CO NTE NTS
Volume 205 No 2748
Coming clean on being green UPFRONT The first southern African genomes, Anti-ageing skin cream works as well as drug
Stone Age code
Are you handing your cash to unseen polluters? 10 INSIGHT Mothers murder conviction highlights psychiatric debate
When we found the earliest art we missed
10 THIS WEEK
How ordinary matter gets most of its mass, The four-letter-word genetic code 16 IN BRIEF Injured brains escape material world, Atomic fountains test relativity, Do elephants run?
Cash on your cellphone, The ultimate soundproofing, Why looks matter online
24 CERN on trial
The possibility thatthe Large Hadron Collider could create an Earth-eating black hole may still end up in court. What would decide such a case, asks Eric E.Johnson 25 One minute with ... Atul Gawande, a world class surgeon with a simple way to save lives 26 LETTERS Great jokes, Is TV talking to aliens? 28 Interview withJane Goodall (see right)
Fi fty years with the chimps ofGombe
FEATURES 30 Stone Age code
(see right) Insect architects are showing us how to build the eco-cities of the future 38 Smoke signal Carbon dioxide is not the only climate-altering pollutant - and we ignore the others at our peril 43 Second sight Cutting-edge therapies may find their first applications tackl ing the western world's leading cause of blindness 35 Bug city
Com i ng next week
Earth's nine lives
26 ENIGMA 46 BOOKS & ARTS
77 48 52
Could robots ever really understand novels? Jon Adams is trying to find out Reviews Dishing the dirt on clean coal. How Henrietta became immortal FEEDBACK As interesting as", turnips THE LAST WORD Breeding for brains THE INSIDER The glamour and hard graft of a research project based abroad
J OBS & CAREERS
It's not too late to hea I our ailing planet
PLUS The great
pheromon e myth
Do your ideas of companies' eco-credentials match up to reality?
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20 February 2010 I NewScientist 11
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Time for another green revolution
too, like those for water use. In this case, context is crucial: a litre from rain-soaked Ireland is not the same as a litre drawn from the Arizona desert. The involvement of organisations that specialise in thorny measurement issues, such as the US National Institute of Standards A fog of unreliabl e information and Technology, will be key. Similar problems bedevil "green" labels and confusion is hampering attached to individual products. Here, the efforts to weigh up eco-credibility computer equipment rating system developed by the Green Electronics Council A LITTLE information is a dangerous thing. shows the way forward. Its criteria come from the IEEE, the world's leading profeSSional A lot of information, if it's inaccurate or association for technology. confusing, even more so. This is a problem for anyone trying to spend or invest in an environmentally sustainable way. Investors "Better information is crucial, because decisions by consumers w i l l are barraged with indexes purporting to describe companies' eco-credentials, some propel u s towards a green economy" of dubious quality. Green labels on consumer products are ubiquitous, but their claims are Other schemes, such as the "sustainability hard to verify. index" planned by US retail giant Walmart, The confusion is evident from New Scientist's are broader. Devising rigorous standards analysis of whether public perceptions of for a large number of different types of companies' green credentials reflect reality product will be tough, placing a huge burden on the academic-led consortium that is doing (see page 6). It shows that many companies considered "green" have done little to earn the underlying scientific work. that reputation, while others do not get Our investigation also reveals that many sufficient credit for their efforts to reduce companies choose not to disclose data. Some their environmental impact. Obtaining better will want to keep it that way. This is why we information is crucial, because decisions by need legal requirements for full disclosure consumers and big investors will help propel of environmental information, with the clear us towards a green economy. message that the polluter will eventually be At present, it is too easy to make unverified required to pay. Then market forces will drive claims. Take disclosure of greenhouse gas companies to clean up their acts. emissions, for example. There are voluntary Let's hope we can rise to this challenge. schemes such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, Before we can have a green economy but little scrutiny ofthe figures companies we need a green information economy - and submit, which means investors may be misled. it's the quality of the information, as well as Measurements can be difficult to interpret, its quantity, that will count. •
The scary business of tinkering with life THE code of life embodied in DNA has been artificially extended, potentially increasing by 256 the number of different building blocks that can be incorporated into proteins. By tinkering with the cell's natural machinery, Jason Chin's team has found a way of making proteins with entirely new properties, opening up a future of exotic designer organisms (see page 14). This is a fundamental advance that could lead to new drugs, materials and energy sources. But tampering with life's operating system will inevitably raise safety concerns - and it's true that we have no way of predicting the fallout of this work. SynthetiC biologists need to confront openly and honestly public fears that they are "playing God". Ifsuch deeply felt concerns go unanswered, the huge potential of this breakthrough could come to naught. •
Movies on the brain FILM-MAKERS have unwittingly stumbled across a psychological trick that grabs our attention better (see page 11). Given the gargantuan cost of blockbusters like Avatar, it wouldn't be surprising if Hollywood's next step is to use brain scanners to get inside the heads ofmovie-goers. It's impossible to translate brain activity into "Oscar buzz", though, so the potential of"neurocinematics" is unproven. But with so many humdrum films being made, we welcome any technology that will boost the audience-engagement factor.•
What's hot on NewScientist.com TECHNOLOGY Off-the-shelf
D camera hacked to grab
Scientists filming heart cells put components from a home projector i nto a normal digital camera, enabling the gadget to take 400- frame-per -second video and high-resolution stills at the same time, It has the potential to boost consumer gadgets as well as lab work high-speed video
ENVIRONMENT Noah's ark for
It's the largest translocation project in Africa's
the 21st century
history, Kenya is relocating 7000 animals to Amboseli National Park, devastated last year by drought, in an attempt to st op lions and hyenas from hunting and eating local cattle TECHNOLOGY US power grid
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the". temporary rainwater pond, a deadly predatory tadpole is lurking. The larvae of the spadefoot toad can transform from mild omnivores to voracious cannibals tadpole
downed in simulated attack
In a mock assault designed to highlight neglected areas of defence policy, officials in Washington DC will react to fake data and news reports of hackers targeting cell phone and power networks
SPACE Speed-of-light travel is a
If we ever bui Id a spacecraft ableto travel close to the speed of light, the passengers would all be killed by radiation, At high-speed, hydrogen in space is squashed into
a dense beam: it's like standing inside a particle accelerator, Withi n 1 second you'd receive a fatal radiation dose BIOMEDICINEThe key to regenerating bodies
D way cells in the body sense
and respond to what touches them is helping biologists engineer tissue and organs from stem cells - as our video shows For breaking news, video and online debate, visit newscientist.com
20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 3
Protection plan slammed CONSERVATIONISTS are at war over
home to a major US mil itary base and
a British plan to create a marine
is not covered by the proposed zone.
protection zone around a large chunk
In the 1960s, the UK expelled 1500
of surviving empire in the Indian
Chagossians to make way for the base.
Ocean. The zone, which is twice the
protests from Mauritius, formally
of the Chagos archipelago, one of
backed the British plan, calling for
the most unspoiled coral reef systems
"full protection" of the reserve. But
in the world. Th is week the world's foremost
prohibits the refusal of health insurance based on genetic test results, applicants must give SALE! DNA tests half price! But beware -the offer could stymie any potential life insurers such results, which they can use when chances of getting life insurance. Australian firm Nib, which sells deciding who to cover and to set premiums. Nib reminds its both health and life insurance, is customers ofthis in a footnote to offering 5000 of its customers half-price genetic testing, via its letter, but Otlowski fears some customers may not read this. the Californian firm N avigenics. "That's a saving ofUS$500 from Whether so much weight the retail price of US$999," reads a should be ascribed to genetic test letter sent to customers in January. results is also doubtful. Last year, researchers found analyses of Those taking up the offer will the health risks associated with be given access to counsellors genetic mutations varied between to help them make sense of the firms, including Navigenics. results. Nib chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon says the results may help customers take steps to improve their health. The move has reignited longÂ held fears that insurers might use
group. part of its Commission on
International Union for Conservation
Environmental Law, have condemned
of Nature (IUCN), was in ferment after
the move. One said that IUCN support
announcing supportforthe plan in
for the plan "violates IUCN's own
spite of warnings from its own lawyers
commitments towards sustainability"
that the scheme was unethical.
because the plan would "invalidate . . .
4 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
the right of the chagos islanders to
Mauritius, and the UK has promised
return" to the islands within the
to hand the islands over when it has
zone. The email adds that for IUCN to
no further use for them. Meanwhile
back their permanent exclusion from
the largest island, Diego Garcia, is
these islands is "unethical".
Fog leaves trees
He is hesitant to blame global warming, but notes that warmer seas offCalifornia over RECEDING coastal fogs may the past half century have threaten the next generation of decreased temperature contrasts California's mighty redwoods. with overlying warm coastal air, A new analysis of cloud cover reducing condensation. over California reveals that fogs are 30 per cent less frequent today He warns that the foggy than 50 years ago. " The large trees climate could move north to states like Oregon and intercept the fog, and much of it drips onto the soil, watering Washington. "Ifthe climate changes faster than the redwoods young redwoods," says Todd can migrate, we might need to Dawson at the University of plant them ourselves to save California, Berkeley. So far, the them," he says (Proceedings of the mature trees, at least, appear to National Academy ofSciences, be coping, but Dawson warns 001: 1O.1073/pnas.0915062107). that saplings may soon suffer.
"Life insurers must be given g enetic test results, which they can use to decide w hether to cover a person"
genetic testing to discriminate between customers. Law professor Margaret Otlowski of the University ofTasmania points out that while Australian law
in emails seen by New Scientist, several members of the IUCN's ethics
conservation science body, the
The archipelago is claimed by
Cut-price DNA tests
Last Thursday, the IUCN, ignoring
size of Britain, would cover much
---"_________ďż˝--=---_ - __ a..---I Reducing those lines
Wrinkle proof IS THE cosmetics industry about to get a much-needed facelift? For the first time, a skin cream has been compared with the gold-standard anti-ageing drug Â and seems to be as good at reducing wrinkles. The result -from a team led by Joseph Kaczvinsky at the firm Procter & Gamble, which makes the cream - could put pressure on cosmetics companies to back up their claims with proof.
For daily news stories, visit www. NewScientist.com/news
The product is actually three skin creams known as Olay Pro-X, designed to alter the expression of genes involved in skin ageing. Women using this for 24 weeks were as likely to see their wrinkles reduced as women on tretinoin, a drug for reducing skin-ageing. The judges were unaware ofwho had used which product (British
Own up, hit back
Doug Keenan had been right in some of his criticisms ofthe paper, which ruled out local urban influences as a significant factor in global warming. Jones said he may submit a correction toNature, but
IN A flurry of recent interviews, the scientist at the heart of the "climategate" affair has broken a 12-week silence. Phil Jones, former director of the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit in the UK, "Jones adm its his failure has spoken about the controversy to keep records of weather that followed publication of stations' locations was Journal ofDermatology, 001: 'not acceptable'" 10.1111/j.1365-2133.200g.09436.x). emails stolen from the CRU. He "I'm hoping that the public will admitted to the journal Nature that his failure to keep records of fall for hard data and base their nonetheless hit back at bloggers the locations of weather stations decisions on that," says Richard and other critics for "hijacking the used in a major study was "not Weller, a dermatologist at the peer-review process. Ifthey want acceptable". In effect, Jones University of Edinburgh, UK, to criticise, they should write their who was not involved in the study. conceded that climate sceptic own papers," he said.
Higgs gets mass The search forthe Higgs boson got a boost last week. The DO and CDF experi ments at Fermilab's Tevatron collider in Batavia, Illinois, published three papers in Physical Review Lettersshowing thatthe "God particle" must have a mass between 115 and 150 gigaelectronvolts.
Space panorama The International Space Station has had a "penthouse" upgrade. Last week, shunle astronauts added a new module called Tranquility and a swanky observation dome called Cupola. The dome has seven windows and gives astronautsa panoramic view of Earth and space.
SEll to expand?
Tutu flies flag for African genomes
FRANK DRAKE, the founder of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), wants to take the search for aliens further: about 82 billion kilometres away, in fact. At this point in space, electromagnetic signals from planets orbiting distant stars would be focused by the gravitational lensing effect of our sun, making them, in theory, more easily detected. Drake wants to send spacecraft there in a bid to overhear alien communications, which would be too faint for telescopes on Earth to detect. It's neither a new or original idea, but it has never taken off because of the distances involved. With existing propulsion technologies, spacecraft would take hundreds ofyears to make the voyage, which is about 550 times the distance from Earth to the sun. Gravitational lenses could also be used to transmit signals, amplifying them so they could travel further and potentially reach distant civilisations. It's also possible, Drake says, that intelligent civilisations have built an intergalactic internet using such techniques and are just "waiting for us to log on". Drake spoke last week at the TED 2010 conference in Long Beach, California.
THE genome club j ust claimed its
the unnamed Khoisan - almost
first clergyman, in the shape of
744,000. This is probably because
finally shot down a moving missile
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu
Khoisans were among the earliest
with an airborne laser, but mil itary
and a Khoisan man from the Kalahari
human populations to form and
experts say the system - once known
are the first southern Africans to
they have not interbred much with
as "Star Wars" - is not good enough
have their genomes sequenced
other groups, says project leader
for combat. That's because the
Stephan Schuster, a genomicist at
system only works if it gets within a
Phantom menace The US Missile Defense Agency has
Pennsylvania State University in
few hundred kilometres of a missile
man and a Nigerian man became
University Park (Nature, 001:
less than 2 minutes after launch.
the first non-whites to have thei r
In November 200B, a Han Chinese
genomes sequenced. Each of the
Schuster's team say some ofthe
southern African genomes is a source
Khoisan's mutations may be down to
of further untapped genetic diversity.
the group's largely hunter -gatherer
Interestingly, their genomes are as
lifestyle. Meanwhile, variants lurki ng
similar to Europeans' as they are
in both new genomes may help
to the other sequenced African
explain why some southern Africans
genomes - both from Yorubas.
respond poorly to existing anti足
The genome of Tutu, a Bantu,
retroviral drugs that treat HIV. lf so,
yielded over 412,000 new variants.
this could help design more effective
An even greater number came from
anti-retrovirals, says Schuster.
King lut's mummy The most comprehensive analysis yet of DNA from the remains of Tutankhamen and 10 of his close relatives has established that two previously unnamed mummies are i ndeed his mother and father, and two fetuses his daughters. The analyses suggest that Tutankhamen probably died aged 19 from a leg fracture followed bya malaria i nfection (journal ofthe American Medical Association, vol 303, p 638).
Prostate cancerzap Men with incurable prostate cancer have responded well to a drug called abiraterone, which shrank or stabilised tumours for an average of six months in the 47 subjects. The best existing treatment extends l ife by only two orthree months. Five of the 47 are still taking the drug three years on and a much larger trial is now planned.
20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 5
HEY GREEN SPENDER Do our ideas of which companies are eco-friendly live up to reality? Peter Aldhous and Phil McKenna investigate
6 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
For the full report go to www.NewScientist.com/special/green·companies
IF YOU care about the environment, you may want to show that in the way you spend your money. Maybe you shop at an organic food store rather than a conventional supermarket. You probably look at energy efficiency labels before buying a new laptop. And if you're really serious, you may even be concentrating your nest egg into "green" investment funds. All of these decisions could help steer us towards a truly green economy - but only if consumers and investors have a good idea of which companies have genuinely minimised their impact on the environment. Do the corporations that benefit from our environmentally conscious purchasing and investment choices deserve their green halo? To find out, New Scientist teamed up with two companies that have collected the most relevant data. Earthsense, based in Syracuse, New York, has polled US consumers on their perceptions of the "greenness" of various companies. Trucost, headquartered in London, has compiled an unparalleled quantitative assessment of companies' global environmental impact (see graph, right, and "How we crunched the numbers", page 8). Bringing these two sets of information together shows just how confused ordinary people are about companies' green credentials. Overall, there was no correlation between the Earthsense and Trucost scores, suggesting that US consumers have little idea about companies' environmental performance relative to each other. And looking within industrial sectors, the only hint of accurate consumer awareness came for technology companies (see "Geeks, gadgets and the environment", page 9). In some cases there were dramatic mismatches between perceptions and reality. Take media firm Discovery Communications: its environmental impact, per dollar earned, is almost indistinguishable from TV and movie giant Viacom. Yet Discovery has a stellar green reputation that Viacom does not enjoy - which could be due to Discovery's content, which includes Animal Planet TV and websites such as TreeHugger. Some of the greatest confusion surrounds the food and beverage sector.
Consumer perception and environmental realities T here is very little correlation between how green a company is and how green it is perceived to be
Earthsense score - 2008 survey asking 30,000 US consumers to rate greenness of companies and products on a scale of 1 to 10 Tru(ostscore - Estimated cost of the environmental im pact of a company under a "po lluter pays" system as a perce ntage of its annual revenue
• FOOD & BEVERAGES
• TRAVEL & LEISURE
• PERSONAL & HOUSEHOLD GOODS
• INDUSTRIAL GOODS & SERVICES
• CONSTRUCTION & MATERIALS An interactive graphic with all 115 companies is at newscientist.com/movie/green-companies
OJ Vl C OJ Vl .r::; 1:: '"
c o u
. : � J ..t
• • • •• •• •• .1
• � r.mJm .�) . .
• ••.-... ., .=Ie · , ,.. " - . �"i. ...
4.5 + 1.0� 1 --------�----�----------------�----------------------------�------100% 10% 1.0% 0.1% Company e nvironmental impact (Trucostscore)
"The fig ures show just how confused peop Ie are about firms' green credentials"
Of the 115 firms we analysed, producers offood and drinks stood out as having the highest environmental impact significantly different from media firms, retailers, technology companies and manufacturers of personal and household goods. Yet there were no significant differences in consumer perceptions between the sectors. In general, US consumers fail to recognise the high environmental costs associated with agriculture and food processing. When it comes to perception, one company's high score truly stands out: Whole Foods Market, which operates more than 270 stores, mostly in the US. As a purveyor of " natural
and organic produce", everything about Whole Foods shouts green. In addition to its overall branding, the company has taken steps to reinforce its environmental credentials, including improving the efficiency of its refrigerators and reducing packaging. But Trucost's modelling rates Whole Foods no better than conventional supermarkets such as Safeway. That doesn't mean Whole Foods isn't doing what it says it is. Rather, the company has not disclosed all its key environmental data, forcing Trucost to model its impact from an analysis of its overall operations including sourcing produce, > 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 7
distribution and running its stores足 which will be similar to other food retailers. "We cannot update our data without disclosure from a company," says James Salo, Trucost's vice足 president for strategy and research. Kathy Loftus, a specialist in environmental management with Whole Foods, says that the company expects to produce a full inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions later this year. That might reduce the Trucost score a little - although it will be hard to match the performance of retailers selling goods other than food, which don't have to account for the high environmental costs of agriculture in their supply chains. When looking at Whole Foods' glowing reputation, executives at The Coca-Cola Company have every reason to be green with envy. The firm has the second-lowest environmental impact of all the food and drink producers in our sample, yet doesn't seem to be getting much credit for its actions 足 even after releasing the numbers. Water stewardship
Far Coca-Cola and its main rival, PepsiCo, the key issue is water. Soft-drinks manufacturers typically consume several times the volume that makes it into their products. Coca-Cola has reduced the amount lost during manufacturing, in part by rinsing bottles and cans with high-pressure air; it is also sourcing sugarcane from suppliers that use water more efficiently and even investing in the sustainable management of entire river basins. PepsiCo is taking similar steps, but unlike Coca-Cola has not yet given detailed figures on its progress. So it emerges in an unflattering light, with roughly twice the environmental impact of Coca-Cola - six times as high far water-use impacts alone. Neither firm, however, is seen as a friend of the environment by US consumers. And Coca-Cola has experienced first-hand the hit a company can take if its environmental reputation becomes tarnished. After it built a bottling plant in Kerala, India, in 2000, Coca-Cola faced a barrage of criticism for allegedly depleting local groundwater. The company denied the 8 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
HOW WE CRUNCHED THE NUMBERS When we decided to investigate
case of a firm running a fleet of
calculations reflect companies'
the relationship between
diesel vehicles, for example, these
potential financial liability,
corporate green performance
costs could include the burden of
if regulators were to get tough
and reputations, Earthsense and
treati ng people with lung disease
about applyi ng the "polluter
Trucost were the obvious partners.
caused by soot particles emitted,
pays" principle - which is why
Trucost's assessment accounts
plus the price of greenhouse gas
major i nvestors and many of the
for more than 700 environmental
emissions in a carbon-trading
compa n ies Trucost reports upon
impacts, includi n g greenhouse gas
market. Fi nally, Trucost divides the
pay for access to its data.
emissions, water use and a host
cost of all the impacts by the f i rm's
of chemical releases. Its models
a n nual revenue to produce an
cover all of a compa ny's activities,
environmental impact ratio.
incorporating actual figures when
While there are many ways of
We compared Trucost scores with results from a 2008 survey of US adults carried out by Earthsense. In our analysis, the Earthsense
these are disclosed. It also works
assessing corporate environmental
scores were derived from the
with firms to refine the results to
performance, Trucosfs method is
answers to two questions: one
ensure as accurate a profi le of their
a mong the most comprehensive,
on perception of each company's
impacts as possible.
a n d allows firms of different si zes,
overall operations and pol icies;
a n d operating in d ifferent sectors,
the other about the environmental
to be compared. Importantly, its
im pactof its products.
