REAL PALAEO DIET
Our ancestors ate meat and 55 veg
Breakthrough brings quantum machines close
We all remember things in exactly the same way WEEKLY 10 December 2016
The other Chernobyl Inside the USSRâ€™s secret nuclear disaster
You are... a genius a fantasist a mutant a copycat a scaredy-cat a menagerie a Jerk a believer an athlete a mind reader... the ten things you really need to know about yourself
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Workers of the world despair Why most jobs are totally pointless
Volume 232 No 3103
This issue online newscientist.com/issue/3103
Your memories aren’t special
4 UPFRONT Oil pipeline route blocked. England expands access to HIV drug. Virgin Galactic flies again. Nations fail on biodiversity pledges 6 THIS WEEK Real Paleo diet contained lots of veg. Quantum computers without all the lasers. Psychedelic drug helps people facing death. Whales splash out messages. Microbes make barnacles cry. Dark matter could get chummy with itself 13 IN BRIEF High-altitude plants. Nearby triple star. Magnetic brain stimulation can turn you on
Our brains remember things in exactly the same way
Historical data obtained unethically must be treated with extreme caution
On the cover
7 Real Paleo diet Meat and 55 veg 7 Can compute Quantum breakthrough 6 Identikit memory We all remember things the same way 36 The other Chernobyl Secret nuclear disaster 40 Workers of the world despair Your job is pointless
What you are The 10 things you really need to know about yourself
Analysis 16 Fertility Are experimental treatments helping patients or offering false hope? 18 comment Why boardroom pay is such a toxic issue. Can more research funding lift UK fortunes? 19 insight Teen sexting can’t be stopped by tech alone
Technology 20 Can face recognition software tell if you’re a criminal? Phone app detects earthquakes. Robot plays noughts and crosses
24 Glowing, living catapults
The other Chernobyl
26 What you are (see above left) 36 The other Chernobyl (see left) 40 PEOPLE André Spicer talks pointless jobs
Inside the USSR’s secret nuclear disaster Alexey Zhenin
Culture 42 Mapping lives Maps don’t necessarily show the real territory, an exhibition reminds us 44 Meaning of fuel What happens when we pick a common word to pieces
Coming next week… Bumper holiday special
Miracle figs, a game theorist’s Christmas, why hangovers are so bad and much, much more
Regulars 52 letters Visionary hallucinations 55 MAKE A card that lights up the room 56 Feedback Save us from the web clean-up 57 The Last Word French kisses
PLUS: 2017 before it happens
Ten things to look out for in the coming year 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 1
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Too hot to handle Data obtained unethically must be treated with extreme care IN SEPTEMBER 1957, an explosion as evidence in an ongoing dispute at a nuclear bomb factory in the about how much radiation Soviet Union released a vast exposure is safe for workers in plume of radioactivity into the air. present-day nuclear facilities. The fallout covered hundreds of That raises serious ethical square kilometres of populated issues about how the results countryside. were gathered and whether health The accident was not revealed researchers should use them. to the world until 1976, and the Guidelines on cases like this are area is still heavily contaminated. enshrined in the Nuremberg code, This year our correspondent Fred drawn up after the second world Pearce became the first Western war in response to Nazi atrocities. journalist to visit the exclusion Its first tenet is very clear: “The zone. His report reveals how the voluntary consent of the human explosion was just one of many subject is absolutely essential.” massive contamination events “There is no question (see page 36). that health records It also reveals that the Soviet authorities clearly understood the were gathered without informed consent” danger to health. Why else would they have evacuated 41 villages? It is debatable whether failing But because the facility was a to evacuate villagers quickly and secret, none of the villagers was covertly monitoring their health told why they were being moved or what the dangers were. Doctors amounts to experimenting on monitored their health, collecting them. But there is no question that records were collected data on 53,000 individuals. without informed consent, and A secret code hid cases of chronic thus that the code was breached. radiation sickness. We are faced with a familiar Those events may now seem ethical quandary. Should the data just a footnote in history – just be used at all? On the one hand another human rights abuse by a famously despotic regime. But the you could say that the results are irredeemably tainted. On the health database is not simply a historical document. Many of the other you could argue that this is a unique data set arising from affected people are still alive, and the database is maintained to this unique circumstances, and that day. What is more, it is being used if it can safeguard the health of
people today, it would be unethical not to use it. Similar arguments have swirled around data gathered by the Nazis. Even after 70 years, there is still no consensus. At best, each case must be meticulously debated and dissected to reach an acceptable position. Ethical considerations aside, the scientific value of the data set must also be questioned. Is it complete and unbiased? Does its methodology conform to today’s standards? Perhaps Soviet researchers were under pressure to underplay the dangers. If the integrity of the data set cannot be verified beyond reasonable doubt, it should never be used. But not forgotten. One argument for using ethically tainted data is that it means the victims did not suffer or die in vain. And even if such material is not used, the wrongs must be accepted and acknowledged. One thing is clear: anybody who uses this dubious database must do so with the utmost scientific and ethical integrity – including total transparency about how it was obtained, and full acknowledgement of the suffering and human rights abuses that produced it. If we do not learn from history, we are fated to repeat it. n 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 3
DAVID GOLDMAN/AP IMAGES
Pipeline halted – for now A BATTLE has been won, but the
The tribe says it will pass through
victors could still lose the war. Campaigners fighting against an oil pipeline being built in North Dakota are rejoicing after the companies building it didn’t get the permit needed to join the completed sections by drilling under Lake Oahe on the Missouri river. The US Army Corps of Engineering, which manages the lake, delayed issuing the permit, saying alternatives routes should be explored. However, the companies
land that belongs to them according to an 1851 treaty, and that construction will damage sacred sites and could contaminate their water. An encampment near the planned route has become a rallying point. There, local tribes have been joined by environmentalists and members of some 200 other Native American tribes, in what they describe as “a first of its kind historic gathering of Indigenous Nations”. The protests have garnered worldwide media attention,
building the pipeline say they expect to complete it with no rerouting. The plan is for the pipeline to pass under the Missouri river some 800 metres north of what the US recognises as the boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
not least because of police violence. It is not clear the pipeline will substantially increase carbon emissions, unlike the halted Keystone XL pipeline, which would have allowed Canada to export more oil extracted from tar sands.
–Protests have paid off–
EU’s green muddle THE European Union’s proposed revisions of its renewable energy policies amount to greenwash and don’t solve serious flaws. That’s the reaction of some environmental groups following last week’s unveiling of the European Commission’s draft clean energy package for the period up to 2030. The EU gets 65 per cent of its renewable energy from biofuels, mainly wood. But critics say it is failing to ensure this bioenergy is sustainably sourced, and that its
“Burning forest biomass on an industrial scale for power and heating has proved disastrous” use lowers emissions compared with fossil fuels. In some cases, EU policies are leading to deforestation and biodiversity loss, and produce more emissions than burning coal for energy. “Burning forest biomass on an industrial scale for power and heating has proved disastrous,” says Linde Zuidema, a campaigner 4 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
for forest protection group Fern. “The evidence that its growing use will increase emissions and destroy forests in Europe and elsewhere is overwhelming.” On the surface, the draft proposals address some issues with existing renewable energy policies. But environmental groups say the changes will make little difference. “It’s almost worse than doing nothing,” says Sini Erajaa, bioenergy policy officer for BirdLife Europe & Central Asia. A recent report by BirdLife and other groups shows how EU subsidies drive deforestation in Europe and beyond. Supposedly protected forests in Slovakia and Italy are being cut down for fuel, for instance. In the US and Russia, whole trees are being turned into wood pellets for export to the EU. Campaigners want the EU to abandon its drive to use ever more bioenergy, particularly that derived from forests. Responding to these criticisms, a European Commission spokesperson told New Scientist it is committed to making sure the biomass used for energy throughout the EU is sustainable.
Science’s Oscars AT THE fifth annual Breakthrough prize ceremony last week, a dozen scientists received a total of $25 million for fundamental contributions to human knowledge. The event, held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, featured all the glitz and glam of the Oscars: a red carpet, musical guests such as Alicia Keys and will.i.am, and Morgan Freeman as host. Winners included the physicists
behind the LIGO experiment, who revealed the first detection of Einstein’s long-sought gravitational waves in February. Other prizes recognised research into fundamental physics, mathematics and life sciences. “This project is really mostly about public outreach,” says billionaire internet investor Yuri Milner, who co-founded the prize. “That’s why we have a televised ceremony and everything around it, because the founders want to send a signal that fundamental science is important.”
Spacecraft makes first solo flight ITS newest space plane has finally flown the nest. VSS Unity, the second iteration of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, has had five assisted flights since September, but on 3 December, pilots steered and landed it alone for the first time. VSS Unity spent 10 minutes gliding above the Mojave desert after being carried to 50,000 feet by its “mothership”, WhiteKnightTwo. During its descent, it reached a speed of about 735 kilometres per hour.
After the crash of VSS Unity’s predecessor in October 2014, in which one pilot was killed and the other severely injured, Virgin Galactic is placing extra emphasis on testing and safety procedures. “This glide flight was the first of many,” the firm said in a statement. After more rounds of glide flight testing, the next step will be to turn up the power and use VSS Unity’s rocket engine to take it higher into the atmosphere.
For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news
A CITY in Denmark is about to become the first in the world to provide most of its citizens with fresh water using only energy made from domestic waste water and sewage.
Zero energy water
Space salad day NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have reaped their first harvest: red romaine lettuce. They first ate space lettuce in August 2015, but that was just a taste. On 2 December, they cut enough for a whole salad. The plants grew in a microgravity farm system
“Surplus energy from sewage can be used to pump clean water to the whole inner city area” The Marselisborg Wastewater Treatment Plant in Aarhus has undergone improvements that mean it can make more than 150 per cent of the electricity needed to run the plant, so the surplus can be used to pump drinking water around the city. As well as powering the entire water system for the 200,000 people living in the inner city area, the excess electricity could be sold into the local grid. The plant generates energy from the biogas it creates out of household waste water, including sewage. Carbon is extracted from the waste water and pumped into digesters kept at 38 °C, filled with bacteria. These produce biogas – mostly methane – that is then burned to make heat and electricity. Upgrading the Marselisborg facilities required an upfront investment of nearly €3 million, but Aarhus Water expect that to be recouped in just five years.
called Veggie, installed in 2014.
–A rare success story–
Biodiversity fail NATIONS around the world are failing miserably to meet internationally agreed targets to halt the loss of biodiversity. By now, individual countries should have drafted detailed plans to meet the global Aichi biodiversity targets, set by the UN’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. However, only half have done so, says a report by five major conservation charities ahead of this week’s
“Unless countries significantly increase their ambition the biodiversity targets won’t be met”
meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun, Mexico. Worse still, 90 per cent of the plans fall short of 20 global benchmarks on issues such as halting habitat loss and saving endangered species. Only 5 per cent of countries are on track to meet the benchmarks. A fifth of countries have either made no progress since 2010, or have seen things get even worse. “Unless countries significantly increase their ambition, the Aichi targets will not be delivered,” the report says, citing especially the rich nations. –Just gliding, at 735 kph– “For the Aichi targets to be met,
all countries must play their part,” says Sarah Nelson, head of international policy at the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the five charities that co-drafted the report. “The results from this study are therefore extremely concerning.” One of the rare examples of success has been saving the Seychelles warbler (pictured above) from extinction.
Prepping for PrEP MORE people in England are set to get a preventive HIV treatment, but it still won’t be available to all who want it. PrEP involves taking a drug that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. The National Health Service in England had argued that it is unable to fund the drug as local councils are responsible for HIV prevention services, but the courts rejected that idea. NHS England said this week that it will now conduct a threeyear trial, involving 10,000 recipients, to find out how best to make the drug available. “Evidence for the clinical effectiveness of PrEP is overwhelming,” said Deborah Gold of the National AIDS Trust, the charity that took NHS England to court. But the trial could answer useful questions. “There’s no doubt that this is a step in the right direction.”
Despite the dramatic loss of the Schiaparelli lander in October and cost concerns, European Space Agency member states have voted to proceed with the next stage of the life-hunting ExoMars mission. A rover equipped to drill should launch in 2020.
Fizzy drinks to be taxed The UK’s sugar tax is on its way – but not for 16 months. From April 2018, a tax will be imposed on sugary soft drinks. It could boost their prices by up to 24 pence a litre, if retailers pass on the full cost. The tax is expected to raise £520 million in its first year.
Wetlands reprieved Some 4000 types of plants and animals in the Doñana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern Spain, can breathe more easily. The Spanish government has scrapped a major project to dredge the Guadalquivir river – on which the park’s wetlands rely – in order to allow in bigger commercial ships. But the park, home to the Iberian lynx, is still at risk from pollution and the unauthorised extraction of water.
Shop and go Amazon has opened a new type of grocery shop that lets you pick what you want and then walk out – it debits your account as you leave. The Amazon Go system uses machine vision to detect items being taken from shelves, and logs them with an app on your phone. The store, in Seattle, is currently open only to Amazon employees, but will welcome the public early next year.
10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 5
Your memories aren’t unique Our brains recall events in remarkably similar ways, finds Andy Coghlan
YOU might think your memories are special, but you’re wrong. For the first time, we have clear evidence that we all use practically the same brain activity to record and recount shared experiences, rather than remembering and recalling events in random, individual ways. “We feel our memories are unique, but we see now that there’s a lot in common between us in how we see and remember the world,” says Janice Chen at Princeton University. Her team’s work also suggests that we can implant these patterns into someone else’s brain by telling them what we have seen. Chen’s experiment involved 17 volunteers watching a 50-minute episode of the BBC drama, Sherlock. Their brains were scanned while they watched it and
6 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
while they recalled the episode participants’ brain activity didn’t immediately afterwards, include some of the patterns describing what they had seen. previously detected while they “We were very surprised how were watching it. good people’s memories were, Even though the volunteers with many people speaking for used diverse words, sentences and over 30 minutes, hitting most of recollections to articulate their the scenes in mostly the right accounts of what happened in the order and giving lots of detail,” episode, remarkably, they mostly says Chen. Incredibly, brain activity while “You implant your thoughts watching, and later recalling, each into another person’s brain scene was strikingly similar across easily, simply by telling them your memories” all 17 volunteers. Chris Bird at the University of Sussex, UK, says this discovery is “extremely seemed to have cut and retained surprising”. The patterns for the same parts of brain activity particular sections of the drama (Nature Neuroscience, doi.org/ appear to create a common bvgk). “It’s a kind of whittling “signature” across individuals. down to the gist of what The volunteers even seemed happened,” says Bird. “Once to edit their memories in an you’ve edited it, there’s a clearer identical way. When verbally thing to pass on.” recalling the episode, the Chen says previous attempts
to interrogate memory circuitry have often relied on recall of simple objects. “Usually, memory experiments use single words or static pictures, so we’re excited to show it’s possible to do all this during a much more realistic experience, watching an hourlong movie and talking freely about it for many minutes.” Could this commonality in memory patterns be exploited? Chen dismisses the idea that the discovery could be used to artificially implant memories into people’s brains, as has been done in mice. However, we do in a sense implant our thoughts into others’ minds all the time. In ongoing research in which people who haven’t seen a movie listen to someone else’s description of it, Chen and her colleagues have found that the listener’s brain activity looks much like that of the describer. “I would say that you implant your thoughts into another person’s brain quite easily, simply by telling them what you are thinking or remembering,” says Chen. “You remember it and, at the same time, they imagine it.” A key implication, says Chen, is that for specific memories we share distinct brain patterns, almost like fingerprints. This evolved to enable us and our evolutionary ancestors to instantly understand and empathise with one another, essentially implanting memories in each other’s brains by recounting stories and information crucial to survival. “I think this is no accident, because having a common framework for remembering makes it easier to communicate our memories to others, and that’s a powerful thing human –More in common than meets the eye– beings can do,” says Chen. n
In this section n Dark matter could get chummy with itself, page 10 n Are experimental fertility treatments offering false hope?, page 16 n Can face recognition software tell if you’re a criminal?, page 20
TODAY’S Paleo diet cookbooks might be missing a few pages. It seems that our early ancestors were more adventurous with their plant foods than we might expect, with roasted acorns, sedges and water lily seeds all on the menu, along with fish and meats. Archaeologists tend to emphasise the role of meat in ancient human diets, largely because the butchered bones of animals are so likely to be preserved at dig sites. Edible plants may have been overlooked simply because their remains
don’t survive so well. Excavations at a Stone Age site in northern Israel have now revealed the best direct evidence so far of what plants early humans ate. The Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site was occupied 780,000 years ago, probably by Homo erectus, and ancient waterlogging helped preserve traces of its inhabitants’ diets. Yoel Melamed and Naama Goren-Inbar at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and their colleagues have compared the diversity and abundance of plant
unusual choices, but they aren’t. “Many species that most of us no longer recognise as food were recorded as food sources during the last few centuries somewhere in the world,” says Goren-Inbar. And some Paleo foods are familiar today: water chestnuts and olives are still widely eaten. Goren-Inbar and others have previously found evidence for the consumption of meats, fish and even elephant brain at the site. So did early humans prefer meat or veg? “There probably was no single balance between meat and plant,” says Peter Ungar at the University of Arkansas in –A prized food for literally ages– Lafayetville. “Human evolution is a work in progress, and diets remains at the site during likely varied along a continuum periods with and without human in both time and space.” activity. It turns out that the But Amanda Henry at the Max residents collected no fewer than Planck Institute for Evolutionary 55 kinds of plant, harvesting their Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, nuts, fruits, seeds and tubers, thinks early human diets tipped or eating them as vegetables towards being plant-rich. “We (PNAS, doi.org/bvgf). need plant-derived nutrients to “The modern human diet is survive – vitamin C and fibre, for clearly restricted when compared example,” she says. “Hominins to the [early] hominin diet or were probably predominantly even to the early farmers’ diet,” vegetarians.” says Goren-Inbar. Broad tastes Either way, the team now were probably essential, she suggest that a wide variety of says – they gave early humans a plants would have featured in good chance of finding palatable diets way before the dawn of food year round. “It gives one a agriculture. Early humans knew substantial element of security how to exploit plants seasonally, when particular sources become potentially allowing them to rare or absent.” inhabit the same location all Many foods might seem year round. Colin Barras n
Quantum computers ditch all the lasers
candidate technologies involves ion traps, which hold and manipulate charged particles, called ions, to
radical simplification of the engineering required, which means we are now able to construct a
the voltage shifts the ions to a different position in the magnetic field, changing their state.
