the beach TV addicts rejoice – you could soon watch while soaking up the sun. Last month, UK company Cello Electronics launched the world’s first solar-powered television at the Solar Africa EXPO in Nairobi, Kenya. Aimed at viewers in motor homes and boats – as well as the roughly 1.2 billion people without reliable electricity – the 22-inch LED TV has a battery that is charged by a solar panel and provides 10 hours of running time. That’s plenty of time to be a beach potato.
“In 2003, for the first time since the Second World War, the United Kingdom took part in an opposed invasion” So begins @ChilcotBot's tweet- by-tweet posting of the 2.6-million-word report on the Iraq war released on 6 July
Bitcoin taxes Zug in Switzerland has become the first city in the world to accept the cryptocurrency bitcoin for government services. The pilot scheme, which started on 1 July, will allow citizens to use bitcoin to pay taxes, fines and fees – as long as the amount is less than 200 Swiss francs ($205).
EUTERS/JEFF J MITCHELL
DEEPMIND, Google’s Londonbased artificial intelligence company, has started training neural networks to recognise the signs of eye disease in medical images. A partnership with Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has given the company access to about a million anonymised retinal scans, which DeepMind will feed into its artificial intelligence software. The project will target two of the most common eye diseases – age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. More than 100 million people around the world have these conditions. Moorfields is providing scans of the back of people’s eyes, as well as more detailed scans known as optical coherence tomography (OCT). The idea is that the images
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This orangutan, collected by Wallace in Sarawak, was sold to Lord Derby
An ivory-breasted pitta from the island of Halmahera
24 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
Exotic investments These are three of more than 100,000 specimens collected by biologist Alfred Russel Wallace in what is now Malaysia and Indonesia. His main interest was insects but he collected and sold striking animals like this Sulawesi hornbill (main picture) to support his research. Specimens like the orangutan (far left) would have been gold dust for Wallace, says artist and photographer Fred Langford Edwards, who took these photos as part of a project on “the forgotten evolutionist”. The orangutan was one of three sold to Lord Derby for his museum, now the World Museum in Liverpool, UK. The others were destroyed by bombs in the second world war. Trading in exotic wildlife is now frowned upon and often illegal, but in Wallace’s time there were no such scruples. And Wallace lacked the money and social connections of Charles Darwin, Edwards points out. He had to support himself. Unlike Darwin, whose interest in the origin of species arose from a serendipitous posting on the Beagle, Wallace actually set out to investigate the question. In February 1858, during a bout of fever, he independently arrived at the conclusion Darwin had already reached: that natural selection is what drives the evolution of different species. An essay describing his idea was read out at the Royal Society in London that July, alongside a paper by Darwin. But it got little attention until the publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species the following year. Michael Le Page The first part of our Instant Expert guide to evolution starts on page 35
Photographer Fred Langford Edwards fredlangfordedwards.com
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 25
March of the jellies Desperate attempts to deal with jellyfish swarms may be wrong-headed, says Tamar Stelling 26 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
Globetrotting jellies A recent survey of jellyfish populations found that numbers appear to be increasing in more than half of the regions studied
SOURCE: BROTZ ET AL. HYDROBIOLOGIA, VOL 690, P 3
Increasing (high certainty) Increasing (low certainty)
NDREW Sweetman has spent a lot of time throwing dead jellyfish into the sea. At the bottom of the Sognefjord, Norway’s largest fjord, a time-lapse camera recorded their fate. He’s trying to answer a simple question: does anything eat jellyfish? That neatly sums up how little we really know about those alien creatures. Jellyfish carrion carpets the seabed, suggesting it is not a favourite food.“Why would you eat a jellyfish?” asks Sweetman, who now works at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, UK. “A jellyfish is 96 per cent water. You might as well just swim with your mouth open.” For a long time, it didn’t matter that we knew so little about these animals. They were just a mucous mess that washed up on beaches, or a painful nuisance for swimmers. But then huge invading swarms – jellyfish blooms – started making the news. In their millions, jellyfish are capable of spectacular acts of sabotage. Yet nobody knows where these blooms come from or how to get rid of them. Time to ask more questions beyond whether anything eats them. Are numbers really going up? If so, why? More importantly, what can we do about it? Jellyfish blooms can cause chaos. When the power went out on the island of Luzon in the
Decreasing No data
Philippines in 1999, locals thought a longfeared military coup was under way. They were wrong. Sucked into water intakes, jellyfish had taken out vital services from power stations to data centres and water treatment plants. In 2006, a jellyfish bloom temporarily disabled the Ronald Reagan, one of the US navy’s flagship nuclear-powered supercarriers. Gelatinous bodies had clogged up the water intake for cooling the ship’s reactor. And in 2009 a Japanese fishing boat capsized when its crew tried to haul in a net filled with dozens of huge Nomura’s jellyfish (Nemopilema nomurai) – each 2 metres wide and weighing in at 200 kilograms. Although it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for the boom in jellyfish blooms, it seems clear that one or more human factors are in play (see “They get around”, right). What’s certain is that they can suck the life out of the sea. Jellyfish eat fish larvae as well as the plankton they live on, damaging already fragile fish stocks. Wild fish are hit hardest, but once a bloom gets its tentacles through the nets of an open-ocean fishery, it may as well shut up shop. South Korean researchers estimate that jellyfish are costing their country $70 million to $200 million a year in lost fish-related revenue. >
THEY GET AROUND Jellies seem to be one of the few groups of organisms to thrive as we humans continue our assault on the world’s biosphere. Researchers are unsure of the reasons why. Lucas Brotz at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has surveyed 45 coastal ecosystems around the world. “More than half of the systems we looked at show an increase,” he says. Only in three regions in the study is there evidence of falling populations (see map, above). What is responsible? “There is no smoking gun,” says Brotz. For starters, there is eutrophication – agricultural run-off and sewage floods the water with nutrients, causing algae populations to soar. These then die and decompose, sucking oxygen out of the water and creating dead zones. Since jellies need much less oxygen than other animals, they thrive in these conditions. Overfishing also clears out the competition. And some jellyfish breed more quickly in waters warmed by climate change. Development along coastlines means more buildings and boat bottoms for polyps to cling to. Finally, jellyfish can spread in ships’ ballast tanks. In all the places Brotz found an increase, at least one of these factors seems to have been in play. “They are mostly correlations,” he says. “But the correlations are so convincing we have to pay attention to them.” 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 27
WHAT NOT TO DO Ideas for getting rid of jellyfish are plentiful – but mostly ineffective. Chemical repellents aimed at polyps kill other animals. Ditto for electrocution. Curtains of bubbles in front of intake channels seem to kill them – but the dead jellyfish end up clogging things up as much as live ones. Attempts to introduce the striped sea slug as a polyp predator also went nowhere. Others have tried acoustic shocks. In the 1960s researchers found that certain frequencies made jellyfish come to the surface in their thousands, where they could be scooped up in nets. But it never took off.
at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, describes JEROS as her version of hell. Few think jellies feel pain, but the truth is we don’t really know. Ferdinando Boero at the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, is convinced they don’t. “They do not care,” he says. “They do not have a brain.” But Lucas Brotz of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver prefers to hedge his bets. “I don’t think humans have a good understanding of pain in other organisms,” he says.“When I dissect a large live jellyfish, it very visibly winces and contracts when I cut into it.” Such reactions may well be a reflex response, nociception,
rather than a conscious experience of something painful, but no one can be sure. Either way, chopping up jellyfish may do more harm than good. First, what happens to the shredded jellyfish? Some might get eaten – but researchers like Sweetman are only just working out where the animals fit in the food chain. Or the sticky mass could gunk up cooling systems with the pieces being even harder to get rid of than whole jellies. Plus tentacle fragments studded with stinger cells can wash over anti-jellyfish nets and on to beaches. The second problem is that when you cut jellyfish open, some release all their eggs and sperm at once. The cells fertilise each
LIFE OF A JELLY
Metamorphosis of a medusa Like most jellies, moon jellyfish have several phas s of development. p A 2014 stu t dy found that polyps can y o contro t eir n nu bers (see main story) num be artificially induced to produce adultts potent al y gi ing a ay
Medusa (jelly sh
LARVA The larva, or planula, swims around until it finds a firm surface, then fastens itself down and transforms into a polyp
POLYP E g Eg Cells divide Sperm
LEFT: ACK GUEZ/AFP/GETTY RIGHT: THE ASAHI SHIMBUN VIA GETTY
That has led to some pretty far-out ideas to cull them. One comes from a team led by Hyun Myung at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea, who have created a fleet of jellyfish terminators called JEROS, for Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm. Each robot looks like a small giraffe riding on a 2-metresquare catamaran, while under the surface, whirling blades churn through jellyfish like eggs in a blender. Each craft has a camera to monitor the sea in front of it. When the software recognises a jelly in the water, sometimes with the help of drones overhead, a robot will summon the rest of the JEROS fleet. The robots sail forth, guiding the jellyfish into blade-filled traps. Each robot can shred 25 jellyfish a minute. Not all jellyfish are created equal, however. JEROS can easily make mincemeat of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), which are around 30 centimetres across, but Korean coasts also get blooms of Nomura’s jellyfish, and Myung’s robots are no match for them. He wants to make the robots intelligent, so that they can teach themselves to aim for the right species. “A lot of international companies are interested in optimising JEROS for different environments and jellyfish species,” says Myung. Offshore industries in the Middle East are especially interested, he says. Not everyone thinks robot terminators are a good idea. For a start, it’s a pretty gruesome solution. Rebecca Helm, a jellyfish researcher
Reproduces asexually, by budding. It divides the end of its body into horizontal discs and shoots them off into the sea ad infinitum, in a process called strobilation
EPHYRA Larva Strobila
The discs take in water until they’re 96 per cent liquid, at which point they become adult
MEDUSA These elegant, pulsating forms are the adult stage, producing eggs and sperm
28 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
“Some species of jellyfish are actually biologically immortal” Jellyfish blooms can invade beaches and clog up machinery
other and next season, your jellyfish bloom is worse. In some species, such as moon jellyfish, the shredded pieces can even turn into polyps themselves. So Myung’s team is tweaking their design. “We’ve rethought the shredder,” he says. A new version of JEROS scoops jellyfish out of the water and into a tank that holds more than 400 at a time. And there are a range of areas where they might find unexpected uses (see “Jelly versatility”, right). Still, if shredding or hoovering them up seem crude, there may be a smarter way: manipulate their fertility. Konstantin Khalturin at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan has found a substance that makes moon jellyfish start producing clones of themselves within 48 hours. “It’s not birth control,” says Khalturin. “It’s uncontrolled birth.” To understand how Khalturin’s jellyfish anti-pill works, and why it could be useful, you must first understand the jellyfish’s singular life cycle (see “Life of a jelly”, right). “That transparent, pulsating disc we all think of as a jellyfish – that’s just a phase,” Khalturin says. “The same DNA can make a creature that crosses oceans, wipes out fish, clogs up power plants, and lives six months at most, and then make a polyp that’s completely stationary but can live for a really long time,” says Khalturin. “Some polyps are actually biologically immortal.” So polyps generally bide their time before reproducing to make active jellyfish. But dump 150 kilograms of hormone treatment in a cubic kilometre of water and the polyps living there will strobilate. In theory, you could time blooms to coincide with the arrival of the JEROS swarm.