Trucost then converts each impact i nto an a n n ua l cost. In the
For the full report go to www.NewScientist.com/special/greenÂˇcompanies
allegations, but the plant was closed GEEKS, GADGETS AND THE ENVIRONMENT by local officials in 2004. Coca-Cola later won permission in court to restart If there is one area in wh ich sel ls green products. In operations, but it had already lost the consumers seem to have December 2008, Dell took some idea about what battle for public acceptance, and the aim at Apple's boast to have plant never reopened. constitutes a green compa ny, made "the world's greenest family of notebooks", "It was a teaching moment," says it is technology. This was the only industrial sector where questioning both the Lisa Manley, Coca-Cola's director specific claim and Apple's there was a significant of environmental communications. correlation between consumer wider record. Rati ngs by the "We have been veryfocused on water stewardship since then." So why Green Electronics Council, perceptions and actual which evaluates products environmental i m pact. haven't consumers got the message? accordi ng to 51 environmental This seems to be largely "Our approach is that we need to focus on doing before we focus on saying," down to the fact that criteria, suggest that Apple's MacBooks are greener Manley says. consumers understand that companies that simply write than Deli's rival products. Earthsense co-founder Amy Hebard software and store data Yet according to Trucos!, believes many corporations could have an inherently smaller benefit from telling the public more Dell has a slightly sma ller environmental i m pact than about their actions to protect the environmental i m pact across those that run factories environment. "This just screams its entire operations. opportunities for companies to be Consumers, however, making hardware. A green company - which clear about what they are dOing," she don't always make the says. Hebard suspects that some firms distinction. The Earthsense has limited the overa ll environmental i m pact survey indicates that Apple are worried that trumpeting their environmental successes will be seen was winning the battle for of its manufacturing and as "greenwashing" - falsely giving perception even before it made operations - isn't necessarily the appearance of environmental the "greenest notebook" claim. the same thing as one that concern. But our results for General Electric, among the most prominent firms to be accused of this corporate "Words sample of food and beverage firms. sin, suggest that green marketing can like 'fresh' Words like "fresh" and "green" be an effective strategy. immediately suggest a wholesome and 'green' In 2005, GE launched its immediately image. This is central to the identity suggest a multimillion-dollar " Ecomagination" of Green Mountain, a producer of campaign, highlighting activities in wholesome whole-bean and ground coffee, image" clean technology, renewable energy, including organically grown varieties. and so on. While the company remains It is, indeed, the greenest of all our food a significant polluter, Trucost's analysis and beverage companies, according to Trucost's analysis. indicates that its environmental footprint is indeed smaller than other Fresh Del Monte Produce similarly industrial engineering firms, such projects a green image, but Trucost's as Kawasaki Heavy Industries and numbers paint a different picture. Siemens. By the time Earthsense ran its Growing fruit and vegetables involves survey, in May 2008, GE seemed to be heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, reaping the benefits of Ecomagination, but the main issue again is water consumption, which accounts for more scoring first for consumer perception within its sector- and seventh overall. than three-quarters ofthe company's While full disclosure of high environmental impact score. environmental data, backed by active Fresh Del Monte Produce doesn't green marketing, may benefit some disclose detailed environmental data, companies, our analysis suggests that and declined to comment on Trucost's others have every reason to keep quiet. modelling, or its own efforts to reduce The contrast between Fresh Del Monte its environmental footprint. "We are Produce and Green Mountain Coffee doing things internally that we are not Roasters makes this clear. Both of these ready to talk about right now," says companies are seen by consumers as Dionysios Christou, the company's very environmentally friendly, yet they vice-president for marketing. stand at opposite ends ofthe spectrum Examples like this show why efforts for environmental impact among our to compel or encourage companies to
release data on their environmental impacts will be crucial, if consumers' and investors' "green dollars" are to exert a meaningful influence. Such efforts are gathering pace, driven by investor demand: the number of companies reporting their total greenhouse gas emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project, which aims to inform investors on companies' environmental impacts, jumped from 922 in 2006 to 2204 in 2008. "There is a trend towards more corporate disclosure," says Cynthia Cummis of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington DC. The Carbon Disclosure Project is now working on a companion water initiative, and in January the US Securities and Exchange Commission told publicly traded companies that they should disclose whether existing or planned regulations relating to climate change could affect their earnings. "The SEC announcement is a pretty big deal because it points the way towards mandatory disclosure," says Piet Klop, also with WRI. Information for wannabe green consumers has so far lagged behind that for investors. "It needs to be easy to understand, use and obtain - and today that's anything but the case," Hebard says. One project to watch is the online GoodGuide, launched by Dara O'Rourke of the University of California, Berkeley. It includes an iPhone app that allows consumers to scan products' bar codes to get an instant environmental rating. Meanwhile, US retail giant Walmart has launched a " sustainability index", which by 2013 should give details of the total environmental costs associated with various products. The company also says it is likely to give greener products more shelf space, providing a direct incentive for Walmart's suppliers to clean up their acts. For companies that are currently trading off green reputations that they don't deserve, there may soon be no place to hide.â€˘ MOREONUNE
For more detailS of the data and methods oil and car companies, go to n ewsci e nt ist.coml
used, plus a discussion of
20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 9
INSIGHT Child psychiatric diagnosis on trial as mother is convicted of murder
focus on chi ldren who will go on to develop antisocial personality disorder, That left psychiatrists searching
fo r a label to gui de treatment for WHEN Carolyn Ri ley was convicted of kill ing her 4 -year- old daughter Rebecca by overdosing her with psychotropic drugs prescribed for
the child, some jurors reportedly felt that the psychiatrist who wrote
the prescriptions should also have been on trial. That will n ot h app en: the doctor was granted immunity when agreeing to testify in the case, But the validi ty of the condition for which Rebecca was
being treated is bei ng questioned by
dysregulation disorder with dysphoria
children who were prone to severe
(TOO), would better reflect the
violent outbursts and persistent
problems of many children who sw in g
mood problems, The answer seemed
between extreme outbursts of aggression and periods of i rritability, anger and sad n ess, and who are now classed as bipolar, According to Gabrielle Car lso n, a child psychiatrist at Stony Brook Universi ty in New York, d iagn ose s of juvenile b ip o la r disorder rose partly as a knock-on from previous diagnostic shifts, including a narrowing of "conduct disorder" to
in 1995, when Janet Wozniak of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston argued that the violent outbursts were equi valent to the m a nic episodes of adults with bipolar to come
disorder (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent
Psychiatry, vol 34, p 867), It has since eme rged , however, that these children rarel y go on to become bipolar adults The big question is what effect a new diagnosis wil l have on treatment Rebecca Ri l ey was on an antipsychotic called quetiapine, t h e anticonvulsant valproate, and clonidine, which was ,
being given asa sedative, The most
severe cases of TOO might still be treated with antipsychotics, but probably
only as a temporary measure, With bip olar disorder, drugs
are often prescribed long-term,
Carolyn Riley overdosed her daughter on psychotropic drugs
psychiatrists, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) says it needs to be replaced by an entirely new diagnosis, while ot hers argue that this move could create fresh problems, Rebecca was being treated for
juvenile bi polar disorder, The number of chi ldren d i agn osed with this condition ha s skyrocketed: in 2003 it was dia g n osed in 1 in 100 under-20s who vi sited us doctors, up from 1 in 4000 in 1995, according to one estimate (Archives of General Psychiatry, vol 64,
The psychiatrist Allen Frances, who led a 1994 revision of the APfis diagnostic manual, h as a l rea d y accused the association of creating a "new monster". Writing in the professional newspaper Psychiatric Times, Frances argued that TDO "would be very common at every age in the general population and would promote a large ex pa n si on in the use of antipsychotic medications", That cr iticism i s reje cted by David Shaffer of Columbia Un i versi ty in New York, who chairs the APA working grou p that prop ose d the new TOO
p 1032), Butthe day after Caro lyn
definition, He argues that it has been
Riley's conviction for second-degree murder last week, the APA released proposals suggesting that a new l y defined condition, to be called temper
carefully defined to focus on children
Sun warming comet's icy heart blows it apart
with especially severe outbursts, "It's not psychiatrising normal temper tantrums," he says, Peter A ldhous â€˘
Now William Reach of the California
during the comet's formation.
detonation of 31 kilotonnes of TNT
Institute of Technology in Pasadena
Heat would also be released, perhaps
or a small nuclear bomb.
and his colleagues thi n k the culprit
prompting a runaway conversion of
may be an exotic and unstable form
any nearby amorphous ice.
of water ice at the comet's heart.
The sun's heat may have triggered
a mi ll ion ton nes of amorphous ice,
When water freezes naturally on
such a conversion in comet 17PI
just a fraction of the mass of the comet's 3.4-kilometre n u cleus.
THREE years ago, the comet
Earth, it forms a highly regular crystal
Holmes, with pressure from the
17P/Hoimes exploded with a blast
structure. It's a different story at the
released gases blasting a hole in its
comparable to a small nuclear bomb.
much lower temperatures of the
Would you believe that a n exotic form
outer solar system, where comets
of ice was responsible?
condensed from primordial gas and
Comet 17P/Hoimes became a
To release this much energy would require the transformation of
dust. The water molecules would
mi ll ion ti mes brighter when it
have stuck together much more
erupted in 2007. A freak collision
haphazardly, formi ng so-called
with an asteroid could have explained
amorphous ice. When such ice is
But David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, cautions
"The comet's debris cloud suggests that the explosion was as powerful as a nuclear bomb"
that gas might simply leak out through cracks in amorphous ice, ratherthan build to the high pressures needed for a violent eruption. "There is evidence that the
side, says Reach's team (Icarus, 001:
tensile strengths of comet nuclei are very low," he says. This suggests that
that blast, had it been a one-off. But
warmed to -133Â°C, it reverts to the
the same comet also exploded in
familiar crysta lline form. This
size of the debris cloud created by
the nuclei of comets may not be able
1B92, suggesting something else
would squeeze out any gases
the 2007 b last suggests that the
to conta in the gases long enough for
might be triggering the outbursts.
trapped withi n the amorphous ice
explosion was as powerful as the
an explosion to occur. David Sh iga .
10 1 NewScientist 1 20 Fe b rua ry 2010
For daily news stories, visitwww. NewScientist.com/news
Cine-maths grabs our fickle attention Ewen Callaway
HOLLYWOOD'S golden age may have ended in the 1950S, but it is only recently that Tinseltown appears to have hit upon a mathematical way to capitalise on our fickle attention spans. "Film-makers have got better and better at constructing shots so that their lengths grab our attention," says James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University "The key thing is having shots of similar length that recur in a regular pattern throughout a f ilm"
in Ithaca, New York. He analysed 150 Hollywood movies and found that the more recent they were, the more closely their shot lengths tended to follow a mathematical pattern that also describes human attention spans. In the 1990S, a team at the University ofTexas, Austin, measured the attention spans of volunteers as they performed hundreds of consecutive trials. When they turned these measurements into a series of waves using a mathematical trick called a Fourier transform, the waves increased in magnitude as their frequency decreased. This property is known as a l/ffluctuation, or"pink noise", and in this case it meant that attention spans of particular lengths were recurring at regular intervals. The pioneering chaos theorist Benoit Mandelbrot found that annual flood levels of the Nile follow this pattern; others have observed it in music and air turbulence. To find out whether the length of camera shots in films might follow l/ftoo, Cutting measured the duration of every shot in
150 high-grossing Hollywood movies in various genres released between 1935 and 2005. He then turned these into a series ofwaves for each film. He found that later films were more likely to obey the l/flaw than earlier ones (Psychological Science, in press). But he stresses that it isn't just fast-paced action films like Die Hard II that follow l/f Rather, the important thing is having shots of similar length that recur in a regular pattern throughout a film. Cutting suggests that obeying l/fmay make films more gripping because they resonate with the rhythm of human attention spans, but he doubts that directors are deliberately using mathematics to make movies. Instead, he thinks films that happen to be edited in this way might be more likely to be successful, which in turn would encourage others to copy their style. This would explain why a greater number of recent films tend to follow l/f Cutting, a film no irfan, is the first to admit that shot-pacing isn't everything: he found that the lengths of shots in film noir movies are typically random and not correlated with one another on any timescale. Star Wars Episode III (pictured), however, which he describes as "just dreadful", adheres rigidly to l/f He says that a good narrative and strong acting are probably most important. The attention theory chimes with other recent work. Tim Smith at the University of Edinburgh, UK, tracks the eye movements ofmovie-goers. He has shown that the editing style of modern films results in more people being focused on the same areas of the screen at the same time. He has interpreted this as a sign that audiences are more attentive to the film. â€˘
Pl a sti c el ectro n i cs th ei r sci e n ce a n d a p p l i cati o n s
Bakerian prize lecture - open to the public Tuesday 2 March 201 0 from 6 .30pm to 7.30pm Professor Donal Bradley CBE FRS Imperial Col lege London Pl astics have become ubiquitous materi als due to the ease with which they can be processed into complex shapes. Imagine a world in which metals and semicond uctors have similar attributes - that is the world of Plastli; EieClronics. Professor B rad ley, a pioneer in the field, will introduce plastic electronic materials, discuss how to engineer desirable properties, and describe recent developments i n fabrication and appl ications
Admission free - no lickel or advance booking reqUired Doors wi/I open at 5 45pm and sealS Will be allocated on a first-come-fI'rst-served baSIS. ThiS event wtll be broadcasl live on the web al rovalsociet'(. org/live and available 10 View on demand 48 hours later Visil our Video archive at rova/society. tv
The Royal Society 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG
Tel +44 (0)20 745 1 2581 Email events@royal society org
20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 11
Why som(t peoplďż˝ think
Leaves of Grass,
KIDS DON'T GET ENOUGH
ART THESE DAYS,
So it's no
expanding and editing it
wonder that some of them
in an effort to publish h i s
mistake Ameri ca's most
quintessential collection. In
revolutionary poet for a
essence, Leaves of Grass was walt
box of c hocolat e s .
himsel f i n verse form. Walt
T h e s o n o f a Q!aker
Whitman changed poetry.
carpenter, Walt Whitman
His l i fe ' s work was ahead
grew up with an affi n ity
of its time. And though
for n a t u r e . This, along
he lived long before the
w i th his love for New
Summer of Love, he was
York City, inspired him
the original beatnik - an
to wnte a truly original kind of poetry, the likes of
Wh'itman satis ed his sweet tooth with rich, waveďż˝'ike verse Every kid should
make poetry a part of h"
inspiring example for writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac.
w h i c h America had never seen. H i s c o l l e c t i o n
W h itman can i n flu e n c e
your child, too. That's what
Due to its hedonistic, sensual,
art does. In fact, the more art
e v e n narc i s s i s t i c subj ect matter, the
kids get , the smarter they
poems were often banned. This guy
become in subjects like math
pushed the envelope a l l right, before
and s c ience. So they become
most folks even knew there was an
of poems became known as
Too much ofWhitman's art won't give you a stomachache.
envelope to pus h . Throughout his career, Whitman rewrote and
Ten Simple Ways
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Up their daily dose of art.
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Rewriting life in fou r-letter words
operate in p arallel with existing
bonds in the albumen in the white
machinery, so the cell's normal
break and reform, c hanging its
protein translation m achinery
continues to work as normal. "It's
But the bonds be tween Chin's
the beginning ofa parallel genetic
new amino acids are more stable Â
code," says Chin.
and so could allow proteins to
Chin's team then inserted Linda Geddes
survive a much wider range of environments. One outcome
also read the genetic code four
two qu adruplet codons into the
letters at a time.
gene that codes for the common
might be a new cl a ss of drugs that
prote in calmodulin, and as signed
can be swallowed without being
A TOTALLY new genetic code
In this way, Chin's team has
has been devised, alo ng with
boosted the number of amino
an "un natural" amino acid to each
destroyed by the acids in the
machinery that could make it a
acids that can be built into a
quadruplet. When th ey inserted
digest ive tract.
biological reality. It's an advance
protei n from the 20 covered b y the
the modified gene into E. coli, it
th at means livin g cells could be
existing genetic code to 276. That 's
produced a modified cal modulin
longer term Chin's re se arc h could
persuaded to make proteins with
because Chin's new code creates 256 possible four-letter nucleotide words or "codons", each of whic h
protein, incorporating the two
lead to cells that produce entirely
unnatural amino acids. What makes the new ami no
of Kevlar, say. Organi sms mad e of
pro perties that have never been seen in the nat ural wo rld. More extraordinary still, it could eventually lead to the c reation of new or " i mproved " life forms th at incorporate these materials in their ti ssue - p ossibly even organisms with bulletproofbodies. In all existing life forms, the
That's just the begi nning . In the
new polymers - with the strength
can be assigned to an amino acid
acids especially interesting is that
these cells could incorporate the
that doesn 't curre ntly exist in
th ey react with each other to form
stronger polymers and be come stro nger or hardier as a result.
Many such ami no acids have already been made by adding different chemical groups to the basic amino acid structure. Until
"Can you watch a new form of life boot up? And can you get it to do t hings that natural biology can't do?"
acids into protein chains. Doing
The next step in this direction is to design more new tRNAs that can incorporate more unnatural amino
cell's protein-making machinery
now, the issue has been how to
reads the four chem ical "letters"
incorp orate large numbers of
a di fferent kind of che mical bond
whole new classes of materials,
of DNA - called nucleotide s - in triplets to make chains of amino
them into proteins.
from those that u sually hold prote ins together. In the m odified
Chin says. And because they could be churned out by bacteria
To tackle this proble m, Chin's
so s hould lead to the c reation of
acids. Each three-letter word
team redesigned several pieces
calm odulin, they led to a
grown in large fermentation vats,
embodies the code for a single
of the cell's protein-building
completely new protein structure .
amino acid or tells th e cell to
machine ry, including ribo somes
it would probably be a ch eaper way of prodUcing them than
stop making a protein chain.
Change s in h eat and acidity
and transfer RNAs (tRNAs).
break normal bonds between
Not any more. Jason Chin at
Together, they read the genetic
amino acids, causing proteins to
th e University of Cambridge and
code and match it up to amino
lose their 3D structure. This, for advance that opens up new instance, is why egg wh ite change s theoretical horizons in synthetic b iology," says ge nomics p i oneer colour and texture when cooked: and synthetiC biologi s t Craig
his colleagues have redesigned
acids (see diagram). The
the cell's machinery so that it can
redesigned ribosomes and tRNAs
"It's a very impressive
Venter, who heads his own
Extending the genetic code
institute in Rockville, Maryland.