encode information. But to make a processor that works faster than a classical computer would require millions of such traps, each controlled by its own precisely aligned laser – making it extremely complicated. Now, Winfried Hensinger at the University of Sussex in the UK and his colleagues have replaced the millions of lasers with some static magnets and a handful of electromagnetic fields. “Our invention has led to a
large-scale device,” he says. In their scheme, each ion is trapped by four permanent magnets, with a controllable voltage across the trap. The entire device is bathed in a set of tuned microwave and radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. Tweaking
The researchers have already used this idea to build and operate a quantum logic gate, a building block of a processor (Physical Review Letters, doi.org/bvfm). Manas Mukherjee at the National University of Singapore is impressed. “It’s a promising development, with good potential for scaling up,” he says. That’s exactly what the team is planning: they hope to have a trial device containing tens of ions ready within four years. Michael Brooks n
Paleo diet was a veggie feast with a side of meat
THEY will be the ultimate multitaskers – but quantum computers might take a bit of juggling to operate. Now, a team has simplified their inner workings. Computers that take advantage of quantum laws allowing particles to exist in multiple states at the same time promise to run millions of calculations at once. One of the
“A quantum computer would need millions of ion traps, each controlled by its own laser”
10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 7
This week Sea-slapping is whales’ little messaging trick THE sight of whales breaking the surface and slapping their fins on the water is a true spectacle – but it isn’t just for show. Instead, all that splashing appears to be for messaging other whales, and the big splashes are long-distance calls. Ailbhe Kavanagh at the University of Queensland in Gatton, Australia, and her colleagues inferred this by studying 94 groups of humpback
Psychedelic drug helps depression Kevin Franciotti
CAN a psychedelic trip change the way people with life-threatening cancer face death? It seems so. Psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms, was banned in the 1960s. But a better understanding of the drug has sparked a revival of research into its potential benefits for depression and anxiety. “Anywhere from 40 to 50 per cent of cancer patients will have diagnosable anxiety or depression,” says Stephen Ross at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Current treatments, like antidepressants, don’t work any better than placebo, he says, but some small studies suggest that psilocybin could be an alternative. To investigate, a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, plus Ross’s team, carried out two trials involving a total of 80 people with cancer and symptoms of depression and anxiety. In one trial, each person had a psychotherapy session plus 8 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
either a high or a very low dose of psilocybin. Five to seven weeks later, they had a second session with the drug dose swapped. The second trial was similar but used vitamin B3 instead of the low dose. During each session, the person lay blindfolded on a couch, listening to music. They were asked to focus on their inner experiences. Results from across the trials showed that psilocybin led to immediate and significant falls in measures of depression, anxiety and mood disturbance, and rises in optimism, quality of life and acceptance of death (Journal of Psychopharmacology, doi.org/bvd7 and doi.org/bvd8). These benefits were still present in 80 per cent of participants six months later. The core feature of a psilocybin experience is a feeling that everything is connected, says Roland Griffiths, who led the Hopkins trial. “After this kind of experience, people feel that they’ve learned something that’s of deep meaning to them,” he
whales migrating south along the Queensland coast in 2010 and 2011. Humpbacks regularly leap out –Changes your approach to life– of the water and twist on to their backs – behaviour known as breaching. They also slap their tails says. “They attribute changes in and fins repetitively. The team found how they approach life, interact evidence that the resulting sounds, with people and to their value travelling underwater, could be systems to that experience.” conveying messages to other whales. The results form the most The animals were significantly extensive trial of psilocybin for more likely to breach when their treating depression and anxiety. nearest neighbours were more than But Richard Shelton and Peter 4 kilometres away, suggesting that Hendricks at the University of the body-slapping sound of breaching Alabama in Birmingham have was used to signal to distant groups. questioned the design of the In contrast, repetitive tail and trials, as participants weren’t pectoral-fin slapping appeared to be asked which drug they thought for close-range communication: they they had received. This is usually done to ensure a realistic placebo – became more common just before new whales joined, or group or pseudo-placebo in the case of the low drug dose – is used, and “Migrating whales engage that volunteers couldn’t tell in energetic slapping and which treatment they had breaching behaviours received. But in a commentary article, the pair note that it may be despite not feeding” unfeasible to create a placebo that is indistinguishable from the real members left (Marine Mammal Science, doi.org/bvdw). thing due to the hallucinogenic Whales engage in these energetic effects of the drug. behaviours despite not feeding during Ross says the study must be migration. The fact that these actions repeated on a larger scale. “Even are so regular and vigorous indicates though our two trials together their importance, Kavanagh says. replicated the same study and “Although surface-active would lead one to think this is a real effect, it needs to be done in a behaviours only give very simple information like location, it’s possible larger, nationally representative that a succession of these surface cancer sample,” he says. If the sounds could convey a little more findings were confirmed, then information,” says Joshua Smith at psilocybin may be developed as Murdoch University in Perth, Western a drug for cancer-related anxiety Australia. Alice Klein n and depression, he says. n
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Tweak dark matter to explain galaxies DARK matter might talk to itself. The mysterious substance that outweighs all visible matter in the cosmos might be best explained if it’s able to interact with itself via an invisible force. Take a look at any image of a galaxy and you will see that the centre is the brightest. With so much light – and therefore mass – concentrated there, astronomers expected central objects to orbit faster than those on the outer rim. But in the early 20th century, astronomers were surprised to find that galaxies’ outer stars appear to move about as fast as their inner stars, suggesting that there is more matter that doesn’t meet the eye. The name given to the invisible stuff is dark matter, and the standard paradigm suggests it is composed of weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs. Now new research on galactic rotation curves – graphs showing the orbital speeds of stars versus their distance from the centre of the galaxy – suggests the story might not be so simple. Not all rotation curves look
Microbes make barnacles weep solidifying tears IT’S as if the rock is crying. Sandstone blocks near Lakes Entrance on the coast of Victoria, south-east Australia, are covered with barnacles that look like they are spilling tears. It now seems that these “tears of the Virgin”, as they are known locally, result from the first known mutualism between these crustaceans and cyanobacteria. “It is important because it shows 10 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
alike – before they reach that characteristic plateau, some rise gradually, and others rise rapidly. But WIMP models struggle to explain this. Also, there has been no direct evidence of WIMPs, despite decades of searching. So Ayuki Kamada at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues set about finding an alternative.
how organisms slowly modify their environment – even if the environment seems ‘as solid as rock’,” says John
dark-coloured cyanobacteria, which feed on the crustaceans’ nitrogen-rich waste. This results in a rounded eye
from material thrown up by waves. Excess acid dribbles down the rock surface and carves out tear-like
Buckeridge at RMIT University in Melbourne, Victoria. “What is cute here is the relationship between the barnacle and the cyanobacteria that allows this to happen.” Buckeridge surveyed the site, where barnacles sit higher out of the water than they normally do, and analysed samples in the lab. Working with William Newman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, he found that the barnacles are surrounded by
shape, with the barnacle looking like the iris and pupil at the centre, from which the tears appear to fall. The cyanobacteria excrete organic acids that dissolve carbonate, a major component of the sandstone. This creates burrows that protect the barnacles from the fierce sun and
grooves. They can get to 17 centimetres long, and become populated by additional cyanobacteria (Integrative Zoology, doi.org/bvdv). “These associations between microbes and their hosts form a coherent biological entity, or ‘holobiont’,” says Ezequiel Marzinelli at the University of New South Wales, Australia. “These components must be studied together if we are to have an understanding of biological systems.” Alice Klein n
ROBERT GENDLER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
The team looked at 30 galaxies with strange rotation curves, and found that they could better explain them using a different type of dark matter: the self-interacting sort. These particles do something similar to how ordinary matter particles, like protons, interact with one another via the electromagnetic force. “It’s a very minimal modification,” says Manoj Kaplinghat at the University of California, Irvine. “But it’s amazing how well it actually fits. You don’t have to bend over backwards.”
When galaxies form, cold dark matter falls to the centre and hot dark matter flows toward the outer edges. But if dark matter is allowed to interact with itself, then the particles will exchange energy and end up at the same temperature, just like the air molecules in a room. In some cases, the cool dark matter particles in the centre will grow hotter and flow toward the outer edges, building a centre less dominated by dark matter – explaining the rotation curves that rise gradually (arxiv.org/ abs/1611.02716). Stacy McGaugh at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio is a critic of the standard dark matter paradigm, so he thinks all alternatives are worth exploring. However, adding new unseen forces to unseen particles complicates the picture unnecessarily, he says. “It’s what the philosophers of science would call an auxiliary hypothesis on top of an auxiliary hypothesis,” he says. “It’s already ad hoc and we’re adding more.” McGaugh’s favourite explanation is Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), a theory that doesn’t add invisible matter but tweaks our understanding of gravity. An answer might come with direct detection of dark matter – whether WIMPs or the self–Spinning puzzle– interacting kind. n
“These associations between microbes and their hosts form a coherent biological entity”
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New scientist’s Bumper holiday special
FETCH. ROLL OVER. POINT NORTH. When animals become magnetic
HOLIDAY PRISONER’S DILEMMA A game theorist’s guide to Christmas
BEGINNING OF THE END The convoluted history of the anus
ABORIGINAL ASTRONOMY Stories from the world’s first stargazers
IT’S A FIGGING MIRACLE! The fruit that restores forests
FUZZY ROUND THE EDGES
The shaky science of hangovers
WHAT DO YOU CALL A CARIBOU? Name a reindeer to save a reindeer
MAN VS BOARD GAME The chequered history of a trivial pursuit And much more
Ten things you need to know about 2017
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IN BRIEF Quantum particles act like a prism
Aerial lizard unfurls and grips its ‘wings’ for a unique glide THE dragons in the Harry Potter movies fly using wings made from modified forelimbs, just as birds and bats do.
spreading it forward. “This is a very rapid movement,” says Dehling. The lizard continued holding its wing until the last moment of the flight. To grab their wings, the lizards must rotate their wrists forward about 90 degrees. By examining museum specimens, Dehling found that while Draco lizards can
But real dragons — gliding lizards of the genus Draco — form their “wings” from flaps of skin stretched over elongated ribs. Their forelimbs have a different role: to help spread the wings and maybe even steer. Maximilian Dehling at the University of Koblenz, Germany, photographed about 50 flights as Draco lizards glided from tree to tree in southern India. In every case,
do this, their relatives cannota (bioRxiv, doi.org/bvdx). This suggests that their limbs have evolved for the task. Besides helping to spread the flaps of skin, the lizard’s grip could also let the animal bend it to steer its flight path, says Dehling. If so, it would make the lizard unique among modern flying vertebrates in controlling flight with something other than the flight surface itself.
the lizard would launch itself and then immediately reach back with its forelimbs, grabbing the unfolding wing and
Some fossil reptiles could have used a similar control method, he speculates based on previous finds.
A brainwave for Alzheimer’s therapy COULD the answer to fighting Alzheimer’s disease be as simple as a flickering light? An hour a day of light therapy has been found to break down brain deposits in mice with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. That’s a long way from it working in people, but because it seems a safe therapy, it could move quickly into humans trials. Ed Boyden at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and his team exposed mice to a light flickering at 40 hertz. This triggered brain cells to oscillate together, creating gamma waves – a type of brain activity that is often weaker in people with Alzheimer’s. After they had been exposed to the light for an hour a day for a week, the rodents’ brains contained fewer amyloid
plaques and tau tangles, which are hallmarks of the disease. The light seemed to boost the activity of cells that clear amyloid, and cut amyloid production (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature20587). These changes happened only in the animals’ visual cortex, not in the memory areas that the disease damages first. But Boyden still plans to try light therapy in people, as well as to induce gamma waves in other areas using electrodes.
IT’S a kaleidoscope in the sky. We’ve just seen virtual particles in space acting like prisms, polarising light from a neutron star. In the 1930s, physicists suggested that a strong magnetic field can polarise light, like glare bouncing off a window– provided there are particles to nudge it. The effect could happen in the vacuum of space, because virtual particles are constantly popping in and out of existence thanks to quantum uncertainty. Roberto Mignani at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy and his colleagues used the Very Large Telescope in Chile to probe the idea. They looked at light from a neutron star – a dense stellar corpse with a colossal magnetic field – through a series of filters. They found that the light had been polarised to about 16 per cent, demonstrating this phenomenon for the first time (MNRAS, doi.org/bvcw).
Copying plants for better solar cells THE next wave of solar cells might be green… literally. A big problem in solar power is that if solar cells get too much or too little light, they don’t work efficiently. This should affect plants, too, but they manage to make the most of what they get. Nathan Gabor at the University of California, Riverside, was trying to design a solar cell to do the same thing. Using quantum mechanics, he found that plants’ green colour may be an advantage (NanoLetters, doi.org/bvcx). The sun emits more green light than any other colour, but that may make it the hardest to absorb efficiently. Reflecting green light, and absorbing two other colours instead, could be the key to efficiency, Gabor says. 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 13
THEY’RE a happy family, after all. The three closest stars to our solar system do indeed all revolve around one another, a finding that resolves a century-old debate. The nearest of the three, Proxima Centauri, is a red dwarf 4.24 light years away. In August, we learned that it hosts an Earth-mass planet where temperatures might be right for liquid water to exist. Just beyond, 4.37 light years away, are two bright stars named Alpha Centauri A and B. They orbit each other every 80 years, blending to the naked eye to appear as the third brightest star in the night sky. Proxima Centauri is too dim to see without a telescope, so it was only discovered in 1915. Ever since, astronomers have thought it might revolve around Alpha Centauri A and B – but no one could prove it. Now, Pierre Kervella at the Paris Observatory in France and his colleagues have measured Proxima Centauri’s velocity precisely enough to show that it is genuinely bound to the other two.
DIGITIZED SKY SURVEY 2/ DAVIDE DE MARTIN/MAHDI ZAMANI
The team found that Proxima Centauri’s velocity differs from that of its bright partners by just 270 metres per second – half the speed it would need to escape their gravitational grasp (arxiv.org/ abs/1611.03495). The little star orbits its companions every 550,000 years.
14 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
Magnetic brain stimulation can turn you on (or off) TALK about good vibrations: a brain zap could alter your libido. Nicole Prause at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her team wondered whether transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – applying a magnetic field to the brain to boost or lower the activity in a particular spot – could alter someone’s sex drive. Asking someone how aroused they feel is too subjective a way of measuring sex drive. Instead, the team asked 20 volunteers to wear a vibrator on their genitals.
