EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY
We’re capturing the universe’s most violent outbursts
Mysterious 15th-century manuscript declared a hoax
The battle against the brain-eating amoebas WEEKLY 1 October 2016
MEET THE THREE-PARENT BABY Mitochondrial transfer has arrived
YOUR CONSCIOUS UNCONSCIOUS Your life is ruled by thoughts you don’t control
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No3093 £3.95 US/CAN$5.95
GESTURE POLITICS Body language reveals your secret prejudices
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Volume 232 No 3093
This issue online newscientist.com/issue/3093
Meet the threeparent baby
6 UPFRONT Europa’s plumes spotted. China’s huge radio telescope fires up. US climate shortfall. Digging out one of Europe’s rarest mammals 8 THIS WEEK How brain-eating amoebas hunt you down. First good evidence of Neanderthal burial rituals. Texas quakes linked to fracking. Mystery manuscript may be hoax. Could sex hormone help women beat addiction? 16 IN BRIEF Turtle surfing makes crabs faithful. Boomerang kids ease depression. Fish sing dawn chorus like birds. Puffy exoplanets
Blackout Concepts / Alamy
First child born from new technique
Childhood poverty causes terrible damage, we must act
On the cover
38 explosions in the sky Capturing the universe’s most violent outbursts 12 Closed book Voynich text called a hoax 9 Killer headache Brain-eating amoebas 8 Three-parent baby A new kind of child is born 26 Gesture politics Your secret prejudices revealed
Your conscious unconscious Your life is ruled by thoughts you don’t control
Analysis 20 Pornography addiction Has easy access to online porn created a public health crisis? 22 comment Russian hackers want to poison US election. Don’t sell rhino horn to fund conservation 23 insight Make do and mend may be bad for the planet
Cover image Daniel Bejar
24 Driverless car companies fight for map supremacy. Wikipedia’s great bot edit war. Computers can spot our hidden biases
28 A not-so-delicate flower made from metal
Explosions in the sky NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Capturing the universe’s most violent outbursts
30 Your conscious unconscious (see above left) 36 Terraforming with bugs Synthetic life could be part of the climate toolkit 38 Celestial explosions (see left) 42 PEOPLE Charles Nelson: poverty’s effect on the brain
Coming next week… Birth and death of a language
Race to decode a new language before it’s gone
All the benefits of fossil fuels, none of the guilt
44 Coming together Animal sound symphony is telling us new things about our world 46 Unhappy bedfellows Ars Electronica show reveals cracks in marriage of art and tech
Regulars 52 letters AIs wouldn’t correct politicians 56 Feedback Sardinian blood heist 57 The Last Word Shivering timbers
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 3
Mike Abrahams / Alamy Stock Photo
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End this poor start in life Childhood poverty causes terrible damage, and we must act IT’S rare that scientists are moved with less than 60 per cent of to tears by their research projects, the median income. In the US, but for Harvard neuroscientist 15 million children live in Charles Taylor, that was once a households with an income daily experience. In the late 1990s below the official poverty line. he and his team set up a longFor a couple with two children, running study of children living that’s $24,036 – about $16 per in Romanian orphanages. What person per day. For everything. they witnessed was so distressing You can argue the toss whether that they had to make a rule: if 60 per cent of median income, you couldn’t hold back the tears, or $16 a day, is genuine poverty. make sure you didn’t let the It certainly isn’t anything close to children see you cry. the hardships endured by many Taylor set up the study to find in the developing world. But even out what early adversity does to Western levels of poverty can have child development – especially “Children who grow up poor cognitive development. The lag behind at school and project is still ongoing and have worse health than the results are not pretty: the their wealthier peers” institutionalised children are in terrible distress (see page 42). detrimental and long-lasting A more recent project in the effects. Children who grow up slums of Bangladesh is likely poor lag behind at school and tend to reach a similar conclusion. to have worse physical and mental Poverty and squalor in childhood health than their luckier peers. can be a life sentence. Alleviating child poverty can be Children in the West rarely done, but it requires political will. endure the desperate levels From 1998 to 2010, approximately of deprivation seen in the 800,000 children in the UK were orphanages of Bucharest or the lifted above that poverty line, slums of Bangladesh, but many largely because of policies do experience genuine hardship. designed to do so. But progress According to the UK’s Child Poverty Action Group, 3.9 million is fragile. Over the past five years 500,000 have slumped back in. children are living in poverty The Institute of Fiscal Studies in the UK. That is more than a forecasts that by the end of this quarter of the country’s children, parliament the number will have growing up in households
climbed back to its late-1990s peak, despite legally binding targets to reduce child poverty. That is a shameful statistic. Politicians paying lip service to the goal while spectacularly failing to deliver it might be jolted into action by the fact that their abject performance is costing the taxpayer huge sums of money. According to one recent analysis, dealing with the consequences of child poverty directly costs the UK government £15 billion a year, £3 billion more than in 2008. Why aren’t UK opposition parties holding the ruling Conservatives to account for not just failing to live up to their own targets, but for letting the gains of the early 2000s be lost – and squandering billions in the process? Why isn’t the Labour party trumpeting its own admirable record on this issue, if only to highlight the fact that it is possible to make a difference if you actually want to? Science cannot tell politicians what to do, but it can alert them to hard-to-see problems. On child poverty, the evidence is solid and growing. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it ought to be clear that tackling child poverty and its lifelong consequences is not a political choice but a humanitarian duty. n 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 5
Upfront US climate shortfall THE good news is that the Paris climate agreement is likely to come into effect this year, earlier than expected. The bad news is that the second biggest polluter, the US, is not on course to meet its promised target to cut emissions. Although most countries have signed the Paris agreement, it doesn’t take effect until at least 55 countries, accounting for 55 per of carbon emissions, approve it. Now, 61 countries – responsible for 48 per cent of emissions, and including the two largest polluters, China and the US – have ratified the treaty, and many others say they will do so by the end of 2016. But the US is not on track to meet its target of cutting
“The Paris targets are too low: even if all countries meet them, Earth will still warm by over 2 ˚C”
Europa’s liquid encore JUPITER’S icy moon Europa keeps spewing watery plumes into space, and we might be able to get a taste. In a press conference on 26 September, NASA announced
water beneath Europa’s pale, streaked crust. Then in 2012, Hubble spotted vapour spurting from the south pole, but a year later, the plumes had gone. Now we have seen them again,
Europan aliens, the presence of a liquid water ocean and cyclical geysers is promising. As far as we know, life needs water to survive, and Europa has plenty of
that the Hubble Space Telescope has glimpsed the plumes for a second time. This suggests Europa has an active ocean underneath its frozen crust – and cements its status as one of the best places in the solar system to look for life beyond Earth. “It means we may be able to explore that ocean for organic chemicals or even signs of life without having to drill through unknown miles of ice,” said William Sparks at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which manages Hubble. Observations over decades have hinted at the presence of an ocean of
using a technique borrowed from exoplanet studies. When an exoplanet passes in front of – or transits – its star, light filtering through its atmosphere can tell us what it’s made of. Europa orbits Jupiter every three-and-a-half days, meaning Sparks and colleagues could use light reflected off Jupiter to catch plumes venting off Europa’s surface. In 2014, the team watched Europa transit across Jupiter and analysed ultraviolet images to infer that the plumes were back. The plumes are thought to rise about 200 kilometres above Europa before raining down on its surface. While this alone does not hint at
it: the 2012 observations suggested it was spewing out the volume of an Olympic swimming pool every 8 minutes. Even better, the plumes will allow a future spacecraft to sample that ocean in flight and see if anything does live in it. ESA and NASA both have plans to send such probes to Europa in the 2020s. “On Earth, life is found wherever there is energy, water and nutrients, so we have a special interest in any place that might possess those characteristics,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, told the press conference. “And Europa might be such a place.”
6 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
emissions by nearly a third compared with 2005 levels, according to a study by Jeffery Greenblatt at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California (Nature Climate Change, doi.org/bq36). And the targets set in Paris are too low to start with: even if all countries meet their own targets, global temperatures will still soar way past 2 °C.
China’s eye opens TIME to power up the largest radio telescope in the world. China’s Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) began spying on outer space this week. The device will measure radio waves in space, allowing us to study the rotation of galaxies, monitor the behaviour of pulsars and keep an eye out for signals sent by aliens. FAST sits in a remote, mountainous area of Guizhou Province in south-western China,
For new stories every day, visit newscientist.com/news
which will help protect it against radio interference such as that from cellphones and Wi-Fi. Construction began in 2011. The telescope, named after the size of its dish – 500 metres across – is about 200 metres wider than its closest rival, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, built in the early 1960s. “As far as we’re concerned, imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” says Christopher Salter, at Arecibo. That means that FAST will be able to see dimmer objects than the Arecibo telescope can detect, says Michael Nolan at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
ON 30 September, if all goes to plan, the Rosetta spacecraft will perform a spectacular belly-flop on to comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko, ending its 12-year odyssey. Rosetta has been faithfully escorting the comet through the solar system for the past two years, even planting its companion, the Philae lander, on the comet’s icy surface forever. Upon arriving in August 2014, it quickly unveiled a surprise finding: its quarry contains complex organic material and
primordial chunks left over from the solar system’s formation. We had thought comets were dirty snowballs or icy dirtballs, but Rosetta has changed that view, says team member Eberhard Grün of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany. “Now we know them, or at least this one, to be geologically complex worlds where a myriad of processes are at work,” he said in a statement. Rosetta will take data right up until the moment of its impact. It is meant to crash into a region of active pits on the comet’s “head”, where dust jets originate.
Rare mammal saved by shovel
Kuwait DNA tussle
Dr Attila Németh
LAWYERS in Kuwait are SEVEN lucky Vojvodina mole rats – one of Europe’s rarest mammals – challenging the world’s only law have been dug out and relocated to forcing citizens and visitors to start a new colony. provide samples of their DNA. The “This is a very rare species, only Kuwaiti government says that the around 400 individuals are left in the law, which passed in July last year, world,” says Sándor Ugró, director is needed to combat terrorism. of the Kiskunság National Park in Adel Abdulhadi and his Hungary. “They are actually much colleagues argue that the rarer than the well-known symbol requirement violates privacy and of conservation, the giant panda.” human rights provisions in the The species, Nannospalax country’s constitution, as well as (leucodon) montanosyrmiensis, those enshrined in international is only known to inhabit Hungary treaties to which Kuwait is a and the province of Vojvodina in signatory. northern Serbia. But the mole rats Adel says that the government face double trouble: a refugee fence has already begun to make use of on the border has split one of the the law, collecting samples from populations in two, and plans for people they suspect of having a solar plant threaten another claimed Kuwaiti nationality under false pretences, as well as from members of the police and military. From November, all Kuwaitis must submit DNA samples to renew passports, too. The law was introduced after a bomb at a Kuwait mosque killed 27 people last year. But critics say that DNA testing wouldn’t prevent incidents like this. There are also fears that DNA samples could be used for other purposes besides identifying suspected illegal immigrants – for example, determining paternity in a country where adultery is a –Looking for new digs– punishable offence.
population near the Kiskunság National Park. “It’s difficult to study these animals – we don’t know for sure how much the increased traffic from increased border control affects them – but we can’t afford to lose any,” says Ugró. So conservationists at Kiskunság decided to move some of the animals from the border area to set up a new Hungarian population in a safer location near the village of Öttömös. Meanwhile, conservationists are negotiating with the solar company to curtail development of the plant on the site of the largest mole rat population. And they are hoping the site might soon be protected as part of the national park.
Hangover-free booze A synthetic form of alcohol aims to give you all the buzz minus the hangover. The drink, known as “alcosynth”, is designed to mimic the positive effects of alcohol but without the nausea or throbbing head, claims its creator, David Nutt, at Imperial College London. His 90 or so patented alcosynth concoctions must go through clinical trials before being offered to the public.
Bad air’s global toll More than 90 per cent of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels breach World Health Organization limits, according to a model published by the WHO. The model suggests that one in nine deaths across the planet are caused by exposure to air pollution.
Mercury is shrinking The smallest planet is getting smaller. Images from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, reveal cliff-like surface features called fault scarps consistent with contraction. The young age of the smallest of these suggests that the planet’s interior is still cooling (Nature Geoscience, doi.org/bq3r).
Sickness benefits Morning sickness is associated with a lower risk of miscarriage in women who have had previous losses, according to a study that tracked the symptoms of nearly 800 pregnant women. Those who reported nausea or vomiting were 50 to 75 per cent less likely to miscarry than those who didn’t feel sick (JAMA Internal Medicine, doi.org/bq35).
The Italian jellyfish job The notorious sea creature shipped around by ballast waters that devastated Black Sea fisheries in the 1990s has found a new home off the coast of Italy. Vast swarms of invasive and voracious warty comb jelly have been recorded in lagoons in the northern Adriatic, a port hub.
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 7
Blackout Concepts / Alamy
This week Center in New York City. Zhang has been working on a way to avoid mitochondrial disease using a so-called “threeparent” technique. In theory, there are a few ways of doing this. The method approved in the UK is called pronuclear transfer and
“The mother carries genes for Leigh syndrome, but the child shows no signs of the disease” involves fertilising both the mother’s egg and a donor egg with the father’s sperm. Before the fertilised eggs start dividing into early-stage embryos, each nucleus is removed. The nucleus from the donor’s fertilised egg is discarded and replaced by that from the mother’s fertilised egg. But this technique wasn’t appropriate for the couple – as –Happy families– Muslims, they were opposed to the destruction of two embryos. So Zhang took a different approach, called spindle nuclear transfer. He removed the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that A healthy boy is the first to be born using a new technique that uses had had its own nucleus removed. The resulting egg – with nuclear DNA from three people, reports Jessica Hamzelou DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a IT’S a boy! A 5-month-old baby mitochondria, which provide mother’s mitochondria have the donor – was then fertilised is the first to be born using a new energy for our cells and carry just disease-causing mutation. While with the father’s sperm. technique that incorporates DNA 37 genes that are passed down she is healthy, Leigh syndrome Zhang’s team used this from three people. “This is great to us from our mothers. This is was responsible for the deaths of approach to create five embryos. news and a huge deal,” says Dusko separate from the majority of her first two children. She and her They chose the male embryo that Ilic at King’s College London, who our DNA, which is housed in husband sought out the help of was of the highest quality to wasn’t involved in the work. “It’s each cell’s nucleus. John Zhang (pictured below) and implant in the mother. Their baby revolutionary.” Around a quarter of the his team at the New Hope Fertility was born nine months later. “It’s The controversial technique, which allows parents with rare TWO WOMEN, ONE MAN and a baby genetic mutations to have healthy A Jordanian couple have been trying born with Leigh syndrome, which babies, has only been legally to start a family for almost 20 years. affects the brain, muscles and approved in the UK. But the birth Ten years after they married, she nerves of developing infants. of the baby, whose Jordanian became pregnant, but it ended in Sadly, she died aged 6. The couple’s parents were treated by a USthe first of four miscarriages. second child had the same disorder, based team in Mexico, should In 2005, the couple gave birth and lived for 8 months. fast-forward progress around to a baby girl. It was then that Using a controversial “three-parent the world, say embryologists. they discovered the probable baby” technique (see main story), The mother carries genes for cause of their fertility problems: their third child was born on 6 April Leigh syndrome, a fatal disorder a genetic mutation in the mother’s 2016. He is showing no signs of that affects the developing mitochondria. Their daughter was disease. nervous system. Genes for the disease sit in DNA in the
‘3-parent baby’ success
8 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
Deadly amoeba hunts down brain chemical ALL it takes is a splash. Brain-eating amoebas (pictured below, in orange) can enter an unwary swimmer’s brain via their nose, and once that happens, their chances of survival are slim. “They have these food cups on their surface, which are like giant suckers,” says Francine Cabral of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “They’ll just start eating the brain.” Now, researchers have discovered
cases in the US between 2005 and 2014, only two people survived. Last month, a 19-year-old woman died after being infected in Maryland. After the amoeba enters the body, it ignores the nose and heads straight to the brain, where the first areas it destroys are the olfactory regions that we use to smell, and parts of the frontal lobe, which are crucial for cognition and controlling our behaviour.
why this deadly amoeba has such an affinity for the brain – a breakthrough that could lead to life-saving drug treatments. The amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, tends to lurk in fresh water, although infections can also result from swimming in hot springs or improperly chlorinated pools. Of the 35 reported
Why they specifically target the brain is a mystery. Abdul Mannan at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, suspected the amoeba might be attracted to a chemical called acetylcholine (ACh), which is released in large amounts by cells at the front of the brain. Ach is already known to act as a magnet for some
immune cells and growing neurons. To test this theory, Mannan looked for receptors on the amoeba that might attach to ACh. He and his colleagues started with Acanthamoeba – a similar genus that tends to infect people through skin wounds. The team isolated 126 proteins from the amoeba and ran them through a database to find other proteins with similar components or structures. One of the amoeba proteins had a structure similar to the human receptor for Ach (Journal of Receptors and Signal Transduction, doi.org/bq29). In unpublished work, the team have repeated their search in Naegleria and found a similar protein. This suggests that the amoebas have their own, ancient receptor for ACh, says Mannan. It is their attraction to the chemical that probably causes them to bypass nasal tissues and head straight for the brain. Cabral, who was not involved in the research, agrees that ACh could be the culprit, although she would like to see more evidence to back the theory. In her own work, she has seen how the amoebas race toward brain cells in a lab dish. “It could be ACh,” she says.