Proteins conta i n i ng novel amino acids co u l d have exotic new properties Jason Chin's team has mod ified a cel l's g e n etic machinery to recognise certa in four- nucleotide sequences as coding for an "unnatural" a m i n o acid. which is then incorporated into a growing protein chain
Farren Isaacs of Harvard The unnatural a m i n o acids were designed to form an unusually
strong bond with each other
Medical School in Boston cautions that th e new polymers may interfere with exi st i ng cellular processes. But a s long as this does not prove an insu perable
iAM I N O ACID !CHAIN
,UNNATURAL :AMINO ACID
probl em, Chin's achievement NATURAL AMINO ACID
could pave the way for the creation of complex life forms with bizarre new properties. "If you have a cell with DNA, RNA, proteins and a new class of polymers, can you watch a new form oflife boot up with that system embedded in it?" ponders Chin. "And can you get that o rganism to do th i ngs that
14 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
natural biology can't do bec ause of the limited set of poly mers that it can make?" â€˘
For daily news stories, visit www. NewScientist.com/news
Atom smasher shows vacuum of space in a twist EPHEMERAL vortices thatform i n
That is exactly what the STAR
the vacuum of space may have been
collaboration saw: more positively
spotted for the fi rst time. They could
charged quarks moving in one
help to explain how matter gets much
di rection and more negatively
of its mass.
charged quarks moving in another,
Most of the mass of ordinary matter comes from nucleons 足
says Nu Xu, spokesman for STAR. The find ings were presented on
p rotons and neutrons. Each nucleon,
Monday at a meeting of the American
in turn, is made of three quarks. But
Physical Society in Washington DC.
the qua rks themselves account for
"It's a direct experimental
only about 1 per cent of the mass
manifestation of a property of
of a n u cleon. The remainder of the
quantum chromodynamics that has
mass comes from the force that
never been seen in the laboratory
holds the q uarks together, which
before," says Krishna Rajagopal
is mediated by particles cal l ed
of the Massachusetts Institute
gluons. A theory ca lled quantum
of Technology. "It confirms our
chromodynamics is used to calculate
u n dersta nding that gluon fields
how quarks and gluons combine to
can have twists."
give mass to nucleons, but exactly
The evidence of the vortices
how this phenomenon works is not
in the vacuum of space is best seen
in a quark-gluon plasma, wh ich
One possibil ity is that the fields
req uires high-energy collisions. The
created by gluons can twist, form ing
effect can be confirmed by studyi ng
vortex-like structures in the a ll足
the extent of charged-particle
pervasive vacu u m of space, and when
separation at lower energies. Later
q uarks loop through these vortices,
this year the RHIC researchers hope
they gain energy, making them
to begin smashing ions together at
heavier. Now the Relativistic Heavy
lower and lower energies. They
Ion (ollider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven
expect the separation to disappear
National Laboratory (BNL) in Upton,
at lower energies, when the quark足
New York, has seen signs of such
gluon plasma is no longer created
vortices in fireballs that m imic
(Physical Review Letters, 001:
conditions when the universe
was just a few microseconds old.
"It's a direct man ifestat ion of a property of quantum particles created when the collider chromodynamics that has smashes gold or copper ions head-on never been seen in the lab" To find the vortices, a team using
a detector cal l ed STAR analysed the
at high energies. This process creates a fireball that is about 4 trillion
But it's not yet clear whether
kelvin at its core, a temperature high
gl uon-created vortices - also ca lled
enough to form what's known
instantons - appear frequently
as a quark-gluon plasma.
50 what has this got to do with
enough to account for most of the mass of nucleons. The key lies in
vortices created by gluons in the
measuring with greater precision
vacuum of space? If two ions collide
the separation of charged q uarks
off-centre, the ensuing fireba l l
in the fireball seen atthe RHIC. The
starts rotating, creating a powerful
more vortices created by g l uons,
magnetic field. If gluon-created
the more the charged q uarks
vortices exist, this magnetic field
should separate. This measurement
should cause charged particles in
could help pin down exactly how
the plasma to separate, says Dmitri
prevalent these i nsta ntons are i n
Kha rzeev, a theorist at BNL who
the present-day universe, says
had predicted the effect.
Kharzeev. Rachel Co urtla nd .
20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 15
IN BRI EF
Superbugs blamed on shoddy repairs
Full steam ahead for elephants' unique gait
speeds of up to 5 metres per second over the platform. When most animals walk, their COM sways from side to side. This switches to bouncing l i ke a pogo stick when
BACTERIA that survive an antibiotic attack emerge stronger, with an ability to repel new drugs. The conventional idea is that susceptible bugs perish, leaving behind a few individuals whose drug resistance is passed on as they multiply. This does not, however, explain why bacteria treated with one drug tend to resist others too. Now Jim Collins at Boston University and his team have found that several different kinds of antibiotics can actively create mutations that confer this multidrug resistance. The antibiotics produce toxic molecules called free radicals that damage the DNA of Escherichia coli, and the mutations are locked in when a sloppy repair system fails to put the DNA back together properly (Molecular Cell, 001: 10.1016/j.moleceI.201o.o1.003). Collins hopes that blocking DNA repairwill slow the emergence of multidrug-resistant superbugs.
they run, a motion that wastes energy. But the team SEEING an elephant run may be as rare as seeing one fly.
found that an elephant travelling at speed keeps its COM
It turns out that instead of running in the conventional
at a constant height from the ground, even though its
sense, they adopt a unique gait at speed, with the fore
front legs bounce up and down in a trotting motion. The
limbs trotting and the hind limbs walking. Norman Heglund of the Catholic University of louvain
result is a pogo element to an elephant's motion, but no
Black hole's spin spews super jets
vertical shift in its COM ( TheJournal of Experimental
"BACKWARDS" black holes may kick out stronger jets ofmaUer Hatfield, Hertfordshire, UK, who also studies elephant elephant pounded over it. This allowed them to calculate than their standard counterparts. gait. questions whether it counts as running, as by some As black holes eat material, the changes in an elephant's centre of mass (COM). In definitions all feet must be off the ground atthe same they spew some of it out as jets. all, 34 elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation time - something that does not happen with elephants. Center in lampang were walked slowly or "run" at But no one knows why some jets are more powerful than others. A team led by Daniel Evans of the Massachusetts Institute Injured brains escape the material world extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena. ofTechnology studied the region DAMAGE to a specific brain to 88 people with brain cancers. The 34 people who had neurons around a black hole called 3C 33, area may increase feelings of Urgesi's team tested them on in the PPC removed scored higher which spins in the opposite a personality trait called self足 transcendence, which are part of after surgery than before, while direction to its orbiting disc of some religious experiences and transcendence before and after those who lost neurons in another dust and gas. It has particularly surgery to treat the cancers. High region, or whose surgery did not other forms of spirituality. powerful jets, perhaps because The posterior parietal cortex scores for this trait are gained by remove neurons, scored the same its inner disc is empty, due to before and after (Neuron, 001: the gravitational effect of (PPC) helps the brain separate self people who feel so connected to from the environment. To find others that they "feel there is no 10.1016/j.neuron.201o.01.026). counter-rotation. This may leave out whether it also hel ps us feel space for magnetic fields to build separation" and "so connected to Urgesi speculates that people we are transcending the physical nature that everything feels like who by nature have low activity up enough strength to accelerate world, Cosimo Urgesi of the one single organism". Such people in the PPC could be predisposed the jets (The A strophysical University ofUdine in Italy turned also tend to believe in miracles, to self-transcendent feelings too. Journal, vol 710, p 859). (UCl) in Belgium and colleagues built an B-metre-Iong
platform to record the downward forces created when an
16 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
Biology, 001: 1O.1242/jeb.035436).
John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College in
For new stories every day, visit www.NewScientist.com/news
Headbutt means bee very careful HONEYBEES headbutttheir hive mates to warn them of danger at a food source. Bees perform this strange ritual when they encounter aggressive rival bees, for example, or predatory spiders hanging out at favoured foraging spots. When they return to the hive, they headbutt hive mates performing the famous "waggle dance" that directs would路be foragers to rich sources of nectar. By halting their hive mates mid路dance, the scouting bees save
Atomic fountain reveals 'gravitational red shift' YOUR watch runs a tiny bit faster at the top of Everest, where Earth's gravity is slightly weaker, than it does at sea level. This difference is dubbed the "gravitational red shift" (GRS) and is one of the trickiest predictions of general relativity to measure because the effect is so small. Now the accuracy of measurement has been improved by a factor OflO,OOO. Holger Muller at the University of California, Berkeley, decided to reanalyse a decade-old experiment. In the 1990S, a team led by Nobel laureate Steven Chu
made an "atomic fountain" of caesium atoms, launching them 30 centimetres into the air. A pulse oflaser light struck the atoms as they neared their zenith, which kicked them into a two颅 state quantum superposition. One of the states was given extra momentum, causing it to rise to a slightly higher altitude than the other state before falling. M liller realised the atoms and their very ra pid oscillations could be treated as tiny "clocks" and so could be used to measure GRS. The team compared the
difference between the two states and discovered that the state that climbed slightly higher had oscillated ever-so-slightly faster than the lower state. With an accuracy of 7 parts in a billion, this measurement is 10,000 times as accurate as the previous one (Nature, DOl: 10.1038/ nature08776). General relativity has been questioned by some theories, "so it's exciting when people can do such high-precision measurements on relativity", says Jun Ye at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
them from perilous excursions. James Nieh of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues interrupted honeybees at a feeding station - for instance,
Immune warrior fends off strokes
by pinching their legs to simulate spiders bites or smearing the feeding stations with bee alarm pheromones. When the bees returned to their hive, they d isrupted waggle dancers thatwere directing others to the station (Current Biology, 001: 1O.1016/j.cub.2009.12.060). Along with the head butt. the signaller makes a brief "piping" sound, says Nieh. "This makes the waggle dancer freeze, which we thin k i s a reflex action." This is first time the meaning of the headbutt has been clear. "Now we know it conveys the message: 'Don't recruit forthat spot, it's dangerous'," says Nieh.
ANTIBODIES- the linchpin of our natural defences against bacteria and viruses - may also protect us from strokes. People with low levels of a particular type of antibody tend to have more heart attacks. Now it seems they are also at greater risk of strokes, according to a study of 682 Swedes (Stroke, DO l : 10.1161/strokeaha.109.SS8742). The antibodies in question target phosphorylcholine, a fat found on the surface of various bacteria and parasites. But they also seem to inhibit the development ofthe fatty plaques that can clog up blood vessels and cause strokes. The biggest effect was seen in women: those whose antibody levels were less than 30 per cent of the average had almost a three颅 fold higher risk of having a stroke. "It's comparable to the risk from high blood pressure," says Johan Frostegard ofthe Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. He led the study and has set up a firm to develop a vaccine and treatments based on artificial antibodies. Women have naturally higher antibody levels, which could help explain their lower rate of strokes and heart attacks, says Frostegard's team.
Disappearing from the bottom up WATER warming a s a result of climate
Greenland. They calculated
change is ta king giant bites out ofthe
melting rates from this data.
underbellies of Greenland's glaciers.
The underwater faces of the
As much as 75 per cent of the ice they
four glaciers retreated by between
lose is melted by ocean warmth.
0.7 and 3.9 metres each day,
'There's an entrenched view in the
equivalent to 20 times more ice than
public community that glaciers only
melts off the top of the glacier
lose ice when icebergs calve oft"
(Nature Geoscience, 001: 10.10381
says Eric Rignot at the University of
nge0765). This creates ice overhangs
California, Irvine. "Our study shows
that crumble into the sea, says Paul
that what's happening beneath the
Holland at the British Antarctic Survey.
water is just as i m portant." In the summer of 200B, Rignot's
Warming water may also be un locking ice from the seabed,
team measured salinity, temperature
removi ng the buttresses that
and current speeds near four calving
stop inland ice sliding outto sea,
fronts in three fjords in western
20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 17
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Bloggers get a softwa re m use WANT to get more people to read your blog? A software tool that provides a list of topics for you to write about could help. Blog Muse, developed by Werner Geyer and Casey Dugan at IBM's Watson Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, produces the list based on other users' suggestions or by matching the blogger's profile with other writers', and scouring their posts for keywords. "People may not write about exactly what was requested, but the suggestions might inspire them," says Geyer. Though the system, presented last week at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work conference, was intended to tackle writer's block, bloggers using it proved to be no more prolific than others. But those who wrote blogs based on topics Blog Muse suggested did have more readers.
SOk US househol ds are bei ng sought for a superfast fi bre-to-the足 home broadband trial, to be run by Google
The Caltech team grew a forest of micrometre-wide silicon wires a silicon base. As the wires t h e so la r c e l l way on grow, the silicon is exposed to different chemicals to produce a SOLAR cells built into clothing set of concentric junctions between sound like a great way to charge gadgets while on the move, but for different types of semiconductor, the idea to work the cells will have making each wire act as a device that converts light into electricity. to be both flexible and cheap. With that in mind, Harry They then cover the forest of wires in the clear silicone polymer Atwater and his team at the California Institute ofTechnology polydimethylsiloxane. Once that in Pasadena have developed a has set, they cut the wires away from the silicon base, leaving a bendy solar cell made from an array of micro wires encased in a flexible solar cell. The base can be clear flexible polymer. It uses just reused to make up to 30 more 1 per cent of the expensive silicon cells, Atwater says. As light gets trapped and needed by a regular solar cell with channelled down in between the the same output, and is just 5 per cent ofthe size (Nature Materia/s, wires, the cell only reflects half the light of a regular cell. DOl: 1O.1038/nmat263S).
"We do n/t wa nt people keep i n g money i n shoeboxes" Whya newly discovered vulnerability in ban ks' chip and PIN payment authentication system
needs to be fixed quickly, according to Ross Anderson of the Security Group at the University of Cam b ridge Computer Laboratory, writing on the g roup's blog (bit.ly/drzOfj)
20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 19
Who needs banks if you have a mobi le phone? U sing a ba sic ha ndset cellphone-based money tra n sfe r is tra n sforming the prospects of people de nied a cce ss to conventional fina n cia l se rvice s But a million of these people have a cell phone, and for them mobile WITH smartphones taking the money is an attractive option. It works like this: you pay cash world by storm, a phone that can only send and receive voice calls to your local agent - often at the and text messages may seem like nearest comer shop, if you live in a city -who then tops up your a relic from a bygone age. Yet in mobile money account using a East Africa, simple phones like these are changing the face of the secure form of SMS text messaging. economy, thanks to the " mobile That money can be transferred to another person by sending an money" services that are spreading across the region. SMS to their cellphone account. People without mobile money Using the text-messaging accounts can receive payments in capability built into the GSM system used by most cell phone the form of a text code which can be forwarded to their local agent, networks, these services allow people without a bank account or who exchanges it for cash. The system relies on what is credit card to use their phone as an electronic wallet that can be known as the unstructured used to store, send or receive cash. supplementary service data Around the world, some (USSD) system that is built into 2.5 billion people lack access to the GSM cellphone network. It is banking services, according to the USSD that allows pay-as-you-go customers to find out their credit New York-based Financial Access balance, for example. Initiative, a consortium of To access the mobile money university economics researchers. Gaia Vince
Your i nsecure cell phone security holes in the GSM cellphone
beyond, holes in GSM (2G) security
system risk dashing confidence in
are not being plugged, Paik says. One
mobile money-transfer systems.
"crack" allows an attacker's phone to
At the HotMobile conference in
pose asanother - a practice known
Annapolis, Maryland, next week,
as spoofi ng. And there are also ways
computer scientist Michael Paik of
for an attacker to discover a phone's
New York University will outline
encryption method and change it to
possible consequences arising from
a more easily cracked one.
the fact that hackers have found ways into the 20-year-Old GSM
Paik warns that a successful attack in the developing world could
system, which forms the basis of the
sour "both world and local opinion"
cel l phone networks in many nations.
on mobile money. He suggests
Because richer parts of the world are moving on to 3G networks and
20 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
banks now work to shore up security onthe GSM system. Paul Marks
service, users have to enter a number and password into the phone, so any money that is stored on it should be secure even ifthe handset is lost. The system is not, however, foolproof and weaknesses in the GSM standard could, in theory at least, give thieves a way in (see "Your insecure cellphone" below). One of mobile money's pioneers is the M-Pesa system, operated by the Kenyan cellphone network Safaricom. "Pesa" is Swahili for money. M-Pesa is now used by around 8 million Kenyans to pay for anything from school fees to grocery bills. It was joined last year by Zap, a mobile money service run by Safaricom's main rival, Zaino There are tens ofthousands of local agents in Kenya and the commission they charge for transferring cash into or out of the system is usually less than that imposed by banks or credit cards. For some the system is a lifeline. "If I didn't have my mobile phone, I would be very poor," says N eyasse Neemur, a widowed mother offour children who lives in the Turkana district of northern Kenya. "Now I can sell fish." Neemur took up fishing in July last year, but benefiting from it was a little tricky, es pecially as Turkana people do not usually eat fish. So she needed to dry her catch and sell it elsewhere. A truck en route from Ethiopia to Tanzania passes through her village once a week, and she arranged to have the driver transport the fish several hundred kilometres south to market in Kisumu,
where relatives sell the fish. "I get the money transfer immediately," says Neemur. "Then I can pay for my children to go to school and for beans or maize. And I have bought two goats," she adds, "so I don't need to eat fish." Mobile money also presents an opportunity for millions to save securely for the first time. Storing "In Kenya, mobile money transfers are expected to exceed cred it card transactions this year"
cash leaves people open to theft, says Arthur Goldstuck of technology analyst group World Wide Worx in Pinegowrie, South Africa. "People are able to save and so they have a means to start planning for the long term." According to the Central Bank of Kenya, payments worth around 1 billion Kenyan shillings ($13 million) per day were transferred through Kenya's mobile money systems in 200g,
For daily technology stories, visit www.NewScientist.com/technology
Latex t i l es ca ncel out sou n d for a good n ig ht's sleep THE rumbling bass from the party
outer region," says Yang. That means
animals next door need no longer
the sound waves cancel each other
keep you awake at night. Cheap and
out and no sou n d gets through. Each weighted membrane only
effective soundproofing can be yours in the shape of novel tiles made from
cancels out sound waves within a
latex and a few plastic buttons.
smal l band of frequencies. But
Low-frequency sounds, especially,
cha nging the weight of the buttons
seem to seep through most domestic
a lters the operational freq uency,
walls. That's because of their long
says Yang. B y stacking five
wavelength, says Zhiyu Yang at the Hong Kong University of Science and Tech nology in Kowloon. Bass sounds at 100 hertz have a wavelength of over 3 metres i n air, "and several
"By stacking five membranes, each tuned to a specific band, you can create a soundproof panel"
times longer in solids", he says. To block out a l l sound, buildings
membranes together, each tuned
would need walls several metres
to a specific band, you can create a
thick. Now Ya ng and h is team have
soundproof panel that works in the
developed sou n dproof panels made
range from 70 to 550 hertz.
of latex and plastic buttons, that will
With these panels you can
do the job (Applied Physics Letters,
soundproof homes, says Yang. And the panel's weight is equivalent
equalling the country's credit card transactions. The bank expects mobile money transfers to overtake credit cards in 2010. Operators across Africa and beyond, in countries that include Afghanistan and the Philippines, are developing their own services. Meanwhile, M-Pesa agents have been appointed in the UK, allowing expatriate Kenyans to send money to family back home. Safaricom plans to extend the cross-border service to the US and to Kenya's neighbours this year. Banks are keen not to miss out, and the Equity Bank based in Nairobi in Kenya, Standard Bank of Johannesburg in South Africa, and Housing Finance also ofN airobi, have all announced mobile money tie-ins. Equity, for example, has struck a deal to enable M-Pesa users to withdraw cash from its ATMs. The users generate a one time authorisation code using M-Pesa on their phone, which is then entered at an ATM, together with their phone number and the
amount they wish to withdraw. Mobile money could also have a future in richer nations, though it faces competition from the established network of ATMs, bank branches and internet banking. "I see mobile banking as a keyway that people will bank in five years' time," says Christopher Brearley, who investigates innovative banking technologies at the UK based bank HSBC. "There is the potential for small transactions and person-to-person payments to move through the kind of mobile banking systems we see in East Africa." Whether mobile money takes off in the US and Europe remains to be seen: in these areas contactless payment cards are already being promoted as an alternative to cash. But for millions of people in poorer countries who are not being courted as customers for the latest bank-card gimmicks, mobile money is proving a life changing technology that is lifting people out of poverty. •
These noise-cancel ling panels
to ceramic bathroom ti les, "although
consist of a latex rubber membrane
it's slightly thicker at 15 m i l l i m etres",
stretched over a 3-m i l limetre-thick
rigid plastic grid of 1-centimetre-wide
The panels could be used
squares. In the middle of each square
"in noisy environments such as
is a smal l, weighted, plastic button .
a irports", says Xua nlai Fang at the
When sou n d waves hit the panel,
U n iversity of Illi nois in U rbana
the membrane and weighted buttons
Champaign. "If these metamaterials
resonate at difference freq uencies.
can be manufactured economically,
"The inner part of the membrane
the impact can be very significant."
vibrates i n opposite phase to the
Colin Barras .