These people received 2 minutes of TMS to excite or inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area involved in reward. Electrodes were then placed on participants’ heads to measure their alpha brainwaves, which have been shown to weaken with sexual arousal. The participants then waited to be given genital buzzes lasting between 0.5 and 5 seconds. “They know they’re about to be sexually stimulated, but it hasn’t actually happened yet,” says Prause. Measuring their alpha waves
during this time is the closest analogue for measuring desire in the lab, she says. As expected, the volunteers appeared more aroused after excitatory TMS than inhibitory TMS. People’s overall sexual responsiveness, as gauged by their brainwaves, also correlated with the number of orgasms they had over the next three days (PLoS One, doi.org/bvb4). “If it works there would be a huge market for it,” says Cicely Marston at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. JIRI DOLEZAL
Nearest stars to the sun are a trio
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Tiny crustaceans are bees of the sea SEAGRASS pollen swirls around on currents and tides, but it turns out that the grains can also hitch a ride on minute marine creatures. Underwater invertebrates can ferry pollen between flowers, just as animals pollinate plants on land, say Brigitta van Tussenbroek at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Puerto Morelos and her colleagues. The team had noticed hundreds of invertebrates, mostly small crustaceans, visiting turtle-grass flowers. “We saw all of these animals coming in, and then we saw some of them carrying pollen,” says van Tussenbroek. To see if they can act as pollinators, the team added them to lab aquariums containing turtle-grass flowers, some of which already bore pollen grains. Within 15 minutes, several extra grains appeared on the female blooms, something that did not happen in control tanks lacking invertebrates. With the water kept still, the turtle-grass often produced grain – indicating pollination – when marine invertebrates were present, but rarely or never did so without them (Nature Communications, doi.org/bvcm).
World’s highest plants come to light PLANTS have been found growing at 6150 metres above sea level for the first time. The six species of cushion plants cling to a gravelly patch, no
withstand the long, bitter winters and lack of water. Each was no bigger than a coin, contained a high-sugar antifreeze, and had leaves arranged
bigger than a football pitch, in the Himalayas. It’s a record for vascular plants – those with special tissues to transport water and carbohydrates – although algae and mosses can grow even higher because they are more drought and frost-tolerant. A team led by Jiri Dolezal, of the Institute of Botany at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Pruhonice, found the plants had features to
as rosettes that help them to enfold warmer air. The team was able to make out 20 growth rings in a 1-millimetre root, implying that one of the plants had been there for two decades. As the climate warms, the number of frost-free days is increasing. That could allow plants to establish even higher up the dizzying peaks over the coming decades (Microbial Ecology, doi.org/bvcc).
BY 1 8 D E C
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN FRANCISCO
Taught by Professor Jason M. Satterfield
Cognitive Behavioural Foundations
Quantified Self-Assessment for Therapy
Setting Therapeutic Goals
Third-Wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
D TIME OF R FE
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain
Stress and Coping
Anxiety and Fear
Anger and Rage
Advanced Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Healing Traumatic Injuries
Forgiveness and Letting Go
Digging Deep and Finding Meaning
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Medicine
Staying on the Wagon
Thinking Healthy: Weight and Nutrition
Behavioural Therapy for Chemical Addictions
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Mastering Chronic Pain
20. Building and Deepening Relationships 21.
Constructive Conflict and Fighting Fair
22. Thriving at Work through Behavioural Health 23. Developing Emotional Flexibility 24. Finding the Best Help
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ANALYSIS FERTILITY CLINICS
Regulating reproduction WHEN it comes to making babies, help is at hand. As the age of firsttime parents continues to rise, so does the range of fertility treatments on offer – and we aren’t just talking IVF. There’s a clinic in New York that aims to rejuvenate women’s ovaries by injecting their own blood plasma directly into them. One in Greece claims its similar treatment has reversed the menopause in some women. Others go even further. Earlier this year, New Scientist revealed that a couple had given birth to a healthy boy after undergoing a controversial “three-parent baby” technique by a US clinic in Mexico designed to prevent people passing genetic disorders to their children. In Ukraine, the method is already being used to treat infertility rather than prevent hereditary
“A lot of these treatments haven’t been through clinical trials. We don’t know if they even work” disease. As private clinics push back the frontiers of reproduction, academics and regulators seem to be struggling to keep up. Given that one in eight couples have fertility problems, and that IVF only works around a third of the time, this rapid progress is welcome. But is it OK to expect people to pay for experimental (though likely safe) treatments? Are clinicians that offer them providing desperate patients with a last stab at parenthood, or offering false hope? And can we hold the industry to a higher standard? One problem is that a lot of new treatments haven’t undergone clinical trials or even been tried in 16 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
animals before being offered to people. In other words, we don’t know if they even work. Just last week, a review of the websites of 74 UK-based fertility clinics found that 60 made claims for specific fertility treatments, but only 13 gave evidence to support these claims (BMJ Open, doi.org/bt86). “Very few practices in reproductive medicine are considered established,” says Arianna D’Angelo, who coordinates a group on safety and quality in assisted reproduction for the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. “Most are considered innovative or experimental, and haven’t gone through trials.” Instead, treatments are offered in clinics soon after they are developed. Only later do the clinical trials catch up, either to confirm the benefits of a treatment or find it is useless. “When you work in this field, you see trends,” says D’Angelo. “Things become fashionable, reach a peak and then disappear.” Take metformin, for example. This diabetes drug, previously linked to longevity, was thought to assist women undergoing IVF treatments, particularly those with polycystic ovaries. As interest picked up, the number of clinics offering the drug increased. It was only years later that trial results came out suggesting that metformin had no real impact on fertility. Women had been taking the drug, and putting up with its horrible side effects, for no reason. The latest pricey fertility treatment add-on is time-lapse imaging. This involves placing fertilised embryos under video surveillance while they develop in the lab. In theory, it helps
embryologists select the healthiest developing embryo to implant into the uterus. Except we’re still not really sure what healthy embryos look like, says Rita Vassena, scientific director at a fertility clinic in Barcelona and head of a group supporting evidence-based assisted reproduction technology (EBART). “Time-lapse imaging has been talked about a lot, but, as far as I know, there has not been a single prospective randomised trial to support it,” she says.
Untested but OK? Vassena thinks that treatments should be put through clinical trials before being offered in fertility clinics. This would mean people could only access them as part of a trial – so some would be given a placebo – but no one would have to pay. When people fund their own treatment, the “study” is already been distorted, she says. For example, those that can afford it may already be healthier. D’Angelo agrees that trials are vital, but doesn’t condemn clinics offering unsupported treatments. “I wouldn’t say it’s wrong,” she says. “Many patients are desperate and would be willing to try treatments that are experimental.” In fact, most of the embryologists and clinicians contacted by New Scientist say they support the use of untested treatments in fertility clinics, provided that they are unlikely to cause harm and that patients are aware that they are experimental and may have no benefit. “We have to understand that patients are vulnerable, and we can’t exploit that vulnerability,” says Stuart Lavery, a fertility
EMMANUEL PIERROT/AGENCE VU/CAMERA PRESS
Are fertility clinics that offer experimental treatments helping those who want to become parents or offering false hope, asks Jessica Hamzelou
consultant at Imperial College Healthcare in London. “But just because someone is desperate, doesn’t mean they can’t be informed.” Things get more complicated when it comes to more controversial techniques, such as that which led to the birth of a baby with, technically, three parents. These have a greater chance of causing harm and need legal oversight, say clinicians. Treatments involving injecting blood plasma into women’s ovaries, with the aim of reversing the menopause and producing fertile eggs, use a woman’s own blood products and so don’t need regulation in the US. But there are still worries about health effects. Hugh Melnick runs a clinic in New York and has given ovarian rejuvenation injections to 41 women. “We’ve had no
For daily news stories, visit newscientist.com/news
Why I had ovarian rejuvenation therapy Sarah* started experiencing symptoms of the menopause five years ago, when she was 38, more than a decade earlier than the average woman. “I felt so young,” she says. Her mother also went through the menopause early, at 40, so Sarah went straight to a fertility clinic. “The doctor told me to freeze my eggs,” she says. “He said I was running out.” In the time since, Sarah has experienced a disrupted menstrual cycle, hot flushes and a low libido. But she isn’t ready to go through the menopause yet, she says. An online search directed her to a potential solution: Hugh Melnick’s fertility clinic in New York, which offers “ovarian rejuvenation” treatment (see main story). “I was hopeful,” says Sarah. “I’m pretty optimistic about new technologies.” Sarah had her first treatment at 41. “I go in, they take my blood and spin it,” she says. “After about 15 or 20 minutes, they put me under –Piecing together fertility- anaesthesia and inject the blood into
complications,” he says. “The only growing. IVF usage has risen in conclusion I can make so far is that recent years, and as infertility it is safe and has no side effects.” rates increase, this trend will The concern is that, until continue. Despite this, assisted long-term trials of experimental reproduction technologies are treatments take place, it is still not that effective. Labs and difficult to know if there are clinics around the world are consequences for the embryo, “Many patients are fetus or baby. There are no fooldesperate and would be proof tests for the quality of eggs willing to try treatments and embryos, and any problems that are experimental” with a baby’s development may not be evident for years. Most trying to improve the success private clinics don’t follow-up rates, particularly as private their patients in the long term. Other areas of medicine tend to clinics compete to offer the best services to customers. offer well-trialled interventions, How can we hold the industry so why does the field of to account? Education, says reproductive medicine run on Vassena. When doctors hear about experimental treatments? For a a brand new treatment with a start, the field is young. IVF itself glowing testimonial, they can’t is only a few decades old, and help but want to offer it to their many treatments, such as egg own patients, she says. But they freezing, are much younger. need to be aware of the At the same time, demand is
importance of clinical trials, and to apply for funding to run them. When it comes to regulation, however, a delicate balance will need to be struck, says Lavery. He believes that tight controls on approving research have slowed down progress in the UK, for example. But at the same time, he thinks that the years of debate by clinicians, ethicists and politicians that led to the UK’s approval of the “three-parent baby” technique was the right one, because of the risks involved. For now, the best ways to know whether a procedure is backed by evidence is to speak to your doctor, and look for Cochrane reviews, which analyse all the evidence on a range of treatments and provide easy-to-understand summaries of the results. Even then, though, you are likely to be essentially part of an experiment. n
my ovaries. The whole procedure takes about 10 to 15 minutes – it’s not long at all.” After some cramping immediately after the injection, Sarah says she starts to see a difference within about a month or two. “A lot of hassles go away,” she says. “I sleep better at night, my libido is higher, my periods go back to normal – I just feel young again.” Sarah hopes to be able to conceive naturally in the next year, but has a few eggs on ice, too. Sarah is aware that the procedure – which costs $2500 – is experimental, and hasn’t been put through clinical trials. But she says it works for her, at least temporarily. She had a second injection last year and is planning to have another this week. “It’s wonderful for people like me who have gone through early menopause,” she says. But when it comes to scientific evidence and full clinical trials, the jury is still out. n *Not her real name 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 17
Immoral earnings Probe public perceptions, and it’s soon clear why the salaries of corporate chief executives are a toxic issue, says Michael Norton AMONG the issues fuelling political upheaval at the moment is the gap between bosses’ and workers’ pay. Leaders, including the UK’s prime minister Theresa May, are busy grappling with this. The past five years have seen concern in many parts of the world over the divide between rich and poor. Examples include the Spanish Indignados movement and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, a 2013 Swiss referendum on capping CEO pay at 12 times that of the lowest paid (it was voted down), and ongoing protests in various countries that the system is “rigged” in favour of the wealthy. So how big should the gap be? There are many ways to explore this, from how wage gaps affect productivity and economic growth to how larger gaps affect general trust in government and financial institutions.
My colleague Sorapop Kiatpongsan and I took a different approach, one rooted in psychology: we wanted to find out what people felt the ideal pay gap should be. This would give us a sense of how they weigh up what is morally acceptable, and perhaps explain public anger. We used data from the International Social Survey Programme, which involves more than 55,000 respondents from 40 countries, including Australia, China, Russia, Turkey, the US and the UK. Key questions included: How much do you think a chief executive of a large national company makes in your country? How much do you think an unskilled factory worker makes? Averaged across all 40 countries, those two questions produced an estimated pay ratio of 10:1, meaning that people believed that bosses made 10 times more
Mission possible? Will more state-funded R&D lift the UK’s postBrexit economy, asks Mariana Mazzucato SIGNALS matter. When UK chancellor Philip Hammond pledged an extra £2 billion of public money a year for research and development by 2020, he was indicating a shift beyond ramping up spending amid fears of a £59 billion Brexit hit. The R&D pledge was part of a £23 billion package to improve the 18 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
extra R&D money will be used is significant. A share will go to a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Instead of developing technologies as an end in themselves, the fund encourages purposeful, collaborative innovation by setting “challenges for UK researchers to tackle”. This is promising. The US defence agency DARPA has specialised in such problem solving since 1958, often with big civilian spin-off applications.
UK’s productivity. It was also the down payment on prime minister Theresa May’s intent to shape growth via industrial strategy. After years of, at best, being “protected” in the budget and thus experiencing a real (inflation “We need to overcome the idea government enables adjusted) cut of about 15 per cent, UK science could be on a new path. progress, while business dictates its direction” The choice of how part of that
Done well, and linked with procurement policy that allows initiatives to scale up, this can spur private investment and generate higher productivity and innovation-led growth. As I detail in my book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking public vs. private sector myths, public agencies like DARPA play a role in developing breakthrough technologies, and indeed entire new sectors, as they strive to meet public missions such as putting people on the moon. And mission-oriented policies can have a catalytic effect across many sectors. Growth has a rate, but also a direction. Missions – guided by
For more opinion articles, visit newscientist.com/opinion
Michael Norton is the Harold Brierley professor at Harvard Business School and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending (Simon & Schuster/Oneworld)
today’s big challenges such as climate change, inequality or ageing – can help set direction and in so doing get business to invest more in R&D. At present, the level in the UK is below the average for OECD countries. Meeting such missions means overcoming the idea that government enables, while business dictates direction. To make this work, Hammond must ensure the entire innovation chain is lined up, and provide a clear sense of direction of where the opportunities lie. n Mariana Mazzucato is a professor in the economics of innovation at the University of Sussex, UK
INSIGHT Web filtering
than unskilled workers. In the UK, it was 13.5:1. Now consider two more questions: How much do you think a CEO should make in your country? How much do you think an unskilled factory worker should make? Averaged again across all the countries, the answers produced an ideal ratio of 4.6:1 (in the UK, it was 5.3:1). Around the world, people would prefer the distribution of pay to be more equitable than their estimate of reality. Now compare these ratios with the actual UK pay gap. It is 84:1. What’s more, wage gaps have been rising dramatically in recent decades. In the US, for example, the boss-to-worker pay ratio was roughly 20:1 in the 1960s and 30:1 in the 1970s – before ballooning to roughly 300:1 in recent years. While both 20:1 and 30:1 are larger than the ideal of roughly 5:1 that people describe, it is not difficult to understand why this is now a critical issue: today’s gaps are a huge deviation from our universal sense of what is right. n
–Teen sexting: tech can’t fix it–
Under 18s sexting ban? No thanks, Mr Hunt Frank Swain
protecting the comments sections of a website, rely on feedback from thousands of viewers who can flag objectionable content, which isn’t much use in a two-way chat dialogue. And similar content filters on Facebook have resulted in women having their accounts suspended for sharing photos of breastfeeding. How can we hope to build AI that recognises porn, when even US Supreme Court judges have failed to pin down what counts as obscene, only concluding, “I know it when I see it”? Even if we could, we shouldn’t. In the light of the pervasive powers
UK HEALTH secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on social media giants to do more to tackle sexting among the nation’s teens, which he blames for rising cases of mental illness. Yet his proposals for smart locks that stop teenagers sharing sexually explicit images are just the latest example of government demanding magical fixes for complex societal problems. Giving evidence as part of a House of Commons inquiry into suicide prevention, Hunt singled out social media as a key platform for abuse, telling the panel, “I ask myself the “Demands to block explicit simple question as to why you can’t images refuse to engage prevent the texting of sexually explicit with how teens – and the images by people under the age of 18.” rest of us – use the net” He also asked why “word pattern recognition” couldn’t be used to granted by the UK Investigatory identify and stop cyberbullying. Powers Act and porn blockers Hunt’s tech proposals are easy to suggest, but much harder to proposed by the Digital Economy Bill, we should be wary of yet more implement. Artificial intelligences can infrastructure to filter the internet. flag abusive keywords and recognise “What Hunt is proposing is real-time explicit images, but these are crude processing of every image shared tools that often fail to understand digitally,” says Tom Crick at Cardiff context and are easy to circumvent. Metropolitan University, UK. Most practical filters, like those
Hunt’s plea will play well with concerned parents, but Crick, who has been working to reform UK computer education, views tighter controls as not just technically unfeasible, but strategically wrong. “We’re trying to create competent and capable young people who can confidently navigate the internet,” he says, not just trying to protect them by shutting them out. Excluding them could backfire, shifting teen activity onto less regulated services. While protecting children online is clearly desirable, it’s less obvious why tech firms, not parents, should be responsible. “If your child is aged under 12, should they have unsupervised access to the internet?” says Crick. The health secretary’s comments betray our uneasiness about sexual awareness in young teens. There’s no doubt that we’re seeing a dramatic change in norms around sex and sharing sexual content, which comes hand in hand with the potential for abuse through revenge porn and extortion. But sexting isn’t going away, and demands to block explicit images refuse to engage with how teens – and the rest of us – use the internet. If the minister really wants to tackle problems around sexual activity and mental health in young people, he ought to spend less time demanding magical fixes and more time ensuring Britain’s youth can access high-quality sex education and well-funded mental health services. n 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 19
TECHNOLOGY profiles belonging to Chinese citizens. That means the system could have picked up on differences between the two sources rather than in people’s faces. Wu and Zhang tried to counteract this by standardising the images, for example making them the same size and turning them greyscale.