“Or you could cause new jellyfish generations to die prematurely by making the polyps bloom in the winter, when there’s not enough food in the sea yet for the baby jellyfish,” says Khalturin. One snag is that the polyps themselves can survive, so some want to use Khalturin’s work to produce a proper birth-control pill. But even
JELLY VERSATILITY The more we learn about jellyfish, the more surprising practical uses we are finding for them.
FERTILISER South Korean researchers are investigating the use of jellyfish as a natural fertiliser for rice and other crops.
BIODEGRADABLE NAPPIES Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found that jellyfish are capable of absorbing large amounts of water. Reduced to a “hydromash” jellyfish bodies can be turned into superabsorbent nappies.
NANOFILTERS Jellyfish mucus is one of few substances that can filter nano-scale biowaste, such as particles of plastic and traces of gold, out of water.
SPACE SCIENCE Jellies are even teaching us about the effects of microgravity. Thousands have been sent into space and successfully reproduced on board the International Space Station. Like us, jellyfish orient themselves according to gravity, and those born in space turn out to have difficulty moving through water back on Earth.
if you could dump hormones in the sea by the kilo without harming other life forms, there’s another problem: finding the polyps. Polyps are nearly invisible. They coat solid surfaces like rocks and concrete posts with a transparent carpet just 4 millimetres high. In South Korea they have started hosing down underwater surfaces where polyps are likely to form, hoping to wash them off into open water where they cannot survive. As a preventative measure, it’s also somewhat crude. Even if polyps are spotted, we do not know which species many polyps belong to. An adult jellyfish can drift far from the polyp that spawned it before it gets seen. So it could be a lose-lose strategy. “Fight jellyfish?” says Boero. “Forget it.” Everything we’ve tried is useless. “Jellyfish shredders, hormones – you’re just treating the symptoms,” he says. Marine zoologist Dror Angel at the University of Haifa in Israel agrees. “To portray this group in monochrome rather than presenting a more balanced picture where they are a natural part of the ecosystem is to do injustice to what really goes on – and to downplay our role in the outbreaks,” he says. Simply removing jellyfish from the sea when we know so little about them and their role in the larger picture may be foolish. “Who knows what food shortage you’d be causing for sea creatures somewhere else?” says Boero. Which is where Sweetman’s work comes in. When Sweetman sent his jellyfish carcasses to the sea floor they were accompanied by a selection of tasty mackerel. Yet he found that various types of fish and crustaceans devoured the jellyfish just as quickly as the mackerel. It is likely that many things do eat jellyfish, we just haven’t seen them at it. “And everything that normally eats jellyfish is for sale at the grocery store,” says Boero. For him at least the solution to the blooms is obvious. “Restore fish stocks and you’ve solved your jellyfish problem.” Whatever strategy wins in the end, be it eradication, birth control, or better ecosystem management, it’s clear the picture is complicated. “Jellyfish are not a wave of pollution that simply needs to be removed from the sea,” says Angel. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. ■ Tamar Stelling is a science writer at Dutch news website The Correspondent and based in the Hague 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 29
Quantum of solitude Our best theory says reality only materialises when we look at it. Can we remove ourselves from the picture, asks Jon Cartwright
HERE, when you aren’t looking at it, is a subatomic particle? A quantum physicist would probably answer: sort of all over the place. An unobserved particle is a wisp of reality, a shimmer of existence – there isn’t a good metaphor for it, because it is vague both by definition and by nature. Until you do have a peek. Then it becomes a particle proper, it can be put into words, it is a thing with a place. That picture seems utterly absurd. Yet many, many experiments exploring the microscopic realm over the best part of a century have reinforced the conclusion that when we’re not paying attention, the world is fuzzy and undecided. Only by looking at things, observing them, measuring them, do we make them recognisably “real”. Einstein was unimpressed, pointedly asking whether the moon is not there if no one is looking at it. But then Einstein was always raising pesky objections to quantum theory. For many physicists since it has been a case of swallowing any philosophical qualms. The maths works, there’s no real alternative, so get on with it. Shut up and calculate. Except that, just maybe, there is now an alternative. A new twist on standard quantum theory promises not only to rid reality of its observer problem, but also to answer a host of unresolved issues in cosmology, from the workings of black holes to the nature of dark energy to why time flows in only one direction. “It has the potential of providing a very plausible way out of the problems at
30 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
stake,” says quantum physicist Angelo Bassi at the University of Trieste in Italy. Is it for real? Quantum theory is the most successful, peerlessly predictive theory of basic reality ever devised. Its current formulation dates from the mid-1920s, when experiments had revealed that things such as electrons could perform diffraction and other feats suggesting they were in many places at the same time, like a wave. If you observed them directly, however, they had a single, definite position like a particle (see “A central mystery”, page 33). The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised an equation describing this equivocal behaviour, showing it could be represented by a mathematical entity later known as the wave
“The act of observation jolts the shadowy quantum world into definite reality” function. The wave function can’t tell you for sure what you will find out about a quantum object when you observe it – whether it’s over here, over there, spinning this way, spinning that way. Instead it gives you up-to-date, thoroughly reliable odds on which of many possibilities you will see if you take many measurements of identical objects. So much for the maths. But which of those possible states is a particle actually in, pre-measurement? The most popular answer,
formulated around the time Schrödinger produced his equation, is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. Named after the home city of one of its pioneers, Niels Bohr, it says that a particle’s state before observation is fundamentally, intrinsically, insurmountably uncertain. If the wave function says a particle could be here and there, then it really is here and there, however hard that is to fathom in terms of everyday experience. Only the act of looking at a quantum object “collapses” its wave function, jolting it from a shadowy netherworld into definite reality. That was hard to stomach, not least for Schrödinger. To illustrate his concern, he famously imagined a cat sealed inside a box along with a radioactive substance. The quantum wave function for the substance gives you a 50-50 chance an atom will decay within a certain time, in the process detonating a canister of lethal poison. So, asked Schrödinger, before you look in the box, is the cat alive and dead at the same time? Copenhagen says yes: until you look, there both has and hasn’t been a radioactive decay, and the cat’s fate is similarly undefined. The Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner later posed an even more profound question. What finally crystallises the cat’s alive or dead state – human consciousness? Did you kill the cat? Surely that can’t be right. Yet in 2011, an informal poll of 33 physicists attending a conference on “Quantum physics and the nature of reality” found that over 40 per cent accepted the Copenhagen view, while the >
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 31
“Believe the most popular variant of quantum theory, and our universe could never have existed” others could not agree on an alternative. Theorist Sean Carroll called it perhaps the “most embarrassing” poll in physics. For Daniel Sudarsky, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, it is all the more embarrassing when you start thinking outside the cat’s box and consider the universe at large. According to cosmologists, the early universe was a featureless blob, into which particles began to materialise at random. Particles that just happened to materialise closer together began to clump together through gravity – forming the seeds of today’s stars and galaxies. All well and good, except that there were no primordial observers to collapse the wave functions of those initial particles and create their uneven distributions in the first place. Believe the most popular interpretation of quantum theory, and the star-filled universe that we live in could never have existed. It was this conundrum that spurred Sudarsky into action in the early 2000s. “I wanted to describe the universe 13 billion years ago, when there certainly weren’t any sentient beings, unless you want to invoke God,” he says. “Which we don’t.” Alternatives to the Copenhagen picture fall broadly into three categories. One is that the wave function picture is not a complete description of reality. Decades of rigorous experiments have shown, however, that any additional bells and whistles would have to operate faster than light, breaking perhaps the most fundamental law of physics. A second possibility is that wave function collapse doesn’t happen at all; every possible outcome of an observation actually comes to pass in its own separate universe. This is the “many
worlds” interpretation (see “Who killed Schrödinger’s cat?”, page 34). The many worlds theory also creates almost as many philosophical problems as it solves, so Sudarsky began with a third option: that wave functions are real things and do indeed collapse – but randomly, by themselves. “Something like a measurement occurs, but without anybody actually measuring,” says Sudarsky. It doesn’t need a human observer, so this process is known as an objective collapse.