The answer to paper-th i n walls W h e n sound waves h i t th e latex m e m brane, they make it resonate. The outer area
will resonate at one frequency, and the weighted button area (B) will resonate in the opposite phase, cance l li n g outthe sound
i RESONANCE i FROM M E M B RANE
wE·iGHTEO·SUTtON ····· RESONANCE
20 Febru ary 2010 1 Newsc i entist 1 21
not to produce a right or wrong answer, says MacDorman. Gordon was presented to the volunteers in one of four different ways, either as an actress superimposed on a computer HOW is a female avatar supposed humanity mean people fail to to get a fair treatment in the empathise with them? The answer generated (CG) background or a virtual world? They should rely seems to depend on gender. CG female on the same background on human females - men can't He presented 682 volunteers (pictured) - and then either edited help but be swayed by looks. with a dilemma modified from to move smoothly or in a jerky, Thanks to video games and a medical ethics training unnatural way. blockbuster movies, people are programme. Playing the role of Overall, women responded increasingly engaging with the doctor, they were faced with more sympathetically to Gordon, avatars and robots. So Karl a female avatar, Kelly Gordon, with 52 per cent acceding to her MacDorman of Purdue School of pleading with them not to tell her request compared with 45 percent Engineering and Technology in husband at his next check-up that of men. But whereas women's Indianapolis, Indiana, decided she had contracted genital herpes. attitudes were consistent however to find out how people treated The dilemma is intended to make Gordon was presented, the male avatars when faced with an ethical medical students consider issues volunteers' attitudes swung dilemma. Does an avatar's lack of like doctor-patient confidentiality, sharply. The two human versions
Even in the virtual worl d, men j u d g e women on l ooks
Cel l phone v i b rations insp i re m i n d - co ntro l led movement IDENTIFYING telltale brain patterns
of Essex in Colchester, UK. His system
got a far more sympathetic hearing than their avatar counterparts. "Clearly, presentational factors influence people's decisions, including decisions of moral and ethical consequence," says MacDorman. "The different response from volunteers could suggest men showed more empathy towards characters that they see as a potential mate," he says. However, Jesse Fox, a human颅 computer interaction researcher at Stanford University in California, who has studied female characterisation in virtual environments, believes the less favourable attitude shown by men towards the CG Gordon may be explained by the fact that the avatar was more sexualised than the human one - with a bare midriff and fuller breasts. "Sexualised representations of women are often judged to be dishonest, or 'loose', and more so by men than by women. This could explain the finding, especially in a situation in which you're talking about sexually transmitted diseases," she says. The study will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Presence. Jessica Griggs .
with thinking about more complex
its name because the signal arises
directions, but success eluded them.
300 m i l liseconds after the stimulus.
"It would only get it right about 60 per
The researchers placed 12 phone
cent of the time, which is not enough
vibrators, positioned like the numbers
for the real world," says Sepulveda. Now Anne-Marie Brouwer and
on a clock, on a belt worn around the wheelchair user's waist. These vibrate
promises to usher in a new era in which
involves wearing an electrode路fi lled
colleagues at the TNO research
all manner of objects can be controlled
skullcap connected to a PC running
organisation in soesterberg, the
they wearer wants to go, say, in a
by thought. Buttelling brain patterns
brain-computer interface (BCI)
Netherlands, believe they may have
4 o'clock direction, they wait until
a more liberating approach. They
the appropriate "tactor" vibrates and
sequentially for 3 seconds each. If
apart is devilishly difficult. Now
software. This can sense four
cybernetics researchers think a mild
types of thoughts, represented
then think "that one". 'That generates
buzz from the gadgets that make
a P300 and selects the movement
using the power of the mind is
"lf the user wants to go in potentials. The user thinks abouttheir a 4 o'clock direction, they feetto move forwards, their tongue wait for the right vibration to stop, and their right or left hands and think 'that one'"
emerging as a realistic option for
to proceed in those directions.
tried it liked it:' Brouwer says.
phones vibrate will focus the mind. Controlling electric wheelchairs
some people with neurodegenerative
by electroencephalogram (EEG)
But being able to move in only
have developed a system called
direction you want," says Brouwer. Tests with 50 volunteers produced good results. "Almost everyone who Tactile BCI could be an important
conditions such as Lou Gehrig's
three directions is clearly very limiting.
tactile BCI, which uses a physical
advance, says Sepulveda. "I th ink
disease. Several groups have already
Sepulveda's team tried to improve on
sensation to provoke an EEG potential
Brouwer's work will be useful. It
developed such thought-controlled
its design by building powerful
called a P300. This is a specific brain
explores a whole new channel - a
wheelchairs, including Francisco
artificial intelligence software to
response indicating a person's strong
tactile stimulus instead of a visual
Sepulveda's team at the university
identify brain patterns associated
interest in a particular stimulus. It gets
or auditory one." Paul Marks .
22 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
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CERN on tria l The possibility of the Large Had ron Collid er d estroying the Earth cou ld yet be d ebated in cou rt. What wou ld happ en n ex t, wond ers Eric E. Johnson COURTS and legal scholars love quoting legal maxims in Latin. One ofthe most famous isfiat justitia ruatcaelum. The phrase is a resolute affirmation of the rule of law. It means "Let justice be done though the heavens fall". It was intended as hyperbole. But, ironically, courts may now have to confront these words on literal terms. In various countries, plaintiffs have sought court orders to halt the operation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, with the most extraordinary of allegations: that the experiment may create a black hole that will devour the Earth. Up until now, the various lawsuits filed against the LHC have faltered. But if the right kind of claim is filed in the proper court, a judge may soon have to face the question of whether an injunction might be needed to save the world. Injunctions are court orders that command persons to do or refrain from doing something. They are relatively routine, for example when a building of historic significance is threatened with demolition. But wading into the world of particle physics to shut down the LHC would be a forbidding proposition for anyone in judges' robes. In deciding whether or not to issue an injunction, courts engage in what lawyers refer to as a "balancing test". The idea is that the court weighs the hardships that would be endured by both parties if the injunction were or were not issued, taking into account the likelihood 24 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
experts in this case: none would seem to be without bias. CERN employs half of the world's particle physicists; the other half are their friends. All of them are anxiously awaiting data from the LHC to advance their field. The LHC is not just a particle physics experiment, it is the particle physics experiment. So what is a court to do? Courts can maintain the rule of law in a fair and principled way by looking at the human context surrounding the scientific debate. While the physics may be largely impenetrable to the court, the human factors are not. One question a court can investigate is how likely it is that the theoretical underpinnings of the scientific work are defective. Those seeking an injunction could, for example, ask a court to consider the history of shifting arguments for why the LHC is safe. In 1999, phYSicists said no determine whether the questions particle accelerator for the and severity of the alleged consequences. The test closely raised are sufficiently serious. For foreseeable future would have that, a court must take a careful resembles what is portrayed by the power to create a black hole. courthouse statues around the But theoretical work published in look at the scientific controversy. Yet the physics involved is world - Lady Justice holding up 2001 showed that if hidden extra difficult terrain even for scales to measure the relative dimensions in space-time did exist, the LHC might create black weight of the plaintiff's and physicists. A judge with maybe just a few days to ponder has scant holes after all. Thereafter, the defendant's cases. argument for safety was changed. So let's do the balancing test for chance of learning the science the LHC case. The hardship CERN well enough to confidently decide In 2003, it said that any black would suffer from an injunction holes created would instantly who is right and who is wrong. evaporate. But when subsequent Usually when complex is enormous - idling thousands of workers and equipment worth scientific issues are involved, theoretical work suggested otherwise, the argument changed courts turn to expert witnesses. billions of euros, and upending a great scientific adventure. That But there is a problem with using again. In 2008, CERN issued a weighs on the scales heavily. But report arguing a safety case based, on the other side is an Earth-mass "The question of whether ultimately, on astrophysical black hole. That not only tips the the LHC is safe is a rea l足 arguments and observations of w orld question w ith the eight white dwarf stars. These flip足 scales, it eats them up. The remaining task is to highest possible stakes" flops on safety might cause a
Comment on these stories a twww. NewScientist.com/op inion
court to find current assurances less persuasive than they would otherwise be. In addition, a court could look at the sociological and psychological context in which the disputed scientific work was carried out. Social scientists have identified a number of phenomena that can skew attempts to reach objective assessments of risk. For instance, cognitive dissonance describes the tendency of people to seek information that is consistent with their beliefs and to avoid information that is inconsistent. "Groupthink" describes a process by which intelligent individuals, working in a group, can reach a worry-free outlook that is not justified by the facts. And the phenomenon of confirmation bias - the tendency to filter information so as to confirm working hypotheses -was cited by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as one explanation for why space shuttle programme managers ignored sure signs of trouble. A court charged with deciding whether an injunction should be issued could consider whether these sorts of social effects plausibly undermine the conclusion that the LHC is safe. These lines of inquiry might strike physicists as unfair. Many will argue that scientific work should be debated on its scientific merits alone. That objection is well put in a purely academic dispute, but the question of whether the LHC is safe is not academic - it is a real-world question with the highest possible stakes. Evaluating the science from a real-world perspective, and understanding scientific work to be a fallible human enterprise, is not merely fair- where justice is concerned, it is essential. â€˘ Eric E. J oh n so n is assistant professor of law at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He makes these arguments in more detail in the Tennessee Law Review (voI 76, p 819)
One minute with ...
Atu l Gawa n d e The s u rgeon expla ins why checklists a re a vita l tool in medicine and ca n even save lives during surgery
You've written a book called The Checklist
Mani!esto;why do we need checklists? On the one hand they are memory aids. If you go shopping, a l ist doesn'ttell you about every single step you take to the grocery store, it reminds you of what you might forget. The second aspect of a checklist is that it can help you perform well when you are working with many people on a complex procedure. A surgical checklist can turn a team into a pit crew instead of the three stooges. What gave you the idea of putting a checklist into practice in medicine?
I've written about fallibility in complex systems like medicine, and I'm a surgeon. The World Health Organization asked me to work out how to reduce deaths in surgery. We have the tools Â specialisation and technology. But why do we continue to fail when we have trained surgeons who have access to technology? So I started thinking that the trouble must be with complexity - the complexity of what we know exceeds an individual's ability to deliver results correctly and safely. In other complex fields, such as aviation, they use checklists. How do you go about writing a checklist to cover all medical procedures?
Atul Gawa nde is a surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine
Do you use one?
I do now but initially I didn't think I needed to. I'm at Harvard and we think we're top of our game. But I didn't want to look like a hypocrite. We've been usi ng a checklist fa r twoyears and not a week goes by when we don't catch a problem. It has saved patients and saved me.
A checklist reminds everyone of the dumb stuff - have we given antibiotics or got enough blood standing by, as well as making sure that everyone introduces themselves and the surgeon communicates the plan for the operation. My research has shown that there are 10 major ways an operation can go wrong, so now I'm developing a checklist for each of them.
One of the key concepts of a checklist developed for ai rcraft was the pause point - before the engines are started, for instance. I've built pause points into my day to make sure I've not forgotten critical things, about patients in particular.
How did you prove that checklists work?
You have an extraordinary career: you teach,
We got eight hospitals around the world to participate, from the richestto the poorest and used a checklist during surgical procedures for 8000 patients for six months. In every hospital major complications were reduced by 36 per cent and the death rate was halved. In the UK this month all 167 hospital trusts wi ll adopt checklists.
work as a surgeon, write books, run a team of
Can you use checklists in your everyday life?
20 researchers and you're a staff writer for
The New Yorker. How do you do it? I've given up on having a work-life balance. If I j ust did surgery I'd burn out. If I just did writing I'd go crazy, and if I j ust did research I'd run out of ideas. Interview by Sanjida O'Connell
20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 25
Seriously humorous From Glenn Brunson
Daniel Elkan's thought-provoking article on the science of joke appreciation led me to think of some interesting questions (30 January, p 40). There is a large class of jokes, such as those that focus on social or cultural s tereotypes, where the joke-teller and listener share a sense of superiority over the object of the joke. Can the enjoyment of this type of joke be associated with a particular type of personality? Jokes also fall into two categories: those that do not depend on language and can be translated readily, and those that depend directly on language and probably cannot be translated at all. Are language-dependent jokes processed differently from language-independent jokes? Eugene, Oregon, US From Ken Green
An important component of humour is missing from Daniel Elkan's article : the appreciation
of a joke depends heavily on the social circumstances. When I worked in the BBC Television Theatre in London, many years ago, we made a production of Brandon Thomas's farcical play Charley's Aunt. It was not very successful initially. The BBC arranged a showing in the theatre to which staff members were invited free of charge. The few desultory giggles and moans
that they produced were picked up by the audience-reaction system and recorded on the soundtrack. At a second showing, the audience heard the quiet reactions of the first audience
Enigma N u mber 1583 Have a good day SUSAN DENHAM
Some years ago I bought a car which had a digital display on its dashboard, The 10 digits displayed showed the date and ti me, such as
17 : 05: 8 6
15 : 3 2
A "good day" was a day during which the 10 digits displayed were all different In particular, I recall two WIN fl5 will be awarded to the
and responded heartily. Their laughter was also added to the recording. When the show was finally broadcast with this soundtrack, it was very funny indeed. It seems laughter needs a trigger as well as a joke. Penpethy, Cornwall, UK From Phil Thompson
Daniel Elkan discusses the idea that empathy is important in appreciating certain types of humour - relating how empathisers appreciate jokes where there is behavioural incongruity - and states that people with autism do not find this type of humour funny because they lack a " theory of mind". This is an oft-related hypothesis, but perhaps a better explanation is that people tend to understand and relate better to those who think in a similar way. While autistic people may have difficulty understanding "neurotypical" people, many neurotypical people seem just as poor at intuiting the minds of those with autistism, a reciprocal point seemingly missed by some researchers. Further, there is anecdotal evidence that many autistic people are often better at understanding their autistic peers. Los Altos, California, US From Geoffrey Sherlock
good days, more than four months apart, The day mid-way between the two was not a good day, but in each month between those two good days there was at least one good day, What were the dates (day and month) of those two particular good days?
sender of the fi rst correct answer opened on Wednesday 24 March, The Editors decision is final. Please send entries to Enigma 1583, New Scientist, Lacon House, 84 Theobald's Road, London WClX 8NS, orto enigma@newscientistcom (please include your postal address), Answer to 1577 Happy new year: The three numbers are 325, 784 and 901 The winner Jeremy Gray of Epsom, Auckland, New Zealand
Many years ago I read a sci-fi short story about a scientific analysis of humour and jokes in humans, which concluded that all jokes and humour were being sent to Earth by an alien civilisation to keep humans from turning their attention to conquering space. The aliens felt this to be necessary in view of the mess that had been made on Earth. When this fact became widely known by humans, all humour was shut off and jokes destroyed, sending the population of Earth into terminal decline. Could the scientists Daniel Elkan reported on be dissuaded from all further research? Amersham, Buckinghamshire, UK
26 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
Cosmic dimwits From Simon Tanlaw, All-Party Astronomy and Space Environment Group
Your editorial and Stephen Battersby's article (23 January, p 3 and p 28) raise questions about possible modes of communication with intelligent alien communities and the potential dangers of transmissions from Earth into near space. There was also an excellent article by David Shiga about hidden asteroids (23 January, p 10), for which there are currently no effective detection or deflection procedures. We Earthlings have probably already revealed our presence through radio and TV signals, which have leaked into space over the past century. With this in mind, listening is perhaps the best and cheapest way to discover whether or not we are alone. Let us suppose that there are alien communities seeking out their peers in nearby space. A primary way of identifying signs of intelligent life is quite likely to be looking for the long-range radars surrounding a planet for its defence against impacting asteroids. !fno such technology is observed, alien communities might well assume that our species is not only a bit dim, but also not worth contacting due to its inevitably short-term future. Furthermore, given the quality of much of our leaked radio and TV signals, alien leaders might conclude that they are correct in excluding the inhabitants of Earth from their search for extraplanetary intelligence. London, UK
One-way to Mars From Russell Robles-Thome
In Stuart Clark's article on the possibility of sending exploratory missions to Mars's moon, Phobos, Scott Maxwell suggests that he would be happy to go to Mars and
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that NASA need not worry about bringing him back (30 january, p 28). We need not consider such a suggestion to be suicide exploration. The pertinent question is whether it is easier and cheaper to send a mission equipped to survive many years on the planet, than to equip it with the ability to return home. After all, 10 years down the line, we ought to be able to bring someone back more cheaply than we can today.
In his article on the dangers of online banking and electronic money, jim Giles mentions security issues with online schemes like "Verified by Visa" and " MasterCard Secure" (30 january, p 18). However, he fails to appreciate the objective ofthese initiatives, which, just like other banking industry "innovations" such as chip-and-PIN, is not to reduce the likelihood offraud but to shift liability from the bank to the merchant or consumer. We will only have truly secure systems when those that provide them -both financial institutions and software suppliers - are liable for losses arising from flaws in those systems.
Good clean fun
I found the information on exercise in Clare Wilson's article on how to stay fit very helpful (9 january, p 34), but I was Slime roads confused by its diagram of From Peter Hoskins metabolic equivalents. "Sex (vigorous)" was scored Paul Marks describes how at barely more than the metabolic researchers plotted alternative "resting rate", while vacuuming routes for the UK's motorways scores much higher and using the feeding habits of a is considered "moderate yellow slime mould, Physaru m poIycephalum (9 january, p 19). exercise" - a difference that I find extraordinary. In an experiment in 2001 Did the University of South we found that Escherich ia coli migrates by following the shortest Carolina's study use some Victorian-era steam-powered line along a food "gradient" from solid brass vacuum cleaner? low to high concentrations of Or maybe the researcher was nutrient. The P. poIycephalum working alone... study appears to replicate this. However, the slime mould may Basford, Nottingham, UK not be as good a road planner as the researchers hope. While roads From Norman Siebrasse Clare Wilson tells us that scientists tend to go around and through have done a poor job at explaining rather than over the top, the researchers will almost certainly in plain terms how to get fit (9 january, p 34). find that P. polycephalum will choose the shortest route She goes on to say that available to find the nutrient, measuring exercise intensity by heart rate -which anyone regardless of whether a volcano can do while exercising with an or a nature reserve stood in the way. inexpensive heart-rate monitor is old hat. Now we are supposed to Morwell, Devon, UK Edinburgh, UK
consider metabolic equivalents (METs), which can only be measured in a lab. As a practical alternative, she suggest we "just look up" the average MET for the activity we are engaging in. Yet the average tells us nothing about how hard we are actually going: for example, the chart says cycling, which covers everything from a casual ride with the family to Lance Armstrong climbing Mont Ventoux, is on average 8 METs, or about equivalent to jogging whatever that might mean. Clear advice about how to get fit remains elusive. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada The editor writes The Compendium ofPhysical Activities (bit.lyj8BZaUf) provides •
a comparison of how other forms of exercise compare. For example, as mentioned in the article, 3 METs roughly equates to walking at 100 steps a minute.
Sane sanitisers From John Stevens-Taylor
Feedback comments on john Trinkaus's research on the use of hand sanitisers at a local hospital, where he found that non-medical people were twice as likely to use the facility as medical staff (9 january). He suggested that this might be because the medical staff were in" summer mode" and thus thinking of more pleasant things than disease. A much more likely
explanation is that the medical people were aware that the alcohol gels dispensed by these sanitisers are ineffective against viral infections and were waiting to use the soap-and-water facilities that would be effective in removing any swine flu virus. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, UK
Sickly scent From Kevin Parker
I read Feedback's epistle about manufacturers adding scents to consumer products with some sympathy (16 january). My wife and I recently bought a large bag of birdseed with a sickly sweet cherry odour so pungent that it permeated the entire house until we sealed it in a large plastic bag. When I come home in the evening I can tell whether my wife has filled the bird feeders, even if it was hours ago. What is mystifying is that birds have no sense of smell, so this odour must be intended for the purchaser's benefit. As Feedback notes about other scented items, the smell will remind us never to buy this particular product again. Greenbelt, Maryland, US
For the record • Due to an auditory aberration
d u ring his interview, we misquoted Rob Hopkins, who believes that the effects of peak oil will be felt by 2013, not 2030 as previously stated (6 February, p 25). • We misspelled limo Kasper's
surname in our article on the perils of electro n i c money (30 January, p 18).