“AIs often share biases with humans – they are tools forged using our own beliefs and observations” But Jonathan Frankle from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that’s not enough. “The fact that the data comes from two different places is a fundamental flaw. Any differences will be picked up,” –Who has that guilty look?– he says. It’s not a problem to ask a controversial question, says François Chollet, a deep learning researcher at Google, but the science has to be well founded. “It is not ethical to make a bad science argument,” he says. An attempt to link people’s appearance with criminality highlights the Mike Cook at Falmouth technical and ethical limits of face recognition, finds Timothy Revell University, UK, says that this kind of research risks turning machine WHAT can your face say about set out to disprove the idea that It eventually learned to tell the learning into the “phrenology of you? Face recognition systems can there could be a link between difference, achieving an accuracy the 21st century”, like deducing a pick up on things like age, gender someone’s face and criminality – of up to 90 per cent, they say person’s traits from the bumps on and maybe even your mood. “so we were very surprised by (arxiv.org/abs/1611.04135v2). their head. Seemingly impartial Now, two researchers say it the result”, says Wu. However, other face recognition computer programs give an air could even tell whether you’re The researchers exploited experts have questioned their of legitimacy to inaccurate or a criminal. They are claiming to machine learning, asking face methodology. One issue is that controversial interpretations. have developed a system that, recognition software to guess the images of criminals came “Suddenly, the conclusions when shown a series of faces it has whether a person in an ID-style from a Chinese database of ID drawn by an algorithm have never encountered before, is able picture was a criminal or not, and photos, whereas the non-criminal been cleaned up and made to to pick out the ones belonging to then feeding it the correct answer. images were from internet look scientific,” he says. those with criminal convictions. In fact, these systems are not Other researchers have objective and are often subject AI CAN TELL IT FROM YOUR FACE criticised the soundness of the to the same biases as humans. Working in real time, face faces of Chinese, Japanese and work, and say it raises important “[They] are tools that are forged recognition systems can already Korean people with an accuracy of ethical questions over what face by being hammered with our outdo us in some ways. They are 75 per cent – again, better than us. recognition technology can and own beliefs and observations,” capable of identifying demographic Other systems can distinguish should be used to detect. says Cook. information such as someone’s between expressions associated It’s clearly an “emotionally That’s not to say computers gender and age more accurately with emotions such as anger, charged” subject, says Xiaolin can’t make accurate observations than a human can, for starters. disgust or happiness by analysing Wu at McMaster University in about a person’s face, sometimes An algorithm developed at the facial features. One has learned to Hamilton, Canada, who comore skilfully than humans. Face University of Rochester, New York, recognise if someone is tired with authored the study. He and his recognition software can already can even differentiate between the over 95 per cent accuracy. colleague Xi Zhang at Shanghai easily pick up on things like the Jiao Tong University, China, had shape of a person’s nose or
A mug’s game
20 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
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App turns phones into seismic sensors AN APP is revolutionising earthquake detection. Called MyShake, it turns anyone’s smartphone into a seismology tool, and the project’s first results show it is surprisingly effective. “We found that MyShake could detect large earthquakes, but also small ones, which we never thought would be possible,” says
At the moment, the app just records data, but Kong plans to add an alert feature to future versions that can warn users of earthquakes and give them a chance to reach safety. He hopes that MyShake will take off in places that can’t afford expensive dense networks of earthquake sensors. There are not many sensors in Nepal, for example,
Qingkai Kong from the University of California, Berkeley, who is a co-creator of the app. Since launching in February, it has detected more than 200 seismic events across the world using data captured by 200,000 people. “There are many teams that have tried this before, but the MyShake app is the first that has actually worked.
despite the number of earthquakes that hit the country – but many people have smartphones. If enough residents of Nepal started using MyShake, it should be possible to use the data to give the kind of warnings that are currently only possible in wealthier countries with more established sensing systems. In Japan, a dense network of
It’s a great result,” says Rémy Bossu from the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre in France.
earthquake sensors means residents can be sent a notification as soon as approaching rumbles are detected.
This can give people up to a minute’s notice that an earthquake is on its way. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to get under a table – and to stop moving trains. Kong believes MyShake could offer similar warnings anywhere in the world with just a few hundred phones per 100 square kilometres. One of the biggest challenges of using smartphones to detect earthquakes is distinguishing the shakes from other activity. A normal earthquake sensor doesn’t have to cope with being put on a selfie stick,
“A normal earthquake sensor doesn’t have to cope with being put on a selfie stick” stuffed into a pocket or carried in a rucksack, so any wobbles that it feels can be attributed to possible earthquakes. Not so with a smartphone. To solve this problem, the My Shake team trained a neural network to distinguish between earthquake shakes and regular shakes recorded by a smartphone. They then coded this information into the app, so whenever MyShake detects movement it can quickly determine whether it’s from an earthquake or just someone jostling their device. The team ran simulations and experiments, but they couldn’t be sure it would work until the app was released and used. The network of smartphone detectors has proved to be quite sensitive. It is often able to record both the initial P-wave from an earthquake, which travels fast but doesn’t tend to
whether they are smiling, and much more (see “AI can tell it from your face”, below left). But even where the science is sound, ethical questions arise over how these algorithms should be applied in the real world. Detecting someone’s ethnicity, for example, could be used to better target services, but it could also be used to discriminate. And when considering more complex or abstract characteristics than nose shape or age, it’s important to know the limits of what the technology can tell us. Alexander Todorov at Princeton University says you simply can’t glean someone’s general personality or behaviour from a snapshot of their face. It’s “super easy” to tell if a person is sleep-deprived based on paler skin and droopy eyes, he says – and this could even be used to prevent someone engaging in a task that requires alertness, such as operating dangerous machinery. “But if it is used to predict what the person is like in general, this is wrong.” Researchers do not always have control over how their work is used. Making findings public, as Wu and Zhang have done, means that anyone can scrutinise their validity, but it doesn’t have to be that way. “What would scare me more would be if a private company did this and sold it to a police department. There’s nothing to stop that from happening,” says Frankle. Earlier this year, Frankle and his colleagues found that the majority of US police departments using face recognition do little to ensure that the software is accurate. As the technology becomes more widely used, so does the urgency of weighing up the ethics of its use. Computer scientists are gaining increasing power over people’s lives, says Chollet, but they don’t have the ethical education to support that role. “This is something we have to fix. n
cause much damage, as well as the S-wave, which travels more slowly but is far more damaging. By recording the difference between the wave arrival times, it’s possible to calculate the location of the earthquake’s epicentre. The team will present their results at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting later this month. “I’m positively impressed by the quality of the records they present,” says Bossu. “Smartphones are going to be key in the future of earthquake –Any warning is valuable– detection.” Timothy Revell n 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 21
ONE PER CENT
Tic-tac-toebot Robots need multiple skills to play simple games, says Aviva Rutkin
will need to be able to take in different types of information and make appropriate choices based on what it learns. The team worked with humanoid robot Baxter, developed by Rethink Robotics in Boston. They equipped Baxter with software and sensors so it could see its surroundings, recognise speech, move its head to follow the gaze of the other player and move its arm to draw its own noughts or crosses in the grid. The robot could also serve up a handful of preprogrammed comments at appropriate moments, such as “I take this one” when it claimed a box on the grid, and “Yes, I won!” Seven humans took turns playing with Baxter, which always selected to play noughts over crosses when it started a round. Deep learning algorithms helped it improve its game, as it figured out how to better perceive and respond to the humans’ actions. In the end, it won or tied 98 per cent of the time. The work is being presented this week at the conference on Neural Information Processing Systems in Barcelona, Spain. Down the line, Cuayahuitl’s team thinks their system can help efficiently train interactive robots. Future versions of their experiment may attempt broader conversations with humans, or take on more complicated games. The team is also planning to teach the robot to take its opponents’ emotions into account, so instead of winning every time, it could aim to perform in a way that makes its opponent happiest. “The idea is to endow robots with the ability to develop and/or improve their own behaviours –Your turn, Baxter– over time,” says Cuayahuitl. n
22 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
Android app attack Malware has breached more than a million Google accounts and counting. The Gooligan attack, which infects Android devices when users download dodgy apps, was discovered by security firm Check Point. The malware makes the device install and rate apps promoted in adverts, netting the attacker money from the advertising network. Google is working with Check Point to investigate the issue and is notifying affected users.
trillion tonnes: the weight of the “technosphere”, the entire material output of humans (The Anthropocene Review, doi.org/bt9k).
Predicting drug recalls Could internet searches identify faulty medicines? Elad Yom-Tov at Microsoft has trained an algorithm to predict drug recalls based on queries made to the Bing search engine. The system predicted recalls of specific drugs a day before they happened by identifying spikes in searches about them (arxiv.org/ abs/1611.08848). The approach could help find bad batches, says Yom-Tov.
Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images
YOUR move, human. This robot decisions or actions needed to is preparing to deal with the win the game. To play successfully, world by learning to play noughts it needed to figure out how to and crosses. perceive its surroundings, Also known as tic-tac-toe, the understand verbal instructions game requires players to take and interact appropriately with its turns drawing Xs or Os on a grid environment. Essentially, it had to in a race to get three of their use different senses to make a markers in a row. It’s a simple judgement about how it should affair compared with other games mastered by artificial intelligence “A robot must be able to make appropriate choices in recent years, such as Go and if it is to work alongside Jeopardy. But teaching a physical humans in daily life” robot to play is trickier. Heriberto Cuayahuitl at the University of Lincoln in the behave and then act accordingly. UK and his colleagues saw the “For a robot to learn what to do paper-and-pencil puzzle as an and say, based on what was heard opportunity to train a humanoid and seen, is not a trivial task,” robot in multiple skills at once says Cuayahuitl. using deep learning. These skills aren’t just for fun. The robot wasn’t Any robot destined to work preprogrammed to make the alongside humans in daily life
EVERY MOTHER WAITS TO HEAR HER BABY TAKE THEIR FIRST BREATH. FOR MANY, IT NEVER COMES... There is nothing like holding your baby for the very ﬁrst time. The joy you feel, the love. But too many expectant mothers look forward to this moment, and are met only with heartache and pain.
Worldwide, a newborn baby dies every 34 seconds because of illness or birth complications*. And so many of these deaths are needless.
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* 1 million babies died on their ﬁrst day of life in 2012, which equates to 1 baby every 34 seconds. Source: Ending Newborn Deaths report by Save the Children, 2014. Names have been changed to protect identities.
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Glowing, living catapults THESE glowing orbs harbour the progeny of a strange life form. Their goal? To propel that progeny as far away as possible so it can conquer new habitats. An explosive launch will eventually help them disperse their contents. They are the sporangia of fern plants, found on the underside of their leaves, or fronds. These sporangia grow in clusters called sori and are seen here under a fluorescence microscope, which uses a higher-intensity light source than conventional microscopes and labels the specimens with a fluorescent substance . This results in beautiful images that enhance the 3D features of small specimens: the sporangia don’t normally glow like this. Inside them grow the plant’s spores, which appear as brown blobs in this image. The spores are so tiny that propelling them any distance is quite a challenge. To achieve this, the sporangia function as an ingenious biomechanical catapult. As they dry, the cells of the annuli – the green spines down the middle – shrink. This causes the annuli to bend outwards, opening up the sporangia. The spores cling to the inner surface of the sporangia. As the annulus cells lose more water to evaporation, dissolved air or water vapour forms gas bubbles inside. Once one bubble has formed, it sparks a chain reaction, creating bubbles in neighbouring cells. The bubbles make the cells snap back into their earlier positions, flinging spores in all directions. Sam Wong
Photographer Rogelio Moreno Science Photo Library
10 December 00 Month 2016 | NewScientist | 25
You are a mind reader who doesn’t know your own mind. A maths genius who doesn’t understand risk. Biased and prejudiced, yet a member of the most supremely cooperative species on the planet. As a human being, you are a mass of contradictions – and all the more amazing for it. Read on to find out how to harness the best and avoid the worst of what you are
ou are... an asshole You are... an asshole We are wired to be prejudiced and a bit racist – but our instinct for collaboration can trump our worst instincts
ROM Brexit to President Trump, recent political events have let some nasty cats out of the bag. Racists and xenophobes are on the march. But perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising: after all, that is what we are. Here’s the unpalatable truth: we are biased, prejudiced and quite possibly a little bit racist. Psychologists have long known that we put people into little mental boxes marked “us” and “them”. We implicitly like, respect and trust people who are the most similar to us, and feel uncomfortable around everybody else. And before you deny it, this tendency towards in-group favouritism is so ingrained we often don’t realise we are doing it. It is an evolutionary hangover affecting how the human brain responds to people it perceives as different. In one study from 2000, just showing participants brief flashes of faces of people of a different race was enough to activate the amygdala, part of the brain’s fear circuitry, even though the participants felt no conscious fear. According to more recent research, however, the amygdala doesn’t just control fear; it responds to many things, calling on other brain areas to pay attention. So although we’re not automatically scared of people different from us, we are hardwired to flag them. Evolutionarily, that makes sense: it paid to notice when someone from another tribe dropped by. We’re also prone to dehumanisation. When Susan Fiske at Princeton University scanned volunteers’ brains as they looked at pictures of homeless people, she found that the medial prefrontal cortex, which is activated when we think about other people, stayed 26 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
quiet. Volunteers seemed to be processing the homeless people as subhuman. “The bad news is how fast this automated ‘us’ and ‘them’ response is, and how wired in it is,” says Fiske. “The good news is that it can be overcome depending on context.” In both the homeless study and a rerun of the amygdala study, Fiske found that fear or indifference quickly disappeared when participants were asked questions about what kind of food the other person might enjoy. “As soon as you have a basis for dealing with a person as an individual, the effect is not there,” says Fiske. What’s more, what we put in the “them” and “us” boxes is remarkably flexible. When Jay Van Bavel at New York University created in-groups including people from various races, volunteers still preferred people in their own group, regardless of race. All you have to do to head off prejudice, it seems, is to convince people they are on the same team. We are also instinctively cooperative, at least when we don’t have time to think about it. Yale University psychologist David Rand asked volunteers to play gambling games in which they could choose to be selfish, or cooperate with other players for a slightly lower, but shared, payoff. When pressed to make a snap decision, people were much more likely to cooperate than when given time to mull it over. So perhaps you’re not an asshole after all – if you know when to stop to think about it and when to go with your gut. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for the world. Caroline Williams
10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 27
ou are... a physics genius You are... a physics genius
28 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
movement consistently lit up during the first task, but not on a second, purely mathematical task, estimating the number of different coloured blocks in the tower. That was surprising at first, says Fischer. “But on the other hand it makes perfect sense: you don’t execute any action without mental models.” So our inbuilt genius won’t necessarily help us with physics as an academic discipline, which relies on different brain circuits. That much is clear in experiments where researchers get people to draw the predicted path of a falling object, says Fischer: their intuitions are completely off. But have them catch the same falling object, forcing them to engage their motor system, and they’re spot on. There’s still a lot to learn about how we generate our simulations – not least given that our device’s power consumption, at around 20 watts, is less than a tenth that of a mediumrange graphics card. “The type of processing we use is clearly vastly more efficient,” says Battaglia.