“They have these food cups on their surface, which are like giant suckers. They’ll just start eating the brain”
LONDON SCHOOL OF HYGIENE & TROPICAL MEDICINE/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
exciting news,” says Bert Smeets at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The team will describe the findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s Scientific Congress in Salt Lake City in October. Neither method has been approved in the US, so Zhang went to Mexico instead, where he says “there are no rules”. He is adamant that he made the right choice. “To save lives is the ethical thing to do,” he says. The team seems to have taken an ethical approach with their technique, says Sian Harding, who reviewed the ethics of the UK procedure. They avoided destroying embryos, and used a male embryo, so that the resulting child wouldn’t pass on any inherited mitochondrial DNA, she says. “It’s as good as or better than what we’ll do in the UK.” A remaining concern is safety. Last time embryologists tried to create a baby using DNA from three people was in the 1990s, when they injected mitochondrial DNA from a donor into another woman’s egg, along with sperm from her partner. Some of the babies went on to develop genetic disorders, and the company performing the technique were advised to halt it. The problem may have arisen from the babies having mitochondria from two sources. When Zhang and his colleagues tested the baby’s mitochondria, they found that less than 1 per cent carry the mutation. Hopefully, this is too low to cause any problems; generally it is thought to take about 18 per cent of mitochondria to be affected before problems start. “It’s very good,” says Ilic. Smeets agrees, but cautions that the team should monitor the baby to make sure the levels stay low. There’s a chance that faulty mitochondria could be better at replicating, and gradually increase in number, he says. “We need to wait for more births, and to carefully judge them,” says Smeets. n
Mannan hopes that drugs that block the receptor could offer a new treatment for the infection. Such drugs already exist, and are used for treating irritable bowel syndrome or regulating heart rate, for example. Mannan is now testing them in mice infected with the amoeba. But there’s one final hurdle to clear. If these drugs can stop the amoeba from getting into the brain, they will have to be administered as soon as a person is infected, when the condition is all but impossible to diagnose. “Severe headache is usually the first sign, but by that point the amoeba is already in the brain,” says Cabral. “We need an early diagnostic test.” This could become a more urgent problem in the coming years – infections are predicted to rise as the –On the scent– climate warms. Jessica Hamzelou n 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 9
They arrived from as far afield as Florida and Australia to attend New Scientist Live, our four-day festival of science in London. By the time it ended on 25 September, more than 20,000 people had come to hear talks from 120 speakers over five stages, and interact with dozens of exhibitors. The robot cocktail bar was a particular hit, reports Rowan Hooper
“IT'S the Glastonbury of science,” was how anatomist and broadcaster Alice Roberts put it. Well, it wasn’t quite mega festival in scale, and it didn’t have the mud, but in terms of mind-bending experiences it was up there. Just to give a flavour of the event: physicist David Tong gave us an epic tour of the universe’s past, present and future; Alice Roberts took us on a shorter but more personal journey, showing us how we evolved to be the way we are; Dara Ó Briain hosted an enthralling talent show, featuring a film scripted entirely by an artificial intelligence and a jazz trio playing an algorithmically composed score. The headline act was astronaut Tim Peake, fresh from his stint on the International Space Station. But there was much more: comedy, a Nobel prizewinner, real cyborgs, Stone Age and virtual-reality art, talks on geoengineering, gene editing, the quantum nature of reality, the biology of consciousness… Oh, and that robot cocktail bar. Catch up on facebook.com/newscientist, and better still, come next year.
“It was a brilliant show. I met some of my heroes and learned some amazing stuff in the process”
PHOTOS BY R. TANG/LNP/REX, DAVE STOCK, ADAM GOFF, RICHARD LIM, CATHERINE BRAHIC
New Scientist Live attendee James Hughes
“It reminded me of Carl Sagan’s ‘Science as a Candle in the Dark’. Like being in a monastery library during the Middle Ages – in here is knowledge and wisdom” New Scientist Live attendee Bob Vanderbob
Voynich text may be elaborate hoax THE mysterious 15th-century Voynich manuscript may be gibberish after all. A new study has replicated its language-like features using a simple cryptography method, suggesting the beautiful medieval text is an elaborate hoax. The Voynich manuscript has baffled cryptographers since book dealer Wilfrid Voynich found it in an Italian monastery in 1912. Hundreds of pages of 15th-century calfskin parchment are covered in indecipherable text alongside illustrations of unidentified plants, naked nymphs, plantbased pharmaceuticals and astrological diagrams. Academics continue to debate whether the manuscript is an elaborate hoax designed to fool medieval book collectors, or a detailed secret code that remains unbroken. Advocates of a meaningful code argue that the text shows similarities to others written in natural languages. For instance, the distributions of words and syllables follow a linguistic pattern called Zipf’s law.
Frack-buckled crust can be seen from space FRACKING has lifted Earth’s surface – a movement that hints at where best to drill to avoid quakes induced by the activity. The slight buckling – just 3 millimetres a year – was spotted in satellite data near the location of the biggest quake ever recorded in eastern Texas: the magnitude 4.8 Timpson earthquake in 2012. This has been widely blamed on waste water 12 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
But now Gordon Rugg at Keele University in the UK has generated his own series of gibberish words that follow Zipf’s law to show that even such apparently natural language
being injected at high pressure into deep-lying rocks at fracking sites close to the eponymous town. “To the best of our knowledge, it’s
that probably caused the quake (Science, doi.org/bqzk). Shirzaei says the buckling happened in the east because a layer
allowing the water to reach the quake-prone faults. This means that frackers should ideally inject waste water into
the best explanation and proof that injection can trigger an earthquake,” says Manoochehr Shirzaei at Arizona State University in Tempe. When Shirzaei’s team studied two pairs of fracking wells, one to the west and one to the east of Timpson, it found that the geology where the water is injected can determine whether a quake is likely. Surface buckling only occurred in association with the eastern wells, yet the wells to the west were the ones
of impermeable rock beneath the injection site stopped the pressurised water from getting to quake-prone faults much further down. Instead, the stress was relieved by the upward buckling of the rocks detectable from space. There was no such impermeable layer in the west,
zones sandwiched between two impermeable layers to minimise the numbers of large earthquakes they are otherwise likely to cause, says Shirzaei. Cliff Frohlich at the University of Texas at Austin, who led another team analysing the Timpson quake, says the research shows that pressures due to waste water injection are capable of inducing earthquakes, corroborating previous calculations. Andy Coghlan n
features are easy to fake. Rugg used a system he had previously developed to replicate the syllable structures of “Voynichese”. He first drew a grid with several syllables comprising what appear to be the roots, prefixes and suffixes of Voynichese words. Then he overlaid a card with three holes cut out of it on the grid, revealing a set of three syllables in the underlying table.
By moving the card across the grid, Rugg could come up with different combinations of syllables and produce new words. The series of gibberish words Rugg managed to create had a similar word-frequency distribution to real naturallanguage texts (Cryptologia, doi.org/bq22). The results show that just because the Voynich text looks a lot like a language doesn’t mean it is one, says Rugg. “If a hoax is feasible, I think the burden of proof shifts on to people saying, ‘No, this is a code’,” he says. “We have known for years that the syllables are not random. What I’m saying is there are ways of producing gibberish which are not random in a statistical sense.” But Marcelo Montemurro at the University of Manchester, UK, disagrees. He has used statistical analysis to compare the manuscript’s structure to classic works in several languages. The text has too many layers of complexity for a simple hoaxer to produce, he says. “It’s not impossible that these tables can generate Zipf’s law, in the same way that it’s not impossible to win the lottery 10 times. It’s still very unlikely,” he says. “Bringing in all of these narratives to explain something makes it sound so far-fetched. They are writing a thriller, not –The book no one can read– a scientific paper.” n
“This shows that the injection of fracking waste water can trigger an earthquake”
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Menstrual cycle clue to addiction Mallory Locklear
LESLYE DAVIS/The New York Times/ / eyevine
A WOMAN’S hormones might hold the key to helping crack drug addiction. A study in rats has found that sex hormones can influence opioid abuse. Men and women show different patterns of drug abuse, with women becoming addicted to some substances much more quickly. From studies of drugs such as cocaine and alcohol, we know that women are less likely to use these substances than men, but become addicted faster if they do. “There are a lot of data to indicate that women transition from that initial use to having a
14 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
help women to kick the habit. The researchers enabled female rats to self-administer heroin, and measured how much they chose to take at different times in their oestrous cycle – a regular sequence of hormone fluctuations resembling the menstrual cycle in women. It transpired that the rats slashed their heroin use during the phase of their cycle at which oestrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are about
substance-use disorder much more rapidly,” says Mark Smith, a psychologist at Davidson College, North Carolina. Once hooked, women also seem to have stronger drug cravings. Tracking drug use throughout women’s menstrual cycles “Giving up a drug at a suggests that hormones could specific point in a woman’s shape both these differences – cycle may increase her with more intense cravings and chances of quitting” greater euphoria experienced at particular times in the cycle, says Smith. to peak (Psychopharmacology, Now his team has investigated doi.org/bq2v). the effects of hormones on opioid “Every single female showed addiction in rats. Their findings this effect,” says Smith. “It didn’t suggest that hormones such as matter if they were a high heroin oestrogen and progesterone may user or a low heroin user: they still showed a decrease relative to what they used during other phases of their cycle.” “I think it’s a really exciting study,” says Jill Becker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – although she adds that “there are still a lot of questions to be answered”. One question is which hormones might be reducing drug cravings. Evidence points the finger at progesterone – studies have shown that women given progesterone supplements report fewer positive feelings from both cocaine and nicotine. The hormone is in clinical trials as an aid to counter nicotine addiction. These findings could point to new ways to tackle the opioid epidemic in the US. Between 1999 and 2014, the number of deaths from opioid overdose there quadrupled – with the proportion of women dying from opioids rising most steeply. Becker suggests that giving up a drug at a specific point in a woman’s menstrual cycle may increase her chances of quitting. “It’s letting your own hormones –Drug cravings– be the guide,” she says. n
First known Neanderthal burial rituals BURNING through the darkness, the fires would have lit up the cave around where the young child lay. The remains of a series of small fires discovered within a dolomite hillside 93 kilometres north of Madrid, Spain, could be the first firm evidence that Neanderthals held funerals. The blackened hearths surround a spot where the jaw and six teeth of a Neanderthal toddler were found in the stony sediment. Puzzlingly, within each of these hearths was the horn or antler of a herbivore, apparently carefully placed there. In total, there were 30 horns from aurochs and bison as well as red deer antlers, and a rhino skull nearby. Archaeologists believe the fires may have been lit as some sort of funeral ritual around where the toddler, known as the Lozoya Child, was placed around 38,000 to 42,000 years ago. Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archaeological Museum of Madrid, and his colleagues described the discoveries at the meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution in Madrid on 16 September. They think the cave may have been used by Neanderthals as a specific place to mourn and remember the dead. Baquedano said the position of the remains and stone tools found at the site, known as Des-Cubierta Cave, do not appear to be arranged as we would expect if it had been a dwelling. “They may therefore have been of ritual or symbolic significance.” Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London said there have been previous suggestions that Neanderthals may have dug graves for their dead and some graves of babies at sites in Syria and Israel include the remains of animal horns – but the new discovery seems far more deliberate. “It’s certainly difficult to explain the presence of the horns, and that of a rhino skull, without invoking the agency of Neanderthals,” he said. Richard Gray n
IN BRIEF Boomerang kids ease depression
Fish recorded singing dawn chorus on reefs just like birds THE ocean might seem quiet, but listen carefully and you might just hear the dulcet tones of the fish choir.
would with the birds in the forest,” says Steve Simpson, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, UK. There’s the low “foghorn” call of the black jewfish, the grunting call of Terapontid species, and a quieter “ba-ba-ba” call of batfish, for example. “I’ve been listening to fish squawks, burble and pops
Most of this underwater music comes from fish soloists, repeating the same calls over and over. But when they overlap, these solo calls can form a chorus. Robert McCauley and colleagues at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, recorded vocal fish in the coastal waters off Port Hedland in Western Australia over an 18-month period. They identified seven distinct fish choruses,
for nearly 30 years now, and they still amaze me with their variety,” says McCauley. “We are only just beginning to appreciate the complexity involved and still have only a crude idea of what is going on in the undersea acoustic environment.” Listening to choruses over a long period could allow scientists to monitor fish and their ecosystems,
happening mostly at dawn and dusk (Bioacoustics, doi. org/bqxn). “You get the dusk and dawn choruses like you
particularly where visibility is low, such as the waters off Port Hedland.
Brain wields both carrot and stick YOU made a bad decision. But your brain may have a way to make sure you don’t do it again. “Imagine you go to a restaurant hoping to have a good dinner,” says Bo Li of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. “If the food exceeds your expectations, you will likely come back again, whereas you will avoid it in future if the food disappoints.” Li’s team has discovered that a 16 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
part of the brain’s basal ganglia, called the habenula-projecting globus pallidus (GPh), plays a crucial role in this process. They trained mice to associate sounds with a rewarding drink of water or a punishing puff of air in the face, and then surprised them by switching these around. When mice expecting a drink were instead punished, GPh neurons became particularly
active. But when the mice were unexpectedly rewarded, the activity of these neurons was inhibited (Nature, doi.org/bqxp). Further experiments revealed that active GPh neurons enforce punishment, reducing levels of the reward chemical dopamine in the brain. Inhibiting these neurons upped dopamine levels, reinforcing beneficial behaviour. In this way, the GPh seems to teach us the difference between good and bad survival strategies.
THEY’RE the boomerang generation: the young adults who move back in with their parents because of a lack of jobs, low wages and high rent. But there may be a silver lining – for their parents, at least. To investigate the effect of living with adult children, Emilie Courtin at the London School of Economics and her colleague analysed interviews with more than 50,000 volunteers from across Europe and Israel who were over 50. “We found that the effect of intergenerational residence is actually really good for older people,” says Courtin. Older people were less likely to be depressed if their grown-up children were back at home – something that seemed to have a greater effect on depression than their daily activities did (Social Science and Medicine, doi.org/ bqxc).
Supernova or a black hole’s lunch? WHAT looked like the largest supernova ever observed might be the death gasp of a star being swallowed by a black hole. The flash, called ASASSN-15lh, was spotted in June 2015 and was 200 times more powerful than most supernovae. But it behaved oddly, fading in visible light yet growing brighter in ultraviolet. Giorgos Leloudas at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues say it was not a supernova at all, but a star being torn apart by a spinning black hole (arxiv.org/ abs/1609.02927). The temperature changes of the object, the charged gas clouds surrounding it and its location at the heart of a passive, older galaxy all point towards a black hole.
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SURFING the world’s oceans on the back of a turtle may sound like a life of luxury, but for a small crab it also means having a single mate – unlike others of the species who have a more spacious living arrangement. A species of small oceanic crab, Planes minutus, often makes its home on the shells of loggerhead turtles. The crabs tuck themselves above the turtle’s tail and below the shell in a spot that’s the perfect size for two – a male and a female living in a monogamous relationship. Some P. minutus also make their homes on floating debris, nestling among stalked barnacles. But these individuals often enjoy a more polyamorous lifestyle. Why the different mating styles? When Joseph Pfaller at the University of Florida in Gainsville investigated, he found that the overall size of the turtle or the floating debris didn’t affect the decision, but the size of the refuge did. If their home was small enough to easily defend against rivals, the crabs would choose monogamy. But once it got too large to protect and there were more crabs around, they opted to play the field (Biology Letters, doi.org/bqxz). “We tend to think of monogamy as something that birds and mammals do, but if the conditions are right, anything can be
FLPA / STEVE TREWHELLA/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
monogamous,” Pfaller says.