Tweaking Schrödinger Objective collapse would be rare, but catching. Wait for a single particle’s wave function to collapse and you could be waiting longer than the age of the universe. Group many particles together, however, and the chance swiftly escalates. With a few billion particles, you might only have to wait a few seconds for one wave function to collapse – and for that to set the rest off. Objective collapse theory was first put forward in the 1970s by Philip Pearle at Hamilton College in New York, and later refined by Giancarlo Ghirardi and Tulio Weber at the University of Trieste and Alberto Rimini at the University of Pavia, Italy. Their goal was to tweak Schrödinger’s equation so that the wave function evolves naturally, without an observer, from a mix of states into a single, well-defined state. To do so, they added a couple of extra mathematical terms: a non-linear term, which rapidly promotes one state at the expense of others, and a stochastic term, which makes that happen at random. At least superficially, these tweaks can explain quite a lot that’s inexplicable about
How did it all begin? In our standard cosmological picture, the seeds of stars and galaxies were sown in the early universe by tiny quantum fluctuations in the density of matter. But standard quantum theory doesn’t allow this Standard quantum picture
Objective collapse picture
The locations of individual particles are uncertain. There’s no observer to localise them to any one place no structures form 32 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
Particles localise spontaneously, forming clusters that ultimately give rise to large-scale structures
quantum theory. We never see ghostly quantum effects in large objects such as cats or the moon because, with so many interacting particles, their wave functions readily collapse or else never form. And in the early universe, as Sudarsky and physicistphilosopher Elias Okon, also at UNAM, showed a decade ago, it was only a matter of time before the wave functions of matter collapsed into an uneven distribution from which stars and galaxies could form, God or no God (see “How did it all begin?”, left). Objective collapse theory has an intuitive explanation for the observer problem, too. The human body has upwards of one billion billion billion atoms, all of which contain yet more constituent particles. An observer meddling with even a carefully isolated quantum apparatus will inevitably become quantumentangled with it, and their collapsed wave function then causes any uncollapsed wave function in the vicinity to collapse too. Yet the idea didn’t catch on. For a start, it’s only an “effective” theory. It states that wave functions collapse randomly and provides a mathematical description, but doesn’t explain
A central mystery The classic double slit experiment seems to suggest quantum objects such as electrons are sometimes particles, sometimes waves – and we decide which guise they take
why. There are possible explanations – theorist Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford has suggested that gravity drives the process, for instance – but no consensus. The tweaked Schrödinger equation was also not relativistic; it did not work for particles moving at close to the speed of light, a basic requirement of any modern theory. That began to change around five years ago, when theorists including Daniel Bedingham of the University of Oxford and Roderich Tumulka of Rutgers University in New Jersey formulated the first relativistic objective collapse models. Still the idea had few takers. For Tumulka, that’s because persuading physicists to go for any option besides the Copenhagen interpretation is like Copernicus trying to persuade people in the 16th century to give up Ptolemy’s Earth-centric view of the universe. “The difference is that Ptolemy’s theory made perfect sense. It just happened not to be right,” he says. “But Copenhagen quantum mechanics is incoherent, and thus is not even a reasonable theory to begin with.” Work that Sudarsky and his collaborators have been doing recently might begin to turn
A stream of single electrons is fired at two slits and measured on a screen behind. An interference pattern forms, as if each electron were a wave that passed through both slits at once
Measure the electrons first at the slits, however, and you see individual particles passing through one slit or the other – and the interference pattern on the screen disappears
the tide. It shows that objective collapse might explain not only how structure began to appear in the universe, but a host of other cosmological problems, too. Take black holes. These monsters, created by Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity, crush everything that comes their way – light, matter, information. For nigh on 40 years, physicists have been especially perplexed by the information bit. If all the information about a particle is contained within its wave function, and the only thing that can collapse a wave function is – according to the Copenhagen school, at least – an observer, who is that observer inside a black hole? No problem in objective collapse theory: no observer is required. Last year, Sudarsky and Okon calculated that the rate of random wave function collapse given by their theory agrees with the information loss rate predicted for black holes (Foundations of Physics, vol 44, p 114).
biggest cosmological conundrum of all. That conundrum is dark energy, the unknown entity that observations since the 1990s have indicated is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Standard quantum theory supplies what seems at first glance a ready source of dark energy. Quantum uncertainty means that even the nothing of free space has a small chance of containing something, in the form of energy. But work out how much of this energy there should be, and you come up with way too much. About 10120 times too much. Together with theorists Thibaut Josset and Alejandro Perez at the University of Marseille in France, Sudarsky showed earlier this year that energy creation through objective collapse might provide a closer fit. A big caveat is that the process would be compatible only with a slightly modified form of general relativity; accept that, and you’re in business. Or not quite. “Our rough calculations came surprisingly close,” says Sudarsky. “But with the wrong sign.” Their dark energy was pulling the universe together, not causing it to fly apart (arxiv.org/abs/1604.04183). A big detail, you might say. But the work deliberately ignored the collapse effects of myriad energetic particles whizzing about at near light speed in the early universe, as theories of relativistic objective collapse simply aren’t refined enough yet. Take those into account, says Sudarsky, and “things could come out all right”. In a more speculative paper this year, he and Okon also claim that objective collapse can explain why the universe started in a state of exceptionally low disorder, or entropy, that has been >
“Perhaps it might solve the biggest cosmic conundrum of all: dark energy” Spontaneous wave function collapse makes stuff, too. When a wave function disappears, something new appears in its place – a definite position, a piece of information, a tick of energy. Each collapse can only generate a minuscule amount of energy, so we wouldn’t notice it on any everyday scale. But in the universe as a whole, this energy creation could be rather significant – and perhaps solve the
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 33
increasing ever since. This continuous entropy increase matters to us – it is intimately connected to what we perceive as the one-way flow of time (arxiv.org/abs/1602.07006). Bassi, who works independently on objective collapse models, thinks these ideas are among the best out there. “There is much more work to be done, to check whether the proposed resolution really works,” he says. “But the starting point is encouraging.” But what of the doubters? Matt Leifer, a quantum theorist at Chapman University in Orange, California, acknowledges that objective collapse might untie some
philosophical knots in quantum theory, but is sceptical. “I am glad there are people working on the models seriously, but they have always seemed a little ad hoc to me,” he says. He believes that treating wave functions as real entities, rather than just things that represent our state of knowledge about the quantum world, is in general “the wrong place to start”. Antony Valentini, a theorist at Clemson University in South Carolina, is more positive. “Too much work in quantum foundations is cut off from the big questions facing physics and cosmology,” he says. “This work is still at an exploratory stage, but the ideas are
Who killed Schrödinger’s cat? This thought experiment illustrates the supposed absurdity of quantum theory, with objects existing in uncertain states before they are observed. Within a box, a random radioactive particle decay may break a vial of poison gas that kills a cat. If the cat is dead when you open the box, what has happened? Standard (Copenhagen) interpretation Before observation Particle decay
No particle decay
The cat is simultaneously alive and dead
Many worlds interpretation
The cat is dead. Your measurement killed the cat After observation
The cat is simultaneously alive and dead
Objective collapse theory
The universe splits. Your cat is dead, but in a parallel world it remains alive After observation
The cat is either alive or dead
34 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
The cat is dead. It may have been dead for some time
interesting and plausible. I wish more people were looking at this sort of thing.” The test of any good theory is, of course, experiment. The reason we believe standard quantum theory is its ability to explain, at least mathematically, experiments showing quantum objects behaving like waves in one situation and particles in another. These effects have now been observed with objects far larger than single particles – the record, set in 2013 at the University of Vienna in Austria, involves complex molecules some 20 million times the mass of the electron. If Sudarsky is right, there is a natural size limit, after which objects begin to collapse spontaneously, removing the wave-like behaviour. Common sense tells us this threshold must be far smaller than that of everyday observations. “It should occur much before I send a cat through the apparatus,” says Sudarsky. More exact experiments should be able to test the predictions of various objective collapse models. Hendrik Ulbricht at the University of Southampton in the UK thinks such tests could be performed within a decade, by making silica beads as massive as 20 billion electrons pass through and interfere at “slits” made of laser light. An alternative test is to look for the excess energy that objective collapse theories predict should arise from spontaneous wave function collapse. Though near infinitesimal here on Earth, this should still be present as an allpervading background noise that would disrupt the most sensitive experiments, like static muddying an analogue radio broadcast. In March this year, a team in Italy, including Bassi, cooled a vibrating cantilever to within a whisker of absolute zero and found deviations in its regular to-ing and fro-ing only from the tiny remaining thermal energy, nothing more. That established an upper bound on objective collapse noise, ruling out one particular incarnation, but leaving most intact (Physical Review Letters, vol 116, p 090402). For Sudarsky, this newfound testability provides an impetus to make objective collapse theory even more persuasive. It’s an uphill battle to win hearts and minds in the face of one of the most successful theories ever devised. But then, understanding why the simple act of looking appears to create the world around us would be a big prize, says Sudarsky. “It’s pushing us to solve one of the biggest mysteries we’ve had for a long time,” he says. ■ Jon Cartwright is a freelance journalist based in Bristol, UK
Instant Expert | Evolution Part One
EVOLUTION PART ONE
Not so long ago, all species were thought to have been created by god. Then along came evolution Illustrations by Raymond Beisinger
16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 35
Instant Expert | Evolution Part One
THE EVOLUTION REVOLUTION The story of how one of science’s greatest ideas came into being is both remarkable and riddled with myths. John van Wyhe lifts the lid
36 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
19th century it was widely understood that Earth could not be a few thousand years old, but must be inconceivably ancient. Earth was also found to have changed over time. Close study of rocks and fossils revealed a complex history of different ages. One layer of the geological record might show lush tropical vegetation populated with reptiles unlike any alive today. In the rock layers just above, yet another terrestrial world might have existed with different animals and plants. To explain this, in 1812 the great French anatomist Georges Cuvier put forward the idea that each age
had been abruptly ended by some great catastrophe. Another puzzle was the discovery in Europe and America of gigantic fossilised animals. Where could creatures such as mammoths be living today? Perhaps their kind had died out? This couldn’t be true, according to traditional belief, since God would not allow any of his created species to perish. Cuvier’s detailed research in anatomy established, once and for all, that creatures such as the mammoth were not the same as anything alive today, and were extinct. For us, extinction is such a mundane fact that we cannot