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20 F e b ru a ry 2010 I NewScientist 1 27
OPI N I ON I NTERVI EW Photography: Philipp Horak
Leakey's angel, 50 years on Half a century af ter Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in Tanzan ia, she talks to her former studen t
Charlotte Uhlenbroek abou t chimpanzee fire-dancing, the peril of bush meat and the empowerment of local people
"EVERYBODY studying animals in the wild today needs to be aware of the need for conservation and involving local people. It's rather unfair because when I began my study there were probably over a million wild chimps and the equatorial forest belt stretched across Africa - I was very lucky to be able to concentrate purely on research." Jane Goodall is sitting in the corner of a cafe at Heathrow airport in the UK. I have managed to grab an hour of her time between a radio interview and her flight to Munich, Germany. Although Goodall became world famous through her long-term study of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, these days she is on the road some 300 days of the year, rushing between meetings with top politicians, star-studded fund-raisers and remote African villages in a bid to save chimpanzees and their forests. "I am not doing any research at all. I can't even do any analysis, there's no time," she says with regret. It's been years since I last saw Goodall I studied chimpanzees with her at Gombe in the early 1990s. She's changed little: a slight woman with straight silver-grey hair pulled back in her signature ponytail, she looks remarkably well despite her punishing schedule. Her soft voice belies a steely determination: for Goodall, even at 75, there is no such thing as work-life balance - her life is her work. Neither will there be any let up. This year is even busier than usual as there is a raft of projects and celebrations afoot to mark the 50 years since Goodall first arrived in Gombe. She was initially sent to Tanzania by the anthropologist Louis Leakey, who also enlisted Diane Fossey to study mountain gorillas in Africa and Birute Galdikas to follow orangutans 28 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
in Borneo. The trio of young women were subsequently dubbed "Leakey's Angels". It was unusual in those days for women to do field research, especially in Africa. "My family were always very supportive - my mother came out with me, after all - but others thought I was crazy, and some even thought Leakey was amoral. They thought it was dangerous and he had no business sending me," she says. Goodall was unusual not only as a female field researcher, but also because she had no training as a scientist. "He wanted someone whose mind was uncluttered by scientific theory because back then ethology was trying to make itself into a hard science and was very
"In a sense, if we lose chimps we lose a part of our own history" reductionist very reductionist. You were always supposed to choose the simple explanation. But then all these different field studies started coming in about complex social structures showing clear examples of intelligent behaviour that eventually forced science to rethink." Goodall's research became one of the longest continuous field studies of any animal, producing startling revelations about wild chimpanzees' behaviour, such as meat足 eating and their manufacture and use oftools. As humans had previously been defined as "tool-makers", when Goodall telegraphed Leakey to report that the chimps were modifying twigs in order to "fish" termites out of holes in rock-solid termite mounds, it provoked the now famous response: "We must -
redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human:' However, in some circles Goodall was criticised for naming the chimps and becoming emotionally engaged with her subjects. She makes no apologyfor this: "There is absolutely no problem in having empathy and being objective. Empathy helps us gain an understanding at a different level that you can then test in a rigorous scientific way." But, after all these decades, what is there left to say about chimpanzees? "One of the most exciting areas is the different culture found between chimpanzee populations." We enthusiastically discuss the discovery of chimps using wooden cleavers to split fruit in the Nimba mountains in Guinea, and using
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Even at7S, Jane Goodall is showing no signs of stopping to catch her breath
branches as spears to jab at bushbabies in tree holes in Fongoli, Senegal. Most recently there was a report of a Fongoli chimp performing a "fire dance" in response to a bush fire, similar to the slow-motion dis play that Gombe chimps carry out during rainstorms. This kind of cultural variation may well give us an insight into how behaviours are transmitted socially, rather than through individual learning or genetic transmission, and has implications for our understanding of early hominid evolution. In a sense, if we lose chimps we lose a part of our own history. It was at a conference in Chicago in 1986 that the crisis was first brought to light. Researchers from field sites across Africa ended their presentations with the same
worrying message - the chimps in a given area were in trouble from deforestation or poaching. It rapidly became apparent that chimps were facing a dramatic decline across their entire range. Goodall decided to hand over data-collection in Gombe to local field assistants and PhD students, including me, and devote her time to protecting chimpanzees and their habitat. Since then the situation has become PROALE
Jane Goodall began her study of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, in 1960, Since 1986, she has been campaigning for conservation,
for which she received an OBE. Goodall is a United Nations Messenger of Peace
considerably worse. There are now perhaps as few as 150,000 chimps remaining in the wild. I ask her if she thinks the situation is hopeless. "I feel more determined than ever and take inspiration from how well our forestry programme is doing around Gombe," she says. Gombe National Park is just 60 square kilometres. When I was doing my research there in the mid 1990S, the forest ended abruptly at the edge of a rift escarpment and the hills beyond were completely bare, forcing local people to come into the park to collect firewood. "Now there are trees that are about so high," says Goodall, gesturing just above the height of our table, "running for about 100 kilometres from south of Kigoma in Tanzania to Burundi. The really exciting thing is that the villagers have been trained to monitor their forest using Google Earth. Using a cell phone that takes photographs and video, information is sent straight up to a satellite and villagers can see for themselves where trees have been cut, where there's been a fire, or erosion." Promoting the kind of initiative that empowers local people is one of Goodall's strengths. By using local people with no more than primary school education to collect the long-term data in Gombe, she has created a community that benefit from, and are proud of, the chimps. "They are their chimps," she says. Although the situation is improving at Gombe, "the real tough issue is the commercial bushmeat trade in central and west Africa. It's so terribly unsustainable." Goodall's work has gone well beyond protecting chimps and their habitat. She has a holistic view of conservation and feels that saving the natural world has to be done on all fronts simultaneously. An organisation she founded called Roots & Shoots now operates in over 100 countries and is designed to encourage young people to roll up their sleeves and take action. Her latest book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How endangered species are being rescuedfrom the brink, is not,
as one might expect, about chimpanzees, but the efforts made to save a wide variety of animals from extinction. It reflects Goodall's current role as a spokeswoman for wildlife conservation and as a reminder that we are capable of turning things around if we put our minds to it. "We could all kill ourselves trying to conserve what's left of this planet but if new generations aren't raised to be better stewards then there's very little point." â€˘ 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 29
"What emerged was sta rtling - 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again" While some scholars like Clottes had recorded the presence of cave signs at individual sites, Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was surprised to find that no one had brought all these records together to compare signs from different caves. And so, under the supervision of April
Nowell, also at the University of Victoria, she devised an ambitious masters project. She compiled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France, covering 25,000 years of prehistory from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites (see illustration, below) . Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many ofthe more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful- perhaps even
the seeds of written communication. A closer look confirmed their suspicions. When von Petzinger went back to some ofthe records ofthe cave walls, she noticed other, less abstract signs that appeared to represent a single part of a larger figure - like the tusks of a mammoth without an accompanying body. This feature, known as synecdoche, is common in the known pictographic languages. To von Petzinger and Nowell, it demonstrated that our ancestors were indeed considering how to represent ideas symbolically rather than realistically, eventually leading to the abstract symbols that were the basis of the original study.
Sto n e Age j ott i n g s French caves are known for their prehistoric rock art. But also marked on the walls around the p a i ntings are
26 symbols that h ave a p peared again
and again at French sites across 25,000 years of prehistory. Early s i g ns sug gest that many of these symbols crop up in other parts of the world too, lea d i n g s o m e to wo nder i f symbolic commun ication arose with early humans
15% of sites. 30,000 to 13,000 years ago
32 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
"It was a way of communicating information in a concise way," says Nowell. "For example, the mammoth tusks may have simply represented a mammoth, or a mammoth hunt, or something that has nothing to do with a literal interpretation of mammoths." Other common forms of synecdoche include two concentric circles or triangles (used as eyes in horse and bison paintings), ibex horns and the hum p of a mammoth. The claviform figure - which looks somewhat like a numeral 1 - may even be a stylised form of the female figure, she says. The real clincher came with the observation that certain signs appear repeatedly in
Are these dots a n d l i nes
mere doodles or part of a sym bolic system?
pairs. Negative hands and dots tend to be one of the most frequent pairings, for exam pie, especially during a warm climate period known as the Gravettian (28,000 to 22,000 years ago). One site called Les TroisÂ Freres in the French Pyrenees, even shows four sign types grouped together: negative hands, dots, finger fluting and thumb stencils (a rare subcategory of the negative hands). Grouping is typically seen in early pictographic languages - the combined symbols representing a new concept - and the researchers suspect that prehistoric Europeans had established a similar system. "The consistency of the pairings indicate that they could really have had a meaning," says Nowell. "We are perhaps seeing the first glimpses of a rudimentary language system."
of the sites and appearing across all time periods, from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago. The next most prolific signs were the open angle symbol and the dots, both appearing at 42 per cent of the sites throughout this period. The vast majority ofthe remaining symbols are each present in around one-fifth of the French caves, the exceptions being the cordiform (roughly a love-heart shape), reniform (kidney shape), scalariform (ladder shape) and spiral, which all turned up in just a handful of sites. "The spiral only appears in two out of the 146 sites throughout the entire time period, which really surprised me as it is a common motif in many later cultures," says von Petzinger. The Rhone valley and the Dordogne and Lot regions in the south seem to have been the original sites for the symbols in France: most signs seem to appear in these regions before Lin es, dots and love hearts spreading across the rest of the country. Notable exceptions include the zigzag, which Von Petzinger caused quite a stir when she presented her preliminary findings last April first appeared in Provence and is a relative at the Paleoanthropology Society Meeting in latecomer, debuting around 20,000 years ago. Chicago. She and Nowell have recently No signs ever emerged in northern France, ďż˝ submitted a paper to the journal An tiquity though. "For large periods of time the north was uninhabitable because of ice sheets ďż˝ and they are currently preparing another paper for the Journal ofHuman Evolution. The coming and going, so there was less opportunity for culture to develop Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC plans to independently up there," says von Petzinger. The Ice Age may have hindered the cultural include the symbols in a forthcoming exhibition on human evolution. revolution in the north, but elsewhere it could have been instrumental in furthering it. "This work is really eXciting," says lain Davidson, an Australian rock art specialist at the "People were forced to move south and University of New England in New South Wales. congregate in 'refugia' during the last glacial maximum, 18,000 to 21,000 years ago, and it "We can see that these people had a similar convention for representing something." is at this time when we start to see an explosion in rock art," says Nowell. "One Suspecting that this was just the beginning possibility is that they were using the signs of what the symbols could tell us about prehistoric culture, von Petzinger and to demarcate their territories." Nowell's next move was to track where and Yet while long winters spent in caves might when they emerged. The line turned out to be have induced people to s pend time painting > the most popular, being present at 70 per cent wonder walls, there are reasons to think 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 33
Doodler or da Vi nci? When our ancestors painted
considering his audience as he
beautiful works of art, were they
painted the cow.
intending them to be viewed by
the qual ity of their work very
their own pleasure?
seriously. Recent work by
The Lascaux caves, in the Dordogne region of France, may
The spira l and the hand signs are relatively rare
Our ancestors probably took
others, or did they just paint for
Suzanne Villeneuve, from the University of Victoria in British
have the answer. There you can
Columbia, Canada, shows that the
see a painting of a red cow with a
images painted with the most skill
black head high on one of the
tend to occur in places where
walls. Up close the cow appears to
large numbers of people would
be stretched from head to toe, but
have been able to see them, while
when viewed from the ground the
poorer· quality images were more
cow regains normal proportions.
likely to be in smaller cubby holes.
This technique, known as
In most cases it seems that only
anamorphosis, is highly advanced,
the "Leonardos" of the day were
and suggests the painter was
allowed to paintthe big spaces.
the symbols originated much earlier on. One symbol, for example, can be seen on the of the most intriguing facts to emerge from engravings at Blombos cave. von Petzinger's work is that more than three Does this suggest that these symbols quarters of the symbols were present in the travelled with prehistoric tribes as they very earliest sites, from over 30,000 years ago. migrated from Africa? Von Petzinger and "I was really surprised to discover this," says Nowell think so. Davidson, on the other hand, who has identified 18 of these symbols in von Petzinger. If the creative explosion occurred 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, she Australia, is unconvinced that they have a common origin, maintaining that the creative would have expected to see evidence of symbols being invented and discarded at this explOSion occurred independently in different early stage, with a long period of time passing parts ofthe globe around 40,000 years ago. before a recognisable system emerged. Instead, he thinks the symbols reveal Instead, it appears that by 30,000 years ago something about a change in the way people a set of symbols was already well established. thought and viewed their world, which may have emerged around this time. "I believe that there was a cognitive change, which suddenly Rewriti ng prehistory put art into people's heads," he says. That suggests we might need to rethink our Clottes, however, thinks they could be on to something. "Language and abstract ideas about prehistoric people, von Petzinger says. "This incredible diversity and continuity thought were probably practised long before of use suggests that the symbolic revolution 35,000 years ago, since 'modern humans' may have occurred before the arrival of the are some 200,000 years old. We shouldn't first modern humans in Europe." If she is right, be surprised by the sophistication of these people's thinking: they were our great-greatit would push back the date of the creative explosion by tens ofthousands of years. The idea would seem to fit with a few tantalising finds that have emerged from Africa A potent g rou p i n g and the Middle East over recent years. At Blombos cave on South Africa's southern Cape, At the Les Tro is· Freres caves in the French Pyrenees, the following four signs are frequently grouped together for example, archaeologists have recently discovered pieces of haematite (an iron oxide T H U M B STENCIL Subcategory of the used to make red pigment) engraved with negative hand abstract designs that are at least 75,000 years N EGATIVE HAND old (Science, vol 323, p 569). Meanwhile, at the Skhul rock shelter in Israel, there are shell beads DOTS considered by some to be personal ornaments and evidence for symbolic behaviour as far back FINGER FLUT ING as 100,000 years ago (Science, vol 312, p 1785). Further evidence may well come from caves elsewhere in the world, and indeed a tentative look at the existing records suggests that As a group the signs might take on a new meaning many of von Petzinger's symbols crop up in a trait common in early pictographic languages other places (see map, page 3 2) . The open angle 34 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
grandparents after all," he says. But if people really did have a symbolic culture this far back, why don't we find more evidence pre-dating 40,000 years ago? "Perhaps the earlier symbols tended to be carved into perishable things such as wood and skins, which have now disintegrated," says von Petzinger. And even if they did paint in caves many of the rock surfaces will have eroded away by now. Whenever these symbols did emerge, the acceptance of symbolic representation would have beena turning point for these cultures. For one thing, it would have been the first time they could permanently store information. "Symbols enabled people to share information beyond an individual lifespan. It was a watershed moment," says Nowell. One huge question remains, of course: what did the symbols actually mean? With no Rosetta Stone to act as a key for translation, the best we can do is guess at their purpose. Clottes has a hunch that they were much more than everyday jottings, and could have had spiritual significance. "They may have been a way of relating to supernatural forces. Perhaps they had special symbols for special ceremonies, or they may have been associated with the telling of special myths," he says. One intriguing aspect is their possible use in deception. "Once symbolic utterances are recognised, communication becomes more flexible," says Davidson. "One result is that ambiguity can be introduced for concealing truths." With no key to interpret these symbols, though, we can't know whether ancient humans were giving false directions to rival tribes or simply bragging about their hunting prowess. Our ancestor's secrets remain safe at least for now. • Kate Ravilious is a journalist based in York, UK
N THE heart of Africa's savannah lies a city that is a model of sustainable development. Its buttressed towers are built entirely from natural, biodegradable materials. Its inhabitants live and work in quarters that are air-conditioned and humidity-regulated, without consuming a single watt of electricity. Water comes from wells that dip deep into the earth, and food is cultivated self-sufficiently in gardens within its walls. This metropolis is not just eco-friendly: with its curved walls and graceful arches, it is rather beautiful too. This is no human city, of course. It is a termite mound. Unlike termites and other nest-building insects, we humans pay little attention to making buildings fit for their environments. "We can develop absurd architectural ideas without the punishment of natural selection," says architect Juhani Pallasmaa of the Helsinki University ofTechnology in Finland. As we wake up to climate change and resource depletion, though, interest in how insects manage their built environments is reawakening. It appears we have a lot to learn. "The building mechanisms and the design principles that make the properties of insect nests possible aren't well understood," says Guy Theraulaz of the CNRS Research Centre on Animal Cognition in Toulouse, France. That's not for want of trying. Research into termite mounds kicked off in the 1960s, when Swiss entomologist Martin LUscher made trailblazing studies of nests created � by termites of the genus Macrotermes on the � plains of southern Africa. It was he who � suggested the chaotic-looking mounds were in � fact exquisitely engineered eco-constructions.
SpeCifically, he proposed an intimate connection between how the mounds are built and what the termites eat.Macrotermes species live on cellulose, a constituent of plant matter that humans can't digest. In fact, neither can termites. They get round this by cultivating gardens offungi that turn wood into digestible nutrients. These fungus gardens must be well ventilated, and their temperature and humidity closely controlled - no mean feat in the tropical climates in which termites live. In Luscher's picture, heat from the fungi's metabolism and the termites' bodies causes stagnant air laden with carbon dioxide to rise up a central chimney. From there it fans out through the porous walls of the mound, while new air is sucked in at the base.
Giant lungs So simple and appealing was this idea that it spawned at least one artificial imitation: the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by architect Mick Pearce. Opened in 1996, it boasts a termite-inspired ventilation and cooling system. Or at least it was thought to. It turns out, however, that few if any termite mounds work this way. Keeping the temperature and humidity within termite mounds constant while at the same time getting rid of CO2 demands a very efficient process of gas exchange. A typical mound with about 2 million inhabitants needs to "breathe" about 1000 litres of fresh air each day. To investigate further what might drive such an exchange, Scott Turner, a termite expert at The State University of New York >
20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 35
in Syracuse, and Rupert Soar of Freeform Engineering in Nottingham, UK, looked into the design principles ofMacrotermes mounds in Namibia. They found that the mounds' walls are warmer than the central nest, which rules out the kind of buoyant outward flow of CO2-rich air proposed by Luscher. Indeed, injecting a tracer gas into the mound showed little evidence of steady, convective air circulation. Turner and Soar believe that termite mounds instead tap turbulence in the gusts of wind that hit them. A single breath of wind contains small eddies and currents that vary in speed and direction with different frequencies. The outer walls ofthe mounds are built to allow only eddies changing with low frequencies to penetrate deep within them. As the range offrequencies in the wind changes from gust to gust, the boundary between the stale air in the nest and the fresh air from outside moves about within the mounds' walls, allowing the two bodies of air to be exchanged. In essence, the mound functions as a giant lung. This is very different to the way ventilation works in modern human buildings. Here, fresh air is blown in through vents to flush stale air out. Turner thinks there is something to be gleaned from the termites' approach. "We could turn the whole idea of the wall on its head," he says. We should not think of walls as barriers to stop the outside getting in, but rather design them as adaptive, porous interfaces that regulate the exchange of heat and air between the inside and outside. "Instead of opening a window to let fresh
air in, it would be the wall that does it, but carefully filtered and managed the way termite mounds do it," he says. Turner's ideas were among many discussed at a workshop on insect architecture organised by Theraulaz in Venice, Italy, last year. It aimed to pool understanding from a range of disciplines, from experts in insect behaviour to practising architects. "Some real points of contact began to emerge," says Turner. "There was a prevailing idea among the biologists that architects could learn much from us. I think the opposite is also true:'
Absorbent sponges One theme was just how proficient termites are at adapting their buildings to local conditions (see "More than one way to make a mound", below). Termites in very hot climates, for example, embed their mounds deep in the vast heat sink of the soil - a hugely effective way of regulating temperature. Other species maintain humidity by depositing a slurry of chewed wood and grass at the base ofthe mound. This acts like a giant sponge, which, with a capacity of up to 80 litres, can supply or absorb water to counteract any humidity fluctuations within the nest. Such a trick could be mimicked using water tanks positioned in the bowels of a building to restore humidity in hot, dry climates. "As we come to understand more, it opens up a vast universe of new bio足 inspired design principles," says Turner. Tips might also be gleaned from the construction processes that insects employ. Some of the most thoroughly studied nest-
MORE THAN O N E WAY TO M A KE A M O U N D Termites of the African
heat loss and keeping the nest at
termite Amitermes meridionalis
species Macrotermes bel/icosus
a roughly constanttemperature.
of Australia uses Earth's
have developed two very
In the cooler forests of
magnetic field to build mounds
d ifferent strategies to optimise
northern IVOry Coast, though,
elongated in a north-south
mound ventilation to local
the same species builds simpler
direction. The broad eastern
weather conditions. On the hot.
dome-shaped mounds in which
and western faces soak up the
d ry savannahs of east and west
buoyant warm air rises u p
weaker rays of the morning a n d
Africa, their mounds are
through the nest and escapes
evening sun, while a relatively
through small holes in the
narrow surface is subjected to
According to biologist judith Korb
walls. This design seems to trap
the fierce glare of the midday
of the University of Osnabrlick,
more heat by limiting outward
sun - helping to keep the
Germany, this is one instance
airflow, making sure that the
temperature relatively constant.
where heat gradients drive
fungus gardens that provide
currents of air circulation that
the termites' food are kept at
sink through the nest and rise in
an optimal temperature.
the walls during the day. This
Thousands of mi les away,
All termite mounds, Korb says, seem designed to produce homeostatic conditions in which the inner environment remains
circulation gets more or less
another species of termite has
as constant as possible. The
switched off at night when the
developed an innovative way
very different environments
of making sure it gets the most
in which termites thrive show
d isappear or reverse, avoiding
out of the sun. The magnetic
how successful they are.