How baby belugas swim so wild and free in the deep blue sea MENTION beluga whales to a Canadian and they might sing you a popular children’s song: “baby beluga in the deep blue sea, swim so wild and you swim so free”. We now know how the song’s subject copes with life in the deep. Belugas live in the Arctic and from an early age must follow their mothers deep under the sea ice, where air holes are transient and scarce. To find out how baby belugas achieve that, Shawn Noren at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and Robert Suydam from
Alaska’s North Slope Borough collected muscle samples from 23 beluga whales of various ages and studied their biochemistry. They found that belugas are born with much higher stores of myoglobin than other cetaceans. Myoglobin is a protein that allows oxygen to be stored and slowly released if an animal needs to hold its breath. This makes belugas better prepared for diving at birth. The researchers found that it takes 14 months for belugas to reach adult levels of myoglobin, compared with 2 to 3 years in other
cetaceans (Journal of Experimental Biology, doi.org/bqx2). This would allow young belugas to double the amount of time they spend under water within a year of their birth, the team says. It’s an “extraordinary result”, says Jeremy Goldbogen at Stanford University. “It significantly increases our understanding of how these animals cope with living in environments that require extreme physiological adaptations such as prolonged breath-holds to find food and avoid predators.” NASA/ESA/G. BACON (STSCI)
Surfing on turtles shifts crab sex life
Clock gene makes cancer deadlier DOES your body clock affect cancer? A study in mice has found that variations in a gene that regulates the circadian clock seem to increase the chances of breast cancer spreading. Long-term shift work is linked to a higher breast cancer risk, but little is known about how circadian rhythms might influence how cancer spreads. Looking at mice with differing risks of metastasis, Kent Hunter at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and his team found a circadian rhythm gene, Arntl2, seemed to be involved. Mice injected with cancer cells that had increased activity in this gene were much more likely to develop metastatic growths than those given cells with low Arntl2 activity. They also found that humans who had inherited more active variants of Arntl2 were less likely to have survived a particular kind of cancer (PLOS Genetics, doi.org/bq2z). “The fact that inherited variations in this gene seem to be associated with the progression of cancer raises the possibility that disruptions to normal circadian rhythms might have an effect [on metastasis],” says Hunter.
Stars alone inflate puffed-up planets A STAR’S heat goes deep. For the first time, we have spotted a “hot Jupiter” that has expanded thanks to its swelling host star.
Jupiter-size planets orbiting older red giant stars could help us decide. Old planets have lost their initial heat, and red giants are bigger and
Hot Jupiters – gas giant exoplanets that orbit scorchingly close to their stars – are inexplicably puffy. “We see these planets that are the sizes of stars without being anywhere near the mass of those stars,” says Sam Grunblatt at the University of Hawaii. There are two theories as to what is happening: the star’s heat stops the planet from cooling and therefore contracting, or it penetrates deep into the planet, making it expand.
brighter than when they were young stars. A puffy hot Jupiter around a red giant would only be warmed by the star’s penetrating heat. So Grunblatt and his colleagues examined data from the Kepler space telescope and found one such planet: EPIC 211351816.01, which is 1.3 times Jupiter’s size. It is far enough from its star so it could only have inflated after the star had swelled (arxiv.org/abs/1606.05818v2).
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 19
ANALYSIS PORN ADDICTION
The truth about porn Depending who you ask, internet pornography is either a public health crisis or just the latest moral panic. Who’s right, asks Clare Wilson
20 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
author of website and book Your Brain on Porn. So is pornography addiction real? Wilson cites studies showing brain activity differences between people who use a lot of porn and those who don’t, often in the
About 46% of US men and 16% of women watch porn in a given week SOURCE: The Journal of Sex Research, doi.org/bqvf
IT HAS been blamed for brain shrinkage, impotence, divorce and paedophilia – and in April this year, Utah declared it a public health hazard. Warnings about pornography come not just from religious or conservative groups – former Playboy model and actor Pamela Anderson also recently cautioned against its “corrosive effects”. Yet survey after survey shows porn use is common among men and not exactly rare in women, so can it really be so dangerous? Or could it even have benefits? While there is research into the effects of porn, a great deal of it is contradictory. Even the same studies are interpreted differently by those on opposite sides of the debate. Some feel it is a menace to society, while others think that attitude belongs with 1980s hysteria over video nasties. Anti-porn campaigners chiefly argue that it is addictive and hijacks the brain’s normal reward pathways. Like heroin addicts who crave more of their drug to get the same high, users find they are no longer aroused by real sex and resort to increasingly harder-core material, or so the theory goes. Of course, there are other concerns over pornography, such as its depictions of violence, exploitation and sexual consent. But male addiction is an increasing focus of anti-porn campaigns. Campaigners say that an excess of porn prompts users to spurn their partners and seek out images of bestiality, rape scenes, and child abuse. Some schools in Scotland now warn that viewing adult images leads to impotence, coercion and abuse. “This kind of escalation is described over and over again,” says Gary Wilson, a retired biology lecturer and
same regions that also seem to work differently in drug addicts. But while some of these studies show porn users have higher responses to sexual cues (PLoS One, doi.org/bqvh), others suggest they have lower responses (Biological Psychology, doi.org/ bqvj). Either way, that doesn’t prove porn changes your brain. Perhaps people who are drawn to it have different brains in the first place. They might have a higher sex drive, which could stem from a biological difference.
Instead of resorting to brain scans, we should find out how often porn users report problems like impotence and escalation, or act like drug addicts. Wilson co-authored a recent review concluding that rates of impotence among young men are higher now than they have ever been – as much as 33 per cent in some studies, compared with 5 per cent before the rise of free internet pornography (Behavioral Sciences, doi.org/bqvk). But Kirstin Mitchell at the
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University of Glasgow, UK, warns that comparing impotence studies can be misleading as they may use different definitions.
impotence (Journal of Adolescent Health, doi.org/bqvm). The two previous surveys didn’t break down answers to this question by age, so we don’t know if the figure has increased, but Not an epidemic this is clearly a minor problem. It is normal, she says, for young “I don’t think anyone could men to experience the occasional argue that 3.3 per cent constitutes “let-down”, usually due to nerves an epidemic,” says Mitchell. or alcohol, so it’s crucial to define When it comes to escalation, what severity you are asking however, a survey of 434 men, about. “It would be possible to mainly French or Belgian, found cherry pick studies,” she says. that nearly half had seen images Mitchell helps run Natsal, one they assessed as “previously not of the largest regular studies of interesting, and even disgusting” human sexuality, which takes place (Computers in Human Behavior, in the UK every decade. The last doi.org/bqvg). one, in 2011, found that the most “Maybe their brains have common sexual problem for 16 to undergone addiction-related 21 year-old males was premature changes,” says Wilson. But the ejaculation. Only 3.3 per cent question is vague – men who reported a “distressing” level of answered yes could have viewed something by accident, or just tried it a few times. We don’t know if they now prefer such material. How about addiction? A common definition is that the behaviour starts to negatively affect the rest of the person’s life – their job or relationships – and that they would like to stop or cut down, but struggle. Websites like Your Brain On Porn are filled with testimonies from men whose behaviour met these criteria. Another porn recovery website, called NoFap, claims to have about a million users a month (see “Make educated decisions about using your genitals”, right). But to really know how common this phenomenon is, we need to look at random samples of porn users, rather than those who seek out such sites. Earlier surveys have estimated rates of self-identified “problematic” use (out of all male users) at between 6 and 13 per cent. The French/ Belgian study found 28 per cent, an outlier, although this could reflect a recent increase. David Ley, who heads an addiction clinic called New Mexico Solutions, says usually porn isn’t the problem, but people’s guilt about using it is. –Let’ s not get overexcited- “Study after study shows that
self-identified porn addicts are not watching more porn than other people, but have moral values that conflict with their use.” Either way, at least some people are unhappy about their level of use. But does that mean we should heed calls to restrict it? Many people, perhaps the majority, get more benefits than harms from porn, according to a Danish study of about 700 straight men and women. Both sexes thought that overall, it had a positive effect on their sex life, knowledge about sex and life in general (Archives of Sexual Behavior, doi.org/bs7537). “It’s good for us to do things that make us happy,” says Dan Miller at James Cook University in Australia, who found similar results in a survey of 470 men that isn’t yet published. For example, it can help some gay men feel that they aren’t alone, he says. Miller also found that straight boys are starting to regularly use porn at an increasingly earlier age, 15 for the youngest in his survey, so he thinks it is vital we educate
Between 6% and 28% of male porn users describe their habit as “problematic” SOURCE: Computers in Human Behavior, doi.org/bqvg
teens. “But not in a preachy way that vilifies watching porn,” he says – rather, explaining that pornography may not accurately depict sex and relationships. In other words, we may wish to critique how porn represents and affects society, as we would any other media, but we don’t need to blow it up into a health crisis. “I don’t want to discount the experiences of any guys who feel porn is having this deleterious influence on their life, but I haven’t seen much good evidence to support claims of a coming porn-apocalypse,” says Miller. “I think everyone should calm down a little.” n
“Make educated decisions about using your genitals” WHAT is it like to feel you are addicted to pornography? To find out, we spoke to Alexander Rhodes, founder of NoFap, a website that helps people stop using porn, generally through three-months of abstinence from sex and masturbation, known as “rebooting”. Rhodes was 21 when he became unhappy with his 4-times-a-day porn habit. He could only stay erect during sex by fantasising about porn. “I was at a low point and seeking answers to why I felt such a slave to this.” After quitting, he says, “it was like night and day – it’s really life-changing in terms of sexual encounters. You start to care if they had an enjoyable experience, rather than this one-sided race to an orgasm.” He also felt it improved his energy and motivation. Rhodes spun off a Reddit group into a commercial website, which he now, age 26, runs full-time. The site has been criticised for exaggerating the benefits of quitting – on its front page, it promises people superpowers. But Rhodes says that’s how it feels when people’s potential is no longer “squelched by their addiction to porn”. Many ex-users report impressive benefits like better sleep, clearer skin and more confidence, although some of that could be a placebo effect. NoFap claims over a million monthly users across its social media sites, though Rhodes won’t give exact figures. “You have no idea how many men tell me ‘I really want to thank you’. A surprisingly large number of women say they struggle with a lot of the same side effects too.” Rhodes says he has no problem with masturbation except when it involves pornography. “We want people to make educated decisions about how to use their genitals.” He always wanted an online career. After college he had a brief stint at Google, so he’s “living the dream”. “Maybe it’s not my original dream, but it’s close. It just has a little bit more to do with porn than I envisioned.” n 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 21
Putin’s trump card? Hackers probably can’t derail the US election but they could stir up an even more toxic atmosphere, says Tim Stevens RUSSIAN hackers have had a busy summer. After a series of highprofile data breaches and threats, questions are being raised over the vulnerability of the US presidential election to cyberinterference and subversion. July saw the leak of Democratic National Convention emails, which embarrassed Hillary Clinton by revealing accusations of the party’s dirty tricks against Democrat rival Bernie Sanders. There was also the infiltration of electoral registries in Arizona and Illinois, showing the insecurity of electronic voting systems. Investigations have implicated Russia’s intelligence agencies, a charge the country denies. But these claims are unusually specific and there is corroborating evidence. If true, they suggest Russia is using new tools and tactics to pursue its objectives. Could it affect the outcome of
the US election? And how should we understand the apparent escalation in Russian statesponsored hacking? The US Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology has warned hackers could infiltrate antiquated electronic voting systems, potentially influencing electoral outcomes. The Arizona and Illinois hacks show this is not just a hypothetical risk. However, it is unlikely large-scale digital tampering required to swing a vote would go unnoticed. Hackers are more likely to try to erode trust in the outcome by introducing unreliability and uncertainty into vote-counting. In the event of a close result, it might make a call for the Supreme Court to intervene look more legitimate. This would presumably benefit Donald Trump. Many of his supporters mistrust government infrastructure. He is also the
Crush this idea Selling rhino horn to fund conservation would be a bad move, says Richard Schiffman A CRUCIAL battle is being fought in South Africa this week over rhino horn. With the 181 member states of the Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) assembling in Johannesburg, Swaziland is leading the charge. To fund costly anti-poaching measures, Swaziland wants to sell 22 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
330 kilograms of stockpiled horn plus 20 kilograms a year, mainly taken humanely from farm-kept rhino. It has support from a handful of neighbouring nations, including South Africa. It must not succeed. As Adam Roberts, CEO of animal advocacy group Born Free USA, points out, when CITES allowed a limited
market for stockpiled elephant ivory in 1997, poaching went through the roof. A recent study has condemned efforts to revive that approach. Any lifting of the 1977 ban on the rhino horn trade would open the door to laundering illegal material, making law enforcement harder. Instead, CITES must encourage information and technology sharing, such as DNA sampling to track illicit horn, and push the
“Buyers are stocking up on rhino horn as a speculative investment, given the real threat of extinction”
likes of Mozambique, a refuge for poachers, to get its house in order. Most importantly, it must turn its guns on consumer nations in Asia. The worst is Vietnam, where buyers pay up to $300,000 per horn and law enforcement is sparse. It has had no successful prosecutions for trafficking. In China, where enforcement is a bit better, sales are often made on under-the-radar social media sites. As well as buying rhino horn carvings and quack medicinal powders, purchasers are stocking up as a speculative investment, given the real threat of extinction. Lynn Johnson, founder of Australian conservation group
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Tim Stevens is lecturer in global security at King’s College London
Breaking the Brand, is clear that rather than selling seized or farmed horn to fund policing, it is more cost-effective to target demand. Her group places adverts in business magazines to try to shame those who use gifts of horn to close deals. At the start of the 20th century, there were half a million of these endearingly gawkish animals. Now 29,000 rhino survive in southern Africa and Asia. Nothing must be done to risk adding to that toll, even if it seems well intentioned. n Richard Schiffman is a US environment and conservation writer
INSIGHT Repair or replace?
candidate most likely to make capital out of such travails. Events of this sort would align with recent Russian foreign policy. It has a record of trying to subvert or interfere with its adversaries, as seen in Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere. Interference with US elections would tally with this, not least as President Putin has made it clear he wants a Trump win, not because of any deep admiration but the likely destabilising effect and the chances for strategic exploitation. US government reluctance to name Russia as the culprit has emboldened it. If the US has evidence of Russian involvement it should set this out in clear and unambiguous terms, as it did with China, Iran and North Korea. It is technically feasible for foreign hackers to disrupt US electoral politics and processes, but vanishingly unlikely that an election outcome could be engineered directly. However, Russia appears to be bold enough to try to shape the political environment through sophisticated technological means. The problem for the US and other democracies is how to respond to this growing threat. n
–Looks like the greener option–
Don’t fix your fridge, just buy a new one Michael Le Page
PER BOLUND would be proud of me. I managed to keep our last washing machine going for more than 15 years, with the help of a friendly neighbourhood repairman who charged ridiculously low prices. This is exactly the kind of thing that Bolund, Sweden’s minister for consumer affairs, is trying to encourage. Last week Bolund, of Sweden’s Green Party, unveiled proposals for changing the tax system to reduce the cost of repairs, with the aim of boosting sustainability and creating jobs locally. So is this a great idea that other countries should copy? Possibly not. Much to my surprise, it turns out I might well have hurt the environment - and possibly my wallet by keeping that washing machine running for so long. How so? Because not all machines are worth repairing when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing them can actually be the greener option. In general, if running a machine uses a lot more energy over the years than it takes to manufacture it,
replacing it regularly may reduce energy consumption. Fridges, air conditioners, televisions and, yes, washing machines typically take far more energy to run than to make. Why is it better to replace these machines rather than repair them? Two reasons. Firstly, stricter regulations and improving technology mean newer appliances are usually more energy efficient than older ones. The second, less appreciated reason is that as components wear out, energy consumption can rise by 50 per cent or more. That means even replacing a fridge, say, with an identical
“After a certain number of years replacing a machine will mean lower emissions than continuing to use it” but brand new model can be better than hanging on to the old one. In other words, after a certain number of years replacing a machine will mean lower emissions than continuing to use it. How long is too long? A 2006 study concluded that the “optimum replacement cycle” for a fridge ranged from 11 years to as little
as two years (Energy Policy, doi.org/ bhnmj6). Two years! Of course, much depends on the make of machine, how you use it and what you replace it with. Clearly, replacing a 20-inch television with a 40-inch one won’t reduce emissions even if the new one is far more efficient. Whether your appliance ends up in landfill or is recycled also matters. And to complicate matters further, the low energy consumption levels claimed by some manufacturers may be misleading. People are also inclined to replace non-power tools such as rakes and hand saws with leaf blowers and power saws. That’s obviously going to increase emissions. I’ve tried to go in the opposite direction, swapping an electric lawnmower for a musclepowered push mower, and found it far more convenient – plus I get a free workout. It should also be stressed that many machines, from bicycles to kitchen mixers and power drills, are indeed worth repairing, because it takes far more energy to make them than to run them. So if Sweden does manage to boost repair rates, it’s hard to predict the overall impact on emissions. What is clear is that instead of the proposed blanket reduction on taxes on repairs, it would be better to exclude certain appliances like fridges. Yes, this would make the legislation more complex and harder to explain to the public. But that’s just how it is. n 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 23
–All roads lead to better maps–
The new cartographers As rival companies gear up to put driverless cars on the road, they are racing to map the world in more detail than ever, says Hal Hodson IT’S a 4-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Detroit – but there’s an app for that. You punch the destination into your phone and a driverless car soon swings to a stop next to you. You jump in and it whisks you north-west towards the I-80 on-ramp. But as you merge with the highway traffic, the car pipes up: “This car runs on the Uber network, which does not cover Detroit. I cannot take you to your final destination. You will be dropped at an appropriate interchange point.” The way things are going, this could be the short-term prospect for driverless cars. The companies chasing a future full of autonomous vehicles are each creating a closed system in which their cars will work, but their competitors’ won’t – 24 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
and it’s all to do with maps. Driverless cars carry many different kinds of sensors – including cameras, lidar and radar – but they are not capable of fully understanding what they see. They may be able to steer themselves around obstacles and brake to avoid collisions,
but can have trouble reading unfamiliar objects in the way humans can. For example, before an autonomous car approaches a junction, it needs to know exactly where the traffic light will be. Because of this, driverless cars need highly detailed 3D maps of the roads
EYES ON THE ROAD As well as getting us from A to B, driverless cars could become a new platform for collecting data about the world, says Sanjay Sood at mapping company HERE in Chicago. Fitted with barometers and thermometers, a network of cars could deliver high quality local weather predictions, for example. Their cameras and accelerometers could also be used to monitor the
state of the road and other infrastructure. If the car network spots a problem, it can mark the exact location on a map so local authorities can more easily fix it. Sood says maps will even include real-time data on where airbags have been deployed, or where emergency braking incidents happen – gold for those trying to sell insurance based on how cars are driven.
they are to navigate. These are not top-down charts like you get from a satnav or Google Maps, but representations of street layouts and roadside infrastructure like barriers and traffic lights – plus information about where other cars are likely to be. Maps for driverless cars are like railways for trains, says John Ristevski at Nokia Growth Partners in Palo Alto, California.