THE VIEW %()25( '$5:,1 Lamarckism is mentioned in biology textbooks as shorthand for a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution in which species were thought to evolve via the inheritance of characteristics acquired during an organism’s lifetime. According to this, the giraffe got its long neck by intentionally stretching to reach the top of trees. This slightly stretched neck was then passed on to offspring, and so on. But this version of Lamarckism is a terrible caricature. The biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck did not originate this idea – which many naturalists, including Darwin, continued to accept –and this was not the core of his theory. Instead, Lamarck’s central idea was that there is a tendency for life to progress up the scale of perfection according to a “complexifying force”. New species originated continuously via spontaneous generation (the appearance of life from inorganic matter) and could adapt to local circumstances through the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/UIG/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
volution is the most revolutionary concept in the history of science. Nothing else has more radically changed our understanding of the natural world and ourselves. The work of Charles Darwin showed, irrefutably, that humans are just another animal occupying a small branch on a vast tree of life. No divine spark is needed to explain our existence and traits. But how exactly did Darwin devise his theory of evolution? What ideas did he build on? Where does the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who proposed a similar theory, fit in? And how shocking was the idea to the Christian society of the time? The story of the uncovering of this great revelation has been retold countless times since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the process, the assumptions and guesses of one generation became accepted as fact by the next – with some spawning widespread myths. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is that thinkers had been striving for centuries to solve the mystery of the origin of species. They hadn’t, and indeed they couldn’t have – just as ancient Greek philosophers could not have been searching for dark matter. Traditionally, people in Christian Europe had believed that the world was about 6000 years old. This view was guided by interpolations from the Bible, which itself gave no date for creation. Gradually such beliefs were modified by Christian thinkers based on new information about Earth, gleaned from the growth of mining and the development of geology. By the early
appreciate how radical the concept was initially. However, it soon became almost universally accepted in the scientific community, with one important exception: the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. For Lamarck, these unfamiliar fossil forms had not gone extinct. Instead they had changed, evolving into something else – although his view of this process was different to that later proposed by Darwin (see “The view before Darwin”, below). The mammoth, for example, could have evolved into the elephant. As the influential Cuvier did with so many rivals, he used his reputation to demolish Lamarck. The result was that for the first few decades of the 19th century, not only Lamarck’s theory but any theory of evolution was considered unscientific and absurd. Although Lamarck won a few converts, many more accepted Cuvier’s view that a succession of eras of life had come and gone. But where did the new species that emerged after these extinctions come from? The geologist Charles Lyell argued in his Principles of Geology, published in the early 1830s, that slow processes had changed Earth over time. Lyell’s picture was one of perpetual change. As an environment gradually transformed, the species that lived in it would become unsuited to it and die out, because there was a limit to how much they could change to adapt. Just how new species arose was left vague. Lyell’s work was of great interest to Charles Darwin, a young Cambridge graduate who was appointed to join the surveying voyage of HMS Beagle
John van Wyhe is a historian of science at the National University of Singapore. He is the founder of Darwin Online (darwin-online.org.uk/), the largest and most complete collection of Darwin’s writings, and the author of 10 books on Darwin, Wallace and evolution
THE NATURAL H STORY MUSEUM/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
ROUTE TO A BREAKTHROUGH
Galapagos Islands finches: were they key to Darwin’s ideas?
as a naturalist in 1831 (contrary to popular accounts, he was not invited along to be the captain’s social companion, nor was the ship’s surgeon the official naturalist). During this five-year voyage, Darwin matured into one of the most experienced scientists of his generation. He worked primarily as a geologist but also collected a wide range of living things, from finches to fungi. The expedition first visited South America, then surveyed the waters around the Galapagos Islands. Only in the middle of the 20th century did Darwin’s visit there come to be portrayed as a pivotal moment in his life. He never described it as such. And as charming as it sounds, there is no truth to the story that Darwin noticed the beaks of the finches were adapted to different diets and that this provoked his evolutionary theorising. There was no Galapagos eureka moment.
After the return of HMS Beagle in 1836, Darwin set to work describing his mountain of specimens. He also began asking himself deep questions about nature, life and religion. Gradually, he gave up his belief in Christianity. “It is not supported by evidence”, he concluded. Nevertheless, as far as we know, he never lost a belief in a supernatural creator behind nature. Several types of evidence led Darwin to accept that species must evolve. On his voyage down the South American continent, he observed that related species gradually replaced one another. The species living in the Galapagos also puzzled him. Many of these were unique to the islands, yet most were strikingly similar to South American species. But the Galapagos, a collection of marine volcanoes, had never been connected to South America and their climate was totally different. According to Lyell’s view, species were somehow created to suit new environments. So why
Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, foreshadows Darwin when he writes: “Would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament… with the power of acquiring new parts”
The doom-mongering An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus warns of the dire consequences of unrestricted population growth. It is a key influence on Charles Darwin French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck publishes
1809 Philosophie Zoologique, outlining his idea of evolution according to a “complexifying force”
Charles Robert Darwin is born in Shrewsbury, UK,
1809 the fifth of six children in a prosperous family 1813
French zoologist Georges Cuvier publishes Essay on the Theory of the Earth, setting out his idea that new species appear after catastrophes such as floods Alfred Russel Wallace is born in the village of
1823 Llanbadoc near the border of England and Wales, the seventh of nine children
Darwin sets sail on HMS Beagle for a survey of South America. The voyage lasts five years
Darwin sketches the first “tree of life” in his notebook to explain the evolutionary relationships between species
Wallace departs for an expedition to Brazil. On the return journey four years later, a fire destroys many of his specimens Wallace conceives of his theory of how species adapt
1858 to a changing world. On 1 July both Wallace’s and
Darwin’s ideas are presented at the Linnean Society of London Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published
1859 and becomes the object of much ridicule and abuse Debating evolution at Oxford, Bishop Samuel
1860 Wilberforce asks Thomas Huxley, a champion of
Darwin’s ideas, if Huxley’s monkey ancestors were on his grandmother’s or grandfather’s side
Evolution comes to be accepted as fact by most of the international scientific community 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 37
Instant Expert | Evolution Part One
“ The implication that human beings must have evolved from earlier species was objectionable to many”
weren’t the Galapagos species were so obviously related to South American ones instead of just being rocky island species? Darwin’s explanation was that their ancestors must have come from South America and changed over time. In 1838, Darwin read Thomas Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, which argued that continued population growth would lead to famine and starvation. Darwin was struck by the implications of checks to population growth. This led him to focus on what allowed some individuals rather than others to survive and pass on their characteristics. He hypothesised that every organism varied in many small ways, and any of these variations that helped or hindered would make a difference to which survived. He eventually called this filtering process “natural selection” by analogy with the process in which farmers changed domesticated plants and animals by selecting desirable individuals to breed from. In so doing, they emphasised some traits and reduced others (see “Evolution in a nutshell”, opposite) It would take Darwin more than 20 years to publish these ideas. In recent decades it has become widely believed that Darwin kept his evolutionary theorising a secret and delayed its publication because he was afraid of the reaction. A large body of literature emerged proposing reasons for this: for example, that he was put off by the fierce reception to the 1844 evolutionary potboiler Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, or that he was afraid of offending his religious wife. 38 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
Yet there is not a shred of evidence for either suggestion. In fact, Darwin told his family, friends and colleagues about his theory and his plans to publish it. He felt he had years of research to conduct before he would be ready and, like his other major works, the species theory took longer than he originally imagined. By early 1858, he had drafted many chapters and was about a year or two away from publishing his “big book”, which would have spanned several volumes.
WORDS FROM WALLACE Then, on 18 June, something surprising happened. An essay arrived in the mail from Alfred Russel Wallace, outlining a theory almost identical to Darwin’s own. Wallace was a brilliant collector who had worked in Southeast Asia since 1854. There are perhaps even more myths about him than Darwin. Wallace is often portrayed as
the lower-class underdog to the genteel, moneyed Darwin. But Wallace was not working class, and neither was he forced to leave school early because of his family’s finances. He was not deprived of his proper share of credit or made the victim of skulduggery by Darwin or his cronies, as is often claimed today. The underdog version of Wallace’s story emerged only after the 1950s. Wallace had long been privately convinced that species must evolve. But he was certainly not, as many modern commentators put it, searching for a mechanism for how evolution works. As he collected thousands of tropical insects and birds, his theoretical views gradually matured. In February 1858, on the tiny spice island of Ternate, Wallace lay sweating from fever when he thought of a means whereby species could become naturally adapted to a changing world. It was a filtering process of life and death that was very similar to
Darwin’s natural selection. When he recovered, Wallace wrote an essay, “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type”, aimed primarily at Lyell’s anti-evolutionary arguments. Shortly after, Wallace received an encouraging letter from Darwin stating that Wallace’s hero, Lyell, admired Wallace’s work. This led Wallace to send the essay to Darwin with the request that it be forwarded to Lyell. It has been claimed that Darwin might have lied about when he received the essay, leading to accusations that Darwin could have plagiarised Wallace. In fact, Darwin received the essay exactly when he said he did. Darwin was struck by the resemblance between Wallace’s views and his own. The same day, Darwin sent the essay on to Lyell, bemoaning that he ought to send it for publication ahead of his own work. For someone who was ever the Victorian country gentleman (see “Getting to know Darwin”, opposite), it seemed like the noble thing to do. Lyell and another of Darwin’s peers, Joseph Dalton Hooker, did not agree with that view. They had been aware of Darwin’s theory for years and were not prepared to withhold their knowledge of Darwin’s priority. They proposed a compromise: to present Wallace’s essay together with some of Darwin’s unpublished writings at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London. Modern opinions about these arrangements can be strong indeed, especially among those who think Wallace was unfairly treated. This is another mid-20th century view. According to the standards of the
In further Instant Experts on evolution, we look at the future of evolution and how genetics became incorporated into our understanding of Darwin’s ideas.