“What you have in your head is a method to predict the future” But we should be aware of our limitations, too. Our physics engine is programmed with the equations of classical mechanics, which describe the visible world around us – things like falling plates. It does not work so well on less obvious layers of reality. “Understanding electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, our instincts are not going to be so useful,” says Fischer. There, things don’t stack up so easily. Richard Webb
HE washing-up pile wobbles precariously as you balance another saucepan at its summit. For a second, it looks like the whole stack will come down. But it doesn’t. Swiftly, instinctively, you save it. Congratulations – not just on another domestic disaster averted, but also on showing a peculiarly human genius. Octopuses rival our dexterity, New Caledonian crows have a frighteningly clever way with tools and chimps beat us in tests of short-term memory. But no other species can perform complex, real-time calculations of their physical environment and generate specific, actionable predictions quite like the ones that rescued your crockery. “It’s kind of amazing,” says artificial intelligence researcher Peter Battaglia from Google DeepMind in London. “To me it defies my ability to understand.” In 2013, Battaglia and two colleagues showed that our inbuilt “physics engine” works in a similar way to a graphics engine, software used in video games to generate a realistic playing environment. It is programmed with rules about objects’ physical behaviour, and uses limited real-time inputs (from a player in a game, from our senses in reality) plus probabilistic inference to generate a picture of what comes next. “What you have in your head is some means for running a simulation,” says Battaglia. “You make a 3D model of what’s around you and press the run button, it tells you what will happen. It’s a way to predict the future.” Earlier this year, Jason Fischer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and his colleagues scanned the brains of people doing a task involving physics intuition – predicting how a tower of stacked wooden blocks would fall – and showed that the physics engine sits in specific brain regions. Areas of the motor cortex associated with the initiation of bodily
You perform fiendishly complex calculations every second of the day
You are... a believ You are... a believer Think you’re an atheist? Heaven forfend! Your default is to believe in the supernatural, and there is no manual override
ingers crossed, touch wood. By the time you finish this, you’ll believe you believe in the supernatural. For most of us, that is a given. The vast majority of people are religious, which generally entails belief in a supernatural entity or three. And yet amid the oceans of religiosity are archipelagos of non-belief. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but even conservative estimates suggest that half a billion people around the world (and counting) are non-religious. But are they, really? Among the scientists who study the cognitive foundations of religious belief, there is a widespread consensus that atheism is only skin-deep. Scratch the surface of a non-believer and you’ll find a writhing nest of superstition and quasi-religion. That’s because evolution has endowed us with cognitive tendencies that, while useful for survival, also make us very receptive to religious concepts. “There are some core intuitions that make supernatural belief easy for our brains,” says psychologist Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
One is the suite of cognitive abilities known as theory of mind (see “You are a mind reader”, page 30), which enable us to think about and intuit other people’s thoughts. That’s damn useful for a social species like us, but also tricks us into believing in disembodied minds with mental states of their own. The idea that mind and body are distinct entities also seems to come instinctively to us. Throw in teleology – the tendency to seek cause and effect everywhere, and see purpose where there is none – and you can see why the human brain is a sitting duck. The same thought processes probably underlie belief in other supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, spiritual healing, reincarnation, telepathy, astrology, lucky numbers and Ouija boards. These are almost as common as official religious beliefs; three-quarters of Americans admit to holding at least one of ten common supernatural beliefs. With all this supernatural equipment filling our heads, atheism and scientific materialism are hard work. Overriding inbuilt thought patterns requires deliberate and constant effort, plus a
You are... a mutant You are... a mutant Genes from other species, and cells from your relatives, live inside your body – and they hint at how we can improve ourselves
learned reference guide to what is factually correct and what is right and wrong. Just like a dieter tempted by a doughnut, willpower often fails us. Many experiments have shown that supernatural thoughts are easy to invoke even in people who consider themselves sceptics. Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of his own death, large numbers instinctively answer “yes”. Similarly, people who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are widely attributed to paranormal phenomena. Obviously, it is impossible to prove that everyone falls prey to supernatural instincts. “There is no more evidence than a few studies, and even they do not provide enough support for the argument,” says Marjaana Lindeman, who studies belief in the supernatural at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Nonetheless, the supernatural exerts a pull on us that is hard to resist. If you’re still under the illusion that you are a rational creature, that really is wishful thinking. Graham Lawton
et’s begin with the obvious. You are the product of billions of years of evolution, the accumulation of trillions of gene-copying errors. That’s what led single cells to evolve into jellyfish, ferns, warthogs and humans. Without mutations, life would never have evolved into Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful”, and you would never have seen the light of day. Today, while most of our genes are undeniably Homo sapiens, many of us also carry DNA from other species. We have known for a decade that people of non-African descent inherit between 2 and 4 per cent of their DNA from Neanderthals. And we now know that DNA from several other extinct > 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 29
You are... a mind r human species is also still in circulation, on every continent including Africa. Not only do you carry DNA from other species, you probably also play host to other people’s cells. Before you were born, your mother’s cells crossed the placenta into your bloodstream. Decades later, some of these migrants are still there in your blood, heart, skin and other tissues. This “microchimeric” exchange was mutual: if you are a mother, your children may still be inside you in the form of their embryonic stem cells. You may even be carrying cells from your grandmother and any older siblings. Because microchimeric cells persist for a long time, there is a chance that during pregnancy, your mother was still carrying cells from any previous children she had, as well as cells from her own mother – and she may have shared some with you. Maternal microchimerism is extensive, says Lee Nelson at the University of Washington in Seattle, and probably useful too. “There are so many examples in biology where organisms thrive as a result of exchange – why wouldn’t it also be useful for humans to exchange cellular material?” Fetal cells may help to repair a mother’s damaged heart tissue and lower her risk of cancer. Other research shows that mothers can end up with their child’s DNA in their brains, something that may even be linked to a reduced risk of the mother developing Alzheimer’s. In future, we could become mutants by design. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR should allow genetic diseases to be treated by injecting genes into the body. For example, a small number of people with a mutation in the CCR5 gene, which supplies a protein to the surface of white blood cells, are resistant to HIV. CRISPR opens the possibility of inserting that mutation into the DNA of others, giving them a genetic vaccine against the virus. From there, it’s only a baby-step to genetic superpowers. Ethical questions notwithstanding, future generations could be enhanced with genes for extrastrong bones, lean muscles and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. A mutation in the ABCC11 gene currently found in about 1 in 50 Europeans even renders underarms odourless. Think of the savings on deodorant. Be warned, however: this mutation also makes your ear wax dry up. Swings and roundabouts. Sean O’Neill 30 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
You are... a mind reader
You are... a mind r
Our ability to guess what other people are thinking is the secret sauce of human society
eet Sally and her flatmate Andy. Sally has made a birthday cake for Andy, and leaves it in the fridge while she pops out to buy some candles. While she’s gone, Andy sneaks into the kitchen, takes the cake and hides it on a shelf to consume at leisure. When Sally comes back, where does she think the cake will be? If you answered “the fridge” then congratulations: you understand that, based on what they know, people can have different views from you. You possess a “theory of mind” – something that informs your every waking moment, says Josep Call, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews, UK. “When we get dressed in the morning, we’re constantly thinking about what other people think about us.” No other animal can match our ability, making it the essential lubricant for the social interactions that set humans apart. Take the arts. Artists must be able to imagine what their audiences will think of their characters. Without a theory of mind, there would be no
compelling TV soaps, sculptures or books. Some think William Shakespeare must have had a particularly welldeveloped theory of mind to create such rich, complex characters. Mind reading is also crucial for societal norms. “People not only respond to what you do, but to what you intend to do,” says Call. If you hit someone with your car, the difference between a verdict of murder or manslaughter depends on your intent. Yet we can’t all read minds equally well, says Rory Devine, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge. Most of us come a cropper when attempting nested levels of mind reading. Think of Sally hunting for her cake again, but imagine where she might look if we take into account what she thinks about how Andy’s mind works. The more recursive steps we add, the more we stumble. “When you go beyond five levels, people get really, really bad,” says Call. Being a good mind reader pays. Children who are relatively proficient
You are... a menagerie
You are... a menagerie Other creatures inhabit your every crevice. Take care of the right ones and they’ll take care of you
later report being less lonely, and their teachers rate them as more sociable. We may be able to improve our skills. We know our mind reading apparatus mostly develops before the age of 5, and the principal factor that determines its development is whether our families and friends talk much about the emotions and motivations of others. “The ability to read minds is something we might learn gradually from the guidance of others,” says Devine. This suggests that it could help to just think about what it’s like to be in other people’s shoes. Recently, Devine and his colleagues showed that this learning can continue far beyond early childhood. When they asked 9 and 10-year-old children to read and discuss short vignettes about social situations, the team found they developed better mind-reading skills than children in a control group. Similar improvements have also been seen in people over the age of 60. You’re never too old be a better mind reader. Gilead Amit
ast night, while you were sleeping, legions of eight-legged creatures had an orgy between your eyebrows. No, you haven’t suddenly been invaded by sex tourists. Demodex mites, close relatives of ticks and spiders, are permanent and mostly harmless residents of the human face. “Every person we’ve looked at, we’ve found evidence of face mites,” says Megan Thoemmes at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “You can have thousands living on you and never even know they’re there.” Growing up to 0.4 millimetres long, these beasts spend their days buried head-down in hair follicles gorging on who-knows-what and crawling out under cover of darkness to copulate. They have no anus, so on death disgorge a lifetime of faeces into your pores. Before you lunge for the exfoliating brush: Demodex mites are far from your only microscopic residents. You host astonishing biodiversity, from anus-less arthropods to pubic lice to all manner of bacteria and fungi, and without it you wouldn’t be who you are. “Each of us is really a complex consortium of different organisms, one of which is human,” says Justin Sonnenburg at Stanford University in California. Our resident aliens aren’t all benign. There are big beasts like parasitic worms: roundworm, hookworm and whipworm are prevalent in the developing world, and pinworm still
“Last night, legions of eight-legged creatures had an orgy on your face”
infects kids in the West. Then there are hidden viruses such as Herpes simplex, which lies dormant inside the nerve cells of two-thirds of people until it mistakes your sniffles for a deadly fever and attempts to save itself by rushing outwards, causing cold sores. By far the dominant group, however, are bacteria. You have at least as many bacterial cells as human cells, perhaps 10 times more. Only recently have we begun to grasp the extent of their diversity, and there’s plenty left to discover. This year we found the first bacteria that survive by parasitising other bacteria. They live in your spit. Similar battles play out across your many habitats, from the caves of your nostrils and your anal-genital badlands to the crevices between your toes where the fungus Trichophyton rubrum can flare up as athlete’s foot. All of these critters are constantly shedding from your skin and lungs, forming your own unique cloud of airborne bacteria that follows you everywhere. But the densest microbial gathering is in our gut, a community that affects aspects of health from digestion and immune defences to possibly even mood and behaviour. In mice, seeding the gut with Lactobacillus rhamnosus bacteria has been shown to alleviate anxiety, perhaps by producing molecules that alter brain chemistry. The balance of gut microbiota can shift rapidly in response to diet and lifestyle. To tend it you need to feed it right. Your best bet isn’t much-hyped probiotics or live bacteria, but simply to eat more fibre, the preferred meal for a group of bacteria with potent antiinflammatory powers. “It has been known for a long time that plant-based fibre is associated with good health,” says Sonnenburg. “Now we know why.” Daniel Cossins 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 31
ou are... a fantasist You are... a fantasist Think you’re saner, smarter and better-looking than the average? Well so does everyone else
32 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
New Jersey, argues that when we’ve tricked ourselves, we don’t have to work so hard to trick others, too. Confidence also helps in finding a romantic partner, and so in reproduction. When it comes to overestimating our looks, we’re all at
positive perception of themselves. The real downsides come when you’re less aware of how others perceive you. If you are self-confident without being self-aware, you are likely to be seen as a jerk. “It’s hard to come off as humble or modest when you’re clueless about how other people see you,” says Yoder. Plus we may make bad decisions on the basis of an inflated sense of expertise or understanding. Particularly in the political arena, our “bias blind spot” – a belief that our world view is based on objective truth, while everyone else is a deluded fool – can become problematic, especially as the echo chamber of social media exposes us to fewer contrary views. “It can make opposing parties feel that the other side is too irrational to be reasoned with,” says Wenjie Yan, who studies communication at Washington State University in Pullman. So how can we preserve the good while avoiding the downsides? Different strategies and training programmes do exist for overcoming our inbuilt biases. Most begin by simply making people aware of them and how they can affect our decision-making. At home, we can use an exercise that psychologists call “perspective-taking”. This amounts to trying to see a dispute from the other person’s point of view, says Irene Scopelliti, who studies decision-making at City University of London. She also points out that acting when you’re all riled up – in a state of high emotion – only entrenches your bias. “We know how to make unbiased decisions, but often emotion pushes us, or we aren’t willing to put in the effort,” she says. But then comes the good news: “practice can make us better.” Tiffany O’Callaghan
“Men have a ‘frog prince’ delusion: persisting in a positive self-perception” it – although men are on average worse offenders than women. According to a study earlier this year by Marcel Yoder of the University of Illinois in Springfield and his colleagues, men seem to suffer from a “frog prince” delusion: they accurately assess other people’s lesser perception of them, while persisting in a more
D Legakis/Alamy Stock Photo
ver had the sense that everyone else is an idiot? Maybe that’s a tad overblown, but when it comes to smarts, looks, charisma and general psychological adjustment, there’s no denying you are a cut above the average person in the street. Or on the road: have you seen how those jerks drive? Well, here’s the bad news. Pretty much everyone else is thinking the same thing. The phenomenon of selfenhancement – viewing ourselves as above average – applies across human ages, professions and cultures, and to capabilities from driving to playing chess. It does have advantages. People who are more impressed with themselves tend to make better first impressions, be generally happier and may even be more resilient in the face of trauma. High self-estimation might also let you get ahead by deceiving others: anthropologist Robert Trivers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick,
You are... an athlet You are... an athlete No creature can run faster, further than humans can. And yes, that includes you
couple of months ago, Daniel Lieberman set out on the race of a lifetime. A 25-mile slog in the Arizona heat, climbing a mountain more than 2000 metres tall. To top it all, 53 of his competitors had four legs. This was the 33rd annual Man Against Horse Race. Lieberman, by his own admission not a great runner, outran all but 13 horses – and so could you. Lieberman studies human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, and part of his work over the past 15 years has focused on a unique set of adaptations that suggest modern humans evolved not just to walk, but to run long distances. One is our cooling equipment. “The fact we have sweat glands all over our body and we’ve lost our fur enables us to dump heat extremely effectively,” says Lieberman. This is crucial when running for long periods. It helps to explain why animals struggle to beat us in the heat, even though sled dogs can run more than 100 kilometres a day pulling humans in cold climates. Hence also Lieberman’s success in Arizona. “The hotter it is, the better humans are able to run compared with horses,” he says. Then there are adaptations that offset our clumsy, inefficient bipedal frames. Short toes and large gluteal muscles assist with balance and stability. The Achilles tendon and other springs in the feet and legs help us to store and release energy. We tend to
Born to run LOWEST HUMAN SPEED 8.3 Speed (km/h)
RECREATIONAL RUNNER 11.5
ELITE MARATHON RUNNERS
15 Trotting pony
Postal horses (historical)
SOURCE: DOI: 10.1038/nature03052
Human long distance running speeds compare favourably with animals over a similar distance
have a high proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which produce less power but take longer to tire than the short burst, fast-twitch fibres needed for sprinting. The nuchal ligament at the base of the skull also helps to keep our heads, and therefore our gaze, steady when we run. Other decent runners such as dogs and horses have one, but they’re not found in poor runners such as pigs and non-human primates or early hominids like Australopithecus. Many of these adaptations are specific to running, suggesting we’re not just good at it because we are good walkers. One theory is that we began running as scavengers, where an ability to outrun other carnivores to reach fresh meat was to our advantage. As we improved, we became better hunters, able to track and outrun our prey over large distances before we had spears and arrows. This all helped to provide us with the extra protein we needed to acquire our greatest advantage: a bigger brain. “The features that we see in the fossil record that are involved in running appear about when we start to see evidence for hunting. And soon thereafter their brains start to get bigger,” says Lieberman. So can you unleash your inner marathon runner? In a word, yes. Genetics is important but training is key, says sports scientist Chris Easton at the University of the West of Scotland in Hamilton, UK. You’ll need stronger leg and bum muscles, to be sure, but you can get these simply by starting to run. You will find it hard to increase the proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres you have, but if you find yourself flagging, take your time and take comfort in the fact we evolved to jog, rather than sprint, over the finish line. “Millions of people run marathons and people tell us we are crazy,” says Lieberman. “Actually, it’s part of who we are.” Catherine de Lange 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 33
You are... scared You are... scared Don’t panic! Your inbuilt fear factory means you falsely assess risk – but you can get savvier
n the aftermath of 11 September 2001, most people in the US believed that they or their families were highly likely to become victims of terrorist attacks. “Which is just off the charts crazy when you think about it for even a minute,” says Dan Gardner, an author and risk consultant based in Canada. Instead of boarding planes, people in the US got in their cars. Over the following five years, the annual death toll on the road was on average 1100 higher than it had been in the five preceding years. We are, in general, appalling at assessing risk: driving is inherently riskier than flying, terrorists or no terrorists. We also underestimate our chance of divorce, and spend more than is rational on lottery tickets and less than is rational on climate change. We fear our kids being abducted, so drive them to school, ignoring the greater risks that poses to their health and well-being. How to do better? First, switch off your gut. Psychologists characterise our risk problem as a clash between system 1 and system 2 thinking. System 1 is the product of evolved biases shaped over thousands of years. “If you saw a shadow in the grass and it was a lion and you lived to tell the tale, you’d make sure to run the next time you saw a shadow in the grass,” says Gardner. This inbuilt fear factory is highly susceptible to immediate experience, vivid images and personal stories. Security companies, political campaigns, tabloid newspapers and ad agencies prey on it. System 1 is good at catastrophic risk, but less good at risks that build up slowly over time – hence our lassitude in the face of climate change or our expanding waistlines. So when your risk judgement is motivated by fear, stop and think: what other, less obvious risks might I be missing? This amounts to engaging the more rigorous, analytical system 2.