“The maps need to be there for the autonomous cars to be able to do what they need to do” “The map needs to be there for the autonomous car to be able to do what it needs to do.” Companies are fighting to build their own version of such maps, using a variety of tactics. Last
week, Uber hired Tesla’s head of mapping. Traditional car makers like Ford and Toyota are scrambling to take advantage of the millions of vehicles they have on the road already to harvest large volumes of data. Newcomers like Uber and Google are relying on their prowess with data science to give them an edge. All of them have customised mapping vehicles crawling the roads of their target areas, trying to get ahead.
Creating those maps for a relatively small built-up area like a mid-sized city is not hard. “I think San Francisco has about 2000 kilometres of major roads,” says Ristevski. “You can map that with one high resolution mapping vehicle in about two weeks.” But extending those maps across larger urban environments – and eventually whole countries – will be painstaking, expensive work. It’s therefore no coincidence that the first driverless taxi service – announced in August – is launching in the tiny city-state of Singapore. The company behind it, a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called nuTonomy, mapped all of Singapore’s streets by driving around with a lidar scanner, says CEO Karl Iagnemma. Google, Uber, Ford and others are targeting a few different cities
in the US with their mapping you’re not seeing standards is vehicles. Google is mapping a that we’re still in the research swathe of Silicon Valley around and development stages.” its headquarters in Mountain The dark horse in the map wars View, California; Ford is mapping is Tesla. Elon Musk’s electric car the university town of Ann Arbor, company currently has 140,000 Michigan; and Uber is mapping cars on the road around the world. Pittsburgh. This month Uber Some models have an autopilot announced that people mode – in which the car can requesting a ride via its app drive itself along relatively easy in Pittsburgh might now find stretches of road as long as a themselves picked up by a human driver is ready to take over driverless car – with a human at any moment – but none are driver on standby. fully autonomous. However, the But these companies may soon cars are still fitted with sensors hit a stumbling block. Each one is that are needed for the autopilot building proprietary maps that feature, and all the data they only work with the sensors in gather is beamed back to Tesla. their own cars. At the moment, As the first company to put a the driverless cars that Uber is data-gathering sensor network testing in Pittsburgh cannot “A car has far more run on Ford’s map in Michigan, computational power for example. The maps are than a phone and much incompatible, like railway better sensors ” networks that operate on different gauges. “It’s a patchwork,” says Ristevski. on thousands of public roads, However, Sanjay Sood at Tesla could have its hands on Chicago-based mapping data for far more locations than company HERE – which was any other car company. bought by a consortium of But Tesla’s lead might not last German car makers in 2015 – is long. Toyota plans to include the not too worried. There is bound sensors required for autonomous to be fragmentation early on, he driving in all of its new cars in 2017. says. But that will change. These millions of vehicles won’t be “There’s going to have to be autonomous themselves, but will some standardisation,” says Sood. gather the data needed for Toyota Whether that is in the format of to build its own maps. To deal with the maps themselves or the this vast amount of information, sensors and software that drive Toyota is also building a data the cars remains to be seen. “It’s centre in Plano, Texas. super early,” he says. “The reason Whoever wins, the maps on which driverless cars run are going to end up processing vast amounts of data beyond that needed for the cars to drive. They might include the location of hordes of pedestrians, roadworks, black ice and other weather hazards, for example (see “Eyes on the road”, left). “If you look at technology today the mobile phone is seen as this powerful device,” says Sood. “But 90 per cent of the time it’s in your pocket, not facing the world. A car has more computational power than a phone, and much –Takes just two weeks to cover– better sensors.” n
ONE PER CENT
Not alone in the dark A drone to watch over you. That’s what Bomyeong Kim at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues suggest people might soon have to make them feel safer when walking home in the dark. The team say a drone could hover above you and communicate with you via an app. As well as keeping you company, it could check out the source of any suspicious noises.
The total number of websites in North Korea, revealed in a technical slip-up by the highly secretive state last week. They include a travel site, a cooking site and one called friend.com.
Bad vibes We’re putting the smarts into more and more things these days: thermostats, toothbrushes – and sex toys. But not everyone is happy with these gadgets’ data hoovering habits. A US user is suing the maker of We-Vibe, a vibrator that can be controlled by an app, for collecting personal data without her knowledge. This allegedly includes details such as when the We-Vibe was used and the settings selected.
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 25
MIGUEL DE FREITAS / Alamy Stock Photo
For more technology stories, visit newscientist.com/technology
TECHNOLOGY Wikipedia bots get stuck in disputes that never end IS. ISN’T. Is. Isn’t. It’s annoying enough when kids get stuck in this loop. But bots on Wikipedia have been at it for years, making and unmaking each other’s edits in spats that never end. Wikipedia editors use bots to help them keep on top of changes that users have made to the online encyclopedia. But when two editors task different bots with making incompatible edits, each bot will keep finding its work has been undone. Some flip-flops involve disputed terms. “We had bots going around and changing all the references to ‘Persian Gulf’ to ‘Arabian Gulf’,” says Taha Yasseri at the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK. “We were surprised to see that bots actually revert each other – and are persistent in reverting each other.” This pattern of behaviour is hard to spot because the bots are designed to crawl the entire website and revisit pages only periodically. So Yasseri and his colleagues analysed a billion edits on Wikipedia, made by 5 million
CHRIS BATSON / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
“The software could suss out someone’s biases and gently nudge people to act differently”
26 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
who are HIV-positive, while another examines the behaviour of children. Such technology may lead to a “kind of evolution” in how researchers study interactions between people, says team –Look to the body language– member Loris Vezzali, a psychologist at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. “These new measures can really provide objective information. This way, you can monitor the interaction moment by moment, second by second.” The software immigration. A GoPro camera and can also “be used to make novel a Microsoft Kinect captured their theories that were not even movements, while sensors nearby thinkable with previous estimated their heart rate and methods”, he says. skin response. There might also be unusual An algorithm written by new applications for the computer scientists at the software – perhaps in a device University of Modena and Reggio that susses out someone’s hidden Emilia searched for correlations prejudices or gently nudges them between the participants’ to act differently. questionnaire responses and But this study alone may not their non-verbal behaviour be sufficient to conclude that all during the filmed conversations. the behavioural differences are For example, it found that those related to skin colour. who showed strong hidden racial “We are always biased, and biases kept a bigger distance bias is not based just on the between themselves and their colour of the skin,” says Hatice black conversational partners. Gunes at the University of Conversely, those who were Cambridge. For example, we comfortable in the conversation might change how we talk to seemed to pause more and to someone according to their use their hands more when appearance, personal traits or even they spoke. the context of the conversation. Then, the computer tested its Volunteers in this study might new-found insights by looking have been responding to one of back at the same data and trying these myriad other differences, to predict who would have scored she says. Aviva Rutkin n
Your hidden prejudices are now on show
ARE your hidden biases soon to be revealed? A computer program can unmask them by scrutinising people’s body language for signs of prejudice. Algorithms can already accurately read people’s emotions from their facial expressions or speech patterns. So a team of researchers in Italy wondered if they could be used to uncover people’s hidden racial biases. First, they asked 32 white college students to fill out two questionnaires. One was designed to suss out their explicit biases, while the second, an Implicit Association Test, aimed to uncover their subconscious racial biases. Then, each participated in two filmed conversations: one with a white person, and one with a black person. The pair spent three minutes discussing a neutral subject, then another three on –Spot the bot– a more sensitive topic, such as
human editors and 2000 bots between 2001 and 2010, including 4.7 million reversions. “The bots behave as unpredictably and inefficiently as we do,” says Yasseri. It’s not the first time that bots have got into spats. Bots have become embroiled in Twitter arguments with each other over issues such as childhood vaccination. Chris Baraniuk n
high or low on the hidden biases test. It was correct 82 per cent of the time. The team presented its results at the International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing in Heidelberg, Germany, last month. The team has already started working on follow-up experiments. One focuses on hidden biases towards people
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28 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
Build me up buttercup THIS spindly plant, teetering on a metal vice, is not as delicate as it looks. Twisted and shaped from wire and copper sheeting, it is the work of French artist Carmen Almon, who uses enamel paints to bring her creations to life. Almon is inspired by 17th and 18th-century botanical illustrations. Because each piece must be painstakingly wrought using cuticle scissors and a soldering gun, she creates just a few each year. This photo is in Plant: Exploring the botanical world, a new book published by Phaidon that showcases 300 beautiful and pioneering images. The book also includes an X-ray image of a rose, below, that was created by Dain Tasker in 1936. Tasker was the chief radiologist at Wilshire Hospital in Los Angeles, California, in the early days of radiology. He used fine-focus X-ray tubes to create ghostly black-and-white prints of flowers on X-ray film. The images were a hit in photography circles in the late 1930s and were published in high-profile art magazines, although his work fell into obscurity and was only rediscovered relatively recently. Niall Firth
Images Carmen Almon Buttercup with veined white, 2015 Dain L. Tasker A rose, 1936
MAIN: COPPER, BRASS AND OIL-BASED PAINT, 30.5 × 33 × 30.5 CM / 12 × 13 × 12 IN PRIVATE COLLECTION IMAGE © AUDE LE BARBEY INSET: GELATIN SILVER PRINT, 28.6 × 23.2CM / 11¼ × 9¼ IN PRIVATE COLLECTION IMAGE © JOSEPH BELLOWS GALLERY
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 29
The other you Six things your brain can do when your back is turned
HINK you know what’s going on in your mind? You must be kidding. Much of our mental life happens in the unconscious: a place that Freud famously considered to be a cesspit of our most basic animalistic desires. This is a view that modern neuroscientists definitely don’t share, but they do agree with Freud on one thing – that our brains have an uncanny knack for working stuff out, with no need for conscious involvement. So how do the thoughts you don’t know you’re having run your life? Is it possible to bring those murky machinations to the surface for closer inspection? New Scientist investigates.
30 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
1 Think while you sleep Simon Makin
Some people swear that if they want to wake up at
monitored the brain’s electrical activity during
6 am, they just bang their head on the pillow six times before going to sleep. Crazy? Maybe not. A study from 1999 shows that it all comes down to some nifty unconscious processing. For three nights, a team at the University of Lubeck in Germany put 15 volunteers to bed at midnight. The team either told the participants
training and when the people heard the same words when asleep. Even when asleep, activity continued in the brain’s motor regions, indicating that the sleepers were preparing to push the correct button. The people could also correctly categorise new words, first heard after they had dropped off, showing that they were genuinely analysing the
they would wake them at 9 am and did, or told them they would wake them at 9 am, but actually woke them at 6 am, or said they would wake them at 6 am and did. This last group had a measurable rise in the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin from 4.30 am, peaking around 6 am. People woken unexpectedly at 6 am had no such spike. The unconscious mind, the researchers concluded, can not only keep track of time while we sleep but also set a biological alarm to jump-start the waking process. The pillow ritual might help set that alarm. The sleeping brain can also process language. In a 2014 study, Sid Kouider of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and his colleagues trained volunteers to push a button with their left or right hand to indicate whether they heard the name of
meaning of the words while asleep. It’s an ability that makes good evolutionary sense, says Kouider. “If you stop monitoring your environment, you become very vulnerable during sleep… It makes sense that you don’t simply shut down, but continue tracking in a kind of standby mode.” This might explain why some sounds, like our names, wake us more easily than others. This protective monitoring may not last all night, however. A study published this year found that while language processing continues in REM sleep for words heard just before bed, once in deep sleep all responses disappear as the brain goes “offline” to allow the day’s memories to be processed. “Your cognition about things in the environment declines progressively towards deep sleep,” Kouider says. “Sleep is not all-or-none in terms of cognition, it’s
an animal or object as they fell asleep. The team
all-or-none in terms of consciousness.”
1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 31
2 Make decisions
3 Decode Social Signals
Wouldn’t it be great if you could leave
Ever felt love at first sight? Or an irrational distrust of a stranger on a bus? It could be because our unconscious is constantly making fast judgements. And they are often pretty accurate. In the early 1990s Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, both then at Stanford University in California, asked volunteers to rate teachers on traits including competence, confidence and honesty after watching 2-, 5or 10-second silent clips of their performance. The scores successfully predicted the teachers’ end of semester evaluations and 2-second judgements were as accurate as those given more time. Further experiments showed similar accuracy for judgements about
difficult decisions to your subconscious, secure in the knowledge that it would do a better job than conscious deliberation? Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands proposed this counter-intuitive idea 12 years ago. No wonder it was instantly popular. Dijksterhuis had found that volunteers asked to make a complex decision – such as choosing between different apartments based on a baffling array of specifications – made better choices after being distracted from the problem before deciding. He reasoned that this is because unconscious thought can move beyond the limited capacity of working memory, so it can process more information at once. The idea has been influential, but it may be too good to be true. Many subsequent studies have failed to replicate Dijksterhuis’s results. And a recent analysis concluded that there is little reason to think the unconscious is the best tool for making complex decisions. Still, Dijksterhuis remains confident that the effect is real and is an important part of our mental toolkit. Others think the unconscious mind’s way of processing information is more important for creativity than for decision-making. It brings together disparate information from all over the brain without interference from the brain’s goal-directed frontal lobes. This allows it to generate novel ideas that burst through to consciousness in a moment of insight. John Kounios of Drexel University in Philadelphia believes an idea can only be truly creative if it appears in this way. Some people seem to be better wired for this kind of thinking. Kounios has found that people who tend to solve problems in “aha” moments of insight have different resting state brain activity – with less frontal control – than more logical thinkers. While there is no known way to change your brain into a more creative one, Kounios suggests thinking about a problem until you get stuck, then taking a break and hoping that something useful bubbles up before your deadline. 32 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
sexuality, economic success and political affiliation. For anyone hoping to use this to their advantage, the bad news is that no one has worked out what to do to pass yourself off as a winner. It seems to be an overall body signal that is both given out and picked up unconsciously, and is greater than the sum of its parts. This makes it very difficult if not impossible to fake. In some cases, all we need to make these judgements is a glimpse of a face. In a separate study, people saw the faces of US election candidates for 1 second and were then asked to rate their competence – these ratings not only predicted the winning candidates, but also their margin of victory. A follow-up study
4 Keep track of the body in space Anil Ananthaswamy
Thanks to unconscious processing, most of us instinctively know where our limbs are and what they are doing. This ability, called proprioception, results from a constant conversation between the body and brain. This adds up to an unerring sense of a unified, physical “me”. This much-underrated ability is thought to be the result of the brain predicting the causes of the various sensory inputs it receives – from nerves and muscles inside the body, and from the senses detecting what’s going on outside the body. “What we become aware of is the brain’s ‘best guess’ of where the body ends and where the external environment begins,” says Arvid Guterstam of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. The famous rubber-hand illusion is a good example of this. In this experiment, a volunteer puts one hand on the table in front of them. Their hand is hidden, and a rubber hand is put in front of the participant. A second person then strokes the real and rubber hands simultaneously with a paintbrush. Within minutes, many people start to feel the strokes on the rubber hand, and even claim it as part of their body. The brain is making its best guess as to where the sensation is coming from and the most obvious option is the rubber hand. Recent research suggests this sixth sense extends to the space immediately surrounding the body. Guterstam and his colleagues repeated the experiment, stroking the real hand but keeping the brush 30 centimetres above the rubber hand.