time, however, the arrangement was fair. Wallace had sent his essay without asking for it to be kept private. The conventions of the day allowed Darwin or Lyell to publish it. Wallace was always accorded the honour of being the co-discoverer of natural selection and never tired of expressing his gratitude and satisfaction. These brief writings of Darwin and Wallace offered the first statement of how species came into existence by natural means, yet they made remarkably little impact. Urged to bring out a reduced overview of his massive work in progress, Darwin spent 13 months condensing his 20 years of study into a single volume. This was published on 24 November 1859 as On the Origin of Species. The book was immediately controversial and widely reviewed and discussed. Darwin came in for a great deal of ridicule and abuse. The implication that human beings must have evolved from earlier species was particularly objectionable to many, as was
EVOLUTION IN A NUTSHELL Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution maintains that new species are descended from earlier ones. This long-term process happens because all organisms vary. The tiny variations are naturally “selected” by virtue of whether or not they help an organism to survive the brutal struggle for existence in nature. Many are born, but few survive; fortuitous variations are preferentially passed on. This process of endless filtering works to adapt organisms to their environment.
the revelation that no divine guiding hand was needed; species evolve on their own. But Darwin also gained strong support especially from members of the younger generation of naturalists, such as Thomas Henry Huxley (today always referred to as Darwin’s bulldog, but not known as this in his lifetime). Darwin’s mass of evidence, ranging from embryology and vestigial organs to geographical distribution, and his arguments in favour of evolution were overwhelming. Despite its baptism of fire, On the Origin of Species almost single-handedly convinced the international scientific community that evolution was a fact. In his 1889 book Darwinism, Wallace wrote of the revolution Darwin effected: “this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!” The theory of evolution has come a long way since. Today we think of it in terms of genes and DNA, but Darwin and Wallace had no idea of their existence. It was only in the 1930s and 1940s that genetics was incorporated into evolutionary theory. Even now, new discoveries are shaking up our understanding, but at the core of the modern theory remains Darwin’s idea of descent with modification. Today evolution has many critics outside the scientific community, especially in the US, where a significant percentage of the population are creationists. What is forgotten is that the scientific debate over evolution was over by the 1870s and has never again been a matter of serious dispute. ■
ARCHIVIO G.B.B. / AGENZIA CONTRASTO CONTRASTO / EYEVINE
GETTING TO KNOW DARWIN
William, Charles Darwin’s eldest child, was also the subject of his father’s studies For someone who devised a revolutionary idea, Charles Darwin lived a remarkably quiet life. In 1842, Darwin and his wife Emma moved from London to rural Kent in southern England. They already had two children then, and would go on to have eight more. Darwin had very regular habits. He rose early and went for a walk. After breakfast he worked in his study until 9.30 am, his most productive time of the day, then read his letters lying on the sofa before returning to work. At midday he would go for another walk accompanied by his dog, stopping at his greenhouse to inspect his botanical experiments. Then he would proceed to the sand walk, a gravel path around a strip of woodland. While strolling on this “thinking path”, Darwin would ruminate on his unsolved scientific problems. After luncheon he read the newspaper and wrote letters. His network of correspondents provided information from all corners of the globe. The Darwins were not very strict parents and the children were apt to run wild. Their mild-mannered father worked patiently to a background of playful screams and little footsteps stampeding past his study door. After dinner Darwin played backgammon with his wife. They were very competitive. He once wrote, “Now the tally with my wife in backgammon stands thus: she, poor creature, has won only 2490 games, whilst I have won, hurrah, hurrah, 2795 games!” Despite poor health, Darwin continued to publish a string of innovative and seminal works until his final book on earthworms in 1881. It was an instant bestseller. He died the following year, aged 73. But science had one last claim on him. Rather than a quiet internment in the local churchyard, which he called “the sweetest place on Earth”, Darwin was given a state funeral in London’s Westminster Abbey. 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 39
Everyday drugs can fight cancer After losing his first wife and son to cancer, Pan Pantziarka aims to enlist common drugs like aspirin as new treatments
Your work was partly inspired by the death of your son, George. What happened?
George’s mum died of cancer when he was 14 months old, and he was diagnosed with his first cancer shortly after. He was successfully treated and was in remission for many years, then when he was 14 he was diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma behind his ear – which was also removed. The last cancer he had was an osteosarcoma of the jaw, which was discovered when he was 15. Shortly afterwards George was diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni syndrome – a rare genetic condition that predisposes people to cancer. What got you into repurposing everyday drugs to fight cancer?
growing their own blood vessels. Research suggests it also primes the body to respond better to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It does multiple jobs in one tablet. When you contacted the researchers, what did they suggest your son try?
One suggestion was an anti-diabetic drug called pioglitazone taken in combination with celecoxib, which is used to treat rheumatism. The idea was to take these alongside metronomic chemotherapy, where you give standard chemotherapy drugs at very low doses every day with no treatment breaks, instead of less frequent, bigger doses. What did your son think about all this?
When the standard treatments for the osteosarcoma failed, I looked for anything at all that might have an effect. I used PubMed, the search engine for biomedical literature, and found researchers in different parts of the world working on repurposed drugs. I contacted them and was surprised by how much time they gave me: they wanted to help.
He knew and he was very keen that we make these efforts. He wanted to live.
Why are some non-cancer drugs useful for treating cancer?
What happened to George?
At the moment, the most popular way of developing drugs is to start with a molecular target and develop something to hit it specifically. But basic evolutionary biology tells us that cancer is a complex adaptive system that evolves resistance to targeted agents. Clinicians and scientists often characterise older drugs like aspirin as “dirty” drugs because they hit multiple targets. We see this as an advantage. For example, the painkiller diclofenac helps to stop tumours 40 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
PROFILE Pan Pantziarka is a London-based computer scientist for the Anticancer Fund in Belgium, and joint coordinator of the Repurposing Drugs in Oncology (ReDo) project. He is chairman of the George Pantziarka TP53 Trust
How did your son’s oncologists respond?
They said: “We don’t have any experience of these drugs”. In the end they came back with a treatment protocol which somebody at the hospital had used before. It didn’t work.
He died on 25 April 2011, aged 17. Looking back, it is unlikely that repurposed drugs would have made a huge difference because by that point the disease was very advanced.
cancer cells, but there’s also a whole microenvironment around the tumour. A lot of repurposed drugs change aspects of that environment, removing the support systems that cancer depends on.
Why was their potential as a cancer treatment missed in the first instance?
Can you give some examples?
When these drugs were originally developed cancer was viewed as a disease of deranged cells; all the focus was on finding ways of killing them. Now when we talk about cancer we do it in a much more holistic way: there are
There’s evidence to show that aspirin is beneficial for colorectal cancer after diagnosis, and that it can reduce the recurrence of adenomas – benign tumours that are often a first step towards colorectal cancer – after they
PEOPLE lower price. Also, if the trial is successful, getting the drug licensed costs money. Secondly, very few of these drugs are going to be effective on their own: we are looking at using them in combination with standard therapies or other repurposed drugs. In that situation multiple companies are involved, which raises issues around cooperation. If you are doing a trial without a pharmaceutical company, there are logistical issues: you have to buy the drugs yourself and even cheap drugs aren’t that cheap. You also have to package up the placebo and the drug – so you have highly paid consultants shoving aspirin into unmarked containers. What solutions are you coming up with?
We supported a UK crowdfunding project to repurpose a malaria drug called artesunate
“When it’s someone’s life at stake, people do extraordinary things”
PAUL STUART FOR NEW SCIENTIST
as a colorectal cancer drug. The response was great and we exceeded the target of £50,000. But it’s not a sustainable model because it takes a huge amount of work, and while the public wants to be involved, compassion fatigue will kick in as the number of appeals grows. That’s particularly true for rare cancers, as there’s not a huge constituency of patients we can mobilise. So we have to look at other options. Besides identifying promising drugs, we are looking at public policy. We hope to find a process whereby when sufficient evidence of a positive clinical effect is found, new licences could be granted.
are surgically removed. Another example is the beta blocker propranolol, which has shown a positive effect when used before surgery in a number of cancers, including ovarian cancer. Cancer is aided by bodily systems that increase the proliferation of cells while also lowering immunity, but propranolol reverses these protumour effects. Can doctors prescribe these drugs for cancer?
They can, but there are problems. For the patient, it is incredibly hit-and-miss: it
depends on whether your doctor is willing to prescribe off-label. And for the doctor, they risk getting into trouble or looking odd in front of their colleagues. What are the main challenges you face getting repurposed drugs approved to treat cancer?
The patents have expired on the majority of the drugs, so any drug company that invests in a clinical trial is not guaranteed to recoup that money because some other manufacturer could swoop in and sell the same drug at a
Some might accuse you of encouraging cancer patients to turn away from conventional therapies that could save their lives.
All cancer patients and their families have the right to seek alternative opinions. But I work for a foundation called the Anticancer Fund, which funds some research into repurposed drugs, and we spend a lot of time exposing fake cancer cures. We don’t recommend that people stop their current treatment; for any faults it may have, it’s better than no treatment. Instead we supply information for people to take to their oncologist and discuss with them. We don’t encourage people to selfmedicate, although we know some people do. When it’s someone’s life at stake, people do extraordinary things – and for good reason. ■ Interview by Linda Geddes 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 41
COME AND HEAR... COSMOS STAGE
The man who walked in space
OTHER PLACE ON EARTH Welcome to New Scientist Live, a four-day festival of ideas and discovery. Here, you’ll find the best, latest and most provocative science, guaranteed to touch all aspects of human life
Fresh from his mission on the International Space Station, British ESA astronaut Tim Peake will be at New Scientist Live to talk about his time in space. Here’s a taster… What things stand out from your trip to the ISS?