34 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
People who deal with probability and risk professionally have been found to use system 2 more, among them bookies, professional card players – and weather forecasters. “Meteorologists get a bad rap,” says Gardner, “but they tend to be highly calibrated, unlike most of us.” These people receive precise, near-immediate feedback about their predictions – abuse for a false weather forecast, or a crucial card trick lost – which helps them constantly recalibrate their risk thermometer. That’s something we can all do. “Choose something specific you want to improve your risk intelligence for,” says Dylan Evans, a risk researcher. “What time will your spouse be home tonight? Make bets with yourself. Were you right? Keep track.” That sounds trivial in the home, but it’s crucial in business. Part of the problem in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008 was that individuals were no longer accountable for their own actions, says Andre Spicer, who studies organisational behaviour at City University of London. “At banks, there was no direct relationship between what you did and the outcome,” says Spicer. “That produced irrational decisions.” There’s one feature you see over and over in people with good risk intelligence, says Gardner. “I think it wouldn’t be too grandiose to call it the universal trait of risk intelligence – humility”. The world is complex – be humble about what you know, and you’ll come out better. Sally Adee
“We spend more than is rational on lottery tickets and less on climate change”
You are... a copyc
You are... a copycat Work out what controls how you behave and you can curb bad habits and encourage good
ou wouldn’t stand facing the back of the lift or sit out front in the garden, would you? Well there you are. Proof positive that you’re not in control of your actions – the people around you are. And not just them. Your environment controls you, as do habits you don’t even know you have. But realise what’s really pulling your strings, and you can work out how to manipulate yourself for the better. US social scientist Roger Barker was the first to notice this sort of environmental control. Back in the
1950s, he observed the population of a small US town, and realised that the best predictor of a person’s behaviour was not personality or individual preferences, but their surroundings. People in a shop behaved as people in shops do. Ditto for libraries, churches, bars, music classes, everything. More recently, Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California and her colleagues have shown how almost half of the behaviours we adopt in any given situation are habitual – an automated action learned by repetition until we do it without thinking. “These
were a wide range of behaviours,” says Wood, “including eating, napping, watching TV, exercising and talking with others.” Social control bubbles up from beneath, too. “Reputations are so important in the social world,” says Val Curtis, who studies behaviour change at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Society is founded on cooperation, and we can’t benefit from it unless we gain acceptance by adhering to the unwritten rules. So we face front in the lift. We work this way because neurons are expensive to run. If we had to do everything consciously, we would have no energy for anything else – automation frees up processing power. We notice that when we lose the comfort blanket of subconscious control. “If you have ever walked into a restaurant in a foreign country, you are almost paralysed until you work out what everyone else is doing and then copy them,” says Curtis. Identifying your unconscious workings provides you with ways to fine-tune your behaviour. For a start, if you want to change bad habits, have a look at where and how you enact them, and then try to disrupt that pattern. If you want to stop smoking, avoid the places where you are likely to spark up, or move your cigarettes out of sight. If you want to start eating more healthily, stop meeting friends for lunch at a burger restaurant. “Yes, you think now that you’ll order the salad, but when you get there, the cues and smells will be hard to resist,” says Wood. Curtis has used such insights to develop ways to encourage handwashing with soap in India and to modify the tendency for mothers in Indonesia to feed their children unhealthy snacks. She suggests we can all prime ourselves in similar ways. If you think you ought to do some exercise but don’t really feel like it, just put your running gear on anyway, and wait and see what happens, she says. “The kit takes you for a run. You let it control your behaviour.” Julia Brown n 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 35
HE village of Satlykovo, just east of the Ural mountains in Russia, is no more. The main street is knee-high in nettles, its houses bulldozed. All around, the land is blooming. Nearby forests harbour elk and wild boar. The lake is home to radioactive carp. One morning 59 years ago, soldiers came and ordered the villagers to leave. “Their cattle were destroyed and buried, and they could not even take with them the clothes they stood up in,” says Islam Bagautdinov, who has driven me here through military checkpoints. There were no explanations. The troops didn’t say that there had been an explosion at a factory a few kilometres away; or that the blast had propelled radioactive dust into the air, forming a deadly plume that rained out across Satlykovo and the surrounding countryside. The very existence of the Mayak complex, where weapons-grade plutonium was made, was a military secret. Over the next 600 days, thousands of bemused people from Satlykovo and 22 nearby
villages were evacuated, 20,000 hectares of farmland was put out of use and a permanent exclusion zone was created. Barring a few in the CIA, nobody in the outside world would know of it for two decades. Through this long period of secrecy, Soviet researchers surreptitiously collected data on the villagers and their children. Now under analysis by Western and Russian researchers, this data is offering new insights into the ways chronic exposure to radiation affects health. In November 1976, Soviet dissident Zhores Medvedev wrote about the Mayak disaster in New Scientist and the secret was out, to the Western world at least. The Soviet public wasn’t told until the era of glasnost, or openness, in the late 1980s. Only then did the evacuees, by now spread across the Soviet Union, learn about their radiation exposure. This summer, I became the first Western journalist to visit the Mayak evacuation zone, a fenced-off 100-square-kilometre area known as the East Ural State Reserve. These days,
Fred Pearce goes into the exclusion zone of one of the biggest and the most hidden nuclear disasters ever
ZONE OF SECRETS
36 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
“Waste was just thrown in [the river]. We were in a race to make bombs” radiation in the air is barely above background levels in most areas, but higher concentrations lurk in the soil and vegetation. “The only way to get a significant dose here now would be to eat large amounts of berries and mushrooms,” says Oleg Tarasov, chief wildlife researcher in the reserve. The ban on people living in the exclusion zone is likely to remain for at least another hundred years, says Yuri Mokrov, ecology chief at the state-owned Mayak Production Association, which still runs the complex. Mayak remains a central part of the Russian nuclear industry, these days focused on waste management and reprocessing. Nature has prospered in the absence of humans, much as it has in the exclusion zone
around the Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine. The reserve contains more than 200 species of birds and 455 species of plants, including locally rare species like lady’s slipper orchids. “The biodiversity is better than in other reserves in the Urals,” Tarasov told me as we drove down bumpy tracks. “There are lots of elk, boars, foxes and hares. They understand they won’t be hunted, so they come and they reproduce much better than elsewhere. Small mammals like moles and voles that are closely connected to the ground get much higher radiation doses and are more affected. We find some genetic abnormalities.” The 1957 accident was just one of a series of major radioactive releases from Mayak at the height of the cold war (see “A catalogue of calamities”, right). The most damaging of these wasn’t even an accident. For years after the plant opened in 1949, waste water was poured The Techa was the most radioactive river in the world yet thousands used it daily
into the Techa river, which became easily the most radioactive in the world. “Waste was just thrown in. We were in a race to build bombs – there was no time to do anything else,” says Sergey Romanov of the Southern Urals Biophysics Institute, based in the closed town of Ozersk a few kilometres from the plant. Official estimates put the total release into the river between 1949 and 1956 at 100 petabecquerels, making it the third largest nuclear disaster after Chernobyl and Fukushima. About a quarter of this was strontium-90 and caesium-137, isotopes with half-lives of around 30 years. William Standring of the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, who has reviewed the data, says it caused severe contamination down the entire length of the Techa river, including its extensive floodplain. Thousands of villagers downstream drank the river’s water, ate its fish and wildfowl, swam in its waters and let their cattle graze its meadows. In 1951, restrictions were
introduced. Given no explanation, local people mostly ignored them. Fences went up along the floodplain in 1956, and little by little some 10,000 people living in 19 riverside villages – some of them 100 kilometres downstream of the plant – were evacuated. Homes were bulldozed to prevent anyone returning, and the villages were removed from official maps. These removals would later become a model for emptying villages hit by the 1957 explosion. Later, there was a third major release of radioactivity. Starting in the late 1950s, engineers had begun building a cascade of dams on the Techa. Radioactive waste was dumped into swampy reservoirs upstream of the dams and allowed to settle out into the sediment instead of flowing downstream. In 1967, one of the reservoirs, Lake Karachay, briefly dried out. The radioactive sediments on its exposed bed were whipped up by strong winds and fell to earth downwind. The lake remained the most radioactive >
A CATALOGUE OF CALAMITIES 1949 Mayak Production Association opens. Operators begin pouring waste into the Techa river. 1951 Villagers are told not to use the river, but many still do. Medical teams start searching for signs of radiation sickness. 1953 First riverside village is evacuated. 1956 Techa floodplain fenced off. 10,000 people in 19 villages are moved. 1957 29 September: explosion at Mayak nuclear plant. Evacuation of 22 additional villages begins. 1958 Exclusion zone is created. 1967 Lake Karachay reservoir dries up. Radioactive sediments are blown out over the region. 1976 Zhores Medvedev writes about the 1957 explosion in New Scientist. 1989 Local people are told what has happened. 2006 Vitaly Sadovnikov leaves Mayak Production Association following the revelation that strontium-90 was discharged into the Techa river in the early 2000s. 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 37
Top to bottom: Entering the exclusion zone; encephalitis-bearing ticks call for protective clothing; Satlykovo village is now grassland; Muslyomovo wasn’t evacuated until 2010
38 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
The condition is less severe than acute radiation sickness, which affects people immediately after exposure to a massive burst of radiation, but can cause long-term illness. It is characterised by extremely low haemoglobin levels in the blood, a range of neurological and immune-system disorders, fatigue, sleep disorders, loss of muscle control, disturbances to the digestive system and bone pain. The long-term data show that cases peaked in 1955 and 1956. By 1960, some 940 people had been diagnosed, some in villages 100 kilometres downstream. They included almost two-thirds of Metlino villagers, who lived on the Techa before their village was moved to a new location within the 1957 fallout zone. People began to recover from many, if not all, of their symptoms between three months and a year after they moved out of the zone. But the data also suggest that chronic exposure to higher doses of radioactivity can lead to some irreversible damage. Bone disease, particularly of the spine, was a common longterm symptom.
Long-term cancer risk
body of water in the world until late last year, when it was finally emptied and concreted over. Now an underground plume of radioactive water extends for 10 square kilometres. The catalogue of disasters at Mayak is testimony to the sacrifice of human life as Soviet bomb-makers sought to keep up with the US in the cold war arms race. But the story also reveals the remarkable and chilling ability of Soviet medical researchers to secretly monitor the tens of thousands of people who had unwittingly been exposed to very high doses of radioactivity. Starting in 1951, teams headed out to villages to find signs of radiationrelated sickness. Later, they tracked down evacuees to log their illnesses and deaths. Alexander Akleyev is director of the Urals Research Centre for Radiation Medicine (URCRM) in Chelyabinsk, the regional capital. His organisation has been monitoring the people affected by the events at Mayak since the early 1950s. He says that initially, even scientists only dimly appreciated the dangers posed by the contamination of the Techa river. “In the 1950s, humanity did not know about possible effects of chronic radiation exposure,” he told me. “No emergency programmes were developed that could allow quick decisions to protect the population.” Over the decades, researchers at the URCRM have followed two main groups of villagers: 30,000 people exposed to radioactivity in the Techa river, and 22,000 exposed to the fallout from the 1957 explosion. Around 1500 people fall into both groups: evacuated from the river in 1956, they once again came into harm’s way beneath the 1957 fallout. If children drank milk from cows grazed on the river floodplain, the URCRM knew about it. If villages hunted waterfowl, that too was recorded. At the URCRM’s Chelyabinsk headquarters, I spoke to Ludmila Krestinina, who leads its epidemiologists. She said the villagers’ exposure has been calculated in detail and correlated with their health data. According to Krestinina’s colleague Dmitriy Burmistrov, one hour wandering near the river was at times enough to provide a radiation dose comparable with the maximum annual allowable dose for radiation workers. This kind of sustained exposure was unprecedented, and has had severe consequences. The villagers downstream of Mayak are the only people in the world outside nuclear plants ever to be diagnosed with chronic radiation sickness. Like everything else, that diagnosis was kept hidden from them until the 1990s.
Typically, chronic radiation sickness declared itself around five years after first exposure. Other consequences emerged later: during the 1970s, an excess of leukaemia and cancer started to show up among the evacuated villagers. In 2013, a team of epidemiologists led by Krestinina and Faith Davis at the University of Alberta in Canada concluded that radiation had nearly doubled the risk of leukaemia among Techa riverside residents. Krestinina is now following more than 30,000 children born to villagers who were exposed to radiation. She is looking for genetic effects cascading down the generations, and the impact of radiation received while still in the womb. Reassuringly, similar studies have so far found no sign of such effects, but Krestinina says it is too soon to say for certain. “Within 10 or 15 years, we should know if we can see an effect in causes of death among this next generation,” she told me. Recently, Western epidemiologists have begun studying the data and findings are feeding into the rules for running nuclear facilities. Dale Preston is a US-based biostatistician who has studied radiation and health data for over three decades. He says nuclear industry researchers have begun arguing that low doses of radiation received over long periods may cause much less illness
that he had allowed strontium-90 into the river in the early 2000s. He wasn’t convicted, thanks to an amnesty, but a court document reveals that the discharges raised radioactivity in the river beyond legal limits at several villages downstream. Some of the radioactivity that flowed down the Techa in the 1950s still remains on its bed, smeared across its extensive floodplain and secreted in marshes, ready to be washed back into the river by floods and carried downstream. “The contamination is redistributing all the time,” says Svetlana
Radioactive waste from the Mayak nuclear factory was dumped into the Techa river from the early 1950s. Then, in 1957, an explosion released a plume of airborne radioactive dust over the region. In 1967, another such plume was whipped up from the dried-up Lake Karachay
Strontium-90 contamination (petabecquerels per km2)
Explosion at Mayak nuclear facility
3.7 × 10- 2 7.4 × 10-3 7.4 × 10-4 1.85 × 10-4 3.7 × 10-5 1.85 × 10-5 3.7 × 10-6
1967 plume Dust from Lake Karachay
“The health of 52,000 people was tracked for decades, secretly at first”
Mayak nuclear facility
East Ural State Reserve (exclusion zone) Satlykovo New Metlino Old Metlino
Mayak nuclear facility
Muslyumovo Lake Karachay
Ozersk closed administrative region 50 km
than equivalent doses in a short burst. As a result, the industry has called for occupational exposure limits to be relaxed. The Mayak records undermine that theory, says Preston. There is, he says, “no evidence of a reduction in effect at low doses”. On the contrary, he argues that the findings unequivocally show for the first time that being exposed to low doses of radioactivity increases your risk of a variety of cancers, including leukaemia. Moreover, the increased risk of cancer doesn’t go away if chronic exposure is reduced or eliminated. Other researchers are re-examining the data on thyroid cancers resulting from releases of
SOURCE: D. PRESTON
radioactive iodine at Mayak. This work could help resolve a huge debate in Japan over whether an apparent surge in thyroid cancers around the Fukushima nuclear plant is a result of radiation from the 2011 accident, or whether doctors have simply documented cases that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. About 4000 people still live along the Techa. Many of the fences erected to keep them away from the river are down, and warning signs have disappeared. There have been further radioactive discharges. In 2006, Mayak’s chief executive Vitaly Sadovnikov left the company after a local court learned
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Kostina, the deputy-head of environmental matters for the Chelyabinsk region. She says the restrictions on access to the floodplain are being reassessed but many will have to remain for generations to come. “People do now understand that they are inhabiting a contaminated area, but still fish and swim in the river and have ducks and geese for food,” wrote Galina Tryapitsyna of the URCRM in a report to an international workshop last year. Some communities drink contaminated water and milk from cattle that eat hay mowed from the floodplain. Even far downstream, anglers may be hooking contaminated fish that have migrated from near the plant. Just a few hundred metres from the gates to the exclusion zone, one house remains occupied. It belongs to the family of Tarasov, and our party picnicked there before heading into the forbidden area. “This place is quite safe in terms of radiation, despite its closeness to the exclusion zone,” insists Tarasov. “The fruit and vegetables that we grow in the garden do not contain an increased number of radionuclides. Nor do the mushrooms and berries in the forest around the house. They can be eaten without any limitations. This has been verified by our laboratory.” He has no fears for his family as a result of the radiation next door. Provided they remain outside the exclusion zone itself, they are safe, he says. “The main actual danger here is not radiation but the ticks. They carry encephalitis and their bite can cause severe illness. But the radiation we don’t worry about.” n Fred Pearce is a consultant for New Scientist 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 39
The road to hell is paved with corporate wellness Our “knowledge economy” jobs are disappearing, and now they’re coming for our bodies. André Spicer explains how the brave new world of work is giving us a collective nervous breakdown
So what is this obsession in corporate culture with enhancing health and happiness?
them, they don’t work that well. In particular, corporate weight-loss programmes aren’t effective. The truth is that we don’t really know what happiness does or doesn’t do for us in the workplace, nor are we quite sure how to define it. Nevertheless, to make us happier and more productive, companies want to monetise happiness using untested research with untested results, and with methods that might actually make us less happy.