36 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
"Insect architecture might lead us back to old hu man practices of organic set tlement design" building insects are the paper wasps, named after the fibrous material they use to make their combs. These consist of arrangements of tubular cells with hexagonal cross-sections, and while the designs are astonishingly diverse they are by no means random. To find out how the combs are made, Theraulaz and his colleagues supplied different coloured paper to the wasps for each stage of nest building. This showed that the wasps observe general construction rules based on the configuration of neighbouring cells. "For example, they prefer to add cells to a corner area rather than starting a new row," Theraulaz says. No individual wasp has any idea what the final structure will be, yet by following a simple set of rules - rules that evolution has determined maximise the insects' chances for survival - the constructions they arrive at are sound. Termites ensure a similarly successful outcome using chemical signals called pheromones. As the nest-builders chew soil pellets into a cement-like paste, their saliva adds a chemical which, for just a few minutes, can be " smelled" by other builders over a distance ofa centimetre or so. This sets up a positive feedback: the more a pillar is augmented, the stronger a pheromone source it becomes, causing the termites to add even more material. Such approaches are anathema to human ideas of design and control, in which a central blueprint is laid down in advance by an architect and rigidly stuck to. But Turner thinks we could find ourselves adopting a more insect -like approach as technological advances make it feasible. "There's a huge opportunity for robotics to build systems of agents linked by a distributed intelligence that can remodel a building's structure as conditions change," he says. That might sound fanciful, but really it is just a return to the old human practices of organic building and settlement design, in which additions and alterations were made piecemeal over time in response to what went before. Termites face many of the same challenges we do in our built environments, and meet them more efficiently, and sustainably. "A mound is in many ways as alive as the termites that build it," says Turner. Human buildings could soon come to life too. â€˘ Philip Ba l l is a freelance writer based in London 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 37
Ca rbon d i oxide i s n ot the o n ly cl i mate-a lte ri ng po l l uta nt. We i g n o re the others at our peri l, says Ani l Ananthaswamy
38 1 NewScientist 1 20 Feb ruary 2010
The brown haze that hangs over large parts of Asia is affecting the monsoon ra ins
N JUNE 1783, lava and gases began pouring from the Laki fissure in Iceland in one of the biggest and most devastating eruptions in history. Poisonous gases and starvation killed a quarter of Iceland' s population. The effects of the eight-month-long eruption were felt further afield, too. In the rest of Europe, a scorching summer of strange fogs was followed by a series of devastating winters. In North America, the winter Of1784 was so cold the Mississippi froze at New Orleans. At the time, French naturalist Mourgue de Montredon suggested the eruption might be to blame, but two centuries passed before scientists started to work out how gas and dust from volcanoes affect climate. The main
culprit is sulphur dioxide, which has a cooling effect. Laki pumped an estimated 120 million tonnes of the stuffinto the atmosphere, cooling the northern hemisphere by as much as 0.3 'c over the next few years. Nowadays, we are pumping out amounts of sulphur dioxide each year comparable to Laki's emissions. Humanemissions rose rapidly over the 20th century, peaking at an estimated 70 million tonnes a year in the 1990S as developed countries cleaned up their act. Even such huge amounts, however, have not been enough to stop global warming: the cooling effect has been more than offset by the warming effect of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. We are only now beginning to understand the effects of some of those other pollutants. One of the major players is black carbon, produced by the burning of everything from dung to diesel. Some recent studies suggest it is one ofthe biggest causes of warming after CO2 in the short term, contributing to the rapid warming in the Arctic and the melting of Himalayan glaciers. These findings mean we face both a danger and an opportunity. When China and India reduce their sulphur dioxide emissions, the rate at which the planet is warming will rise dramatically. Satellite measurements show that China is already making headway, says Frank Raes of the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. As a result, the rate of warming could increase from the current 0.2 'c per decade to 0.3 or 0.4 'c per decade. "Locally, it might go to 0.8 'c per decade," Raes says. Such rapid change would make it much harder for both people and wildlife to adapt (see "Too fast, too furious", page 40). On the plus side, we could head offthis dramatic speed-up in warming over the next
few years by tackling black carbon and some of the other short-lived pollutants that are helping to heat up the planet. This would buy us more time to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Global dimming Since the industrial age got under way, we have been pumping ever more pollutants into the atmosphere; not just gases like CO2, but also substances that form fine particles, or aerosols. The result is often visible in the form of a brown haze covering cities or even entire countries. The quantity of pollution is so vast that the amount of sunshine reaching Earth's surface has declined by as much as 10 per cent in places, a phenomenon known as global dimming. While scientists have suspected ever since the Laki eruption that natural and man-made aerosols can have a big effect on the climate, pinning down exactly what effect they have has been very tricky (see "Every cloud had a lead lining", page 42). Fortunately, natural experiments like the eruption of El Chichon in Mexico in 1982 helped establish beyond any doubt that sulphur dioxide has a major cooling effect. We now know it forms sulphuric acid aerosols in the atmosphere that reflect sunlight back into space. It also has a cooling effect through making clouds more reflective. From the 1940S onwards there was a slight decline in temperature in the northern hemisphere which was largely due to increasing sulphur dioxide emissions. The average temperature then began to rise fast after the late 1970S as sulphur pollution began to plateau. In the southern hemisphere, by contrast, where there was little sulphur pollution, temperatures increased gradually over the 20th century. > 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 39
Ice cores show that black carbon is partly to blame for shrinking glaciers
IIlf sui p h u r d ioxi d e is
If sulphur dioxide is slowing the rate of warming, why cut emissions? The answer is that it is a killer. Recent studies have shown that sulphur dioxide pollution from the Laki eruption killed tens of thousands of people in the UK alone. It has been directly linked to various lung disorders, including bronchitis and asthma. It is also bad for the environment : sulphur dioxide is one of the main causes of acid rain, which can devastate fish populations and destroy forests. No one is suggesting we keep on pumping it out. Like sulphur dioxide, black carbon shades the Earth's surface, so you might expect it to have a cooling effect, too. In fact it absorbs the sun's energy rather than reflecting it, warming the atmosphere. Global dimming does not
slowi ng wa rmi ng, why cut e m issio ns? Beca use i t's a ki l le (
Wa rm i n g u n l e a s he d
necessarily mean global cooling. Recent studies by Veerabhadran Ramanathan at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues suggest carbon black contributes more to global warming than previously thought (Natu re Geoscience, vol 1, p 221). Because rapidly industrialising countries like India and China have become a major source of black carbon, its effects are particularly strong in this region. Ramanathan used unmanned aircraft to study the brown haze that hangs over much of Asia. The work revealed that the haze is mainly black carbon (Nature, vol 448, p 575). "My measurements show that black carbon concentrations at altitudes of 2 to 4 kilometres are as large as in downtown Los Angeles," says Ramanathan. It comes mainly from the low-temperature burning of coal, firewood and cow dung. Black carbon can interfere with the amount ofrain and snowfall. Over the oceans, it absorbs some of the sun's heat before it reaches the water surface, reducing evaporation. What's more, ifblack carbon settles on ice or snow, it absorbs sunlight that would normally be reflected. All of this means that the brown haze is affecting the Asian monsoon, reducing the amount of snowfall in the Himalayas. The black carbon is also settling on snow and glaciers. The result is a double whammy. "About half of the retreat of the Hindu Kush, Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers may be coming from the black carbon solar heating, as well as the slowing down of the monsoons," Ramanathan says. It's a controversial point,
Too fast, too furious
I f the cooling effect of aerosol pollution i s counteracting the warming effect of rising greenhouse gas levels, temperatures will rise faster
It's not so much global warming
of Wageningen University
University of Northern British
than predi cted as we cut aerosol pol lution, The red
in the Netherlands and Bas
Columbia in Prince George,
as the rate at which the
Eickhout of the Netherlands
Canada, have started identifying
temperature rises .
Environme ntal Assessment
regions of British Columbia
Agency. Their work suggests
where the climate will remain
removing the sulphate aerosols
that nearly 70 per cent of all
within acceptable li mits for the
whose cooling effect is partly
ecosystems and 83 per cent
existing plant and animal life,
counteracting global warming
of all forest ecosystems
despite warming elsewhere.
would uncork the temperature
would struggle to cope with
rise that's a l ready in store for our
temperature increases of
planet (see graph). It could lead
more than 0.3 O( per decade
will allow conservation agencies
to a rise of as much as 0.3 O( to
( Global Environmental Change,
to maximise their impact. The
l ine shows the most extrem e case
• Strong aerosol cooling effect . IPCC prediction (TAR-A2) • No aerosol cooling effect
Cleaning up the air by
8 + 0' 6 �
en c '"
e' a ["
� 2 QJ
0.4 °C per decade (Atmospheric
40 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
Enviranment, vol 43, p 5132).
We should be seriously
vol 14, p 219). Some ecologists are looking
They argue that focusing on these "temporal corridors"
Nature Conservancy of Canada aims to use the work to establish
at ways to minimise the effect
conservation plans for British
concerned about such rapid
on ecosystems. Nancy-Anne
Columbia (Forest Ecology and
climate change, say Rik Leemans
Rose and Philip Burton at the
Management, vol 258, p 564).
for it puts at least some of the onus for what's happening in the Himalayas on regional pollution, and not just on the global warming induced by the industrialised west. Further evidence comes from a study published in December by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and colleagues in China. The team (pictured, far left) took ice cores from five glaciers on the Tibetan plateau to
find out how concentrations of black soot have changed over the decades. They found a big peak in black carbon levels in four of the glaciers in the 1950S and 1960s. The source ofthis black carbon was almost certainly Europe, which has since cleaned up its act. The peak coincides with a dramatic retreat of many Tibetan glaciers during this time, most of which regained ice in the 1970S before starting to decline again more recently.
T H E CLI MATE CHAN G E RS Many of the poll utants we are pumping i nto the atmosphere have a warm i n g or cool i n g effect. This graph shows the estimated contribution of the major pollutants and also what their effect would be in
20 years if a l l emissions ceased tomorrow
PRESENT DAY BLACK CARBON Formed by incomplete burning offossil fuels and biomatter, it absorbs the sun's heat and warms the air.
20 YEARS' TI M E I F NO MORE E M ISSIONS
- ------------------------------- 4
WAR M I N G
If it settles on ice or snow it causes melting
OZON E Best known for shielding u s from u ltraviolet li ght. but
also a greenhouse gas. Levels i n lower atmosphere are rising due to pollutants that boost its creation
M ETHANE A potent greenhouse gas that oxidises t o form carbon dioxide after a decade or two
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 2 ill u .l" :;
HALOCA R B O N S They not only destroy ozone h i g h in t h e atmosphere,
but they are also extremely potent g ree nh o use gases that may persist for hundreds of years
'" .'" .I: t ru w
N ITROUS OXI D E
A greenhouse gas whose levels have been rising
steadily due to the use of nitrogen ferti lisers in farmin g, and in dustrial emissions
OJ tj:: OJ 01 C
CARBON D I OX I D E A greenhouse gas whose effective lifetime in t he atmosp h ere
is about a century
o CHAN G I N G LAN D USE Beca u se ope n g round reflects more light than forests, especially if covered by snow, land clearance has had a s l ig ht cooling effect overa ll
ORGA N I C CARBON Refers t o hun dreds o f different substances, formed
by incomplete burning, which reflect sunlight and also affe ct clouds
S U L P H U R D I OX I D E A N D S O M E OTH E R AE ROSOLS both by directly refle cti n g s unli g h t into space a nd by affect in g clouds
Cause cool ing back
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
COO LI N G
The recent decline coincides with another rise in black carbon levels; this time the pollution is mostly from the Indian subcontinent. The findings suggest that the shrinking of Himalayan glaciers could be slowed, and perhaps even reversed in some cases, if Asia were to slash its black carbon emissions. And that is vital, because the glaciers and the snowpack act as natural reservoirs, storing water in winter and releasing it in summer, when it is needed most. The effects of black carbon are certainly not limited to Asia, however. The part of the world that is warming fastest is the Arctic, raising fears that it is nearing a tipping point. Aerosols are as much to blame as greenhouses gases, according to simulations by Drew Shindell of GISS, and colleagues. Since the 1980s, falling sulphur dioxide emissions combined with rising black carbon levels have helped drive the rapid warming, the team reported last year (Nature Geoscience, vol 2, p 294). While black carbon is turning out to be a much more important contributor to global warming than previously thought, it is far from the only one (see "The climate changers", left). For instance, carbon monoxide and the nitrogen oxides are all precursors to ozone, a greenhouse gas. Methane is another one, and requires immediate attention, says Gavin Schmidt ofGISS, "Methane is the second biggest problem after CO2,'' he says, There is a growing consensus about the need to tackle these pollutants, In October, for instance, Stacy Jackson ofthe University of California, Berkeley, argued for separate treaties for controlling their emissions in addition to whatever follows the Kyoto protocol (Science, vol 326, p 526), You might wonder why this issue has so far attracted little attention. It's partly because it is rather new, even to many scientists. There is also still a lot of uncertainty about how much warming or cooling various pollutants cause. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did not address the issue of regulating non-C02 emissions in its 2007 report. "The IPCC's fifth assessment should pay more attention to it, and it will," says Raes. However, the difficulty of pinning down the precise effects of each pollutant and the partly regional nature of their effects could make getting international agreement even trickier than with COz' Some countries might argue, for instance, that their black carbon emissions matter less than other countries because the prevailing winds ensure they never land on snow or ice. > There is one low-hanging fruit, though: 20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 41
Every cloud had a lead lining Pinning down the effect of small
been a warming due to the reduction
is extremely d ifficu lt, and recent
in lead emissions," says Cziczo.
studies have thrown up a few
Another surprise finding is that
surprises. Just last year, for instance,
global dimming boosts plant growth.
Daniel Cziczo of the Pacific Northwest
Aerosol pollution has cutthe amount
National Laboratory in Richland,
of sunshine reaching Earth's surface
Washington, and colleagues, showed
by arou nd 10 per cent in places, which
that lead particles are extremely
you would think would limit
efficient at seeding the formation of
photosynthesis. However, the
ice crystals in the atmosphere, which
pollution also scatters what light
cool the planet by reflecting su nshine
does reach the surface, meaning
(Nature Geoscience, vol 2, p 333). So while the lead added to petrol
the black carbon pumped out by diesel engines, mainly from vehicles in Europe and North America. All that needs to be done is to filter out the particulate emissions from the exhaust fumes of diesel vehicles. "For black carbon reduction, our first focus should be to go after diesel, because the technology is there," says Ramanathan. It would have big health benefits. too. Other changes will be harder to achieve. The fires used by people in rural areas for cooking and heating generate a lot of soot, which contains both black carbon and cooling aerosols. The net effect remains unclear. What's more, villagers cannot afford to switch to solar cookers and clean-burning biogas even ifthey wanted to. There would have to be some incentive, such as payment via carbon credits, say Ramanathan. "That will overnight
simulations there has probably already
particles, or aerosols, on the climate
plants receive light from more directions. Fewer leaves are left i n
from the 192Ds onwards was bad for
the shade, boosting photosynthesis,
our brains, douds containing lead
say Una Mercado of the Centre for
helped offset the warming effect of
Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford,
CO2, When lead levels peaked in the
UK, and colleagues (Nature, vol 458,
the cool i n g effect of
1970s, lead may have had an average
p 1014). As the air gets cleaner, plant
cooling effect of up to 0.8 watts per
growth will fall and so will the amount
square metre. "According to our
of carbon those plants sequester.
transform what's happening in villages." traditional growing practices, won't be easy. To cut methane emissions, policy-makers One of the reasons why the focus has always will have to target a whole host of sources, says been on CO2 is because most non-C02 pollutants are short-lived. Methane hangs Schmidt, including oilfields, landfills and the around in the atmosphere for only a decade sewage plants and manure pits used in or two. Aerosols last only days or weeks before industrial agriculture. It will even mean being washed out. CO2, by contrast, has an changing the way rice is grown. Flooding paddy fields generates a lot of methane. Using effective lifetime of about a century, so it is the big problem in the long term. There is drip irrigation instead would both reduce emissions and save water. But persuading a danger, however, that any international companies to install methane-capture agreement on non-C02 pollutants will be seen as a reason to avoid doing anything about CO2, technologies, and farmers to change That is no idle concern, as Hansen knows. His calls for cuts in non-C02 pollutants back in 2000, among other measures, led to an The biggest causes of wa rm i ng invitation in 2001 to some meetings of the How much warming various sources of po ll ut i on will cause overthe next 20 years, assum i ng White House's climate change task force, emission rates remain constant at 2000 levels. The purp l e bars indicate which sources produce whose members included the then viceÂ long-l ived pollutants, such as CO" which will continue to cause warming far beyond 20 years president Dick Cheney. Hansen says it became . Short-lived pollution . Long-lived pollution clear to him that Cheney saw tackling non-C02 pollutants as a way to sidestep CO2 cuts. Road transport The damaging effects of aerosols on our Methane from farm animals ] health could yet persuade more governments Gas p roduction to go ahead and cut emissions regardless of Rice cultivation any international treaties. If countries don't Coal p ro d u ct io n cut the pollutants that cause warming at the Residential/commercial fossil fue I same time as the ones that cause cooling, H u man waste water disposa I Landfills however, we could soon see temperatures Animal waste rising fast enough to convince even the Residential biofuel combustion most hardened climate-change sceptics . â€˘ c:::::::J 0,0
42 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
Warming effect over ZO years
Anil Ana nthaswamy is a consultantfor New Scientist
(watts/m' of Earth's surface)
based in London
econd ght The eye's u n ique features a l low a major cause of b l i n dness to be treated with therap ies that are ahead of their time, Cla ire Ainsworth reports
t starts with a barely perceptible blurring of vision from time to time - the sort of thing you might chalk up to getting older. But when you get it checked out, there is disturbing news: you have a disease called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. It can progress slowly or quickly, but there is no cure. Your hopes for an idyllic retirement 足 reading all those books, driving to new places, or just enjoying a carefree independence - are now clouded by uncertainty. It's a depressing picture, and the odds are that one day it will happen to you or someone you know. People typically develop AMD after the age of 50, and it affects nearly 1 in 10 of those over the age of 80. It is the most common cause of blindness in the west. That picture may be about to change, however. A decade ago an important insight into the biology of AMD led to an explosion of new strategies to treat it. And thanks to several anatomical peculiarities of the eye, it is an ideal testbed for therapies that would be riskier in other parts of the body. As a result AMD has been the focus of several high-tech approaches, ranging from
The retina has several layers (see diagram, page 45). Incoming light first reaches the photoreceptor cells, which turn it into electrical impulses. Underneath is a layer of supporting cells called the retinal pigmented epithelium, or RPE, which nourish the photoreceptors and clean up their waste. Below the RPE are the capillaries that form the retina's blood supply, but between blood and RPE is a thin layer called the blood-retinal barrier. Like the blood-brain barrier, this is only selectively permeable, keeping any toxins in the blood from reaching the delicate photoreceptors. It also helps to keep out the immune system and means that anything put into the eye is more likely to stay there. The exact causes of AMD are still unclear, but the RPE cells appear to wither and die first. With their support system deteriorating, the photo receptors die too. People retain their fuzzier peripheral vision, but as the disease progresses, their central vision goes and with it the ability to read, drive or even recognise facial expressions. "That is very isolating for people," says Barbara McLaughlan of the UK's Royal National Institute of Blind People. People with AMD in both eyes will typically "For about 1 in 10 become classed as legally blind between five and 10 years after the first symptoms appear. patients, t he disease For about 1 in 10 people with AMD, though, suddenly progresses the disease suddenly progresses with terrifying speed. New blood vessels sprout with terrifying speed" under the retina, leaking blood and fluid. The macula swells and becomes scarred, and RNA interference to gene therapy and stem cells. Some of the most promising will soon be central vision can be lost in weeks. This form tested in people and could become established is known as wet AMD, while the slower version is the dry form. therapies in the next decade. Until recently people with AMD had few As its name suggests, AMD is a disease of options. They are advised to avoid smoking the macula, a pea-sized patch in the centre of the retina. Its high acuity allows you to see fine and eat a diet rich in zinc, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E, but that can only slow things detail, such as the letters on this page.
down. Various forms of eye surgery and laser or light therapies are used to treat wet AMD, but these are either risky or of limited hel p. In the 1990s, however, studies of eye tissue taken at autopsy led to a key insight. The maculas of people with wet AMD had high levels of a signalling molecule called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which triggers the growth of new blood vessels.