During the launch, when the nose fairing blows off and you see the atmosphere turning from blue to black. Those kinds of experiences you try and cement in your mind. They are very special. And going out the door for the first time on a spacewalk; despite what people have told you, you don’t know if you’re going to feel vertigo or be gripping on for dear life. So what was the spacewalk like?
WHERE ExCel London WHEN 22–25 September 2016 WHAT Talks, debates, exhibits, demonstrations. Interact with the latest technology and engage with 100 of the world’s most original thinkers
COSMOS THE UNIVERSE – AND BEYOND
N & BO ODY
WHAT A ITT MEANS HUMAN TO BE H
I was relaxed the moment the airlock opened. I had prepared and done the training, and on the space station I’d gone to the cupola window and looked out, thinking: “I’m going to be out there in a few days. What’s it going to feel like?” Then Tim Kopra and I were in the airlock, and the moment he opened the hatch and sunlight flooded in I realised: “We’re here. This is the vacuum of space. Just pop out now and let’s get to work.” What did it feel like?
It felt wonderful. No sense of vertigo. And I think I was used to floating inside the space station, so to be floating outside wasn’t that alien a feeling. It wasn’t just looking down on Earth that was interesting, but when I turned round 180 degrees I looked straight up into the blackness of space, which is really quite intimidating and eerie. It was just amazing. You did a lot of research on your mission. Have you always been interested in science?
TTECHNOLOGY M MAKING TTHE FUTURE
EXPLORING OUR PLANET
42 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve probably studied an awful lot harder since leaving school than I did at school. As a young pilot I loved learning about aerodynamics. Suddenly those things that I learned at school had a focus and a purpose, and I had a reason for learning maths. I could actually apply it. Which experiments interested you?
We had plenty of variety. One of my first tasks was to install an electrostatic furnace in the
AND DON’T MISS... ARE THERE THINGS WE CAN NEVER KNOW? Join Marcus du Sautoy on a journey to the outermost limits of human knowledge
CHASING COMETS Monica Grady shares her enthusiasm for comets and what we’ve learned about them from the epic Rosetta mission to comet 67P
HOW ARABIC SCIENCE CHANGED THE WORLD There is much we can learn from the pioneering scientists of the medieval Islamic world, says Jim Al-Khalili
FESTIVAL OF THE SPOKEN NERD Japanese module. There’s some very interesting materials science going on there. The European lab has the electromagnetic levitator which lets you melt metals to create alloys. I carried out flame combustion experiments and grew protein crystals.
how fragile it is – and the atmosphere. When you see the planet, how isolated it is in the blackness of space, you suddenly realise we are tanking through the universe as one little speck where life can survive.
You also did a lot of biomedical research on yourself. Did you learn anything new?
Yes, but it would have to be the right time of my life. The only thing that would stop me right now is being a father to two young boys.
Some things are instantaneous. The moment you put on a blood pressure monitor in space, you see your heart rate and blood pressure are much lower than on Earth. You can feel puffiness in your face. You know fluid has shifted. You feel these changes when you go up and their reverse when you come back: my vestibular system, learning how to balance again, learning how to walk. It’s definitely harder coming down than it is going up. Has your time in space given you any fresh insights into space, life, yourself?
I do appreciate our planet in a different way,
The science comedy trio’s take on the future, when all you’ll need to start a fire is… a satellite dish
Would you volunteer to go to Mars?
What if it meant you wouldn’t be coming back?
I’ve never been a fan of the “no-return mission”. A return mission is within our technological capabilities. Getting somebody there and back safely is my idea of mission success. What will you talk about at New Scientist Live?
I’d like to give as much of a personal impression of the mission as I can, the things I felt were important, the things I enjoyed, the things that excited me. And I’m sure the audience will have plenty of questions…
HOW WE BECAME HUMAN Alice Roberts highlights the unique traits that set our ancestors on the road to global domination
DO YOU KNOW YOUR OWN MIND? Discover why we are closer than ever to understanding human consciousness, with Anil Seth
To find out more and buy your tickets go to newscientistlive.com or if you are in the UK call our ticket hotline on 0844 581 1295 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 43
Divided we stand – or fall The gap between rich and poor causes a world of problems. What can we do? Debora MacKenzie explores some smart new thinking
IN 1776, American revolutionaries declared it self-evident that all men are created equal. Nice sentiment. In 2016, with all our unprecedented wealth, there is still massive inequality between the rich and the poor. This profoundly affects how societies and lives develop – and it fed the fury behind both the Arab Spring and the Brexit vote. So what causes inequality, where is it headed, and can we do anything about it? There are few more qualified to ask these questions than Branko Milanovic, economist and the former vice-president of the World Bank. The answers, however, reach beyond economics. In his book Global Inequality, Milanovic charts economic inequality within and between countries – and finds something familiar to natural scientists. Like many processes that are subject Post-war efforts to share wealth have collapsed in disarray 44 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
to feedbacks, inequality runs in cycles. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution created vast new wealth, and the gap between rich and poor widened as the rich used their wealth to get richer. Like all positive feedbacks it had to end. Milanovic argues that
“Economists’ predictions fail, partly because small changes have unexpectedly big effects” extreme inequality at the turn of the century helped trigger the first and second world wars. After 1945, the industrialised countries deliberately fostered equality. They shared the rocketing profits from yet more technological advance in pay packets and social benefits, especially healthcare and education, which further reduced
inequality. Many economists thought that this process would go on forever. They were wrong. Milanovic says that in the 1980s, economists were shocked when globalisation saw inequality worsen in richer countries. This cycle is due to reverse towards equality, and he warns that it might again be messy, as the plutocrats face the angry nouveau poor. Witness the rise, since the book went to press, of populism and Donald Trump. Inequality between – as opposed to within – countries, though, is plummeting, argues Milanovic. Asia, led by China, has generated a “global middle class” – still poorer than most people in rich countries, but much richer than, say, most Africans. We want this process to continue: less global inequality means more peaceful coexistence.
BRUNO BARBEY / MAGNUM PHOTOS
Global Inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization by Branko Milanovic, Harvard University Press, $29.95 Success and Luck: Good fortune and the myth of meritocracy by Robert H. Frank, Princeton University Press, $26.95 From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The making of mass incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard University Press, $29.95
But Milanovic calculates that it will only continue if countries other than China, especially India, also grow more prosperous. Will they? Milanovic warns that economists’ detailed longterm predictions – some of which may be “a form of charlatanism” – fail partly because small changes have unexpectedly big effects. Yet this problem is not insoluble: complexity research is trying to discover why societies sometimes respond to small changes with big effects. Meanwhile at least one major factor could prevent India and other emerging economies from emulating China’s success: climate change. Milanovic doesn’t really seem to get that. Like many economists, he calls for more human migration to ease inequality between nations.
For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culture
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Inequality pits plutocrats against the angry nouveau poor
Restricting immigrants’ rights in harder and is smarter – not that richer countries, he also suggests, he also lucked out in things he may make host citizens more had no control over, such as welcoming. He might have nationality, parents, gender, proposed this because, as he chance meetings, even his height. was writing, the UK government It feels fairer. It just isn’t true. was trying to do precisely that Yet the myth feeds a pervasive to appease anti-immigrant political belief that people who sentiment. It didn’t work: the “While winners often need issue of immigration continued talent to succeed, they also to dominate the EU referendum. require luck. Yet we cling to Perhaps Milanovic would write the ‘myth of meritocracy’” that bit differently now. Robert Frank’s enjoyable “worked really hard” to become treatise, Success and Luck, might be the better bet for fixing society. rich shouldn’t have to pay high His case histories show that while taxes so the poor have healthcare and education too – as though winners often need talent and the poor could buy these things hard work to succeed, they also themselves if they worked harder. need simple, dumb luck. Frank, an economist who works But we cling to the “myth of with psychologists, describes meritocracy”. We want to believe that Joe earns 10 times more than experiments that reveal how ingrained our denial of luck is. Jill solely because he worked
Our attitude may have evolved because those who believe hard work pays off also work harder. A similar tendency to believe in a “just world”, where you get what you deserve, may have evolved because it makes us more positive. However, other research suggests the acceptance of luck also makes us happier, says Frank. Our tendency to take credit for our good luck makes the successful unwilling to give the less lucky more chances, fraying the social contract our species needs to live well. In other words, it exacerbates inequality. Frank points out a little-mentioned effect of this: as the richest get richer and spend more, the less rich do the same, obeying the social imperative to keep up. The effect propagates down until it hits people for whom trying to
keep up is disastrous. If the top consumers spent less, he says, we all would, and would be just as happy. So instead of taxing income, Frank, like many economists, proposes a tax on consumption: your income minus savings and what is enough to live on. Unlike consumer levies such as sales tax, the rate would rise steeply with income, targeting the rich. People would save more, and, unlike income tax, says Frank, it might generate enough public funds to pay for crumbling infrastructure and retiring boomers. He doesn’t even mention the environmental dividend of less consumption. So who could be preventing this sensible idea? Gosh, I wonder. Of course, inequality means poor people, and there are other ways to deal with them. In the US, you lock them up. Sometimes, in the case of minor offenders who cannot afford to pay major court fees, they are locked up just for being poor. Historian Elizabeth Hinton documents how the US came to have the world’s largest prison population in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Astonishingly, she shows it began as a result of the 1960s’ civil rights movement, when the federal government launched a “war on poverty”. This was aimed at integrating urban blacks, but as ghettoes burned later that decade, it changed to militarising police, building prisons and targeting black youths – targeting that is literally and tragically still with us. This summer, dig into Milanovic’s eminently readable and authoritative account of how inequality happens and Frank for innovative thoughts on fighting it. Hinton? Read it and weep. ■ Debora MacKenzie is a consultant for New Scientist based in Brussels 16 July 2016 | NewScientist | 45
Busy little bees Listen to the secrets of a honeybee hive in Kew’s latest sculpture, says Shaoni Bhattacharya