There’s always been debate over whether a happy worker is more productive, but a more interesting question is how employers are now intervening to “make things better”. In the last decade or so, they’ve suddenly become interested in employee happiness and are designing workplaces to make the physical space itself increase happiness. One company built a workplace to look like a pirate ship. But most interventions involve the employees themselves. BP gave each employee a Fitbit. It was a gift and using it was optional, but increasing numbers of companies are now insisting you use these things. At a hedge fund in London, the traders have to wear them, plus record things such as their diet and sleeping habits, and then the employer correlates that with their trading activities. At one Swedish utility company, if you don’t go to the gym as part of your working week, you get paid less.
One of the big trends we’ve seen over the last couple of decades has been the extension of workplace control from the traditional nine-to-five to the 5 am to 9 pm because of smartphones and extended informal working hours. Management wants to understand what’s happening in the rest of their employees’ lives and begin to track and control it. Health is part of that.
Does the research on any of these interventions stand up?
So this is all about companies squeezing everything they can from their staff?
There is a lot of research showing that if you exercise regularly, you’re likely to be happier, or that after doing exercise you might find certain cognitive tasks a bit easier. But does it actually make employees more productive and efficient? There’s not much good data to answer that question. The measures that employers use to assess such things are rarely what you’d call scientifically robust. They’ll often use employee satisfaction measures.
That’s one aspect. The second part is a cultural shift – what psychologists or philosophers would call category mistakes. Employers are starting to equate physical fitness with corporate competence. It’s this idea that if you’re slim and running marathons, you’re going to be a fantastic CEO. From 2001 to 2011, the proportion of CEOs in the US who ran marathons doubled, and you can be sure those marathons are featuring on their CVs. Give employers a choice of two CEOs with exactly the same skills and they’ll almost always choose the slimmer one. Your hobby can no longer be the community garden or whatever you’ve been doing. You have to be running marathons.
“The beatings will continue until morale increases.” That sort of thing?
Exactly. A study about employer health interventions showed they have very low take-up, and that even when people do adopt 40 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
If health interventions are not particularly effective, why are firms introducing them?
PROFILE André Spicer is a professor of organisational behaviour at City, University of London’s Cass Business School. His latest book is The Stupidity Paradox: The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work, co-authored with Mats Alvesson
What about the job prospects for the rest of us?
There’s a lot of nervousness around what jobs might be replaced by computers – especially in so-called knowledge work. We have this myth of the knowledge economy that arose following the decline in manufacturing in Western nations. Manufacturing jobs needed to be replaced with something else, so we had the rise of the knowledge worker: insurance jobs, auditing, any job in which intellectual labour replaced physical labour. But there’s a mismatch in the economy
Photographed for New Scientist by Marc Schlossman
Was there a link between the rise of the knowledge economy and the rise of such jobs?
Absolutely. So many knowledge economy jobs are bullshit jobs. And, crucially, these are also the ones that are now being automated away. A University of Oxford report on artificial intelligence and jobs estimated that 47 per cent of current jobs in the US are at risk of becoming automated, and most of those likely to be replaced are things like auditing and insurance jobs – classic knowledge roles. The ones that won’t be computerised are jobs like masseuse, life coach and personal trainer. So that explains this new economy built around self-enhancement, happiness and the body?
Yes, that’s one way of creating new forms of employment when knowledge-economy work is in decline. We are transitioning to the body economy. It’s also simply capitalism: what do you do when all other sources of growth have been exhausted? You turn to people’s private lives and you begin looking into their bodies
“When people are asked to attend to their happiness, they just end up feeling more anxious” and psychologies. You turn their minds and bodies into something you can sell. Another factor here is that the major employment and societal trends we are seeing make people feel very vulnerable, like they lack control. But they still feel they can make a tangible difference to their body. This vulnerability is symptomatic of a collective, culture-wide nervous breakdown. Are things at work really that bad?
between what is actually needed and what people want from their knowledge job. The reality is that most jobs in these so-called knowledge companies – consultancies and that sort of thing – are routine and boring. You can learn the skills in a few days. You didn’t need to spend years at university. These jobs have been dubbed “bullshit jobs”. Is that the academic term?
In a sense. In 2013, anthropologist David Graeber wrote a short article titled “On the
phenomenon of bullshit jobs”. It struck a nerve and was shared by millions of people around the world. Graeber says a bullshit job is one that the employee thinks is meaningless and the world would be better off if it didn’t exist. Off the back of that article, YouGov did a survey of British adults last year, in which 37 per cent of respondents said their job did not make a “meaningful contribution to the world”. The article chimed with a lot of people who really think, “What’s the point of what I’m doing here?”
Think about it. The jobs are disappearing, the ones that are left don’t feel rewarding, and our performance is increasingly being measured using things that aren’t in our job description. And we’re encouraged to constantly monitor our own happiness, by employers asking that question or monitoring it on a regular basis. This actually makes it likely we will start feeling less happy. A lot of the happiness literature has been ignored on this: studies show that when people are asked to attend to their happiness, they just end up feeling more anxious. Well, I’m a bit depressed now. Sorry. n Interview by Sally Adee 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 41
Where we map the line of human lives four-million strong map and chart collection for exhibitions that warn us not to treat the cartographic orthodoxy of the day as gospel truth – be it the Mercator Projection, Ordnance Survey or Google Maps. One 2001 show had the sternly didactic title Lie of the Land. The latest exhibition confines itself to the 20th century, with an especially strong sample of the maps that provoked and accompanied two world wars and the cold war that ensued.
Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the line, British Library, London, to 1 March 2017
During the first world war, maps depicted Britain as an evil spider 42 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
jon ellis the british library
OUT of the scores of maps on display at the British Library, one in particular should snare the attention of President-elect Trump. It shows how in 1864 a section of the Rio Grande that marks the US-Mexico border changed course due to flooding, pushing the 600-acre Chamizal tract and its people into another country. Where to build that wall? Eventually, Mexico got its land “Maps of Iceland’s receding and people back. But most visitors Breiðamerkurjökull glacier to Maps and the 20th Century will helped sound the alarm on climate change” readily agree that “the map is not the territory” – a dictum coined by the engineer-philosopher Alfred Inspect the beautifully crafted, Korzybski. We know that history, 3D relief maps of the Western ideology and changing scientific Front that Haig’s staff pored over norms have always shaped those during the first world war and you deceptive but indispensable shudder. Back in their chateaux, charts that frame space and staff officers sought to bypass freeze time. gradients, slopes and woods while The Chamizal dispute, however, missing the perils of level open suggests another, more unsettling ground – barbed wire, mud, variable: one that exists not just in cartographers’ heads but on the shifting earth. Maps of the receding Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in Iceland helped sound the alarm on climate change as human agency (unless you’re Donald Trump) began to modify the mappable terrain. These days, even the territory itself may not count as solid ground. This isn’t the first time the British Library has plundered its
trenches, exposure – as that required imagination rather than a clear sight of the charts. The map was not the territory: countless thousands died as a result. “The art of Biography,” rhymed the English humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley, “Is different from Geography. Geography is about maps, But Biography is about chaps.” From the Nazi map of the US that identifies states with high German immigration as propaganda targets to the early infographic that plots incomedistribution in 1966 Los Angeles by neighbourhood, we never forget that chaps make maps for and about other chaps. Within their folds, or across their pixels, human and physical geography converge. Advances in technology will never banish the shaping spirit of the cartographer. A 1990 satellite-generated depiction of “Earth from Space” consists of thousands of separate images woven into an artificial tapestry: just as much a fiction, arguably, as the Navy League world map of 1901 that coats most of the planet in imperial scarlet. Curator Tom Harper’s selection reminds us that the satellite and digital imaging behind the maps in cars and phones now has a decades-long history. GPS began in 1973. Its early documents can look quainter than any medieval fantasy: the frail lines of Bell Labs’s 1995 map of global internet traffic on one day are as lonely as the course of Columbus’s caravels. When maps advance the propaganda aims of corporations
heinrich berann atlantic floor national geographic magazine june 1968
From Donald Trump’s proposed Mexican wall to the horror of two world wars, a new exhibition reminds that us that the map isn’t necessarily the territory, says Boyd Tonkin
For more books and arts coverage, visit newscientist.com/culture
Atlantic Ocean floor: home to part of Earth’s longest mountain range
This time-honoured seafarers’ aid not only locates islands with a schematic audacity to rival Beck, but even indicates ocean swell. Just like the European traders and commanders who landed on their palm-fringed shores, Pacific islanders took a strictly practical view of mapping the seas. The features that mattered either helped people cross them, or threatened to shipwreck their craft. Only towards the end of the 19th century did the emerging science of oceanography allow us to pore over the submarine world with the same awe inspired by a
or of states, decoding them is a relatively simple task. We quickly get the point, even before an evil giant spider straddles Europe in both British (1915) and German (1941) colours. More nuanced, and troubling, thoughts arise when a genuine quest for as much accuracy as instruments and techniques permitted drives mapmakers to either flatter power – or stiffen resistance to it. No item at the show moved me more than the minutely detailed plan of the Auschwitz-Birkenau “The minutely detailed plan concentration camp sent by of Auschwitz-Birkenau was the Jewish Agency and Polish topographical exactitude government-in-exile to the UK’s in the service of humanity” Foreign Office in 1944. It was created in support of the vain contoured map of the Himalayas effort to secure Allied bombing or the Alps. A 1960s chart of the raids on the railway lines that fed Atlantic Ocean sea floor shows the the extermination camps. This spine of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was topographical exactitude snaking along the seabed from in the service of humanity. Iceland to the sub-Antarctic Less nobly, the Abadan oilBouvet Island – at about 15,000 refinery map of 1949 – with the kilometres, it is part of Earth’s Iranian plant plotted down to its longest mountain range. last fence and tree – was created Closer to home, Harper’s not to win a political argument but the cold war itself. Pretty often insistence on maps as “agents of change” and vectors of power in the exhibition, cartographers allows startling glimpses of are shown to yoke science (sound ourselves as others see us. for the time) to selfish ends. Take Luftwaffe bombing charts a Rwandan mineral-deposit map of Liverpool may seem fairly from 1963, with land carefully familiar; less so a map of the postpunctuated by symbols of the war Abercrombie Plan for London. wealth beneath: from Fe and Sn, even some Au, down to the Co that And whatever happened to those powers the phone that stores your projected “major airports” in Romford and Orpington? maps – and stoked the wars of As late as 1990, authorities Central Africa. in the Soviet Union compiled Inevitably, the categories classified military maps of the UK can overlap. Better, perhaps, based on their standardised grid, to get lost amid the cartographic “Sistem 42”. The section devoted cornucopia than try to follow a to the UK’s south coast supplies fixed path like the earnest pipeanother, stranger identity for the puffing ramblers on the covers resort of Brighton’s posher of inter-war OS maps. The leaps between culture and context yield neighbour. Under Soviet eyes, sedate Hove has mutated into mind-stretching views, as when glamorous and sinister “KOB”. n Harry Beck’s “electrical circuit diagram” of the 1931 London Underground shares a space with Boyd Tonkin is a writer and critic. He was chair of the judges for the 2016 a mattang, a navigational stick Man Booker International Prize chart from the Marshall Islands. 10 December 2016 | NewScientist | 43
The meaning of fuel Blowing up common words is messy, says Paul Graham Raven
WE ALL know what the word “fuel” means. We must do – the word litters our discourse around climate change, green energy and sustainable development goals. We surely couldn’t spend that much time and effort using a word we didn’t fully understand? Academic Karen Pinkus would have it otherwise, and her book Fuel: A speculative dictionary is her attempt to (re)define this crucial term of debate. She is interested in the current futurist rhetoric around fuel, but rather than focusing on today’s muchhyped energy solutions, she reaches instead for the fiction shelf, bending and stretching the term in order to capture a surprising array of candidates for fuelhood. It is this sense of potential that particularly exercises Pinkus: whether a substance can be articulated as a potential fuel of the future through narrative means. The ill-defined distinction between fuels and energy, which petroleum companies, among others, “have every reason to blur”, is why “genuine ‘future fuels’ never actually come to be, for their time is never any precise moment of political-technical cooperation”. As I know from personal experience, calling into question the definition of key terms in You may think you know what a petrol station is... 44 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
dictionary, however, it really energy discourse isn’t a popular strategy, and recommending that does need to be read front to back for the argument to emerge. demand be reduced is anathema. Bring hope, say the policymakers, Even then, the line of argument has to work against the stop-start or stay at home. of the dictionary structure. This The trouble is that hope is charming structural conceit inherently speculative: to hope might well also be the book’s that X will work is to be implicitly greatest flaw. uncertain that X will work. And The fuels catalogued range so Pinkus is interested in the from the (seemingly) obvious – persistent metanarrative of “the myth of future fuels” “Reducing the demand for that mobilises our collective energy is anathema. Bring aspiration to avoid having to hope, say policymakers, address our energy consumption. If that sounds like a lot of or stay at home” thinking for a fairly thin book, well, that’s not even the half of it. wood, coal, oil, uranium – through Pinkus totes a toolbox packed the more fictional-imaginative – with allegory and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, dilithium theories and thinkers with which crystals – to the (seemingly) to prod her materials, and there’s absurd – albatrosses, goats, the too much going on to allow for arrow of Eros, patriotism. The easy summary. idea of, say, an engine fuelled And that’s without even talking by patriotism is, outside some about the formal strategy of Fuel, rightish political circles, patently which is laid out like a dictionary, preposterous. Nonetheless, with the terms to define in patriotism is often portrayed alphabetical order. Unlike a as a motivating force that drives
men – it’s almost always men – to action. Ditto Eros’s arrow. Any project that multiplies or makes new distinctions between contested categories is unavoidably a project of complication. As such, I mean no insult to Pinkus when I say that Fuel left me with far more questions than answers, and that enthusiasts for simple statements and clear conclusions should look for enlightenment elsewhere. But therein lies the rub, because it is precisely that impulse towards simplicity and “solutions” that Pinkus would like to squelch. No civil engineer or infrastructure policy wonk is going to make it through the first five pages of Fuel – it’s too ambiguous, too touchy-feelythinky, too messy. In other words, it’s too much like the world outside the laboratory walls. n Paul Graham Raven is an infrastructures futurist based in Sheffield, UK
Fuel: A speculative dictionary by Karen Pinkus, University of Minnesota Press, $25
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So are we. At St Mary’s School, Cambridge, we‘re proud of our continued excellence in science at all ages.
Reassuring news on hallucinations
From Dawn Wild, Bristol, UK I was interested to read about Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which people who are losing their vision experience hallucinations (5 November, p 28). At 92, my father had been losing his sight due to macular degeneration for some time. Travelling on a train from
Andover to visit us in Bristol he became convinced that the other passengers were growing green beards and had green hair and very ugly faces. On entering our lounge he saw little fires all over the floor and tried to put them out with his walking stick. I too was, he said, sprouting green hair and a beard (and I am his daughter). We took him to hospital, where the doctor initially thought he had a urinary tract infection: but his mind was clear. She looked up his symptoms and diagnosed Charles Bonnet syndrome, while he saw birds and monkeys flying through the hospital. Having been assured he was not “mad” he was able to cope with the hallucinations. It is reassuring to know of this research, since the manifestations were frightening.