“The brain unconsciously keeps track of an invisible ‘force field’ around the body”
found that people could make such judgements given only a tenth of a second. Again, the magic ingredients of what makes a face you can trust haven’t been identified, so this is one area of the unconscious where we have little choice in the conclusions we draw. While the skill is undoubtedly useful, it can also make unfounded prejudices feel like intuition when they are actually the result of our unconsciously held biases towards specific social groups. Although we can’t change easily change our facial features, our unconscious mind has a trick for making us likeable: mimicry. Jo Hale, a psychologist at University College London, is using virtual avatars to study the popular idea
“We can accurately judge a person’s honesty in only a tenth of a second”
that we like people who mimic our body language. While it takes a lot of effort to consciously mimic someone’s body language, we do it effortlessly, without thinking all the time. In a recent study, Hale programmed virtual avatars to mimic volunteers with a 1 or 3 second delay in their mimicry and found that 3 seconds may be close to a natural delay, because it rendered people both unaware they were being mimicked and more likely to rate the avatar as likeable. A delay of 1 second seemed to raise a flag to the consciousness, making volunteers more likely to notice the mimicry. So despite what body language coaches might have you believe, mimicry may only work if you get the timing right.
Participants still sensed the brush strokes above the rubber hand, implying that as well as unconsciously monitoring our body, we keep track of an invisible ‘force field’ around us. Guterstam suggests this might have evolved to help us pick up objects and move through the environment without injury.
Move to improve A lack of proprioception is rare but can happen with nerve or brain damage. The case of Ian Waterman, who lost proprioception after nerve damage caused by a flu-like virus in 1971, demonstrates just how much we rely on this ability. After being told he would never walk again, he slowly learned to consciously control his muscles to move his body. Decades later, it is still far from easy and he only has full control over his movements if he is looking at the relevant body part and concentrating. “Because his proprioceptive system is shot, these things are not automatic for him. It requires constant conscious effort,” says Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. Even if the system is working fine, there is some evidence that it might be worth consciously trying to improve it. A recent study in which volunteers trained in MovNat exercise – a programme designed to tax the body’s natural balancing, jumping and vaulting abilities – improved more on measures of working memory than a control group who did yoga or no exercise. 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 33
5 Run your life on autopilot Anil Ananthaswamy
So much of what we do in our day-to-day lives, whether it be driving, making coffee or touchtyping, happens without the need for conscious
patterns, and once any kind of behaviour becomes habit, it becomes less flexible and harder to interrupt. “If it’s a good habit, that’s absolutely fine,”
thought. Unlike many of the brain’s other unconscious talents, these are skills that have had to be learned before the brain can automate them. How it does this might provide a method for us to think our way out of bad habits. Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her colleagues have shown that a region deep inside the brain called the striatum is key to habit forming. When you undertake an action, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex tasks, communicates with the striatum, which sends the necessary signals to enact the movement. Over time, input from the
says neuroscientist Anil Seth at the University of Sussex, UK. “But if you ingrain a bad habit, that’s equally difficult to get rid of. You lose that moment of choice when you can decide not to do something.” Crucially, though, Graybiel’s team has shown that, even with the most ingrained habits, a small area of the prefrontal cortex is kept online, in case we need to take alternative action. If the brake pedal in our car stops working, for instance, our entire focus of attention shifts to the physical act of driving the car. This offers hope to anyone looking to break a bad habit, and to those suffering from habit-related problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder
prefrontal circuits fades, to be replaced by loops linking the striatum to the sensorimotor cortex. The loops, together with the memory circuits, allow us to carry out the behaviour without having to think about it. Or, to put it another way, practice makes perfect. No thinking required. The upside of this two-part system is that once we no longer need to focus our attention on a frequent task, the spare processing power can be used for other things. It comes with a downside,
and Tourette’s syndrome – both of which are associated with abnormal activity in the striatum and its connections to other parts of the brain. These circuits could prove fruitful targets for future drug treatments. For now, though, the best way to get a handle on bad habits is to become aware of them (see “How to make the unconscious conscious”, opposite). Then, focus all your attention on them and hope that it’s enough to help the frontal regions resist the call of the autopilot.
however. Similar circuitry is involved in turning all kinds of behaviours into habits, including thought
Or you could teach yourself a new habit that counters the bad one.
6 Predict the Future Diana Kwon
Every moment, the brain takes in far more information than it can process on the fly. In order to make sense of it all, the brain constantly makes predictions that it tests by comparing incoming data against stored information. All without us noticing a thing. Simply imagining the future is enough to set the brain in motion. Imaging studies have shown that when people expect a sound or image to appear, the brain generates an anticipatory signal in the sensory cortices. This ability to be one step ahead of the senses has an important role in helping us understand speech. “The brain is continuously predicting the sounds, words and meanings that people are trying to produce or communicate,” says Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. Studies have also shown that the brain can use one sense to inform another. When you hear a recording of speech that is so degraded it is nearly unintelligible, the words sound 34 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
“We only notice an object once our unconscious has calculated its importance”
clearer if you have previously read the same words in subtitles. “The sensory parts of the brain are comparing the speech you’ve heard to the speech you predicted,” says Davis. Not only do we make hypotheses about external information, our brains also make predictions on the basis of emotional signals coming from the body. Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel goes so far as to suggest that we only consciously recognise an object once our unconscious mind has calculated its importance based on what our senses and emotional reaction are saying. The conscious fear of a snake on a hiking trail comes after the brain has processed the shape and initiated jumping out of the way, for example. Making predictions does have its downsides, however. Incorrect inferences, reinforced by repetition can be hard to reverse, which is why when you learn the wrong lyrics to a song, it can be difficult to stop hearing them. Stereotyping is a more troublesome
How to make the unconscious conscious Caroline Williams
example of the same thing. While it can be useful to recognise that the dangers of things like snakes and fires are relatively constant, when it comes to human interactions, it can lead to negative biases and discrimination. “Stereotypes and prejudices are predictions working as they do with everything else, but [in a way] that is not desirable,” says Bar. Some neuroscientists also believe that the hallucinations experienced in psychosis are the result of expectations gone awry. In one recent study, people who were more prone to psychotic experiences were better at seeing hidden shapes in images that had been digitally degraded. The researchers speculate that this could mean their brains jump to conclusions faster and rely less on evidence coming in from the senses. Despite its flaws, prediction is hugely beneficial. “Imagine that our brain didn’t work like that,” says Bar. “Every snake you see you’d have to learn afresh. Every fire you’d have to touch and burn yourself.”
It’s all very well having a clever unconscious running the show, but it would be nice to know what it’s up to. How, though, when you are not aware of what its thinking? In fact, there are a few tried and
head is spinning. “Literally spinning?” asks Hurlburt. “Yes”, I reply, and proceed to describe a very familiar sensation that I seem to have always known without knowing it. Hurlburt nods. He believes figurative sayings may
tested ways of getting in touch with your hidden thoughts. Harvard University’s Project Implicit shines a light on people’s unconscious biases using quick-fire questions that assess how readily they associate words such as “black” and “white” with others such as “good” and “bad”. The project’s website has a slew of online tests exposing unconscious attitudes to race,
often reflect reality. “I think that when some people say they are seeing red, they literally see red,” he says. Another beep while I am very angry reveals that I don’t literally see red. But it turns out that I do pay a lot of attention to bright colours. I had no idea. Another bleep reveals more weirdness. It goes off while I’m walking in the woods, making an imaginary phone call, and
gender and homosexuality. The questions flash up fast so it’s hard to cheat. Try them – you may be surprised at what your unconscious has to say (bit.ly/NS_BiasTest). Russell Hurlburt, a psychologist at
the words “Oh, hello” are floating from top right to bottom left across my field of vision. Surreal!
the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has another approach. He asks volunteers to wear an earpiece linked to a beeper, which goes off at random intervals six times a day, prompting them to note their thoughts. At the end of the day, Hurlburt conducts an hour-long interview to tease out what people are thinking and how. After four decades of doing this, he has come to the conclusion that most people have no idea what is running through their minds, but that they can be taught to tune into it in just a few days. That’s exactly what I find, when I volunteer to join the study. The first day I am terrible at it. I believe I’ve captured what I was thinking: “I am on the train thinking that I should send some emails.” But then I speak to Hurlburt. “Did you hear words in your head?” he asks. I don’t have a clue. “Probably. Maybe,” I say. This is typical for the first day, he assures me. The second day goes better. At the time of one beep I am feeling overwhelmed and note that my
mind reading Spinning head, floating letters and colours everywhere – is this my unconscious mind laid bare? Hurlburt isn’t convinced. He believes we are conscious of such thoughts while having them, but then they vanish “like a dream upon waking”. Using the beeper is more like mindfulness meditation, he tells me. “Zen monks have a very similar system – they sound the gong and you pay attention to what’s going on right now.” Still, learning to tune in to my moment-to-moment experiences might give me greater access to my unconscious. A study published earlier this year found that regular meditators were quicker than others to consciously register a decision made by their unconscious mind. At the very least, the beeper experience has revealed parts of my inner life that I didn’t know existed. It has been fascinating. What’s more, anyone with a smartphone can download Hurlburt’s app, IPromptU, which interrupts you randomly to remind you to tune in. n 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 35
Back from the brink I have a radical way to curb the ravages of climate change, says biologist Ricard Solé
ANY of us will have seen a lake covered in an algal bloom, the crystal clear surface transformed into a carpet of green, with a dark and suffocated body of water beneath. What’s fascinating about such an event is that it happens quickly – the lake reaches a tipping point and within a month the algae have taken over. This state isn’t permanent, however: lakes can be tipped back. Two decades ago, the ecologist Marten Scheffer showed that simply removing large predatory fish helps a lake regain its crystal clear state. It works because it allows the population of zooplankton to increase, and they eat the algae and stop the bloom. The method has been used around the world with great success. In the coming decades, climate change will mean many more ecosystems reaching catastrophic tipping points. Several grandiose suggestions have been made as to how we
36 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
might engineer our way back from the brink, such as giant mirrors in space that would reduce the amount of solar energy reaching Earth. But such schemes are expensive and risky. My colleagues and I think we have a better idea, one that takes its cue from the solution to the algal blooms: engineering ecosystems using synthetic life. This approach could help prevent the spread of deserts, restore polluted lakes and rivers, attack the islands of plastic rubbish accumulating in the oceans, and deal with sewage or vast landfills resulting from industrial and farming activities. If done correctly, it would allow us to more easily predict and manage the consequences compared with proposals that would affect the entire globe. And best of all, the materials needed are essentially free. Synthetic biology is a well-established field. The basic premise is to treat an existing cell as
a chassis and plug in chunks of genetic material that code for specific jobs, getting the cell to do new things without otherwise affecting it. To see how we might apply these principles to re-engineering a degraded environment, let’s take the example of desertification. Around 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in arid or semi-arid areas, and small changes in incoming sunlight, water or grazing can trigger a rapid shift into a desert. One way to avoid this is to encourage the growth of bacteria that naturally enhance moisture retention in the soil. Even a small improvement aids plant growth, which in turn provides nutrients for more bacteria, creating a virtuous circle that allows the system to escape the tipping point. But transplanting these bacteria from their natural habitat into another environment is quite a challenge. Just how difficult is reflected
Don Johnston_ON / Alamy Stock Photo
Can we roll back desertification and algal blooms?
in the fate of the journal Microbial Releases. It launched in 1992 to publish accounts of experiments that put microbes into the ecosystem, but folded only two years later because so many of the tests failed. The problems boiled down to microbes being poorly adapted to survive in their new, unfamiliar environment.
Release the genes We are in a better position today, thanks to synthetic biology. I think bacterial transplants should work much better if we take species that already live in arid soil, cyanobacteria for instance, and engineer them so that they produce a polymer that helps the soil retain water. This is still no mean feat, as it involves growing the bacteria in the lab and then moving them into the wild, two potentially very different environments. But it should be
possible if we improve our understanding of the inner workings of cyanobacteria – and this is something my team in Barcelona is already looking into. Another approach, suggested by my colleague Victor de Lorenzo, is to release a chunk of DNA into the environment we wish to manage, so that species of bacteria living there can naturally incorporate it into their genome. These “genetic modules” are designed to spread through the population, and would provide instructions to enable any cell containing them to sense a physical or chemical property of their surroundings, and then produce chemicals to help steer those conditions towards a beneficial, stable state. For instance, and staying with the desertification example, they might equip whatever bacterium they enter to sense the level of moisture near it and produce a watertrapping polymer. But I can already hear the alarm bells ringing in your head. These ideas are bound to raise fears about the “Jurassic Park effect”: aren’t we attempting to manage systems that are too complex to control? There is good reason to be cautious about unintended consequences, but remember how high the stakes are. We are already experiencing a massive global extinction event and things will get worse not steadily, but suddenly, when we reach tipping points like those algae-infested lakes. What’s more, recent research has unearthed a few ways to control how widely our synthetic creations can propagate. For instance, it’s possible to give bacteria a suicide switch that automatically flicks once they stray outside boundaries that we define. This is already happening in non-natural environments.
Hendrik Jonkers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has developed a type of concrete impregnated with bacteria. When small cracks develop, the bacteria spring to life and produce calcium carbonate that repairs the damage. But the bacteria are designed so that they can’t survive outside the concrete – there is an ecological firewall. Something similar should be possible in natural environments, too. Take watercourses polluted with sewage. Bacteria designed to capture carbon dioxide or break down toxic chemicals could be added during waste
“Geoengineering with synthetic life is relatively safe and essentially free” treatment, and be programmed to switch off when they are washed into open water. As part of research project called Synterra, my collaborators and I are planning to think these ideas through more thoroughly and begin to test them. We are using computer simulations to better understand how synthetic bacteria would function in ecosystems, and we plan to use controlled outdoor plots to test the cyanobacteria I mentioned earlier. That may sound unpalatable, but let’s face facts. As recent debates over a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene, show, we have been moulding the environment to our needs for centuries. We will inevitably keep doing that – so let’s do it right. n Ricard Solé is a systems biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 37
Weâ€™re catching up with the most extreme explosions in the cosmos, says Colin Stuart
> 38 | NewScientist | 00 Month 2016
N 28 March 2011, at 9.47 pm Eastern Standard Time, NASA’s Swift satellite spotted a searing burst of light in the corner of its eye. Within seconds it had alerted astronomers on the ground, and their telescopes were soon trained on a dazzling spectacle. At the centre of a galaxy 3.8 billion light years away, a supermassive black hole was devouring a star that had strayed too close, tearing it apart to spark a gargantuan swirling firework. Then, suddenly, a narrow jet of radiation, pointed right at us, erupted from the black hole at close to the speed of light. Jaws dropped. We’d previously seen only a handful of these star-shredding displays, known as tidal disruption events, and only ever their afterglow. Now, watching the show from the start, astronomers could see exactly how the hot gas spiralled into the black hole. Seeing such pyrotechnics is not as rare as it once was. A new generation of rapid-reaction observatories are belying the apparent calm of the night sky, revealing the universe at its most violent and dynamic. In the process, we’re discovering all kinds of weird flashes and flare-ups – cataclysmic outbursts that open a window on physics under the most extreme conditions possible. “Our data is already full of things we can’t identify,” says Mathew Smith, an astronomer at the University of Southampton, UK. Astronomy is traditionally a sedate affair. We train our telescopes on small patches of sky for long spells, trying to drink in as much faint light from distant objects as possible. That has taught us pretty much everything we know about the structure and evolution of the universe, but it means we tend to miss the real action – the bumps, bangs and bursts that come and go over days, hours or just seconds. Even when we have serendipitously caught these “transient astronomical events”, it’s usually well after the party has started. That limits what we can learn. “In the first 24 hours or so, there are unique signatures of the physics that we can’t access if we don’t find them until later,” says Eric Bellm, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena. Swift was an early attempt to change that. Launched in 2004, it roams the heavens searching for flashes of high-energy photons called gamma-ray bursts, and automatically alerts other telescopes when it spots one. Since 2008, it has had a partner, the Fermi gammaray space telescope. Meanwhile, on the ground, specialised telescopes are scanning vast swathes of the sky, snapping picture after picture using wide-angle cameras. “Rather than targeting just a handful of galaxies, we’re looking more systematically across the whole sky,” says Bellm, who works on the Zwicky Transient Facility, successor to the intermediate Palomar Transient Factory, north of San Diego, California. The PTF has spotted over a million transient phenomena since 2009. That’s too many for astronomers to deal with, so facilities such as PTF and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii use software that picks out interesting events in
“WE’VE TENDED TO MISS THE REAL ACTION: THE BUMPS, BANGS AND BURSTS” real time, then instantly notifies astronomers and automated observatories. The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Network (LCGOT), for instance, has seven telescopes dotted around the world and more to come, meaning at least one is always ready to follow up on a flare-up, no matter where in the sky it has appeared. The result is a cosmological revolution in the making. Take our sightings of supernovae, the incredibly violent and bright explosions of massive dying stars. Occasional observations of their afterglow have told us that one particular class, type 1a supernovae, burn with predictable brightness, meaning we can use them as cosmic distance markers. That’s how we know the expansion of the universe is accelerating, apparently propelled by an enigmatic substance known as dark energy. > 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 39
Striking flares Short gamma-ray bursts illuminate the most violent collisions in the cosmos Over the past few years, astronomers have cranked up the rate at which they are discovering short gamma-ray bursts, flashes of high-energy photons lasting no more than a couple of seconds. No one is quite sure what causes them, but most think they come from collisions between very dense neutron stars, which either merge together or collapse into a black hole and kick out a blast of gamma rays in the process.
between binary neutron stars. To see the real smoking gun, though, we would have to detect the gravitational waves that accompany such events, much as last year we picked up the ripples in space-time generated by two merging black holes.