I’M PEERING nervously into a hive: about 40,000 bees are clambering all over it. They are calm today, says Llyr Jones, a volunteer at London’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. You know you’re in for trouble, he says, when the hive smells of bananas – a smell indicative of the bees’ danger pheromone. The bees flit about, occasionally alighting on the oversized beekeeping suit that engulfs me. I have a niggling feeling that one may somehow have got in. But any trepidation is dwarfed by the thrill of spying on a real honeybee colony. And not just any colony, but one linked electronically to Kew’s latest installation, The Hive. Visitors to this 17-metre-high immersive sculpture, standing in meadow grasses and flowers, will feel what happens in this beehive. The Hive is a beautiful, geometric meshwork. Its slender aluminium honeycomb lattice harmonises oddly with the surrounding greenery, as though a prop from a sci-fi movie fell into the Shire. The elegant sculpture – an abstracted Fibonacci spiral based on the geometry and physics of a honeycomb – was commissioned for the UK’s pavilion at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, Italy. Its theme was “Feeding the Planet”. The Hive’s creator, artist-sculptor Wolfgang Buttress, wanted to express the plight of honeybees and their value as natural capital: of 100 main food crops globally, about 70 are pollinated by bees. His aim was to portray bees as “a barometer of the state of the Earth”. In the Zen-like ambience of The Hive, visitors may pause to reflect 46 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
He wanted scientific rigour this harmonious key. at the installation’s heart, and The lights and sounds take at a friend’s suggestion he got their cue from the real-life hive in touch with Martin Bencsik, I saw. Activity levels in a healthy a physicist studying honeybee hive such as this are incredible. vibrations at Nottingham Trent The bees “dance” or grab each University, UK. Working with a other with their front legs to team of architects and engineers, frenziedly convey dorsoventral the two produced the awardabdominal vibration signals, winning work. possibly to kick their partners into Kew’s director, Robert Deverell, action. An accelerometer buried serendipitously read about it in “The Hive harmonises oddly a newspaper last year. For him it was the “perfect way to talk about with the greenery, as the vital but intimate relationship though a prop from a sci-fi between insects and plants”. A few movie fell into the Shire” months later 169,300 pieces of aluminium were stacked at Kew deep in the hive picks up every awaiting assembly. information-rich vibration as Visitors enter via a wooden it resonates through the colony. bridge, and stand on a clear Each bee’s vibrations travel honeycomb floor beneath an only 1 to 2 centimetres, but as open circle of sky at the dome’s each bee travels around the comb apex. All around, 1000 LED lights repeating the same movements flicker and fade, accompanied by over and over, eventually all the about 140 musical arrangements vibrations in the hive are picked of human voices, cello, guitar up by the accelerometer. and other sounds. It is a prayer As frantic and busy as hive life in C. Bees, it turns out, buzz in seems, it translates smoothly into
the varying soundscape and lights of the sculpture. “I think in a lot of ways, we are disconnected from nature,” says Buttress. “In its own small way, The Hive can celebrate that connection.” Talking to Buttress inside The Hive, the dome darkened as black clouds gathered overhead. The noise intensified. He explained the hive would be full of activity as the bees returned chaotically before rain set in. Sure enough, as we started to feel droplets, the sounds tapered away, presumably as the bees hunkered down. Buttress wanted The Hive to amplify nature, to act as a kind of lens, and he has succeeded. Whether visitors will stop and think about biodiversity and our relationship with plants and pollinators, I don’t know. But in the Zen-like ambience of The Hive, they may well pause and let the hive mind reach them. ■ Shaoni Bhattacharya is a consultant for New Scientist
JEFF EDEN, RBG KEW
The Hive, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew is open until November 2017
LETTERS EDITOR’S PICK
Bread, circuses and lots of sport From Tom Blaney Your articles on the future of work (25 June, p 29) brought to mind a New Scientist article by Charles Darwin, theoretical physicist and patrician grandson of his famous namesake (27 December 1956, p 13). He was an advocate of eugenics, calling for authoritarian measures to mould society. He asked whether more leisure time as a result of technology would lead to “endless mischief of one kind or another unless it is controlled by some sort of compulsion”. He worried that a large fraction of the population would not be able to handle extended free time. Would they demand more sensational entertainment – “even gladiators”? Would those “not satisfied with whatever exciting things are provided for them almost inevitably give rein to their tastes by stirring up trouble”? Would they be drawn to rioting, the excitement of crime? Darwin’s remedy, suggested by his schooldays, was compulsory games to occupy non-work time. Oxford, UK From Derrick Grover Hal Hodson does not sufficiently highlight the benefits to society of employers paying people a smaller wage as a top-up to a basic state income. Employers have less motive to make people redundant because the wage bill change will be smaller. This was discussed in the 1970s as a way to encourage more employment. Haywards Heath, West Sussex, UK 52 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
The first funerals needed planning From John Darlington I was interested by Max Green’s article on the first burials of Homo naledi, some 2 to 3 million years ago in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa (14 May, p 36). I cannot help being struck by the sheer inaccessibility of where the bones were found, 30 metres down and 80 metres into a pitch black roller-coaster-shaped cave with a tiny entrance. It would surely be impossible to explore such a system as a potential burial site in the first place, let alone carry bones or bodies into it later, without some light source. I have difficulty believing that pieces of burning wood alone could suffice. Does this mean that H. naledi had relatively refined torches, such as a combustible material soaked in fat, which burned long enough to traverse the system, deposit the bodies and return? That would in turn imply they knew how to make fire when required. Or did the sick go in before dying? Why would they do that, and how would they find their way? Either possibility suggests the species had the capability to consider future activities and requirements, and a communication system to organise it all. I see a picture of a society far more socially, verbally and technologically advanced than was thought possible so early – with a brain only half the size of ours. Annaduff, County Leitrim, Ireland
Expertise and cargo cult science From Gareth Williams If UK politician Michael Gove is right in saying the British people are “fed up with experts” then they are in good company (2 July, p 5). The physicist Richard
Feynman famously said “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Of course he was not saying experts should never be listened to. But Gove was talking about economics, which closely fits Feynman’s definition of a “cargo cult science”. Economists cannot reliably predict whether growth will be positive or negative in the next quarter, so any claim to be able to project the effect of today’s decisions over decades should be treated with extreme caution. Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, UK
Taxing fossil fuels is the only way From Douglas Kell Michael Le Page observes that governments have had to subsidise renewable energy (21 May, p 19) That is only because this is an emerging industry competing with one that is not paying for the costs of the climate change it is creating. The way to make renewables competitive on price is simply to tax fossil fuels. The same is true for anything with socially damaging consequences – microsecond stock trades and nuclear waste production are examples. A carbon tax is the only sane way forward, however tricky it may be politically. It may be less so after Washington has flooded, as New York already has. Manchester, UK
Pollution rules are being bent already From Glyn Hughes Recent events have directed my attention to Fiona Reynolds’s article on how “Brexit” could lead the UK to a dirtier future (27 February, p 30). She does not mention that the UK, by being part of the EU’s standards-making system, already has exemption
from certain environmental rules. In the UK, the 1993 Clean Air Act controls smoke pollution, but successive ministers have used Orders in Council to alter the Act without parliament even knowing. They have given complete exemption to most industrial coal and oil use and even to Long Beach Lump – a fuel made from petroleum coke that is illegal or severely restricted in other jurisdictions. Strangely enough, the UK is likely to have to stick much more strictly to EU rules in return for access to the single market. With the UK no longer having much of a hand in framing the rules, it won’t find easy get-outs. At least, I hope so. Winster, Derbyshire, UK
Animals are no models for us From Jarrod Bailey, Cruelty Free International Andy Coghlan reports a monkey being genetically engineered to have Parkinson’s disease (18 June, p 12). The superficial similarity between humans and monkeys is of little benefit when it comes to research into neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. Applying data from monkeys to humans is highly unreliable and of questionable value, especially when alternative methods are available. Scientists should be focusing effort on more humanrelevant methods, such as ethical studies on patients or “brain on a chip” and 3D tissue cultures. London, UK
Assumptions about consciousness From Ben Haller I must object to the diagram with Sumit Paul-Choudhury’s article on the future of supersmart machines (25 June, p 18). It plots
“They have just as much right to walk the earth as we do... with the exception of wasps!” Jane Almond comments on the efforts to with legal “personhood” for some other animals (2 July, p 16)
“capacity for consciousness” versus “human-like qualities”. The category of “animals” is shown as a diagonal oval: the greater the human-like qualities, the greater the capacity for consciousness, apparently. But this is species-centrism. We have no way to measure capacity for consciousness, since we have no way to measure consciousness. The diagram only expresses that animals that seem more similar to humans evoke greater sympathy in us. We assume that they are more likely to be conscious. Indeed, even placing “brick” at the lower extreme of capacity for consciousness is an assumption. We don’t even have any idea how conscious or unconscious one is. Ithaca, New York, US
program deliberately so that we forget this fact? The author and poet Jorge Luis Borges summed it up in his 1939 essay “Avatars of the Tortoise” when he wrote: “The greatest magician… would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances… We have dreamt the world. We… have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.” If the universe is a projection of our unconscious imagination, then instead of discovering its wonders, it’s more like we invent them as we go along. Plymouth, Devon, UK
Self-simulation and We do need traffic dreaming a world reduction schemes From Jeremy Smith Elon Musk suggests the universe is a computer simulation (11 June, p 18). What if we ourselves are the programmers and have built the TOM GAULD
From Jonathan Wallace Olaf Olsen mentions his co-worker’s calculated response to a high-occupancy vehicle
incentive on New York river crossings as a warning against expecting a positive outcome from measures to promote change in commuter behaviour (Letters, 4 June). We should not dismiss such schemes on the basis of a sample size of one. The fact that the proportions of commuters using different modes of transport vary widely between cities suggests it is possible to nudge people from one mode to another, with the right combination of incentives and disincentives. The damage done to public health by air pollution from vehicles provides a strong justification for doing so. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Set the controls for the heart of Earth From Richard Chapman You report carbon dioxide dissolved in water interacting with hot basalt rock to produce very stable carbonates and sequester the carbon (18 June, p 16). It is expensive, but could
extending the notion make it more cost-effective? I suggest injecting very small particles of vitrified nuclear waste with the carbon dioxide solution. This may also be expensive, but could get rid of some dangerous substances for which we are currently at a loss to find means of disposal. Hunstanton, Norfolk, UK
Security of patient data and the spies From Kevin Cahill You report fears over the transfer of medical data to Google’s DeepMind project (28 May, p 6). What is DeepMind doing with the data? I am not reassured by the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union on 6 October 2015 that Facebook, Google and other internet companies were participants in an unlawful programme of data transfer to t he US National Security Agency, called PRISM. Exeter, UK
For the record ■ Life extension: the planned date for the Juno probe to plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere is currently February 2018 (2 July, p 6). ■ The result of flight AF447 being angled upwards was that it stalled – meaning its wings lost lift (2 July, p 37). ■ Well, well, well: fresh groundwater reserves identified under California’s Central Valley are estimated at 2700 cubic kilometres (2 July, p 7). ■ Sorry about misspelling Theresa Chapman’s name (Letters, 9 July).