S ight restored The idea of blocking the action ofthis molecule has generated a host of treatment strategies. The most successful so far is an antibody fragment that binds to VEGF. Called Lucentis, it halts vision loss in about 95 per cent of people with wet AMD, and restores some sight in more than a third. "We had never seen anything like it," says Daniel Martin of the Cole Eye Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. This approach is no panacea, though. Forone thing the treatment must be injected into the eye every 4 to 6 weeks, and this occasionally triggers retinal detachment or an eye infection that can lead to blindness. It is also expensive: Lucentis, which is the only antibody-based drug approved to treat wet AMD, costs $2000 a shot, although some clinics provide a cheaper unlicensed alternative (see "Fight for sight", page 44 ) . Still, now that the principle o f blocking VEGF has been established, various groups are working on improved therapies. The next treatment to reach the clinic might be VEGF Trap-Eye, a protein that binds to VEGF more tightly than Lucentis as well as mopping up another molecule involved in blood vessel growth - placental growth factor. Developer Regeneron says this might make it more potent, or require less frequent injections, > 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 43
F I G H T FOR SIGHT Why would a pharmaceutical
2007, the firm said it would block
company not encourage people to
sales of Avastin to the pharmacies
buy its drug? (ould it be because it
that were repackaging the drug for
also sells an alternative at 40 times
AMD, citing safety and regulatory
the price? The two products are treatments
concerns. "Genentech's decision was not motivated by a desire for
for the "wet" form of age-related
increased profits," the company
macular degeneration (AM D), which
said in a statement.
can rapidly lead to blindness (see main story). The expensive
After fierce opposition from patients, doctors and even the us
version - lucentis - is about $2000
Senate, however, the company
per injection, and patients may need
relented. Both drugs are now used,
a shot every 4 to 6 weeks. There is
often depending on patients'
no question that it works well; in fact
insurance coverage. What doctors
it is the first licensed drug that can
and patients want to know is
reverse vision loss from this disease.
whether, as Genentech claims,
Before lucentis was approved,
lucentis really is a better or safer
however, ophthalmologists had
drug forthe eye than Avasti n. But
started experimenting with a related
the company has steadfastly refused
drug, called Avastin, approved as an
to run a comparison trial to find out.
anti-cancer agent. Both are made by
"We continue to believe lucentis is
U5 firm Genentech. The trouble started when lucentis came to market with its hefty price tag. Avastin, in contrast,
the most appropriate treatment," the company told New Scientist. The firm can not however, avoid publicly funded trials comparing the
costs about $50 a shot, because
two drugs, and these are now u nder
pharmacists divide up the large,
way in several countries. The first
should be limited to the eye, and in a worst足 case scenario, the organ could be removed without endangering life. Researchers can Daniel Martin of the (ole Eye began treating their AMD patients Institute in (Ieveland, Ohio, who "off label" with Avastin. peer inside for easy delivery of the therapy heads the US trial, says: "We have and to monitor progress, and the other, Genentech issued statements untreated eye is the perfect experimental warning that divid ing vials of Avastin a responsibility to understand the control. There are also simple and safe ways difference between these two drugs risked bacterial contamination, and and how to use them - period." to test the retina's functioning. Partly thanks cited other possible side effects. In to work in the eye, gene therapy is seeing something of a renaissance. Proof of principle came in 2000 when a team led by Robin Ali at the Institute of perhaps every 8 weeks. The first results from downstream. Merck and Pfizer have already large trials comparing VEGF Trap-Eye with bought rights to such agents, and each has a Ophthalmology in London restored vision drug in early trials in people. Lucentis are due by the end of the year. in mice with an inherited form of blindness. They delivered a gene with a virus called AAV Like VEGF antibodies, though, RNA drugs A completely different approach is to use RNA interference, a relatively new would still entail regular eye injections. What's a different one to those that caused GelSinger's death and the leukaemia cases. technique for switching off individual genes needed is a longer-lasting approach, which Slowly and cautiously, Ali's group and by delivering short stretches of RNA. So far might come in the form of gene therapy. others have been trying out an AAV-based the main hurdle has been getting RNA into The idea of permanently inserting new gene therapy in people with an inherited form genes into cells has generated great hopes in the target cells, but the eye's accessibility means this is not so much of a problem. the past few decades, but it is a risky path to of blindness. There has been some vision A few RNA-based drugs designed to block AMD tread. In 1999 US teenager Jesse Gelsinger died improvement in most of the people who have received it so far. After just one treatment, are in the early stages of development. after a massive immune reaction against the The first to be tested in people was one virus used to deliver a gene. In 2002 a different benefits can persist for two years, according called bevasiranib, though so far results have virus triggered leukaemia in several children. to Ali's latest, unpublished results. "This gave been poor. Other firms are looking beyond The eye might be a safer testing ground for a huge boost to the field, because it showed it can be safe and effective," says Ali. directly blocking VEGF, and are using RNA gene therapies. It is enclosed by the blood足 interference to target other molecules in its retina barrier, keeping viruses in and the Work has now begun to find out whether gene therapy could provide a long-lasting signalling pathway, either upstream or immune system mostly out. Side effects cancer-treatment vials into small
results from the US trial, which is
eye-sized doses. 50 more doctors
the largest, should be out next year.
44 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
no help for the 85 per cent of AMD patients who have the dry form of the disease. Now, however, a possible treatment for dry AMD is on the horizon. Instead of tinkering with molecules or genes, the strategy is to entirely replace the problem RPE layer with a new one grown from stem cells.
Cell replacement In theory stem cells offer the hope of growing new tissues to order, yet in reality, many challenges remain. At the moment human embryonic stem cells usually come from surplus IVF embryos. Tissues derived from these would be rejected unless the patient takes lifelong immunosuppressive drugs, as after an organ transplant. But again, the eye has a unique advantage. Because it is relatively shielded from the immune system, only low doses of immunosuppressants should be needed to prevent rejection. One of the pioneering groups in this field is led by Pete Coffey at University College London. They have grown tiny sheets of RPE cells in the lab and have shown these can restore vision in rats and pigs. They hope to start the first trials in people early next year. "It could be an immense step," says Coffey. "No one has yet gone into the clinic with a enough to diffuse through the tissues of treatment for AMD. US firm Genzyme has human embryonic stem cell therapy." started recruiting for a trial involving a gene the eye, so they could be given as eye drops. US firm Pfizer has teamed up with Coffey, For example, a group of drugs called kinase therapy designed to mop up VEGF. And this and has made RPE cells the main focus of its year, UK firm Oxford Biomedica plans to carry inhibitors block the signals involved in blood new regenerative medicine unit in Cambridge, vessel growth. Some are already used as cancer UK. "We are trying to make the production of out trials in people of a therapy that delivers RPE more commercial," says Ruth Mackernon, two other genes to block blood vessel growth. treatments and several are now in clinical All this is a long way from becoming trials for wet AMD, where they look promising. chief scientific officer at the Cambridge unit. an established therapy, however. In the Yet all these approaches have a major US company ACT is also developing drawback. Because they work by blocking meantime, faster progress may come via stem-cell RPE transplants, which have been abnormal blood vessel growth, they would be successfully tested in animals. The company lower-tech drugs, with molecules small is now in talks with the Food and Drug Administration about trials in people with Blind spot an inherited form of macular degeneration. The biggest cause of blindness in the west is a disease ca lled age-related macular degeneration, RPE transplants would only be helpful for It starts with blurred vision and progresses to total loss ofthe central visual field people who still have some photoreceptors left to salvage, but one day even people beyond "WET" MACULAR DEGENERATION "DRY" MACULAR DEGENERATION this stage may benefit. In 2006, Ali's team announced that they had taken photoreceptor cells from a young mouse and transplanted them into an adult mouse retina (Nature, vol PHOTORECEPTORS 444, p 203). The team is now working on doing the same with human embryonic stem cells. It is fair to say that in the next few years the eye will see a host of pioneering therapies_ RETINAL PIGMENTED Hopefully they will mean more of us can look EPITHELIUM (RPE) forward to that idyllic retirement after all . â€˘ BLOOD-RETINA BARRIER
Thefirst signs are fatty deposits in the blood-retina barrier, Gradua lly the overlying celis begin to die. causing slow vision loss
In the most serious form. new blood vessels sprout into the retina. l eaki n g blood and fluid. causi ng sudden deterioration in vision
Claire Ainsworth is a science writer based in Southampton, U K 2 0 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 45
BOO KS & ARTS
Fiction for robots H ow doe s a computer program read a novel? J essica G riggs spoke to J o n Adams to find out CAN literary criticism ever be
What was the result?
considered a science? Perhaps
It managed to identify the central themes ofthe novel - football, business and romance. But it couldn't distinguish between setting and plot; the fourth theme it picked out was "walking in London", as the characters spend a lot oftime walking around the city discussing philosophical ideas. As a reader, we would hardly register the setting as we would be concentrating on the dialogue, but the computer considers both equally.
computer programs that can read and interpret literature will provide the answer, an idea that Jon Adams has been exploring. He spoke at the London School of Economics's Space for Thought Literary Festival this month. You fed the novel The Kilburn Social Clubby Robert Hudson into
a text analysis program. Why?
I wanted to see how a computer program that is usually used to analyse and summarise factual texts such as government reports Would the program be able to or legal documents would cope distinguish between literary works like Shakespeare and popular with a work of fiction. The program I used was called Alceste, fiction such as Dan Brown's novels? No, the program is only ca pable of which works by looking at how often words occur near each other. telling you what the book is about.
46 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
That's fine for factual prose or some works of fiction when the book is actually about what it's nominally about, but many novels have multiple layers of meaning. Often the most obvious theme is not the most important, and this is completely missed by a computer.
scientific way to measure what he called "literariness". He found that the French poet Baudelaire and the Russian poets he studied had this quality and it was all very exciting until the analysis was applied to advertising slogans and newspaper copy and got the same result. Trying to define literariness is a futile pastime.
(ould we ever program a computer or robot to read between the lines
Would a culture of scientific
to find the layered meanings in
literary criticism hinder novelists?
For example, a character in the
It's starting to happen now. You can do something called lemmatisation, where the program has the different forms and synonyms for every word. The next step would be to include idioms, which would bring the program closer to how people infer meaning from context. Take the British and Irish Lions rugby union team, for example you know a rugby player can't really be a lion so it must be a
book Small World by David Lodge has his life's work analysed by a machine that tells him his most commonly written word is "greasy". It stifles his creativity.
This is the "golden goose" fear that creativity won't work if we take it apart. Yet maybe the flip side of computers reading novels - computers writing novels - could shed light on the creative process. We have some evidence that a computer would do a surprisingly good job - at least at coming up with a plot. "For a robot or computer program, it's easier to You can already buy scriptwriting software that lays out your plot w rite novels than to for you, which works because read them" there are only a limited number of storylines that we find interesting. metaphor. You can imagine For a robot, it would be easier training a computer to pick up on metaphors, but it's not clear to write novels than to read them. A computer writing novels would whether what you would get out at the end could ever be more than do much to demystify the process a restatement of what you put in. of creativity. I'm all for that, I just don't think we are going to find conclusive scientific support to Do you think it's useful for back up why we consider one book literary criticism to be treated to be "literary" but another not. • scientifically? Since literary criticism came into its own as a disci pline, people PROF ILE Jon Adams, critic of literary criticism, have been trying to work out how is a researcher at the London School to make it an impartial, technical exercise. In the 1960s, a Russian of Economics and studies the intersedions of science and literature lingUist called Roman Jakobson thought he had discovered a
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and the plain lost, hearing their stories and contemplating the history of their land. Biggers is a cultural historian and it is the social strip-mining that angers A sensitive fa m ily me moir demolishes the him most. But seldom have the environmental and social no tion tha t coa l can ever be clean landscapes been so well described in a single essay. A long chapter asks "who killed the miners?" - the 104,000 men killed in US coal mines in the 20th century. Not even modern day China can yet challenge that statistic. He chronicles the racism that saw slavery linger on here underground, and the vicious union wars. But he finds room too for heroes, like Mother Jones, a legendary union activist into her eighties known also as the "miners' angel". Perhaps Barack Obama should read up on her. The story is that Obama learned his politics organising the poor in Chicago. But Biggers wonders ifthe a: president didn't pick up more � :3 from playing rounds of golf with mining magnates on courses constructed on the obliterated the book, "clean coal" has even Reckoning at Eagle Creek by Jeff been adopted by a young senator landscape of his ancestors. Biggers, Nation Books, $ 25.95 from the coal state of Illinois who Reviewed by Fred Pearce became president: Barack Obama. But, while informed by politics Henrietta's cells CLEAN coal is the and technology, this book is new mantra - the The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks holy grail that will mainly a family memoir, an elegy by Rebecca Skloot , Crown, $ 25 allow us to keep to the wooded ridges and valleys burning the black of southern Illinois that nurtured Reviewed by Jonatha n Beard Biggers's ancestors. The hillbillies stuffwithout IN 1951, Henrietta wrecking the Lacks died of turned to coal mining, saw their . climate. But in cervical cancer land strip-mined and their the coalfields of southern Illinois, homesteads and soil hauled in Baltimore, Maryland. Weeks they have heard that one before. away by coal magnates like the Jeff Biggers, in his "secret legacy legendary Francis Peabody, whose before, her doctor of coal in the heartland" of the had removed company remains the world's largest private coal miner. a sliver of her US, tracks that piece of charlatan alliteration back more than a tumour and preserved it. Lacks's When Biggers returned to find century. It was the advertising body ended up in an unmarked his roots he found a blasted slogan of coal salesmen in landscape, the hilltops ripped off grave, while her cancerous cells Chicago in the 1890s, the promise and dumped into the valleys to named HeLa - can today be found expose the coal. "Our 200-year of those who wanted federal by the trillions in virtually every funds to turn coal to gas, the claim old family history was nothing biomedical lab on Earth. Rebecca Skloot does a good job more than overburden." Only the of those who called acid rain a hoax, and now the pitch of those explaining the science ofthis cemeteries had been spared. immortal cell line, and a superb selling dreams of burning coal, So he moved among those left capturing its carbon dioxide, and behind, driving his pick-up truck job with the often tragic history of burying it who knows where. to meet preachers and union men, Lacks's family, whose already hard As he angrily begins and ends lives were ripped still further apart those dying of black lung disease
E legy to a l ost land
when they learned, very belatedly, what had been done with her cells. Every facet of both tales is overshadowed by racism: Lacks was treated in the "coloured ward" of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the scientists and corporations that turned her cells into an important and profitable tool never notified her husband or children. Skloot deserves great credit for her dogged pursuit of the truth under often terrifying circumstances.
Mission accomplished The Making of History's Greatest Star Map by Michael Perryman,
Springer, E24.99 Reviewed by David Shiga
A MISHAP during the launch ofthe Hipparcos satellite in 1989 sent the world's most powerful star mapping device into a nightmare orbit, punishing its sensitive circuitry as it plunged through Earth's radiation belts four times a day. Yet the mission team kept the satellite alive for three-and a-half years, longer than its original design life. Michael Perryman, the project's chief scientist, chronicles the long road from conception to launch, including the struggle to save the mission follOWing the accident. He describes beautifully the mission's wealth of astronomical results, such as spotting the half-digested remains of a galaxy eaten by our own and seeing the light-bending influence of the sun's gravity stretching farther across the sky than previously observed. Disappointingly, he glosses overthe Hipparcos mission's controversial measurement of the distance to the Pleiades star cluster - a key benchmark for gauging much larger distances. Its disagreement with figures acqUired using other methods remains unexplained. 20 February 2010 1 NewScientist 1 47
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D resden fLihrt in Zusammenarbeit mit der
Knochenmarkspenderdatei ge m ei n n Litz i ge GmbH im Kampf gegen Leukamie Laboruntersuchu ngen bei der S u c h e u n d Verm ittl u ng von St a m m ze ll spende rn durch.
Die DKMS Deutsche Knochenmarkspenderdatei gemeinnutzige GmbH gehOrt weltweit zu den fUhrenden Organisationen bei der Suche und der Vermittlung von Stammzellspendern im Kampf gegen Leukamie. Einen wesentlichen Beitrag leistet hierbei das DKMS Life Science Lab GmbH in Dresden, wo ein g ro�er Teil der fUr unsere Arbeit wichtigen immungenetischen Charakterisieru ng der Spender m ittels d i rekter Sequenzierung sowie Laboruntersuchungen zur Histokompatibil itat erfolgen. Zum weiteren Ausbau des Labors und seines Tatigkeitsspektrums suchen wir zum nachstmog lichen Zeitpunkt den/die
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Humboldt Research Fellowship fo r Postdoctoral Researchers •
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www. h u m boldt-fo u n dation .de 20 February 2010 I NewScientist 1 49
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Postdoctoral Scientist Crystallography Pfizer
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Extract implicit and novel information from complex and large databases to characterize genes involved in the physiological and/ or pathological state following drug therapy. This is done by integrating and synthesizing the information from databases with bioinformatics tools as well as with statistical, partitioning and visualization techn iques,
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fluorescence (I Hc/IF), in-situ hybridisation (ISH). Telepathology/ vi rtual microscopy/quantitative methods in collaboration with other histopathology laboratories within NIBR Partici pate in the laboratory activity planni ng, strategy on technology development and implementation,
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lA - Iowa Cu rrent programs address drought tolerance, fertil izer use efficiency and yield. The Agronomic Tra its program i nterfaces with strong Genetic Discovery, Trait Development and Product Development groups to del iver improved agronomics to Pioneer customers,
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Muscle Regenerative Medicine Research Investigator (Ph.D) Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research ( US)
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M emphis H ealth S c i ence Center TN - Tennessee
Postdoctora l position available to study physiological functions and pathological alterations i n ion channels and local and global calcium signals in arterial smooth muscle cells, Projects include studyi ng IP3 receptors, TRP channe ls, voltage-dependent CaZ+ channels, and mitochondria,
For m o re i nformation visit NewSci entistjobs.com job 1 0 :
A Postdoctoral position is available to study sexual
I nte rnsh ips with the
dimorphic tolerance / dependent mechanisms as well
The Mi crosoft® Med ica l Media Laboratory (M3L) Washi ngton, District of Columbia
opioid systems. The research utilizes a multidisciplinary
M i crosoft's H e a lt h So luti o ns Grou p, i n co njun c ti on w i t h M i crosoft® R es e a rch, has an i m m e d iate op e ni ng for an i nternshi p position e x p l o ri ng t h e a p p l i cation of To uch Wall
Technol ogy in Healthcare.
as sex-dependent expression and utilization of spinal approach that i n tegrates behavioral, pharmacological,
ilii0_ 0. --'' biochemical and molecular levels of a nalysis. I n addition to using whole ani mals, experi ments make use of ex vivo preparations and cells
areas o f cloud co m p u ting, u n ified com m u nicatio ns, h u man-co m p u t e r i nte raction, wo rkflow a n d decision s u p p ort.
Examples of research
morphine, sex·dependent effects of chronic opioid exposure on opioid signal transduction.
Additi o n a l i nterns h i ps w i l l b e ava i la b l e fo r s u m m e r a n d fa l l 2010 i n
i nclude identification of sex-dependent spinal pathways activated by The successful candidate could also be involved in
i nvestigating subcellular localization of opioid receptor Gs Signaling and determinants / consequences of opioid receptor heterodimerization . A Ph . D . with experience in cell / molecular biology with a strong background in biochemistry is desired. The position offers the opportunity to work
I nterns will have the o p p ortu n ity to design a n d b u i l d novel s o l uti o n s
with dynamic well-funded investigators in a collegial and colla borative
i n these a reas a n d exa m i ne the i m p a ct o f this t e c h n ol ogy i n a r e a l
w o r l d h e a l t h ca re enviro n me nt.
Interested applicants should submit their CV,
A p p l icati o n s will b e c o ns i d e re d for s tu d e nts cu rre ntly e nrol l e d in P h D or M a sters p rogra m s in Com pute r S c i e n c e who d e m onstrate exce ptio n a l s k i l ls in
C#/. N ET a n d Win dows Presentation
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statement of research interests, and contact information for three references to: alan .firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUNY Downstate is an EEO/AA employer and s trongly encourages applications from women and minorities.