GOLDEN GLOW The clash may also have been the first time we’ve seen the production of heavy metals such as gold and platinum. We know they can’t be forged through nuclear fusion alone, because most stars lack the neutron density and energy needed, but smash-ups between neutron stars could do the trick. Now we need to see more of them to really figure out whether they are the main source of heavy metals in the universe. Recent observations suggest that could be tricky. When Eleonara Troja from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and colleagues followed up on another short gamma-ray burst from a neutron star collision, they showed that it produced a very narrow jet. The upshot is that if the beam is not pointed in Earth’s direction, we’ll miss it. So although astronomers are seeing more short gamma-ray bursts than ever, it looks as if we’re still only spotting a tiny percentage of what’s out there. 40 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
For a long time that was hard to prove. Then theorists predicted that when these incredibly compact objects come together, they should produce a telltale infrared glow. And in June 2013, by training the Hubble Space Telescope on a flash spotted by Swift, a team led by Harvard’s Edo Berger caught a glimpse of one. It was the strongest evidence yet that short gamma-ray bursts come from clashes
Radio telescopes are tuning in to strange chirps that defy explanation
But what was once a trickle of supernovae is fast becoming a flood. “Ten years ago we were spotting 100 per year, now it’s more like 100 per week,” says Edo Berger at Harvard University. And among them are bizarre new species: dim ones that hardly make a bang, ultraviolet ones and those that explode as they smash into other stars. Last year, for instance, astronomers used observations from Swift, PTF and the Las Cumbres network to catch a supernova just as it started to explode, slamming into another star. The collision created an ultraviolet afterglow that allowed them to work out the size of the supernova’s companion – a missing piece of the puzzle in terms of figuring out what sets off some cosmic explosions. Perhaps the most dramatic newcomers, however, are the super-luminous variety. The most brilliant of these was discovered last year, shining roughly 200 times as brightly as a typical supernova or 570 billion times brighter than the sun. Astronomers are scratching their heads over what powers such objects. Some put it down to the collapsing stars being extraordinarily massive and unstable, but a fresh oddity suggests something else.
In February, a team led by Smith reported observations of a super-luminous supernova called DES14X3taz. It was originally picked up in 2014 by the Dark Energy Camera, an all-sky telescope in Chile designed to probe the nature of dark energy by looking at the largescale structure of the cosmos. When Smith followed up with the GTC telescope on La Palma, in the Canary Islands, he saw something bizarre. Normally supernovae
“THE BRIGHTEST EXPLOSION WAS 570 BILLION TIMES BRIGHTER THAN THE SUN” start faint and get bright before slowly fading away, says Smith. “But this one didn’t.” Instead, it brightened, faded and brightened again. It seems to have exploded twice. Smith thinks we were witnessing the birth of a magnetar – a highly magnetised, rapidly spinning version of a neutron star, the densest objects in the universe. He believes that the first flare-up was the initial shock wave hitting material the star had thrown off earlier, while the second flash was some of that material being knocked back onto the spinning star – which immediately threw it off again. When Smith looked at other super-
Curious transmissions Fast radio bursts could give us clues to missing matter, if only we can figure out where they come from By far the most enigmatic of the fleeting phenomena we’re detecting are fast radio bursts – intense pulses of radio waves that last mere milliseconds yet carry as much energy as the sun gives out in a month. Right now we’ve only seen around 20 of them, but there could be 6000 to 8000 every day, says Michael Kramer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany. The source of these chirps has mystified astronomers ever since the
Messages from alien civilisations? Sparks from superconducting cosmic strings? Or just something mundane from inside our galaxy? “There are more models than events,” says Kramer. Earlier this year, a team led by Kramer claimed to have traced a fast radio burst back to its source. Within 2 hours of FRB 150418 triggering the automatic alarm on the Parkes telescope in Australia, other radio telescopes were following up.
passing through Kramer’s team also showed how fast radio bursts might be used to test our ideas about dark matter – the mysterious substance that helps hold galaxies together. Once they’d
had travelled to get here, and the way the radio waves were dispersed en route let them calculate the amount of matter – both ordinary and dark – in between. Their answers agreed with values provided by other techniques. “We believe that’s more than a coincidence,” Kramer says. Berger is not convinced. He argues that the afterglow was actually a persistent emission from an active black hole in a distant galaxy and therefore not related to the fast
first was identified back in 2007. Black holes imploding into white holes?
Observations of the afterglow showed that it came from an elliptical galaxy
identified the source galaxy, the researchers knew how far the signal
radio burst. It just goes to show how little we know about these signals.
The researchers used the reflections of X-ray flares emitted during the event, known as reverberations, to map the turbulent flow of gas as it spiralled into the maw. Spying on such cataclysms might tell us more about how space-time behaves around these gravitational monsters, potentially revealing something about the fabric of the universe. “The ultimate goal is to look at Hungry black holes gobbling up stars give themselves away in a flash
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
luminous supernovae observed by the Dark Energy Camera, he saw the same pattern, raising the prospect that the same physical mechanism could be behind all of them. If so, we might someday use super-luminous supernovae as cosmic distance markers, just as we use type 1a supernovae. Since they are so much brighter, the super-luminous ones would allow us to chart the universe’s expansion even further back in time. Exotic supernovae, however, are not the only momentary marvels astronomers are catching up with. Intense photon flashes lasting more than 2 seconds, known as long gamma-ray bursts, are thought to come from the birth of black holes formed when very massive stars collapse. But we’ve also seen “ultra-long” bursts that last for hours, some of which may spring from the death of primordial stars known as blue supergiants. These massive but metal-poor stars can be hundreds of times larger than our own sun because they retain a deep hydrogen atmosphere as they grow old – a huge cloud of gas that could fuel a long burst as it falls into the black hole created by the star’s collapse. We have even gawped as a doomed star is sucked into a supermassive black hole. This was the jaw-dropping tidal disruption event spotted by Swift in March 2011, which generated another unusually long gamma-ray burst and an X-ray afterglow visible for more than a month. That allowed a team led by Erin Kara at the University of Maryland to peer deep into the gravitational well of a black hole that is largely dormant, as opposed to one constantly swallowing material and emitting radiation.
6.8 billion light years away. “If they come from that far away, they need a really extreme source of energy to power them and that makes it a lot more exciting and exotic,” says Harvard’s Edo Berger.
gravity in the most extreme environments in order to test general relativity,” says Kara. Any departure from Einstein’s rules, which have yet to fail a test, would be a vital step towards a quantum theory of gravity, a longsought explanation of how the force operates at the smallest scales. Then there are short gamma-ray bursts, revealing collisions between extremely compact objects (see “Striking flares”, page 40) and, at the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum, fast radio bursts (see “Curious transmissions”, above). These come from mysterious sources that, if we can ever identify them, may show us what the universe is really made of. This colourful cornucopia of explosions is just the warm-up act. The next generation of automated all-sky observatories should give us the whole show. Perhaps the most hotly anticipated is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to see first light in 2021. With a camera boasting a whopping 3200 megapixels, it will cover the whole sky in just a few nights, checking back regularly for anything out of the ordinary. “We’re going to jump from having hundreds of known objects to hundreds of thousands,” says Smith. The Square Kilometre Array, with instruments in Africa and Australia, will set off a similar sea change in radio astronomy. “Not only are we going to get a much better view of phenomena we already know about,” says Berger, “we’re going to see things we’ve never seen before.” n Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) is a freelance astronomy writer and author of The Geek Guide to Life 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 41
I’ve seen brain damage caused by terrible poverty What does extreme deprivation do to the human brain? Charles Nelson has spent his career studying – and helping – children in Romanian orphanages and Bangladeshi slums to find out
There’s child poverty in the US, so why study children in Bangladesh?
I’m interested in the effects of early adversity. Researchers in the US have studied the effect of maltreatment and poverty, but no children in the US face the level of adversity seen in poor areas of Bangladesh. So we’ve built a lab in a Dhaka slum to investigate the effects on brain and behavioural development. What are these slums like for children?
The level of poverty is mind-boggling. A family of five might live in a single room. None have 42 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
kitchens or bathrooms. Everything is communal. People cook with wood or coal, so the air pollution is unbelievable. The roads are just dirt, so when the wind blows you have all this dirt in the air. There are open sewers. People use latrines in the street, which flood when the monsoon season comes – it lasts for months. The polite way to put it is that stool gets into everything, and can spread disease. The kids have chronic diarrhoea, which makes them malnourished. On top of that, around 20 to 30 per cent of the mothers we’ve assessed are depressed.
PEOPLE PROFILE Charles Nelson is a professor of neuroscience and paediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts
I saw a kid who was maybe 18 months old, standing in the middle of the room, crying. She had wet her pants and no one was paying any attention to her. I asked the staff: “What’s her story?” And they told me that her mother had left her there that morning and that she’d been like that all day. There were significant developmental delays. The growth stunting would shock you – the kids were very, very small. Why were the children in such a bad way?
They’re deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Babies lie in cribs for their first year or more and their visual experience is limited because often the ceilings are painted white. There’s no one to talk to them and caregiving is limited, so they’re deprived of psychosocial stimulation. What was the aim of the study?
We wanted to find out how growing up in an institution affected the children’s development and if high-quality foster care could remediate whatever negative outcomes they might have. We were also interested in timing: whether recovery would be influenced by the age at which they were placed into foster care. We recruited a sample of 136 kids who had been abandoned shortly after birth. They were all babies aged from 6 to 31 months. Photographed for New Scientist by Ken Richardson
There are high levels of domestic violence. We thought the work in Romania was messy – but this is even messier. Tell me about that work.
Romania had a long and egregious history of institutionalising kids. In 1989, when the communists were overthrown, there were 170,000 children in institutions. We thought, just from sheer numbers, it would be a good place to do some research. So in the late 1990s, we started a study of children who had been abandoned in government-run institutions.
So you placed the kids into foster care?
We randomly assigned half of the kids to foster care; half remained in institutional care. There was no government foster care available, so we had to start our own – and having seen what life was like for the kids in these institutions, we decided we wanted it to be really good. We advertised intensively in Bucharest for volunteer foster care parents, and then we interviewed and screened the respondents. When all was said and done, we could only find 58 families that we thought would be good. We paid the families a wage and provided material support, such as diapers and toys. The families were closely monitored: social workers visited their homes every 10 days and we had a paediatrician on-call 24 hours a day. What was the impact of foster care?
What were the institutions like?
We had a rule: no crying in front of the children. But it was tough. I can’t tell you how emotional this was. Sometimes you’d have to leave the room because you were so overwhelmed by the suffering of the children and the callousness of the staff. On the second day of my first trip there,
Two or so years into the study, the findings were overwhelming. Across the board, the kids in institutions lagged behind. They had much lower IQs and delayed language development. They had smaller brains. They had all kinds of mental health problems. In every domain, they were hurting. The kids in foster care were doing much, much better.
Some of the improvements – such as in language and IQ – were only seen if children were placed in foster care before the age of around 2. The prevalence of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression were reduced no matter how old the kids were when they were placed. But foster care seemed to have no effect on attention deficit disorder. How are the children doing now?
They’re 16 or so. Those assigned to institutions are not good. They’re starting to experience significant mental health issues, such as psychotic disorder and paranoia. Around
“We had a rule: no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was” 20 showed a precipitous drop in IQ from the age of 12. That’s surprising and really worrying. IQ is generally stable over time. The kids in foster care are doing much better across the board. Shouldn’t all the children have been offered foster care?
When you do a randomised controlled trial like this and you find that the intervention is really effective, then you generally have to make the treatment available to everyone or stop the study. But we didn’t have more foster care families, and if we stopped the study, all the kids would have gone back to the institution, which would not have been good. So what did you do?
We called a national press conference. We invited members of the government and the press, and we announced our findings. It was our way of leaving it in the lap of the government, for them to do something. And sure enough, they started to. A year later they passed legislation forbidding the institutionalisation of any kid under the age of 2 unless they were severely disabled. They also started government foster care. Any results from the Bangladesh study?
We’re nearly done with data collection and we’re just now starting to go through the data. What do you hope to achieve in the long run?
I want to develop the political will to improve the lives of kids. When it’s a specific problem, we can develop targeted interventions. That’s the hope, anyway. n Interview by Jessica Hamzelou 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 43
Animal sound symphony underscores a new world
Dramatic animal recordings and vivid colours create a hypnotic experience of the natural world – and hint at a very different future for humans and animals, finds Alun Anderson
The Great Animal Orchestra, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, to 8 January 2017, Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the voice of the natural world by Bernie Krause, Yale University Press, 2016, $18/£12.99
ALMOST 50 years ago, musician Bernie Krause walked into woodland near San Francisco to record natural sounds for an album he was working on. He had never sat alone in the woods before, listening intently, and the experience changed his life. “I completely lost track of time and was oblivious to the approaching night,” he writes in his newly updated Wild Soundscapes. 44 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
Eventually, he abandoned the intense, meditative enjoyment of music business and Hollywood, the natural world. It is also a rare where he worked on the score chance to glimpse exciting new for the film Apocalypse Now, to routes into the world of animal collect natural soundscapes, the communication – and the pure, rich sounds of untouched practical possibilities they offer ecosystems where no human for protecting our environment. noise could be heard, and to Unlike earlier animal sound study for a PhD in bioacoustics. researchers, Krause wants to Now Krause’s recordings are capture the polyphony of the at the heart of an extraordinary creatures living and interacting at exhibition at the Cartier a particular place, to capture its Foundation, a leading unique spirit. As he explains, the contemporary art gallery in Paris, animals living in a shared space along with pictures from wildlife evolved to occupy different photographers, videographers “Animals sharing a space and artists’ interpretations of evolved to fill niches, some his soundscapes. sing high, some low, and The show is an opportunity at different intervals” to experience afresh Krause’s
Visitors immerse themselves in the world of animals surrounding them
acoustic niches, some singing high and some low, and at different intervals. The whole is not a cacophony but justifies the exhibition’s title of “The Great Animal Orchestra”. Many of Krause’s recordings are online, but the exhibition takes us deep into his way of listening, thanks to an immersive display from London-based collective United Visual Artists. In a large, dimly lit gallery, visitors can relax on cushions or stretch out on the floor to listen to recordings. At the same time, a stream of vividly coloured spectrographs of the
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sounds flows along the wall, with high-frequency sounds at the top and bass at the bottom. When each creature enters the soundscape, its name appears on its spectrograph as it begins its journey across the wall. This labelling has unexpected effects on our appreciation of the soundscapes. For example, as we listen to a recording from a swampy clearing in the Central African Republic, bursts of colour join the scene lower down on the wall, as a green turaco and a redchested cuckoo call. At the bottom of the colour flow, a deep-throated gorilla suddenly appears in roars of sound and light. Then the whole wall is set ablaze with a tower of sound as an African forest elephant trumpets its entrance. The members of The Great Animal Orchestra are revealed, firing the imagination and deepening our listening.