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“it is possible to get better all the time”. Britons might be forgiven for thinking that the opposite is also true.
ACROSS the pond, US journalists are speculating on the possible break-up of the United Kingdom like sightseers witnessing icebergs calve from a small, xenophobic glacier. The Washington Post proposes that London and Scotland could depart the country all together, leaving “a rump state of Wales and England” that it christens Wangland, the threat of which, Feedback suspects, is enough to keep us all in union.
THE resignation of David Cameron has seen a fresh batch of candidates vying to become the next leader of the Conservative party and prime minister of the UK. Following the shock referendum vote to leave the EU, you would be forgiven for thinking that all of the UK’s ballot papers should be placed safely out of reach of British citizens. It seems MPs agreed, as the premiership will almost certainly go to home secretary Theresa May without the need for a vote, a prospect examined in this week’s leader. Below, Feedback looks at the prime ministers we have narrowly avoided.
CANDIDATES included surprise entry Michael Gove, who ditched his prospective running mate Boris Johnson in a move as wise as a jockey deciding he could win the steeplechase without his horse. While secretary of state for education, Gove famously demanded that all schoolchildren should achieve above average test scores. Asked by the Education Committee how this was mathematically possible, Gove replied matter-of-factly “by getting better all the time”.
BEARDED work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb threw his hat into the ring, too. A strong believer in the power of prayer, the conservative Christian previously got into a hairy situation over his links to a charity that sponsored an event promoting “gay cure” therapies.
ANOTHER in the running was former energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, who announced that she had two big questions when she started as head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change: was fracking safe, and was climate change real? A family values politician with a strong belief in marriage (despite seeking a quick divorce from the EU), she once claimed “science shows that you can predict two-thirds of future chronic criminals by behaviour seen in two-year-olds”. FEEDBACK is not sure which constitutes a greater barrier to becoming prime minister: an ignorance of maths, chemistry, technology, biology, climate science or childhood development. We could find solace in Gove’s insistence that
“The largest international neutrino conference is set to arrive in South Kensington next week,” reports the Institute of Physics. And pass straight through it, we imagine 56 | NewScientist | 16 July 2016
IN AN exception to the aphorism that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, news trickled out that Los Angeles resident Aaron Chervenak married his smartphone while in the city. In a video posted to the Kaspersky Lab UK YouTube channel, the newly wed film-maker admits that “it’s not yet legal to marry a smartphone”, but hopes the ceremony “will act as a symbolical gesture to show how precious our phones are becoming in our daily lives”. Strangely enough, Kaspersky has a new report out on mobile phones. A marriage of convenience, perhaps?
THEY say a stopped clock is still right twice a day; Eric Goodger reports finding an apposite partially illuminated street sign. “Some years ago on a Hampshire road I encountered a broken sign for a bus stop, which instead read ‘BU ST’.” A KIND colleague passes us guidelines from Royal Mail on what can be sent in the post. Some of the proscribed items are self-explanatory: recreational drugs, firearms and highly flammable liquids. However, Feedback is left puzzled over the specifications for shipping magnets, which are, er, rather specific. Any device “with a field strength of 0.418A/metre or more at a distance of 4.6 metres from the outside of the package” is forbidden. An online magnet seller notes this “equates to 2° of compass
deflection at 4.6m from the outside of the package.” A precaution against the drivers of long-distance mail vans getting lost in their posts?
ON A lesser note, if anyone is tempted to flee the UK to escape the current turmoil, Feedback notes that while the regulations state that human samples and human remains are both forbidden, there’s no mention of a ban on sending whole, functioning humans in the post. DAMNING with praise: Peter Rummer points us to a flyer promoting the Watford Colosseum as a hire venue. Clients can expect “a unique setting for an unforgettable event”, we are told, featuring “access to our show-stopping technical team”. “I wonder what the technical team has done wrong to be described in this way,” writes Peter.
FEEDBACK often cocks an eyebrow at unusual units of measurement, but we cannot help but be entertained by one Ian Brown sends. Quoting researcher Fran Bagenal, the BBC relates that the pressure at the centre of Jupiter is “like a thousand elephants, one on top of the other, with the bottom elephant standing on a stiletto”. A lost circus act, perhaps? You can send stories to Feedback by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.
Last words past and present at newscientist.com/lastword
THE LAST WORD Twisted tips Many aircraft wings have their tips turned up to reduce turbulence. I have not observed the same on wind-turbine blades – do they not experience the same problem? (Continued)
■ You claimed you had been rebuked by some readers for printing an incorrect answer about how wings produce lift (26 March). More than a decade ago, you published a letter of mine in which I made it clear that the theory of lift is well-founded and can be stated in many different ways – all of them equivalent. To emphasise how some questions can have more than one answer, I asked: Why does a body accelerate as it falls? Is it a result of the force of gravity acting on its mass? Or because it loses potential energy, so must gain kinetic energy? The answer, of course, is that they are both right. With regard to wings, the difference in pressure between the upper and lower surfaces does produce lift; in level flight, the weight of the aircraft is exactly balanced by this pressure difference. There is nothing wrong with the answer given on 26 March – but there are other ways of expressing the theory of lift that do not involve pressures. Both descriptions are right. However, some explanations are just plain wrong, such as that the wing tilt deflects air downwards. Ironically, this is
The writers of answers that are published in the magazine will receive a cheque for £25 (or US$ equivalent). Answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit items for clarity and style. Please include a daytime telephone number and an email address if you have one. New Scientist retains total editorial control over the published content. Reed Business Information Ltd reserves all rights to reuse all question and answer material that has been
known as Newton’s sine-squared law. As well as writing his three laws of motion, Newton wrote many propositions about fluid flow, some of which were wrong – including this one. In fact, some authors have claimed that his law held back the development of flight because of its very pessimistic predictions about performance. Alan Sherwood Aeronautical engineer, Boeing Australia South Yarra, Victoria, Australia ■ I see that confusion still reigns about twisted wing tips (21 May). This arises from a misapprehension in the original question. Nearly all modern airliners have upturned wing tips, or winglets, to reduce drag, not turbulence. Wings generate lift because the airflow over the upper surface is accelerated, causing a drop in pressure, and that over the lower surface is decelerated, causing an increase in pressure. The difference in pressure between the surfaces creates lift and, at the wing tips, results in tip vortices that trail behind the aircraft. These vortices are anticlockwise at the right wing tip and clockwise at the left one when viewed from the rear, and result in a large proportion of the aircraft’s total drag. The core of these vortices can often be seen trailing from the wing tips of fast military aircraft flying in humid air. It has been found that upturned wing tips or small end plates can
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go some way to reducing the strength of tip vortices, and hence total drag. Wind turbine blades are effectively aircraft propellers acting in reverse, with the purpose of converting wind energy into rotational mechanical energy. The drag of a blade is in this case a relatively minor consideration, so they do not require winglets. Bill Bradley Retired aircraft engineer Swansea, UK
Memory test Do goldfish really have a memory span of 3 seconds, as per the urban myth? If not, how long is their memory span? Do we actually know?
■ No, goldfish do not have a memory of 3 seconds. Anyone who has owned an aquarium will notice that when the fish sense your presence, they congregate at the water’s surface in expectation of being fed. Koi carp that are kept in large ponds seem almost to climb over each other in anticipatory excitement when humans approach. They have clearly learned to associate people with food – which would be impossible if they only remembered things for 3 seconds. Like almost any animal, fish can be trained. Those of us who work on the visual abilities of fish, for example, often train them to distinguish things based on an
attribute such as colour. If you hang two plastic discs at the end of their aquarium, one green and one red, and feed them only when they approach the red one, fish (including goldfish) will quickly learn to ignore the green disc. In fact, they can learn even more complex discriminations than this, and can remember them even if several weeks have elapsed since the last training session. In fact, at my age, I would be grateful for a memory as long as that of a goldfish. Ron Douglas Debden, Essex, UK ■ My goldfish pond has two defences against hungry herons: a spray that is driven by a motion sensor and some tape stretched near the pond’s edge. Neither has deterred our local heron. After each raid – the most recent of which was just the other week – the surviving goldfish remain at the bottom of the pond and wait for their food to sink to them. I am still waiting for them to resume normal feeding behaviour, but previous experience suggests it could be two weeks before they feed at the surface again. There must be some sort of goldfish memory function to explain this defensive behaviour – unless they are mimicking our large common carp, which has also fled to the depths. Trevor Dudley Thame, Oxfordshire, UK
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