So what is this ‘clean energy’ then? From Teo Leyssen, Crouzet, France Martin van Raay says wood is not a good fuel source, and that we should use only “clean” energy (Letters, 5 November). I am all for using renewable energy, even if we are still miles away from producing all we need. The term “clean energy”, however, has no meaning. It is a concept used for political reasons. The writer does not mention which form of energy he is thinking of, but often “clean energy” is taken to be a combination of wind, solar and water power. All these, while cleaner than coal and oil, have their own problems. Water power changes the aquatic environment, kills fish and pollutes rivers with
lubrication oil. Wind power kills birds. Solar power uses a lot of energy in producing the panels. We do not have a recycling system for solar panels, so used solar cells will end up in landfill. Wood, used responsibly, is not any worse than these. The only clean energy is the energy we don’t use. Reducing energy use is the only green option.
Report the true scale of the energy mountain From Paul Younger, Glasgow, UK I enjoyed the article by Mark Harris on how batteries might be made much more agile by coupling them to ultracapacitors (12 November, p 28). But in casually equating “energy supply” to electricity power generation he makes a common but large error. In Ireland, as in neighbouring
A WORLD OF
52 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
WAITING TO BE
“A counter to the assumption that poor health in deprived areas is always due to lifestyle” nna Baatz draws a conclusion from a report that low social status A damages rhesus monkeys’ immune systems (3 December, p 15)
countries, electrical consumption accounts for only about 20 per cent of total energy consumption. The remaining 80 per cent is split roughly equally between heating and transport fuels. So the claim that “in Ireland, wind power now accounts for almost a quarter of energy supply” is off by a factor of five. Exaggerating the achievements of renewables (wittingly or not) does nobody any favours: it masks the scale of the mountain we have to ascend to thoroughly decarbonise energy.
Cold fusion just isn’t happening From Nick Canning Coleraine, County Londonderry, UK I was surprised to read that “cold fusion” research is still attracting considerable funds from private investors (17 September, p 34). Most schemes seem to involve
transient heat produced in electrochemical cells using heavy water and palladium electrodes. All plausible mechanisms for fusion of the heavy water’s deuterium nuclei in these experiments suggest that their absorption into the palladium lattice is essential. If cold fusion were possible by this mechanism, then it would also occur in deuterium gas diffusing through a single palladium crystal into a vacuum. Such experiments have never detected fusion. They may detect transient heat until a steady state of adsorption and absorption of deuterium into the palladium lattice is reached. I conclude that the transient heat is not due to fusion reactions, but to this adsorption and absorption. It will never exceed the work done on the electrochemical cell by the external power source.
Do we really solve puzzles while we sleep? From Alwyn Eades, Hellertown, Pennsylvania, US Over the years I have seen descriptions of problems solved on waking up or after an extended period of thinking about other things, most recently by Peter Robbins (Letters, 22 October). The claim is that the problem was solved, during sleep, for example, by the subconscious. I have often experienced the phenomenon but have a different interpretation. When faced with a problem or puzzle, it sometimes happens that I fail to solve it because I set out down a path which does not lead to the solution but am unable to let go of these initial thoughts. I get stuck: repeating those unhelpful steps over and over again. After sleep or distraction, it seems to me that
the false steps have been deleted from my memory and that starting afresh the solution becomes clear “instantly”. The subconscious has not solved the problem, the problem was solved by restarting with an unbiased mind.
What makes us conscious? From Nick Godwin, Edinburgh, UK I write in opposition to the view that consciousness somehow of necessity arises from matter, rather than being intrinsic to it. That view is implied several times in Anil Ananthaswamy’s review of Susan Greenfield’s book A Day in the Life of the Brain (29 October, p 44). He says, for example, that “objective neural activity turns into the ‘wine’ of subjective conscious experience.” The >
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LETTERS statement that “we fade into unconsciousness during anaesthesia” reflects the error. In my experience, anaesthesia acts with the immediacy of a switch: the only way I could detect that I had been “under” was that the anaesthetist appeared suddenly to “flip” to the other side of my hospital bed. It seems to me more likely that the essence of consciousness (albeit in a simplified state) forms part of the primary substance of material reality. The part played by neural activity would then be not to “give rise” to consciousness, but to create a path of connection to an innate subjectivity existing behind all of material reality. Don’t misunderstand me, this is not a call for belief in some kind of “mystical being”. Rather, it is a call to consider the possibility of something intrinsic to reality that takes the form of subjective perception. After all, what would be the substance of a universe with no subjectivity, unable to experience its own existence? How could such a universe ever be shown to exist, and by and to whom? TOM GAULD
Show me the interesting jobs, James Dyson From Chris deSilva, Dianella, Western Australia James Dyson has said that automation “increases the number of more interesting jobs for people” (12 November, p 24). I challenge him to produce a list of such jobs and estimates of how many people will be employed in them in the future.
A spin in the simulator for learner drivers From Andrea Stevenson, Benalla, Australia Timothy Revell writes of robots learning to drive using virtual reality (29 October, p 24). I have long thought VR would be an excellent tool for teaching humans to drive. Learners could encounter many driving scenarios before going onto real roads, experienced drivers could prepare for unusual conditions, and mistakes could be quickly improved upon. The computer could record the driver’s strengths and weaknesses.
So when drivers encounter a dog in front of their car on a gravel road for the first time, they will know what to do.
Lives or the planet? You choose wisely... From Guy Cox, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia Which is more important, saving lives or saving the planet? Clearly, reducing the number of humans can only be good for the planet, but most of us are humane enough to want to strike a balance. But Michael Le Page doesn’t seem to be interested in such a balance when he advises us to swap diesel cars for petrol ones (29 October, p 16). Diesel cars use much less fuel than petrol cars and so produce much less carbon dioxide. They are also more fuel-efficient than hybrids, by a smaller amount. What is the good of improving London’s air quality if London goes under water? Whether electric cars are better depends on where the electricity comes from. The alternative Le Page doesn’t
mention is ethanol, a renewable fuel. Cars that can use it are available in many countries: here in Australia it is even used in V8 Supercar racing, countering claims that motor racing is environmentally irresponsible.
The importance of early chefs, or of seafood From Mike Sands, Hart Village, County Durham, UK Graham Lawton suggests that cooking dates back a million years and explains that the process is highly cognitively demanding and thus very time-consuming (5 November, p 36). Surely, this would lead to a specialisation of labour, perhaps more than other “professions” such as knapper or nut-gatherer. Perhaps “chef” should be accepted as the new “oldest profession”. From Bob Lister, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, UK Lawton mentions the thesis that cooking supplied critical nutrients for brain development. Chief among these is a ready supply of fatty acids, particularly omega -3, rather than calories. These are readily supplied by a marine diet that can be eaten raw and without cooking and does not require powerful chewing. David Attenborough revisited the “Waterside Ape” hypothesis in two BBC radio programmes. He cited recent evidence from the Pinnacle Point caves in Mossel Bay (Mussel Bay in English), South Africa. From about 160,000 years ago people there enjoyed a diet of seafood, including molluscs, crustacea and algae. Letters should be sent to: Letters to the Editor, New Scientist, 110 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EU Email: email@example.com Include your full postal address and telephone number, and a reference (issue, page number, title) to articles. We reserve the right to edit letters. Reed Business Information reserves the right to use any submissions sent to the letters column of New Scientist magazine, in any other format.
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Do try this at home
The card you’ll want to send There are only so many snowy scenes and wreaths one person can tolerate. Want to make a card that lights up the room? All you’ll need are conductive paint, an LED and a cell battery
WE ARE going to draw a circuit with the conductive paint to connect the battery and LED light, illuminating your chosen design. First, put a blob where your battery will go. Once that’s
needs to be connected to the positive side of the battery. Don’t let the legs touch each other – that’s another short circuit situation. When your LED is in place, it should stay lit for hours. For extra credit you could leave a second break in your circuit and make a foam switch (so it only lights up on demand). Place a piece of foam with a hole in the middle over the break. Paint a square on a
dry, secure the battery on top, making sure its underside is touching the paint. Next, use a paper bridge to paint a line from the top face of the battery onto the card – the bridge helps stop any paint touching both sides of the battery, which would cause a short circuit. Now go crazy with the design, as long as you have a big long line starting at one battery terminal and ending at the other, with a break where your LED will go. Bear in mind that the paint adds resistance to the circuit, so if your line is really long you might need an extra battery. When adding your LED, make sure it’s the right way round. The longer leg usually
second piece of foam and attach it on top so the foam underneath prevents the square from completing the circuit until it’s smushed against the card. If you’ve got conductive paint left over, you can make a quick gift to go with the card: put a blob on the fingertips of a pair of gloves and voila! Your loved one will never have to choose between cold hands and a touchscreen again. Hannah Joshua n
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onto our plate. The nation was thrown into spasms over threats to the supply of Marmite, and the Department for International Trade made bizarre pleas for an ambassador to market “innovative jams” to continental Europe. What does it all mean? We can only look to Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Budget speech, in which he expressed concern for Britain’s jams. Not fruity breakfast spreads in this case, but those citizens “Just About Managing”. Sadly, the odd acronym was the only sweetener to be found among gloomy economic forecasts that promise the squeezed middle will hear its pips squeak before Brexit is over, as will everyone else.
THE UK government may have the most pervasive surveillance laws in the Western world, allowing it unprecedented scope to watch citizens online (26 November, p 6). At the same time, it’s also in the grip of a puritanical fervour, trying to limit what British web users can see. The Digital Economy Bill proposes that any site not approved by censors would be blocked in the UK, while
health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on social media giants to prevent teens sharing explicit photos. Foremost in the campaign to think of the children is MP Claire Perry. During the debate over the recent bill, she boasted that the automated internet filters she helped implement had made the UK “one of the most family-friendly places in the world to access the internet.” Readers will note that as well as blocking outreach websites such as Childline and sex education portals, these automated filters also decided to protect Brits from such deleterious material as, er, Claire Perry’s own website.
WHO will save us from these modern day Mary Whitehouses and Anthony Comstocks attempting to clean up the web? Step forward LUSH cosmetics, which is showing its support for internet freedom with the Error 404 bath bomb. Sales will raise money for campaigners fighting internet shutdown across the globe. So if you can’t wait for the next election, know you can fight the power from the warmth of your tub, and bask in the glow of your own soapy slactivism. Feedback wonders what other bathroom goods might be coopted for political campaigns. Free speech mouthwash? Rubber duckies to raise awareness of plastic in the oceans? Or perhaps a combined shampoo/ conditioner supporting the Middle East peace process named “Two State Solution”? THE strange confection of food and politics that has gripped the UK post-Brexit continues to find its way
Spotted by Kevin Lee: “What it required was all of us putting our heads together.” Surgeon Oren Tepper describes how his team separated a pair of twins conjoined at the skull. 56 | NewScientist | 10 December 2016
PREVIOUSLY Feedback presided over concerns that a surplus of words for things scatological was fragmenting research papers on the topic, as there was no agreed definitive word for dung to search for (27 August). Linda Losito writes to say that as a biology teacher, this caused serious problems for foreign students doing exams. “Everyday terms such as cowpat were not in their vocabulary, sometimes preventing them from answering an entire exam question.” Consequently, Linda created a list entitled They say the English have 50 different words for poo. She tells us this dictionary of doody has now grown to include 59 words, “from ‘big job’ to ‘whoopsie’, and is used as a resource by my English department”. That’s one pile of muck you can leave in the staff room without complaints from colleagues. ON A recent trip to South Africa, Brian King discovered an unlikely measurement for birthday cakes. Stopping at a supermarket to buy one, he was asked what size he wanted: beer box or half beer box? “Apparently the cardboard trays that hold 24 cans of beer were once used to bake cakes in,” says Brian. “The size description has remained, as everybody here knows exactly
how big a box of beer is.” Feedback wonders if you need at least 18 candles on the cake to buy one.
THE publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland has renewed appetites for nominative determinism. Luke McGuinness writes in to say “I had a chuckle when I saw that the president of the Western Australian Apiarists Society is none other than Ian Beeson.” READER Avery Emery is still thinking about the charming news related by our colleagues that communities of tiny creatures make their homes in elephant footprints. “I began to wonder if some enormous creature had made a similar footprint which
became our world,” she says. “If so, one can only hope that he hasn’t got an offspring which is, literally, following in father’s footsteps!”
FINALLY, after discovering that those working in science are the most likely to want to leave a status update after they die (5 November), we’ve been fielding readers’ suggestions. “Having survived a 440 volt shock in the British Aircraft Corp’s Filton Wind Tunnel, while testing Concorde”, says Roger Redman, “I would like to announce my passing with ‘Resistance was futile’.”
You can send stories to Feedback by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your home address. This week’s and past Feedbacks can be seen on our website.
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THE LAST WORD French kisses When visiting France, it became obvious that French people kiss each other in social situations much more frequently than British people do. Does this mean that the French pass on more colds and flu, or does this help children build up a better immunity so they are less likely to catch them in later life?
n This is not kissing as such, but more of a mutual touching of cheeks known as faire la bise. The etiquette is more than a little complicated, however, and there’s lots of room for confusion. As I understand from New Scientist, handshaking is one of the key ways of passing on cold and flu viruses, along with touching handrails and surfaces previously touched by sufferers. Hence cheek-kissing would seem to be a safer way of greeting someone without passing on a contagion. But despite the prevalence of “kissing”, handshaking is also more common in France than in the UK. You can’t walk into the office in the morning without going round shaking hands with everybody. When it comes to colds and flus, I haven’t noticed any particular difference in their spread in any country I’ve lived in. But then again, in France, anyone who has a cold almost religiously excuses themselves from kissing. I would say there is absolutely no basis to the question’s hypothesis – everything points
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to the culprit being handshaking. Terence Hollingworth Blagnac, France
Fly fishing (hic) The other day I fished a fly out of my Chardonnay. In its struggle, it must have absorbed some of my wine. Sitting on my finger, it cleaned itself carefully and I expected it to fly off somewhat erratically. It flew, however, straight and true for as far as I could see it. So does alcohol not affect insects in the same way as it affects mammals?
can survive for hours in fluids that would drown a human in minutes. Your fly may have swallowed a sip while grooming, but would not have gulped enough to affect its ability to stay on a chalk line. Jon Richfield Somerset West, South Africa n The natural inclination for a flying insect is to fly in an erratic path. This helps it to avoid being eaten by a bird. However, when it is drunk it has trouble doing this and tends to fly in a straight line. To test if the insect has had too much to drink, put it on a piece of paper and draw a straight line out from its nose. If it can
n Alcohol affects most animals similarly, including insects, although their sensitivity varies greatly. The answer lies with how “The natural inclination for our mammalian morphology differs from that of typical insects. an insect is to fly an erratic path. This helps it to avoid Mammals have a distinctly being eaten by a bird” perverse arrangement of breathing and swallowing mechanisms. Whenever we follow the line without wavering, swallow, our survival rests on it is drunk and should not be a complicated arrangement of permitted to fly for its own safety. sensors, reflexes and valves that Hugh Roberts marshal the traffic so that we Nelson, New Zealand may eat, drink, breathe and be merry, with only the occasional n In the 1950s, while I was living life-threatening slug going down in the tropics, an emerald green the wrong way. grasshopper flew into the ceiling A fly’s respiratory system, fan and landed, stunned, next to on the other hand, has its own my father’s beer glass. My dad complications, but it inhales only carefully put a few drops of beer through spiracles that are totally into a bottle cap and balanced the separate from the alimentary grasshopper on the rim. It had tract. So when struggling for a drink, staggered around and survival in wine, none of its finally flew away. reflexes cause it to swallow. Amazingly, the grasshoppper Many non-aquatic insects came back the following two
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nights and enjoyed a tipple with my dad. Sadly, on the third night it died, unnoticed, in his beer glass. I would be happy to receive verification from your readers that grasshoppers might enjoy alcohol because this story is usually met with disbelief and derision. Whether flies have similar tastes to us and to each other is a mystery to me, however. Sue Macpherson By email, no address supplied n Some insects do react to alcohol, or at least seem to. About 50 years ago I was in a village pub in Kent with some friends and we spilled beer on the table. A large moth landed and began sucking up the beer. When it had finished, it described an ever-wider spiral on the table-top and fell off on to the floor. This may not be conclusive evidence, but it gave a very convincing impression of being extremely drunk. Ian Stewart University of Warwick Coventry, West Midlands, UK
This week’s question CLONING TO THE RESCUE
Having cloned sheep and who knows what else, wouldn’t it be a good idea for scientists to begin cloning the world’s endangered species? Is there any reason not to? Stefan Badham Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK
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