subplots waiting to be unravelled. Krause’s unobtrusive approach is vital if we are to enter more completely into the animal world. Among the many exhibits at the Cartier, a particular match lies in the work of photographer Manabu Miyazaki, never before shown outside Japan. For the past 40 years, Miyazaki has used camera traps, which he leaves out by forest tracks for passing animals to trigger. The resulting
“A global crowd collects and shares soundscapes – and is alert to the connections between art and science”
Under the spell only a few thin voices remain. But thanks in part to Krause, soundscapes are now beginning to be used as sensitive tools to measure the health of ecosystems, picking up change before it is visible. A simple spectral analysis of birdsong, for example, could be a good proxy for biodiversity. In the show, Krause plays a recording of a forest at Lincoln Meadow in California, made before and after selective logging. While the forest looked the same, the soundscapes are different – a reminder that animals do not
Caught in the act: this bear doesn’t know it has an audience
perceive the world as we do. Animal communication has mostly been studied in pairwise interactions, but soundscapes show animals broadcasting their sounds because they want to reach many receivers. Waves of replies, imitations and choruses draw in many animals, and alarms may result, while other creatures eavesdrop silently for warnings and opportunities. This is an opera with plots and
Visitors wander in and fidget for the first 5 minutes, until they fall under the soundscapes’ spell, and remain entranced for an hour or more, departing, silent. Seeing and listening interact. One of the trickiest natural sounds to capture is the sea, says Krause. Sitting by the sea, under the spell of the waves, your eye moves from place to place, and your hearing with it, focusing on the surf’s deep roar, then the hiss of retreating waves. To capture this complexity, Krause records from different perspectives and mixes the result later. At the exhibition, the listenerviewer is tugged in several directions emotionally. You might, as Krause does, revel in the beauty of his soundscapes while lamenting their disappearance. That soundscape from the Central African Republic could not be recorded now. Over half of the 5000 hours of archive Krause has collected since 1968 comes from sites humans have made mute, or have so reduced in diversity that
photographs give us a unique sense of intimacy: the animals are taking their own portraits when they feel safe and unobserved in their own world. “My camera borrows the eyes of the trees,” Miyazaki says, his pictures sharing what Krause describes as a “delight in the existence of life”. If you leave the exhibition inspired to record the natural world, Krause’s book will help, with its enthusiastic and practical advice, although it leans heavily towards soundscapes you find in North America. These days you don’t need expensive kit to join a global, sometimes obsessional, crowd that collects and shares soundscapes – and is alert to the connections between art and science. Even global superstars are in on the act. Patti Smith takes part in a new album, Killer Road, which features whispered songs set against a background of Ibiza roadside sounds provided by Soundwalk Collective. Many who visit the Cartier will come away understanding Krause’s injunction that there is a big difference between “hearing” and “active listening”. For some, his wish, drawn from his personal experience, that “your overall perspective of the world changes dramatically” may be fulfilled. n Alun Anderson is a consultant for New Scientist 1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 45
Unhappy bedfellows The marriage of art and technology is never easy, finds Simon Ings
IN A disused sorting office in Linz, Austria, an industrial robot twice my height is wiping Serbian-born artist Dragan Ilic over a canvascovered wall. Ilic is clutching pencils, and as the robot twirls and dabs him against the wall, the artist makes his own, more or less frantic marks – a sort of sentient brush-head. These performances are billed as a collaboration between artist and machine. All I see is the user getting used. Every September in Linz, the Ars Electronica festival tries to marry technology and art. Andy Warhol took up screen-printing in the 1960s, and a generation of gallerygoers have since grown up with the notion that this match is easy. Indeed, the coupling of art and technology has become a pillar of art education, especially now so much funding comes from giants like Sony, and private institutions like the Wellcome Trust. But if the venerable Ars Electronica has demonstrated anything at all in its 37-year history – beyond the ability of the arts to remake and rejuvenate a city – it is that technology and art make astonishingly unhappy bedfellows. This year, for example, Swiss artist Daniel Boschung used an industrial robot controlled by bespoke software to take 900-million-pixel portraits of people – forensic surveys so detailed they drained all emotion from their subjects’ faces. Not far away, another robot, Davide Quayola’s Sculpture Factory, chiselled through Pioneering pixels: massed art drones descend from the skies 46 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
partially completed life-size stone zoom. And then there is Frank renditions of Michelangelo’s Kolkman’s OpenSurgery, which David. The attention was directed combines 3D printing and laserto the pixelated nature of 3D cutting with hacked surgical scanning, which smeared, spread pieces and components bought and tessellated the biblical giantonline. This is a DIY robot that can killer to the point of incoherence: perform laparoscopic surgery – a here a limb, there an eye. terrifying comment on the way The provoking thing about Ars that hacking and “making” are Electronica is that it jams together increasingly being expected to boutique displays of the latest stand in for the real thing. technology, trenchant criticisms “A DIY robot surgeon is a of the post-industrial project, terrifying comment on jokes and honest failures. It is a how hacking and ‘making’ gargantuan vessel powered by stand in for the real thing” enthusiasm, steered by nothing remotely resembling taste. Eventually the visitor comes You’ll need a drink after all that, to rest against one of a handful so head for Max Dovey’s A Hipster of obvious wins. Boris Labbé’s film Bar. And good luck – this genuine Rhizome, which won the festival’s pop-up drinking hole will, in true annual animation prize, unites neo-liberal fashion, keep the gate watercolour illustration and shut unless its face-recognition digital effects to tell an epic tale system considers you “90 per of evolution, civilisation and cent hipster”. cosmic transformation in one As you sip, ponder this. It was steady, heart-stopping reverse the assertion of the Romantic
movement that art makes us appreciate the beauty, richness and sheer size of the world. And technology, used appropriately, brings us closer to that sublime. As the Romantics’ acolyte, the writer and pioneering pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, put it: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” Even if that was true in 1939, it’s not true now: not now our drones do our flying for us; not now our technology has got away from us to the point where large portions of nature are being erased; not now we live mired in media, and have to make special efforts to escape it. Naturally, artists want to explore the new technology of their day, but these days the best results seem to come when we misappropriate the machines and kick them into new shapes, or simply point and laugh. n
Ars Electronica 2016, Linz, Austria
Becoming a Great Essayist Taught by Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black ST. MARY’S COLLEGE OF MARYLAND
TIME O F
BY 9 O C
Steal, Adopt, Adapt: Where Essays Begin
Memory Maps and Your Essay’s Direction
Secrets, Confession, and a Writer’s Voice
The Skeptical Essayist: Conflicting Views
The Reasonable Essayist: Artistic Proofs
The Unreasonable Essayist: Strategic Irony
The Empathetic Essayist: Evoking Emotion
When an Essayist’s Feelings Face Facts
Unabashedly Me: The First-Person Essay
11. The Visual Essay: Words + Pictures
12. Writing Inch by Inch: From Draft to Polish
10. Essayists as Poets: Tapping into Imagery
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LETTERS editor’s pick
Why would AIs correct politicians? From Steve Holden Your Leader suggests that artificial intelligence technologies will help to hold powerful people to account for ill-formed or lie-based arguments (10 September, p 3). This is as silly as suggesting that making encryption illegal will stop criminals using it, despite their demonstrated propensity to ignore inconvenient laws. Politicians with their pants on fire are not being held to account in this post-truth world because it is no longer considered unreasonable to base arguments on opinion and emotion alone. You use Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, as an example of a successful politician not appealing to reason. Why, therefore, would logical reasoning about their fallacious arguments be any more acceptable from an AI? People tend to believe what they want to believe, as the phenomenon of confirmation bias makes evident. Apparently it is no longer enough to use logic to make one’s point. Now that opinion is placed above, or at least on a par with, fact-based reasoning, there seems little point in attempting to improve standards of debate by logically proving the fallacious basis of their arguments. The successful AIs might well be those that are prepared to pander to popular prejudice. Chislehurst, Kent, UK
To read more letters, visit newscientist.com/letters 52 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
Metaphysics and consciousness From Andrew Whiteley Despite your metaphysics special (3 September, p 33), philosophy is not in a competition with science to see which can come up with the better answers to the same questions. Philosophy in every area is the art of thinking as clearly and deeply as we can. In science, its task is to understand the nature and scope of scientific investigation. The idea that science can supersede philosophy is therefore ludicrous. Metaphysics deals with how we view the fundamental nature of reality. Materialism – the belief that the nature of existence is at root that of mindless matter – is itself a metaphysical view. And if consciousness is an illusion, then the belief that it is an illusion must also be an illusion, since it is, after all, part of our consciousness. If our thoughts have purely material causes, and could not have been other than they are, then we cannot know if they are true or false. If we do not have free will, we cannot know we don’t have it. Consett, County Durham, UK From Jim Wegryn Discussion about consciousness (or mind) seems always to assume it is a thing of substance. But its every manifestation, including thinking, remembering and deciding, rides on the arrow of time. It’s always in the now. It is a process no different to an active computer program. To talk about the mind-body problem makes as much sense as talking about the hour-clock problem, or the travelcar problem. Dimondale, Michigan, US From Mark Wallace Anil Ananthaswamy writes: “There are those who think that consciousness is something real and those who say it’s a mirage… a trick of the mind.” Whether the
words “mirage” and “trick” are metaphors, or to be taken literally, they both require a victim. If my brain was this victim, then there’s no consciousness involved, and so no trick. There’s only a trick if I’m conscious, in which case it’s not a trick either. St Kilda East, Victoria, Australia
Ants can teach us on consciousness From Liz O’Neill I suggest that the observations of Eciton army ants (10 September, p 29) showing complex emergent behaviour built on individual responses to simpler sensory inputs go a long way to explain human consciousness. Recent articles in New Scientist have gone to great lengths to explore human consciousness and whether other animals have it. I sometimes feel some would love to find some wondrous entity pulling levers in our brains: the explanation is in reality far simpler. Whitland, Carmarthenshire, UK
Particles that don’t exist, or do From Paul G. Ellis Andrea Taroni, while not denying the photon’s existence, states: “the ‘central mystery’ of quantum theory… says that neither a wave nor a particle is a perfect way to think of a photon of light” (10 September, p 33). Indeed, it can be argued that the photon, too, is a particle that doesn’t exist. When we consider the energy and information transmitted by photons, with their zero rest mass, we observe only changes in the emitters and absorbers of whatever is transmitted. So any observable properties attributed to the photon, such as spin, should be traceable to the properties of the emitter and absorber themselves. Photons
and light waves, are, I suggest, convenient mathematical fictions accounting for the relationship between emitter and absorber. Chichester, West Sussex, UK From Paul Kyberd In a Mexican wave what seems to be travelling through the crowd is in fact a wave. Exactly the same thing happens to the atoms in a water wave. Taroni implies that a photon of light is more real than a phonon, a pattern of vibration considered as a particle. The difference between the “immaterial” field and the rather more “concrete” particles can certainly make the systems feel different. But in both cases the classical idea of energy transport by a wave acquires the characteristics of a particle when considered quantum mechanically. Photons and phonons have the same level of reality. London, UK
We can do without dark matter From Rudi Van Nieuwenhove The scientific method has in general been very successful, using a cycle of hypothesis, testing, and rejecting or accepting the hypothesis. For some obscure reason, dark matter is the exception to this. Over more than 80 years, every experiment has failed to demonstrate that dark matter exists. Instead of rejecting the hypothesis of dark matter, some choose a kind of religious belief that dark matter must exist and continue searching for it (27 August, p 28). Why not accept the logical alternative that there is no dark matter and that the established laws of gravitation need to be modified? Besides the Modified Newtonian Dynamics theory, there are other alternative theories, such as the Vacuum
“But by all means, let’s remove environmental protection. Let the poison waters flow” haron is a bit miffed at reports of an underground S pipeline rupturing in Alabama ( 24 September, p 6)
Modified Gravity that I describe at bit.ly/NS-VMG, which can perfectly explain the observed flat galaxy rotation curves without resorting to dark matter. Halden, Norway
of course, as yet unknown. Things are complicated by the facts that Proxima Centauri frequently emits giant flares and that the planet is most likely tidally locked, facing only one side to its star. Glenalta, South Australia
What makes a planet Earth-like?
The editor writes: n Proxima b is like the Earth in composition and location, as well as mass. “Earth-ish” would perhaps be most accurate, if only it were a word.
From Steven Raine I enjoyed your informative and marvellously illustrated coverage of the discovery of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri (27 August, p 8). It does seem a bit misleading, though, to call it “Earth-like” on the cover and an “Earth” in the headline, given how little we really know about it beyond its orbit and its approximate mass. As Jacob Aron noted in the article, the possible range of temperatures of the Proximan planet is from -33 °C to the “high hundreds”. So this planet could be frozen solid apart from the odd blast of extreme radiation, or similar to Venus, depending on its atmosphere. That atmosphere is,
Progress and the motor of history From David Needs Zoltan Istvan’s comment piece on his US Transhumanist Party suggested some dangers of an extreme “pro-science” approach to politics and society (27 August, p 18). It is indeed depressing how rarely politicians discuss scientific findings beyond the polarised rhetoric of bare statistics (shorn of methodological underpinnings). And, as Istvan points out, when addressing a US electorate that is
“roughly 75 per cent Christian” politicians will often eschew science and reason altogether and fall back on traditional morality. Surely any new approach that turns this on its head needs to give equal weight to more reasoned ethical values. Istvan may enthusiastically predict “the end of human death” for instance, but he must also be aware of the ethical considerations of such a “breakthrough” at a societal level. Perhaps I’m overlooking some satirical intent (and there are certainly hints to that possibility in his writing) but, taken at face value, anybody who believes that science can only lead to progress needs to look to history. Bristol, UK From Bryn Glover I began reading Istvan with a feeling of mild optimism, but then I encountered his notions on telepathy and the elimination of human death by mid-century. I began to feel his article would be better filed under “fruitloopery” in Feedback’s piling system. My main reason for writing, though, is the fervent hope that
your natural sense of fairness and fair play will not induce you, under any circumstances, to offer equal column space to other US presidential candidates. Please! Kirkby Malzeard, North Yorkshire, UK
More exciting uses for DNA profiling From Clement Le Lievre I am excited by the possibilities of DNA ecosystem surveillance (9 July, p 20). I suggest an excellent ecosystem to survey would be the river Ness in Scotland. Not only could we thus get irrefutable evidence of Nessie’s existence. We could also establish her gender and whether she has a family. Subsequently, we could take the technology downstream of the Himalayan rivers of ice to explore the hidden world of the Yeti. The perfected technique could be applied to any solar sails we may build, so that we can harness solar energy from the one side while seeking evidence of panspermia on the reverse. Ngongotaha, New Zealand
For the record n One ring to tell us all: most communications and all broadcasting satellites are in geostationary orbits (27 August, p 16). n That doesn’t suck. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will collect dust from asteroid Bennu by blowing it with nitrogen (10 September, p 4). n Superconductors by definition have zero resistance (10 September, p 33).
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1 October 2016 | NewScientist | 53
Photo: African Natu
Urgent appeal for help to save the now Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorilla.
Without action now, this endanger to Fauna & Flora International on 0
One of the world’s rarest apes faces extinction
Consumed by conflict and caught of a severe conservation crisis, the lowland gorilla is fighting for sur Fauna & Flora International (FFI have issued an urgent call to save th 2,000 eastern lowland gorillas. 15 y ago there were 17,000 gorillas. Fun sought immediately to carry out es scientific monitoring of the remain Without action now the Grauer’s gorilla could be gone forever – population living in the Maiko and cut the coupon or go to www.savegorillas.org.uk to help protect Biega National Parks in the Democ the remaining 3,800 Critically Endangered gorillas. Republic of Congo (DRC). It’s the n crucial step to protecting these elus endangered apes from complete ex Consumed by conflict and Eastern gorillas face m “The Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks in the DRC are home to some of thelowland most caught in the grip of a severe threats to their survival – mainly endangered species in Africa, including the Grauer’s gorilla. However, as human populations conservation crisis, the human in the region expand so too does the risk from habitat loss. A participatory formactivity. of Grauer’s gorilla – the world’s Expansion ofgorilla agriculture and pas conservation is giving these communities a means to exist and is helping the Grauer’s largest gorilla – is fighting DRC recent and other wildlife. Time is short and I urge supporters of FFI to quicklythe back thisin vital work years has put en for survival. Fauna & Flora strain on the gorilla’s shrinking hab that is crucial to the survival of the Grauer’s gorilla.” levels of hunting have caused many International (FFI) has put Sir David Attenborough OM FRS, Fauna & Flora International vice-president be killed. And more than a decade out an urgent call to the civil war has seen thousands of gor global community to save the remaining 3,800 Grauer’s with them, it has become What’s more, continuous agricultureslaughtered. expansion What’s in an more, continuo has resulted in an almost complete gorillas. possible to send field teams conflict has made it incredibly unprotected area. FFI knows of government control – including Funds are sought immediately challenging to enforce wildlife into previously inaccessible community managed land is a protection. to help protect new community protection. regions of the DRC. As a result, sustainable way achieve that this.as few as 2,0 It is to estimated nature reserves that are conservation teams are now As a result, numbers These community reserves are knows fo still be alive. But nobody essential to the survival of the ready to consolidate a series of of Grauer’s gorillas have absolutely vital to the future of2013, we car At the beginning of remaining gorillas between community reserves to ensure plummeted. the remaining Grauer’s gorillassurveys in th preliminary scientific the Maiko and Kahuzithe gorillas are fully protected. Parks.will Weprevent sent teams Just 15 years ago there were – because they theof rangers int to begin answering Biega National Parks in the For the species to remain around 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas gorilla population becomingcrucial question these persecuted apes. Democratic Republic of Congo genetically viable, it is crucial in the wild. Today, scientists fragmented. now haveofanthe exciting opport (DRC). It is a crucial step that the gorilla families believe that at most 3,800 may Ensuring theWe protection take this momentous project one st towards protecting these elusive still remain alive. can interbreed and are not reserves will have a lasting impact – by pressing on with full and com and Critically Endangered apes separated by deforestation and Conservationists have just on the gorilla and its habitat. surveys in the National Parks.