N I H S U P P O RT E D POST DOCTO RAL POS ITI O N Weare i n vestigating interactions between exposure to environmental contam inants and sexually dimorphic d ifferences in brain development a n d neurodegeneration using in vitro techn iques including primary neuronal and organotypic brain cultures. Tech n i ques used include i m m u no - and histochemical visualization with advanced imagi ng, neurochemical a n alysis a n d protei n measu rements including Western blot analysis a n d EL iSAs. This position is at the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health in Alba ny, N Y which has been recogn ized as one of the best research institutes for both senior i nvestigators a n d post doctoral fellows, and is affi liated with the School of Public Health at the U n iversity at Alba ny,
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Technical Sales Specialist Thermo F i sher S c i en tif i c (US)
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RNAi Bioanalytical Chemist (BS/MS)
N ovartis Institutes for BioMed ical Research (US) MA - Massachusetts The NIBR Biologics Centeris seeking scientists to join an RNAi Therapeutics group, The position will be involved in the bioanalysis and characterization of oligon ucleotides and their related proteins and smal l molecules, Fo r more i nformation visit
CH E M ISTRY Member of Technical Staff Hydrocarbon Scientist E xx o n M o b i l Research and Engineering Company NJ - N ew Jersey
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Post Doctoral Fellow Organic ChemistrylNucleoside Synthesis Pfizer US
MA - Massachusetts Independently develop scalable synthetic, pu rification and isolation procedures (including prep H PLC), and/or analytical methods (H PLC; LC/MS; and lH, 13[' 31P NMR) for novel nucleosides;
phosphoramidites and novel nucleoside linkages, For m o re information v isit NewScientistjo bs.com job 10:
Oligonucleotide Chemist Pfizer U S
MA - Massachusetts We are seeking an oligonucleotide chemist to join the Oligonucleotide Therapeutic Unit (OTU) at Pfizer's Cambridge South location as part of a team focused on oligomer production and analytical chemistry For m o re information v isit
in all activities, including those related to clinical trials, scientific presentations, and responses to unsolicited requests for information, Maintain clin ical, scientific, and technical expertise in specific therapeutic areas; review scientific jou rnals, attend scientific and key technical meetings, Fo r more information visit NewScientistj o bs.co m j ob 1 0 :
Senior Research Associate Pioneer Hi- Bred DE
Medical Science Liaison I I
Manages, supervises and schedules all routine day-to-day, i ncluding weekends and holidays, plant management activities for all research associates, research assistants and temporary employees,
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20 Feb ru a ry 2010 I NewScientist 1 5 1
N IAI D n eeds yo u beca use th e wo rl d needs u s ! The National Institute of Msrgy and I nfectious D i s eases ( N IAI O ), one at the largest institutes
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novel trea tm ents, and discover preventive
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52 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
Our CAUSE is Maribel and her cancer. For more t h a n 30 years , Genentech h as been at the forefront of the b i otec h n o l ogy i n d ustry, usi ng
G e n e nte c h Postd o cto ra l P rogra m
h u m a n genet i c i nfo rmation to d evelop novel m ed i c i n es for
The G e n e n t e c h Postd octora l Program i s d es i g n ed to c reate a v i bra nt a n d s u p port ive e n v i ro n m e nt for r i gorous sc i e nt if i c tra i n i n g. T h e pri m a ry a i m of the
serious a n d l i fe-threaten i ng d i seases. Today, G e n entech i s
prog ram i s to t ra i n postd ocs to c o n d u ct research of t h e h ig hest poss i b l e q u a l ity, to p u b l i s h resu l ts i n top-t i e r j o u r n a ls a n d to tra n s i t i o n to i nd ep e n d e n t sci e n t i f i c
a m ong t h e wo r l d 's l ead i ng b i otech com p a n i es , with m u l t i p l e thera p i es on the m a r ket for cancer a n d oth e r serious med i c a l con d i t i ons. P l ease take th i s op portun ity to l earn a bout Genentec h , where we b e l i eve t h at our e m p l oyees are our most i m porta nt asset. G en e ntec h 's research orga n i zation features wor l d - renow n ed s c i e n t i sts who a re som e of t h e most p ro l i f i c i n t h e i r f i e l ds a n d i n t h e i n d ustry. Genentech resea rchers h ave consisten t l y p u b l i sh ed i n p resti g i o u s peer- rev i ewed journ a l s a n d have secu red a p p rox i mate l y 7 ,400 c u rrent, non -exp i red patents wor l d w i d e (with about 6 , 250 more pe n d i ng) . Genentec h 's research orga n i zat i o n com b i n es the best of the academ i c and corporate wor l d s , a l l ow i ng resea rch ers not o n l y to p u rsue i m portant sc i e n t i f i c q u estions b u t a l so t o watch a n i d ea move from the l a boratory
i n vest igators, bot h i n a c a d em i a a nd i n d u st ry. As a G e ne n t ec h Postd octora l R esea rc h Fel l ow, you w i l l fi n d y o u rself c o l l aborat i ng w i t h worl d - c l ass s c i e n t i sts both at t h e com p a n y a n d beyo n d G e n entec h 's wa l l s . Ou r fel lows h i ps typ i c a l ly l ast fo u r years a n d offer t h e c h a n c e to d o c utti ng-edge resea rc h i n a n i ns p i red , p u rposef u l a n d reso u rc e- r i c h e n v i r o n m e n t . Throug h o ut t h e progra m , you w i l l be e n co u raged to p u b l i s h a n d present t h e progress a n d resu lts o f yo u r work both i n terna l ly a n d a t extern a l s c i e n t ific c onferen ces . A s o u r m a n y Postdoctora l Progra m a l u m n i c a n attest, t h e prog ram offers a n u n riva l e d opport u n i ty to p u t yo u rself at t h e forefront of sc i e n c e . Co n s i ste n t l y recogn ized a s one of t h e top c o m pa n i es to work for i n t h e U n i ted States, G e n e ntec h offers e m p loyees o n e of t h e m ost com pre h e n s i ve b e n efits prog rams i n t h e i n d ustry. For m ore i nfor m a t i o n on the p rogram and to read c o m m e n tary from c u rre n t a nd past postdocs, p l ease v i s i t p ostdocs.ge ne.com. F o r a c om p l ete l ist i ng o f c u rre n t postd oc o pport u n it i es a n d to a pp ly, p l ease v i s i t
careers.gene.com. Ge n e ntec h i s a n eq u a l op port u n ity e m p l oyer.
i n to d evelop ment and out i n to t h e clinic.
In October 2009, Genentech was named "top employer in the biopharmaceutical industry" by Science Magazine.
Science 2009 TOP EMPLOYER
Genentech A Member of the Roche Group
20 February 2010 I N ewScientist 1 53
Research Positions Available
Are you ready to make a positille, global impact? We have a place for you, Every day the Pioneer Hi-BrM research team leads innovative efforts in the discovery, development and del ivery of elite seed genetics that make a difference.
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54 1 NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
TEM PLE U N I V E RSITY S C H O O L OF M E D I C I N E . . . offers opportunities for faculty i n the fol lowing c l i nical specia l ties : Anesthesiology: general, O B, and regiona l expe rt ise; Cardiology: genera l, echocardiography, heart fai l u re, electrophysiology/a rrhyth m i a management, i nterventionalli nvasive, structural i nterve ntion, cardiac i m aging; Emergency Medicine: academic and cli nical ; Family and Community Medicine; Internal Medicine and its subspecialties, i nc l u d i ng Cardiology, Endocrinology, Hepatol ogy, Hematology, and Rheumatology; also a board-certified/ eligi ble Oncologist or Hematologist i nterested in Bone Marrow Transplant Program; Neurology and its su bspecialties of stroke/critical care, epilepsy, and neuromuscular di sorders; Neurosurgery, inc l uding a vari ety of cerebral, spinal, and peripheral nerve di sorders, as well as brain and spina l tumors; Obstetrics/Gynecology: general and maternal fetal medicine, gynecol ogi c oncology; Ophthal mology: genera l , retina, a nd glaucoma specialties; pediatrics; and p l astics, cornea, optometry, and optical sal es/se rvi ce; Orthopedic Surgery: joint replacement/reconstruction, trauma, spine, hand, genera l , foot, and ankle, and sports medicine ; Otolaryngology: genera l , head and neck surgery, neurotology; Pathology: anatomic (surgi cal , cyto l ogy, autopsy, and hematopathology), c l i n i cal (microbiology, vi rol ogy, i mmunology, transfusion medicine, c l i nica l chem ist ry, molecular pathology ; H LA tissue ty p i ng ); Ped i at r i c s: general ; Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: musculoskeletal medicine and interve ntiona l physi atry; Psychiatry: adult i n patient and outpatient eva l uation and treatment, c h i l d a n d adolescent outpatient evaluation a n d treatment, crisis i ntervention services, and consultation and l iaison servic e s ; Radiology: genera l and women 's i maging; Su rgery: vascular/endovascular, general, cardiothoracic surgery, breast su rgery, plastic su rgery, oncology, trauma and critical care, col onlrecta l , hepabi liary, bariatrics, transplant; Section C h i ef, Vascular S u rgery; Urology: urologic oncol ogy, k idn e y, prostate and bladder cancer, sexual d ysfunction of men and women, reconstructive u rology, stone d i sease, erecti l e dysfunction, stress uri nary i n continence, i nferti l ity, neurologic problems of the GU tract, B P H , c h ronic pelvic pai n , i nterstitial cystitis, i n fections; Shriners Hospitals Pediatric Research Center (Center for N e u ral Repai r and Rehabilitation): spina l cord injury, neuromusc u l a r injury, cerebral pal sy, and bra i n i n j u ry. The School of Medi c i n e consists of 7 basic science and 18 c l i n i ca l departments, and a variety of multidiscip l i nary research programs and i nstitutes. There are approximately 738 medical students, 125 graduate students, 450 full-time facu l ty members and 1200 adjunct faculty members. It i s affiliated with Temple Un iversity Health System. To submit curriculum vitae or to request further i nformation about a faculty position, please contact the Chairperson, Department of (Specialty) , Temple Un iversity School of Medicine, 340 1 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 1 9 140. Further i nformation about Temple U niversity School of Medicine is available at http://www.medschool.tem ple.eduJ
[iffiiJ School of Medicine � TEMPLE UNIVERSITY� Temple Un iversity is an affirmative action/eq ual opportunity employer and strongly encourages applications from women and mi norities.
TEMPLE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE offers opportunities for faculty in the following basic science disciplines: Bone/carti lage biology Cancer biology Cardiovascular b iology Deve lopmental biology Drug abuse and addiction Drug com bination studies Gene therapy Growth regu lation I m m u nobiology Molecular bio logy Molecular m icrob iology and pathogenes is Molecular pharmacology M uscu loskeletal b iology
Neural p lastic ity and repair Neuroendocrinology Neuro i m m u n ology Neurovi rology Neu ro-onco logy Neu rodegeneration Neuropharm acology Plate let b iology Signa l transduction Stem cell biology Structural bio logy Thrombosis and hemostasis Vascu lar biology Vira l oncology
Posit ions may be ava i la ble i n any of severa l basic scie nce departme nts and/or research progra ms and i nstitutes. The School of Medicine consists of 7 basic sc ie nce a n d 1 8 c l i n i ca l departments, a n d a variety o f m u ltidisc i p l i nary research programs and inst it utes. There are a pproximate l y 738 med ical students, 125 grad uate students, 450 f u l l-t i m e fac u lty mem bers a n d , 1 2 00 ad j u n ct fac ulty mem bers. It is aff i l i ated with Te m p le U n i versity Health Syste m , a major healthcare provider i n the De laware Val l ey. To s u b m i t c u rri c u l u m vitae or to req ue st further i n format ion a bout
a fac u l ty posit i o n , p l ease contact the Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affai rs , Tem ple University School of Medicine, 3 500 North B road Street, Room l l 1 1 K, Ph i lade l p h ia, PA 1 9 1 40_
Further i nformat i o n about Tem p l e U n iversity School of Med i c i ne i s ava i l a b le at http ://www.medschool .temple.edu/
[iif.i] School of Medicine U TEMPLE UNIVERSITY®
U n i vers ity is an affirmative action/equal opportun i ty employer and strongly encourages appl ications from women and m i norities.
20 Fe b r u a ry 2010 I N ewScientist 1 55
For more feedback, visit www.NewScientist.com/feedback
the quantum nature of particle interaction, and is therefore able to permeate metal, plastic, wood, and other barriers to affect the circuitry inside your components".
There's much, much more, and a
large part of it is i ncomprehensible. Bijal particularly enjoyed trying to
understand this sentence: "It is the I
object of the LessLoss Blackbody to divorce completely the spectral aspect from this mandatory interaction to provide an elegant solution to the problem of spectral
WHEN Andrew Brooker registered with the UK's Government Gateway site, which allows users to sign up for online government services, he was sent a card with a reminder of his login ID on it. It said (though the number we give here is not the actual number of Andrew's ID): "My User ID 1234 1234 1234 not case sensitive." Just as well, Andrew thought. Otherwise he would have been searching all over the keyboard for a lower-case 4.
interaction of proximate materials and their associated coloration of the resulting sound quality i n high
READER Michael Kellock tells us of
fidelity sound systems."
the manual for an iPhone that carries
"Nice, clear and concise," Bijal observes. "Absolutely no evidence
the warning: "Do not drop, disassemble, open, crush, bend,
of wool bei ng pul led over eyes here then."
FOUR years ago we noted that the web is a very dynamic place, with some sites changing content every few minutes (4 February, 2006). But at the same time, some individual web pages stay put forever, no matter how inconsequential they may be. For example, David Viner wrote to us celebrating a page about turnips he had come across in 1996 that was still available in its original pristine glory 10 years later. That page, put up by Vancouver Community Network in 1996, was merely part of a demonstration about coding web pages - but, as David said, it was still nice to know that it had withstood the ravages of time. Now, demonstrating the kind of serendipity that we love so much here at Feedback, Richard Smith, a board member ofthat same Vancouver Community Network, tells us that he only recently happened to be reading that particular 2006 issue of New
Scientist, including the item about
the turnips page. "I am pleased to report," Richard writes to tell us, "that not only is our organisation still alive, but so is the web page. And it is still as remarkably uninteresting as ever." This last remark deserves explanation. As we reported first time round, the page is notable for its brevity as well as its longevity. As you can see for yourself at bit.ly/turnips, it consists simply of a one-word headline followed by a single line of text that reads: "Turnips are not very interesting."
HERE is a delicate question that may or may not involve set theory. Gerben Wierda's daughter Renske, aged 9, reads a Dutch足 language educational magazine called Taptoe. The most recent issue had as its theme "crooks and criminals". It included a quiz. Gerben's translation of one of the questions reads: "Robber, rascal, poacher, scoundrel, blackguard. . . There are many words for criminal. Which one ofthe next list is not one of them? "a. villain, b. banker, c. bandit:' Tricky. Very tricky.
TECHNOLOGY simpl ifies life, yes? Jo READER Bijal Shah writes to tell us
Kelly was left wondering about the
of an amusing website belonging to
truth of this proposition when she
the LessLoss Aud io Store (bit.ly/
received this o n l ine confirmation of a
hifispectre). It's a nother of those
taxi booking: "Your order from Arrow
sites sel l ing exorbitantly expensive
Private Hire has been successful. The
hi-fi equipment - in this case,
unique reference for this transaction
something called a Blackbody. This
costs $959 and "takes advantage of
aOe. Thank you for your order. . .
Jan Rockett was left in a similar
deform, puncture, shred, microwave, incinerate, paint or insert foreign objects into iPhone." "Takes a l l the fun out of it really," he complai ns.
FINALLY, pharmaceuticals company Bayer Schering Pharma is to make a series of online films to "tackle the sensitive subject of erectile dysfunction", Ronnie Somerville notes. And what better-named company could it choose to produce them than the award足 winning Aardman Animations?
state of wonderment on receiving an
Sending us a photo of a shop tag for h is "H e l l o Kitty 3 - D m ug"[ Col i n Macleod wonders a bout the feasi bil ity of d ri n king fro m a mug i n a ny other n u m ber of d i mensi ons 56 1
NewScientist 1 20 February 2010
error message on her computer. In a window headed "getPlus+(R): Error"
You can send stories to Feedback by
she was told: "Operating system
email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your home ad dress , Th is week's a nd past Feed backs can be seen on ourwebsite,
error! (16253.202.2B5 - 7337312. 80004002. FFFFFFFF ,8000402)." Simplicity itself.
Last wo rd s past a nd present plus q uestio ns, at
TH E LAST WORD
www.last-wo rd .com
for intelligence and functionality in dogs is in certain working breeds, Breeding companion animals specificallyfordesirable behaviour, intelligence and health should be gratifying, but it is also challenging and commercially precarious. People who need companions prefer to buy mongrels.
some can even shape their environment in some way congenial to them. Maybe dogs deserve special mention because they have shaped their environment by making themselves useful and appealing to humans, in return for food and shelter.
selective breed ing? And how quickly?
Jon Richfield Somerset West, South Africa
Catherine Scott Surrey Hills, Victoria, Australia
Dog breed ing often gets a bad press, including the apparently unfounded assertion that breeding for looks has an adverse effect on intell igence. But has anyone ever bred dogs, or any other species, purely for intelligence? Just how intelligent could any species getthrough
Intensive breeding for looks in any animal adversely affects intelligence and every other attribute - eventually including those very looks. This is intrinsic to selection, whether natural or artificial. The effectiveness of selection depends on the range of relevant genes in the population: the larger the natural population, the greater the range of genes is likely to be. Selection for any desired attribute rapidly reduces that range: in a single generation, less than 1 per cent of a population might be selected, immediately reducing the range of " irrelevant" genes, including genes for mental or physical health or functionality. Dogs bred for show are commonly selected so obsessively that any harmful genes they carry become fixed in their populations. In competitive show breeding, selection is particularly stringent, with the result that gene pools shrink rapidly. Most mutations and recessive genes in small, closed populations are harmful, so progress is overwhelmingly negative. The closest we come to breeding
Asking if anyone has bred a variety of dog purely for intelligence begs the question of what is meant by intelligence. The psychologist Robert Sternberg has shown that what we think of as "intelligent" depends on what we value - specifically what we think people should be good at. So what we consider to be a clever dog would be one that does a good job at what we want it to do: herd sheep well or guard the house effectively. We have no need for dogs that are adept at calculus or playing the futures market, so we have never tested our capacity to breed this into them. Sternberg identified three signs of intelligence: the ability to adapt to environments, the ability to shape environments and the ability to understand that the environment is not optimal, thus facilitating a move to a more congenial niche. On this basis, you could make the argument that almost all species are intelligent, even bacteria, because at the very least they are adapted to their environments. In addition, many can up sticks when things are not so good and move elsewhere, and
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Some friends and I were drinking
from a jug of water that contained wedges of both lime and lemon. All the lemon wedges were floating, but all the lime wedges had sunk to the bottom of the jug. There were enough pieces of both for us to infer this was not just coincidence, and all of us were pretty certain that we'd seen lime slices floating before. Can anyone offer an explanation?
Thanks to the anonymous correspondent who sent a link to a page on the Steve Spangler Science site (bit.ly/aMMLze), where the answer is tested -Ed â€˘
This is down to the interplay of two factors: air and solutes. The cells in fruit tissue typically have quite high concentrations of solutes, mainly organic acids for citrus and sugars for apples. In some types this can amount to as much as 18 per cent ofthe total weight. The more concentrated the solutes, the denser the cells will be and the more likely it is that the fruit will sink. In plant tissue there are also
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air spaces between the cells, so the tissue is less dense than the cells are. If the air spaces are large enough, the tissue will float even if the cells alone would be dense enough to sink. Air spaces can range from as little as 1.5 per cent of the tissue's volume in the case of a potato to more than 20 per cent for some leaves. The effect of air s paces tends to outweigh cell sugar content, which is why a potato sinks while an apple with 15 to 20 percent air spaces by volume will float, despite the high sugar content of its cells. A variety offactors affect the volume ofthe air spaces and concentration of solutes in different fruit, including growing conditions, ripeness and storage conditions. With citrus fruit, a major factor is the peel. The inner white layer- the albedo or pith - is low in solutes and notably high in air spaces, while the edible segments are high in sugar/acid content, and low in air spaces. Peel a mandarin and put pieces of peel and segments in a bowl of water, and you will find the segments sink while the peel floats. Some lemons have a thick peel and are resolute floaters, while holding lemons in storage for a time reduces the thickness of the albedo, making the fruit more likely to sink. So, more than anything, what determines whether your citrus slice floats or sinks in your gin and tonic is the thickness of the albedo. Rod Bieleski Retired plantphysiologist Devonport, New Zealand
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