Population plummets by 77% from 17,000 to around 3,800
Photo: Gill Shaw
Photo: Stuart Nixon/FFI
• £TARGET is needed to carry out Biega National Parks in the Demo • The work is the next crucial step • Without immediate action, this p
from complete extinction. The Grauer’s gorilla faces multiple threats to its survival – all of them due to human activity. A major expansion of agriculture and pastures in the DRC in recent years has put enormous strain on the gorilla’s shrinking habitat. Industry, too, has taken its toll, with natural habitats squeezed by extensive mining for gold and coltan – a mineral used in making mobile phones. High levels of hunting and the continuing consumption of illegal ‘bush meat’ have also caused many apes to be killed.
reclassified the species as Critically Endangered. We must act as quickly as possible to save the remaining gorillas - and FFI needs your urgent help to do it. FFI wants to protect existing gorilla families in a vulnerable – currently unprotected – area between the Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks. These families are vital to saving the remaining Grauer’s gorillas from extinction. This gorilla protection has only become possible in recent years. Since the elections in the DRC in 2006, and the increased stability that came
THE GRAUER’S GORILLA • The Grauer’s gorilla is also known as the eastern lowland gorilla. It is the least studied of all African apes. • 16 years ago, the population stood at 17,000. Years of conflict and crisis have slashed that number to around 3,800. • Most of these remaining gorillas live in the Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks in the DRC. • But the gorilla’s habitat is under threat from deforestation and their lives are at risk from hunters.
• Now FFI plans to change that by establishing a protected area through community nature reserves, protecting the the with teams of lo By gorillas working in closely area between the two parks. rangers we can find and help to pro
last surviving • To carry out this work in time to protect the remaining gorillas,eastern FFI is lowland gorill Maiko£130,489.56. and Kahuzi-Biega National Pa asking kind readers of the New Scientist to help raise eastern DRC.
plummets 17,000 Your support could make aPopulation huge difference. Please respond byfrom 17 October.
to possibly as few as 2,000 Gorillas like Chimanuka need your urgent help today to ensure the Grauer’s
red gorilla could be gone forever. You can help by donating 01223 431991 or by visiting www.FFIgorilla.org
Photo: Alison Mollon
gorilla survives DEMOCRATIC t comprehensive scientific surveys in the Maiko and KahuziPUBLICATION readers: Fauna & Flora International (FFI) have launched anOFemergency RWANDA REPUBLIC CONGO ocratic Republic of Congo. BURUNDI to raise This willfor enable them toand push ahead with essential scientific conversion agriculture Chimanuka is a appeal silverback – £TARGET. Kahuzi-Biega to saving the eastern lowland gorilla. surveys the Maiko mining and Kahuzi-Biega is leadingNational to fewerParks safe in the Democratic Republic of the dominant adult maleinin TANZANIA proud and noble creature will face extinction Congo. to for the gorillas. survival of the endangered eastern lowland gorilla. habitats a family group that livesThis in work is crucial You can contribute by cutting the coupon Now, FFI aims to below, link upcalling 01223 431991 or visiting thepicture Kahuzi-Biega National These surveys will give us a clearer t in the grip www.FFIgorilla.org. Please respond by DEADLINE. ZAMBIA and consolidate a number of Park. There are 17 gorillas in than ever before of how many eastern lowland e eastern ANGOLA community nature reserves to Chimanuka’s family including 5 gorillas remain in the wild, where they are vival. form a corridor between the and 11 infants. located, what threats they face and –females crucially I) By working closely with local people national parks, protecting However, outside of the – what steps must be taken to save them. he last £TARGET is soughttwo from PUBLICATION readers to carry out essential scientific we can help safeguard the areas other families National like To make this happen, FFI needsnational to raise parks gorillas years surveysdoin the Maiko andgorilla Kahuzi-Biega Parks. These on FFI’s shopping neededitems to protect the last surviving Your gift could help protect in their ideal gorillas. not have £TARGET. Andlike toChimanuka do that, the charity is the same nds are listlegal are essential to Chimanuka’s help save the 2,000 surviving Grauer’s gorillas Grauer’s gorillas in the area between pristine forest. so rangers can get around the National Parks physical security. Landis neededhabitat calling on PUBLICATION readersand to make ssential !"£15,000 to help of buy a 4x4 vehicle Maiko and Kahuzi-Biega National a contribution by DEADLINE at the latest. ning gorilla quickly and safely to monitor the gorillas. Parks in the eastern DRC. Please send a donation. d Kahuzi!"£2,000 is needed to pay for the training of ten rangers in up-to-datebiomonitoring MoreThe than this, lowland FFI are going eastern gorilla is on the very cratic techniques. to train peopleTogether to monitor edgelocal of survival. we can save it. next !"£600 is needed to help buy a GPS-embedded mapping device, so rangers can map the – this willabout give them For more details the eastern£130,489.56 lowland sive and populations Maikobyand Kahuzi-Biega National Parkscommunity and accurately assess the threats gorillas. is sought 3 October to urgently protect nature reserves that to will safeguard gorilla and plan to save xtinction. a direct !"£240 couldareas equip- where two rangers withatall theofspecialist equipment to monitor link toFFI’s the gorillas, andthem, please the gorillas in unprotected they are risk losing their habitatneeded and being killed bygorillas email email@example.com multiple ensure they continue to act as or callhunters. These areovernight. a few of the items urgently needed to ensure the protection of the community nature 01223 431991. due to could provide rations for Grauer’s two rangers for two whole weeks in the field. their guardians in the future. reserves that are!"£70 critical to the survival of the gorilla: !"£50 could help equip a gorilla monitoring team with one fully stocked medical kit. To do all this FFI needs to raise • £19,180 is also needed to fund the entire DRC conservation team for 6 months. stures in £130,489.56 to protect 10,847.67 • £679.15 couldAny pay for a satellite phone, to helpwill thebe teams report andthanks. respond to emergencies normous donations, large or small, received with km2 of forest, where the gorillas bitat. High • £258.72 could pay for a GPS unit and batteries, to help the teams locate gorilla families in the dense y apes to are at risk. rainforest of savage The £130,489.56 must be • £129.36 could pay for fuel to run the team’s off-road vehicle for a month raised by 17 October when the rillas • £40.10 could pay for rations for a gorilla survey team ous conflictteam at FFI are finalising plans Any donations, large or small, will be received with thanks and could go a long way to helping us to save e breakdownfor this important work. the Critically Endangered Grauer’s gorilla. wildlife Meanwhile unprotected Photo: Gill Shaw
How you can help save the Grauer’s gorilla
gorillas are dying from the
Cut the coupon below to help save the Eastern Lowland gorilla or go to www.FFIgorilla.org or call 01223 431991.
000 may threats they face every day. “These parks are is home to some of theI most or sure. want to help save the remaining 3,800 Grauer’s gorillas The Grauer’s gorilla on the I want to help save the remaining 2,000 eastern endangered species in Africa, including rried out very edge with a donation of £_________ of survival. Together lowland gorillas with a donation of £________________ the Endangered eastern lowland gorilla. he National we can save it. Please send a However, as human populations in theTitle region to the Parks, Forename Surname Title Forename Surname by 17 expand so October too does the risk from habitat ns about donation – at the latest. Address Address loss. Time is short and I urge readers to
quickly back this vital work that is crucial to tunity to Postcode Phone No Postcode the survival of the eastern lowland gorilla.” tep further Please keep me updated by email at: Email Phone No mprehensiveCut the coupon on the right Sir David Attenborough OM FRS I enclose a cheque payable to Fauna & Flora International OR I enclose a cheque payable to Fauna & Flora International OR and return it with your gift FFI vice-president I wish to pay by Icredit/debit card wish to pay by credit/debit card
Type of card: Visa/Amex/Mastercard/Maestro/CAF to FFI, to help save the Amex Mastercard Maestro CAF Type of card: Visa remaining 3,800 Grauer’s Card No: If the coupon to the bottom right isCard missing, No: gorillas. to to FFI) to: please Alternatively, send your chequego (payable Start Date: Expiry Date: FREEPOST RRHG-GBGG-CAGG, Fauna Expiry Date: Issue Number (Maestro only): www.savegorillas.org.uk or & Flora International, Eastern Lowland Issue Number (Maestro only): (Last three digits next to the signature) callGorilla 01223Appeal, 749019. digit security code: Jupiter House, Station3Road, Cambridge, Thank you. CB1 2JD by our deadline of 3 digit security code: (Last three digits next to the signature)
We store your details securely and will never sell, trade or rent your personal Please note: If Fauna & Flora International succeeds in raising more than £XXXX from this information to other organisations. you’dthe prefer not toneed beismailed or appeal, funds will be used Ifwherever conservation greatest. telephoned , please tick the appropriate box or contact us at any time. Fauna & &Flora FREEPOST RRHG-GBGG-CAGG, Fauna Flora International, foundedPlease in 1903, return to:Please Freepostreturn FAUNAto: & FLORA INTERNATIONAL, International, formerly Fauna &Building, Flora International, was the world’s first international conservation The David Attenborough Pembroke Street,Eastern Lowland globe, CB2Gorilla 3QZ, UK Appeal, Jupiter House, Station Road, the organisation. Fauna andToday Floraits work spans theCambridge, with over 120 projects in 40 countries.orItgohas ocal forest to awww.savegorillas.org.uk donate Cambridge, CB1to 2JD asonline soonnow. as you possibly can. Preservation Society, is Please note: strong history of finding creative solutions to If Fauna & Flora International succeeds in raising more than £130,489.56 from otect the the oldest international this appeal, funds will be used wherever they are most needed. Go to www.FFIgorilla.org to conservation problems and of working with las in local communities. FFIItiswas supported by the arks in conservation charity. donate online now. most eminent scientists and membersRegistered of the Charity No.1011102. Registered Company No. 2677068. PR-EG16NS2 founded in 1903. Registered Charity No.1011102. Registered Company No. 2677068. CODE conservation movement.
Please Please tick tick here here to to Gift Gift Aid your your donation! donation! For £1 you yougive givetotoFFI, FFI,wewegetgetan For every every £1 an extra the Inland Revenue extra 25p25p fromfrom the Inland Revenue at at extra to you. nono extra costcost to you. would like FFI II would FFI tototreat treatallalldonations donations made infour the I have made inI have the previous previous years, and all from years, and allfour donations I make I make from the date thedonations date of this declaration as Gift Aidof this declaration notifyoryou donations. I confirmuntil that I pay, will otherwise, Aid donations. pay, an amountasofGift Income Tax and/or Capital Gains Tax that is at least equal I am not a UK taxpayer. to the total tax reclaimed on donations for this tax ___________________ year (6th April one year to Full name 5th April the next year) and that I am Signature ___________________ responsible to pay any difference.
Date _______________________ Full name ___________________ Signature (To qualify___________________ for Gift Aid, what you pay in income tax or capital gains tax must Date _______________________ be at least equal to the amount we will claim in the tax year.)
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FEEDBACK would be inclined to agree, were it not for the spectacle of Douglas Carswell, the only Member of Parliament of Eurosceptic party UKIP, getting into a bizarre astronomical argument on Twitter. The politician took issue with an analogy from Paul Nightingale at the University of Sussex, UK, that trade, like gravitational pull, is affected by distance. Carswell insisted that the much more distant sun played a greater role in tidal forces than the moon, on account of being far bigger. The exasperated deputy director of the Science Policy Research Unit could only exclaim, “Douglas, this isn’t a controversial point. It’s in Newton’s Principia.”
A COLD-BLOODED heist: The Guardian newspaper was one of many to report that thousands of blood samples belonging to the longest-lived people on Earth had been stolen from a laboratory in Sardinia, Italy. Quite what anybody hoped to do with enough nonagenarian blood samples to fill a holy grail was open to question – until it transpired that the blood had not been stolen at all, simply relocated to a nearby hospital. The confusion over their whereabouts stems partly from uncertainty about the ownership of the samples, which were collected by a public body that has since been
bought out by private interests. A story in itself, but we can’t help feeling that the author Dan Brown could supply the Sardinian blood heist with a more cinematic finale.
A NEW report from the Bank of America draws from the ideas of Nick Bostrom and Neil deGrasse Tyson, concluding that there’s a 20 to 50 per cent chance we all live
in a simulated virtual world. This illusion would apparently be indistinguishable from reality – so Feedback is intrigued as to what evidence helped the authors arrive at this exact probability. Self-doubt is a concerning trait in financial analysts, but at least it allows customers to argue that there’s a one-in-two chance their outstanding loans never existed in the first place. ZOOMING through the countryside between Brussels and Paris, Alban de la Soudiere was served a meal that included a dessert comprising “a little plastic box with four or five red grapes”. An innocuous snack, until he read the attached warning: “made in a unit where all allergens are used”. “If the company had perhaps been forced into such an extreme level of self-protection by EU regulations then maybe Brexit voters were not the most irrational creatures after all, as was hinted by one of your recent editions,” says Alban.
Craig Suosaari thinks customers who purchase a Karma Octogon Mirror from the Matt Blatt design store might feel short-changed: it only has six sides. 56 | NewScientist | 1 October 2016
CLEVER as they are, smartphones are not renowned for their sense of humour. However, researchers at the University of Regensburg in Germany have developed a way for smartphones to know when they’re making you laugh using a “smiledetection” system. This software rates the rib-tickling value of images based on how much of a grin they elicit in the viewer. But while the results were judged to be
toilet-block scheme were also rewarded with incentives such as cellphone top-ups and bill payment services, leading to a sevenfold increase in customers. Good news for those willing to spend a penny. WHILE applying oil to his wooden worktops, Don Wycherley noticed that he had glossed over a statement printed on the tin of furniture polish. The makers claim that their product “enhances the natural beauty of your worktop without altering its appearance”. This may be a triumph of marketing copy, which beguilingly promises nothing in particular, or yet another product that seeks to work on the placebo principle. But Feedback can’t help smiling at the view that kitchen worktops, like ourselves, should be appreciated for their inner beauty.
PREVIOUSLY Feedback discussed the usefulness of a Faraday cage for your cellphone, especially when it came to avoiding
fairly accurate, some of those using the system “were uncomfortable with the idea of being observed by their smartphone”. Feedback thinks that this leads to something of a quantum problem for robot comedians: humans will laugh at your jokes, but only when you’re not watching.
READERS will sympathise with the view that many TV packages offer few channels of quality content and a whole load of excrement. But a private waste management company in India has taken that idea and decided to run with it. A project by Samagra pioneered in the slums of Pune has found that the use of toilets and sanitation methods can be increased by bundling these services with TV subscriptions. Subscribers to the community
accidental purchases at the bar (3 September). Martin Greenwood writes: “Surely the more immediate benefit is that you can be sure your phone is unreachable, so you don’t accidentally receive a call from the boss, telling you to get back to work.”
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 Shivering timbers This photo was taken at Vieux Port in Marseille, France. Can anybody explain why the distribution of ripples varies so much that some of the mast reflections have large “waves” in them, whereas others are almost straight?
n In any harbour, there are always waves of some description. These are caused by swells from the open sea and the wakes of passing boats, such as the ferries to the Frioul Islands and the Château d’If in Marseille, where the picture was taken. These set up a chaotic pattern of small wave trains as they are refracted and reflected off quays and the hulls of moored boats. As with radio or sound, in any mixture of wave trains that varies in wavelength and direction, there will be times and places at which the waves reinforce each other, and others at which they cancel out. Mast reflections will appear more wobbly in the former case and relatively straight in the latter. Butch Dalrymple-Smith Yacht designer La Ciotat, France n The key is that the masts, which are dead vertical, show relatively little distortion, whereas the diagonally oriented forestays show a great deal of rippling. The explanation for this lies in what the rippling water does to the light optically. In essence, the curved surface
of the water acts like a mirror at a funfair, vertically distorting whatever it reflects. Any point on its surface may reflect things either above or below the spot where they would be reflected by a flat mirror. For the masts, this matters little because those spots, whether higher or lower, all result in a reflection that looks more or less the same. For the forestays, on the other hand, the diagonal creates a greater distortion on the water surface than a vertical mast would, due to the angle at which the viewer has taken the photograph: there is a greater transverse component from the photographer’s angle. This explanation is complicated by the fact that the waves on the water are not entirely perpendicular to the perspective of the photo, meaning that even the straight vertical masts ripple
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slightly. However, the picture’s perspective (looking out across the water towards the horizon, rather than down at the water from directly above) helps to minimise this effect by visually compressing the waves vertically. Ben Haller Ithaca, New York, US n The reflections of the masts and rigging of the boats appear to be disturbed differently by the ripples in the water because of the different angles at which the observer sees them. In the slightly rippled water, the reflections of the vertical masts do not vary greatly from straight lines due to the foreshortening effect, which minimises the appearance of any breaks or distortions in the images. However, the reflections of the diagonal forestays have small transverse components
from the observer’s perspective, and disturbances in those lines are more visible. By comparison, the almost completely transverse roof line of the buildings has been fully disrupted because of the same ripples. If you “fan-fold” a sheet of paper to simulate waves and draw “masts” running the length of the sheet, and “forestays” at an angle to them, you can see that when viewed from a low angle, the masts still appear relatively straight, whereas the forestays are broken up as they run across the page. Chris Daniel Colwyn Bay, Conwy, UK
This week’s question
The strangest cut
Why, when I transfer my low-fat spread on to my knife, does it form this pattern, especially when it’s taken from a new tub? Alicia Bryant Chelmsford, Essex, UK
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